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Ever since Superman was introduced in 1938, superheroes and other comic book characters have captivated the imagination of both children and adults. Comic books have become an extremely popular type of media and have inspired various blockbuster movies that bring in billions of dollars every year.
While generally the Catholic Church stays away from specifics when it comes to literature and other forms of art, the Church has mentioned comic books on a few occasions.
Positives of comic books
The pastoral instruction published in 1971 by the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, Communio et Progressio, relates how comic books can be used in the Catholic Church.
[T]oday all the classics of religious literature are available to everybody in the form of paperbacks, booklets and every sort of leaflet. So also are the accepted masterpieces of every nation, scientific works and every sort of light reading that can provide pleasant relaxation. “Comics” and illustrated stories are not to be despised. They can for instance be used to illustrate the Sacred Scriptures and the lives of the saints. All these productions of the printing press deserve our interest and support.
At the time comic books were extremely popular, but also looked upon by many with suspicion. Comics were even put on trial in the United States, with a special investigation in 1953 to see if they led to “juvenile delinquency.” This led to the creation of the “Comics Code Authority” in the United States, which reviewed content for many decades until it was finally disbanded in the early 2000s.
It’s important to note how the Catholic Church urged at that time to use comic books for good, and not to “despise” the medium.
In the United States this led to the creation of the Treasure Chest Comics, a Catholic comic periodical that existed from 1946 – 1972. It featured an array of stories from the Bible, lives of the saints, as well as other creative stories that entertained.
Marvel Comics even published biographies of St. Francis of Assisi, St. John Paul II, and St. Teresa of Calcutta in the 1980s.
More recently, many Catholic publishers, including Sophia Institute Press, Tan Books, Pauline Books and Voyage Comics, have started again creating new Catholic comic books.
Comic books don’t always need to teach the faith, as St. John Paul II wrote in his Letter to Artists, explaining how art has the potential to lift our minds to God.
In this spirit of profound respect for beauty, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy Sacrosanctum Concilium recalled the historic friendliness of the Church towards art and, referring more specifically to sacred art, the “summit” of religious art, did not hesitate to consider artists as having “a noble ministry” when their works reflect in some way the infinite beauty of God and raise people’s minds to him.
When united to truth, beauty and goodness, comic books have many positives.
Dangers of comic books
While comic books can be used for good, they can also have many potential dangers. St. John Paul II mentioned comics in his message on the 14th World Communications Day.
Generally, [parents] pay vigilant attention to the type of friends with whom their children associate, but do not exercise a similar vigilance regarding the ideas which the radio, the television, records, papers and comics carry into the “protected” and “safe” intimacy of their homes. And so the mass media often enter the lives of the youngest members of the family with no possibility of the necessary explanations or corrections from parents or other educators which could neutralize any harmful elements and which could equally employ the many valuable aspects to assist in the process by which children are gradually transformed into well-adjusted men and women.
Not everyone uses comic books for good and holy purposes. This results in children being formed by what they consume and, when left unchecked, it’s possible that children will witness superheroes making immoral choices or engaging in sinful activities, and then be confused by this conflict with their own consciences or Christian faith.
It’s important for parents to recognize this reality and to engage with their children, monitoring their use of media (not only comics), ensuring that they are formed by Christ and not Superman.
Overall the Catholic Church is supportive of comic books and superheroes, but whatever is published needs to be rooted in the true, good and beautiful.