Novel Thoughts blog

Saints and Superheroes

October 9, 2015 1:20 pm | Leave a Comment

sketchWhy do we tell stories about superheroes? Maybe it’s the same reason we tell stories about saints.

Stories of the saints, some based in fact and some shrouded in mystery, give us vivid examples of how virtue can overcome evil. St. George valiantly battling a dragon, St. Zita and the angels who helped her bake, St. Nicholas restoring boys to life and exposing a cannibal, St. Joan of Arc charging into battle with her troops; all of these are stories that fire the imagination and inspire children and adults alike.

Today is the feast day of my oldest son’s patron saint. St. Louis Bertrand. He’s sometimes shown with accessories that would put Batman to shame: holding a gun that is transforming into a crucifix in one hand, and a goblet with a writhing dragon or snake rising from it in the other. The legends of his miracles include multiple attempts of poisoning, and an attempted assassination by a man irate at St. Louis Bertrand’s preaching against corruption. When the man drew his pistol to gun the Dominican friar down, the priest made the sign of the cross and the weapon became a cross in the man’s hands.

When he was four, my son’s favorite book was about St. George and the Dragon, so much so that when Halloween came he insisted on dressing as the saint. Everyone in the neighborhood assumed at first that he was a generic knight, but he corrected them. Watch out, dragons!

Superheroes may be more flawed than the saints, but they also exemplify virtues to aspire to. As the late Stratford Caldecott wrote,

Comic book superheroes and supervillains are the angels and demons of this cosmic spiritual warfare reinvented for the secular imagination, and they resonate with us because on some level we know that we need them. At the same time, they give us something to aspire to (the corresponding Christian doctrine istheosis or divinization by grace). These are not all protectors sent to us from outside – like the boy from Krypton, or Thor – more often they are ordinary human beings (Peter Parker, Bruce Wayne, Tony Stark, Hal Jordan) who by providential accident or brilliant design find themselves possessed of a power beyond the lot of mortals. And “with great power comes great responsibility”, as they quickly learn. These are flawed human beings who have to become heroes, fighting alongside the guardian angels for the right of human beings to live a meaningful life.

You don’t have to look far to find superhero comics, movies, or TV shows—many of them quite good. But what about stories of the saints?

For beginning readers, there are the charming Once Upon a Time Saints and Around the Year Once Upon a Time Saints by Ethel Pochocki. The second of these is illustrated by Ben Hatke, a favorite in our house—and whose Zita the Space Girl graphic novels are a great introduction to comics for kids. There’s also the books co-published by Ignatius Press and Magnificat, covering Saints Bernadette, Peter, Francis, John Vianney, Junipero Serra, and Benedict. There’s also a graphic novel on the life of Pope St. John Paul II. And there’s the Loupio comic series, featuring a boy who travels with the wolf tamed by St. Francis of Assisi.

For older children, there’s the Vision book series, originally published in the 1950s/60s and featuring a number of prominent authors of the time.

For adults, you can’t go wrong with the novels of Louis de Wohl. A novelist with a real flair for describing adventure and action, de Wohl’s novels are justifiably beloved by multiple generations of readers. Then there is Mark Twain’s Joan of Arc, a novel he considered his best work. There’s also Felix Timmerman’s The Perfect Joy of Saint Francis, a novel which made a huge impact on me as a teenager. And, since today marks his feast as well, let’s not forget Shadows and Images, Meriol Trevor’s captivating novel telling the story of Blessed John Henry Newman through the eyes of a young woman who becomes a lifelong friend of the brilliant convert and theologian.

What about you? Do you have any particular favorite fiction (or non-fiction) books on saints? Let the rest of us know in the comments!

Image: Sketch of St. Louis Bertrand by John Herreid.

John Herreid

John Herreid

John Herreid is catalog manager at Ignatius Press. In addition to catalogs and ads, he has also worked on the cover design for many Ignatius Press books and DVDs. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his wife and four children.

Tags: hagiography reading lists saints superheroes

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