Commissioned post for Shane deNota-Hoffman. Thanks Shane!
Warren Ellis’ five-issue limited comic series Supergod reads very, very much like a response to Grant Morrison’s Supergods, which is interesting given that book wasn’t published until two years after Ellis’ comic. But then, the idea of superheroes as gods or “modern mythology” has been around for some time, and Ellis is right about how horrifying the reality would be–as we have to an extent discussed with Left Behind.
The argument is simple: far from making someone a paragon of morality as Morrison claims in both JLA and All-Star Superman, possessing superhuman capabilities and senses would mean (by definition) perceiving things humans can’t and being able to respond with actions impossible for humans. The thoughts of a superhuman being would therefore necessarily be alien, its behavior incomprehensible to humans. It would, in short, be eldritch.
The word “eldritch” refers to that which is alien and weird–depending on which of two possible derivations is true, it either shares an origin with else or elf. In either case, it is not from here, not human–it is inherently and necessarily Other. But as we discussed with Left Behind, the protector fantasy is inherently about dividing in-group from out-group, “the people” vs. “the criminal element,” Us vs. Them. As defender of the in-group, the superhero stands outside it, and hence becomes part of the out-group.
Ellis sees no distinction between this interpretation of superhumanity and the divine; in this he approaches the cosmicism of H.P. Lovecraft, a denial of both humanism and theism. Human beings are not the pinnacle of creation, but neither are the gods we humans have created; the universe itself is bigger, older, more powerful, and weirder than we can imagine, and it is not human in the slightest. It is not even accurate to describe the universe as uncaring for much the same reason as the Supergod character Dajjal cannot be described as insane–the concept just doesn’t apply enough for its negation to be meaningful.
Faced with this horror, we project out humanity out onto it, or try to. It never quite works–the whole point is to have the gods be superhuman humans, but they never end up being fully comprehensible because that which we’re projecting them onto is incomprehensible. In Supergod, that projection is literal: the first superhuman is three people sent out into space in an unshielded ship by the British. In a twisted parody of the Fantastic Four, they return as Morrigan Lugus, all three fused into one body by an alien fungus. As befits a being named after the crow-goddess of the battlefield, it ends up taking over the world by devouring the corpses left strewn across Eurasia by the battling supergods.
The Indian government tries to make themselves a savior, and create an AI-controlled nanobot-swarm Krishna; it saves India by killing 90% of the population. Strip away the religious elements and it’s the classic problem of AI ethics, Nick Bostrom’s paperclip maximizer: a godlike machine, programmed to make as many paperclips as possible, wipes out humanity because (a) if they turned it off, there would not be as many paperclips as if it kept running, and (b) human bodies contain materials from which paperclips could be made. (Like most things originating from LessWrong, this is a silly thing to worry about, but it’s also clearly the kind of issue Ellis is talking about–it and the essentially identical Gray Goo problem, and generally the whole idea of science’s creations run amok to kill us all.)
The Chinese make a Maitreya who can see the quantum flux of reality itself, and it transforms a huge number of people into literally Cthulhu and rides it to battle with Krishna. The Americans make Dajjal as a weapon in the Iraq war; able to see all possible futures, it sacrifices itself to prevent Krishna and the other American supergod, whose initials are of course J.C., from bringing about utopia, which it finds boring.
We need gods, Ellis has Morrigan say, because we are addicts and they are our stash. He’s not entirely wrong, though he has it a bit backwards; addiction is now understood as largely a product of social isolation, and one of the major functions of religion is to provide community. Of course this carries the risk, as any community does, of creating that in-group/out-group divide that, combined with the protector fantasy, gives rise to fascist superheroes like the Left Behind Christ.
But then, most religious people somehow manage not to be fascists, and do not recognize their gods in the authoritarian tyrants or eldritch horrors of LaHaye/Jenkins or Ellis. The most extreme reading is not necessarily the only reading, or the best one. For all that our gods are eldritch tyrants and our superheroes fascist thugs, they can also be other things.
The question, going forward, is what.
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