Imagine you're trying to kill some time before the midnight showing of the latest Avengers installment, so you and your friends decide to brush up on your superhero trivia by skimming through the classic comics you love just as much now as when you were 7 years old.
As you flip through your Captain America #246, you notice something you haven’t before. Right alongside Captain America, you read the names Joe Smith Sr., Martin Harris, and Joe Smith Jr.
Could that be a coincidence? Excitedly, you snatch up other comic books, stumbling on more familiar names: Coriamtumr, the three Nephites, Dr. Deseret, Donny and Marie, Edward Lavell, Den Mother.
For Latter-day Saint comic book aficionados, this isn’t a surprising discovery. Comic culture is imbued with surprising, even quirky mentions of church culture. But why all the attention?
Photo courtesy of Chris Hoffman/Hoffmangler Studios, LLC
“Mormonism is a unique mix of ancient stuff and recent history. It’s a rich playground for artists,” says Eric W. Jepson, writer, editor, and self-proclaimed “Mormon-comics snob.” Not to mention society finds our focus on faith in a world that is getting increasingly irreligious fascinating.
“I think that there has been an interest in Mormons in comics before 2013, but with the kind of momentum the [Salt Lake] Comic-Con brought in 2013, that certainly moved it to the forefront,” says Trevor Alvord, a curator at the BYU library who is currently writing a book on how comics connect to Mormonism. “I do think there is interest in this, and it is picking up.”
Here’s a little more insight into characters with Latter-day Saint ties in the world of comics.
“Mormons have had a long and interesting history with comics,” Alvord says. From jokes about polygamy to a villainous Brigham Young portrayed in comic adaptions of the famous Sherlock Holmes plot “A Study in Scarlet,” many early references to Latter-day Saints in comics made church beliefs the butt-end of jokes while others glorified the rough-and-tumble life Latter-day Saints experienced in the Wild West.
But in more recent years, references to Latter-day Saint culture and beliefs have developed a complexity and richness never seen before. “In comics [featuring Latter-day Saints] we’ll find the gamut from polygamy jokes to richly realized characters,” Jepson says. “[But] we’ve arrived! It’s no longer a matter of ‘Ha ha! Mormons have long beards and lots of ugly wives!’ That still exists, but there are even more examples of people trying to be fair. And even if they get it wrong, I’m okay with that. They’re trying.”
Comic-al Latter-day Saint Culture
Some of the subtle (and not so subtle) allusions to the Church in mainstream comics come as a result of the comic creator’s faith.
Superhero and reanimated corpse Madman, created by Church member Michael Allred, runs into a variety of Latter-day-Saint-themed characters in his adventures, from the three Nephites to a character named Mahana who turns into a herd of cows (talk about literally becoming an eight-cow wife!). On top of that, Madman spends much of his time ruminating on gospel-centric questions such as the pre-existence, spirit paradise and prison, the veil, and “heavenly parents who live in glory on the celestial planet Golob."
Photo courtesy of Michael Allred
When asked why he incorporates so much of the gospel and Latter-day Saint culture into Madman, Allred says, “Just can’t help it really. It’s at the core of my upbringing and who I am.”
The Marvel adaptions of Glen A. Larson’s and Orson Scott Card’s sci-fi series and universes Battlestar Galactica and the Ender’s Game saga, respectively—similarly share hints of the Latter-day Saint theology that influenced their creators. Take, for instance, the moment a group of angels appears to the crew in Battlestar Galactica and paraphrases President Lorenzo Snow: “As you are, we once were. As we are, you may become.”
And then there is Captain Canuck—the Canadian superhero who has his own stamp, national TV series, maple syrup, and even an upcoming movie. Created by Latter-day Saints Richard Comely and Ron Leishman, this wholesome hero often prays for strength and guidance in difficult times and represents morals Latter-day Saints talk about in Sunday school. In fact, Captain Canuck was so virtuous that in the 1970s one Toronto vendor refused to carry these comics because they were too religious.
Licensed by Richard Comely/Captain Canuck, Inc.
Latter-day Saint Superheroes and Villians
Outside of comic book characters with Latter-day Saint creators, there are also many Latter-day Saint characters found in the comic world.
Take, for instance, Mallory Book, an attorney who earned the title of Miss Utah while graduating at the top of her class from BYU and whose path continually crosses with that of Jennifer Walters (a.k.a. She-Hulk). Or Jacob Raven, a Latter-day Saint police detective who begins looking a little too closely at Peter Parker (a.k.a. Spider-Man) and arrests him for murder.
And let’s not forget about Dr. Denholm (a.k.a. Dr. Deseret) from Marvel’s Captain Confederacy, the Latter-day Saint “special agent of God” who originates from the independent nation Deseret, formed out West after the South won the Civil War. Or the time when Joe Smith Sr. enters the Captain America series, bent on taking revenge on Martin Harris for the part he played in the death of his son, Joe Smith Jr.
Or maybe you’ve heard about the Salt City Strangers—the first-ever team of Latter-day Saint superheroes, with characters like Golden Spike, Den Mother, Deputy Deseret, The Gull, and Son of Bigfoot. While the team’s creators are not Latter-day Saints, there’s no doubt that Latter-day Saint myth and culture power this series.
Photo courtesy of Chris Hoffman/Hoffmangler Studios, LLC
Though never explicitly labeled as Latter-day Saints, the Power Pack siblings—the youngest superhero team to appear in the Marvel universe—are also widely presumed to be members of the Church because of their similarities with Latter-day Saint culture.
Famous Latter-day Saints Seen in a New Way
Latter-day Saint celebrities have also taken their turn in the comic spotlight, appearing as characters such as the villain Eel, who clashes with Spider-Man, Iron Fist, S.H.I.E.L.D., Daredevil, and other heroes in the Marvel universe.
Eel, whose real name is Edward Lavell, is loosely based on beloved BYU football coach LaVell Edwards. But his villainous powers are matched by those of the Dearth Vapors—obvious parodies of Donny and Marie Osmond from a 1978 Howard the Duck, whose oppressive niceness and sickening sweetness spew from their mouths and encase Howard and the Man-Thing in saccharine.
And let’s not forget Cypher—a mutant from the X-Men with the uncanny ability to understand any language. Cypher was modeled after Latter-day Saint Jeopardy! master Ken Jennings, who won 74 Jeopardy! games in a row, a fact revealed in an obscure reference to Cypher’s own incredible 70+ wins on the show.
And while we are at it, Godzilla and the Italian comic protagonist Martin Mystère, who stars in a popular U.S. cartoon series, deserve honorable mentions. Though not Latter-day Saints, Godzilla did nearly destroy the Salt Lake Temple while on a rampage through Salt Lake City and Martin visited the Family History Library during one of his investigations into enigmatic and supernatural events.
Latter-day Saints have also helped shape the world of comic strips and online comics. Church member Floyd Gottfredson drew the Mickey Mouse comic strip for 45 years, turning this iconic mouse from a mischief-maker into a heroic character who represented good values. And Brian Crane regularly draws pictures of temples or the Ensign in his award-winning, syndicated comic strip, Pickles. In the world of online comics, Latter-day Saint themes are gaining traction with 30+ artists dedicating their work to demonstrating humorous aspects of church culture. Even in print you can find many wonderful series based on the Book of Mormon, Church history, or Latter-day Saint life. For example, Brittany Long Olsen recently turned her missionary journal into a graphic novel called Dendo, showing a glimpse into the life of a sister missionary in Japan.
No doubt, Latter-day Saint mentions in comic books are too many to count, providing hidden gems readers can discover while exploring the world of superheroes and the supernatural.