When I ask writer Mark Russell (the GLAAD award-winning Exit Stage Left: The Snagglepuss Chronicles) and Richard Pace (Blood Thirsty: One Nation Under Water) for their favorite example of religious satire, they have the same answer: Monty Python’s Life of Brian.
And a love of absurdity probably helped as they worked on Second Coming, their comic about Jesus returning to Earth and encountering the superhero known as Sun-Man, because it’s been a rocky road for the series.
First announced as a part of DC Comics’ Vertigo relaunch in 2018, Second Coming caught the attention of CitizenGO, an ultraconservative European advocacy group, which launched a petition calling for its cancellation two months before it was set to launch. In February of 2019, Vertigo announced that the series would not be published through DC, and that all rights to it were being returned to Russell and Pace. As of this writing, the petition’s page still declares “Victory!”
But Second Coming was resurrected when independent comics publisher Ahoy Comics picked up the series. To Russell and Pace, Ahoy is the perfect home for the project — and the comic has only gotten stronger since the move, in story and visuals.
The God of Second Coming is an irascible sort, frustrated with and unsympathetic to humanity, while its Christ thinks he can do better with a little kindness and some persuasive ideas. But around 2000 years after his “disastrous” crucifixion, Jesus finally gets permission to visit Earth again, and learn a few tips about saving humanity from his dad’s newest favorite son: A superhero called Sun-Man. Once there, he discovers just how far even those who follow his teachings have strayed from his message.
You can see how this might raise the hackles of online petitioners, and the specter of controversy for a multinational brand. But when Polygon talked to Russell and Pace, they both characterized the split from DC as amicable.
“The feeling I had is DC wanted to publish the book as Mark and I saw it,” Pace said, “They didn’t see the controversy as inherently a bad thing [...] But Warner Bros., for various reasons, didn’t want to upset the religious right.”
According to Pace, even DC co-publisher Dan Didio still held confidence in the book, which was a partial motivation behind its cancellation — allowing Russell and Pace to walk away with the rights to the material would allow them to still publish it, without alterations, with another company.
Russell, who is currently writing a Wonder Twins revival for the publisher, declined to speculate about internal decision making. “All I know is that they were very happy with everything we were doing until they weren’t,” he said,
Both creators say they had their pick of smaller publishers to work with, and of those, Ahoy was the best choice for them. Being smaller, the company doesn’t present as juicy a target for petition writers, its editorial staff includes staff from Vertigo’s early days, and Pace says he’s gotten the go ahead to push the book’s visuals even further than before.
When I ask him how he approached designing visuals for territory as well trod as God and Christ, he says that the first thing he did was take an artistic survey of religious iconography — and then he settled for a 1960s Charleton Heston vibe.
“It’s good comics,” Pace told me, “because if I can draw Jesus and someone looks at it and goes, Yeah, it’s a drawing of Jesus, half my work is done for them, for telling the story. And the same thing is true about drawing God or — Lucifer in our book looks almost like a lounge lizard version of John Lovitz. So in that case, it doesn’t look like Oh my God, that’s Satan. But as soon as you figure out That’s Satan! that tells you exactly everything you need to know about Satan in our book.”
Pace’s art is still mostly under wraps, but Polygon is able to showcase some process shots from the series’ cover art, drawn by Amanda Conner (Harley Quinn, Power Girl, Before Watchmen: Silk Spectre), which you can see accompanying this post.
But there aren’t just gods, prophets, and angels in Second Coming, it’s also superheroes. And Pace and Russell are very clear on what they want that juxtaposition to say. Pace calls it “The powerlessness of ideas.”
“[Sun-Man] stops a bad guy,” he says, “but he didn’t solve the issue that created the crime in the first place. And we have the return of Christ to this world, who was there to save the world, and the world is still largely a shithole.”
Russell, who grew up “in a rural fundamentalist church” says that old truths need to be interrogated to fit the modern world — a theme that’s easy to find in the writer’s other work at DC, from his current Wonder Twins all the way back to Prez, a book about the first teen president in a sort of American apocalypse of social media.
Superheroes were created to reframe our idea of the heroic use of power — in the face of a very villainous one, he says. “Figures like Superman and Captain America gave [comics creators] a chance to recalibrate away from fascism. To me, that’s the heart of the narrative in Second Coming. The idea that maybe we need to recalibrate again, not just away from fascism, but from the institutional forces within civilization itself that allows dehumanizing movements like fascism to arise in the first place.”
Second Coming #1 will hit shelves on July 10. Check out even more cover art below!