‘Second Coming’ finally makes it to comic shops this week

The first issue of Mark Russell and Richard Pace’s story about Jesus and superheroes arrives Wednesday from AHOY Comics.

It’s been a long, winding road for Mark Russell and Richard Pace’s Second Coming, but this week it finally makes its way into the hands of readers.

The quick version:

  • Second Coming was originally announced more than a year ago as a part of the latest (and, it would turn out, last) wave of Vertigo books, in celebration of their 25th anniversary. The story features a superhero named Sunstar (formerly Sun-Man) becoming roommates with Jesus Christ.
  • News about the comic’s premise caught the eyes of the religious right, who petitioned DC Comics to cancel the book. They called the unreleased comic “inappropriate and blasphemous.” DC canceled it a few weeks before it was slated to hit comic shops.
  • AHOY Comics picked it up in March, with the first issue scheduled to arrive this Wednesday.

So what’s this all about? Let’s break it down …

Let’s start at the top with those involved.

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth …

Um, maybe not quite that far back. Who are the creative team?

Mark Russell is the guy destroying your childhood with his more modern takes on cartoon classics like The Flintstones, Exit Stage Left: The Snagglepuss Chronicles and The Wonder Twins. He’s also written two other books the religious right might be interested in, God Is Disappointed in You and Apocrypha Now, both with Shannon Wheeler. So his blasphemy extends beyond just comics — it can be found in graphic novels, too.

In all seriousness, his work has been nominated for and won multiple awards — deservedly so. He’s a smart writer that isn’t afraid to dive into controversial waters, and the controversy is usually secondary to his handling of the characters, which is typically top notch. If you haven’t read his stuff before, The Snagglepuss Chronicles is a good place to start.

Richard Pace has been working as a comics creator since the 1990s, on comics like Pitt, The New Warriors, Hack/Slash, Ashes,X-Man, Plastic Man and Imaginary Fiends. I linked his name to his Twitter feed, but his Instagram probably gives you a better feel for his art. He has written comics, too, including Batman: The Doom That Came to Gotham with Mike Mignola.

Joining Pace on art is Leonard Kirk, listed as finisher; he’s got a long list of credits that include Supergirl, JSA, X-Factor, Captain Canuck and Fantastic Four. They are joined by former heavy metal guitarist Andy Troy on colors and Rob Steen, who serves as letterer. The cover for the first issue, shown above, is by Amanda Conner and Paul Mounts.

And then Vertigo is … ?

Vertigo is the 25-year-old “mature readers” publishing imprint of DC Comics. It’s the publisher behind such books as Preacher, Fables, Y: The Last Man, The Invisibles, Lucifer and many, many more titles aimed at adult comic fans. Second Coming was announced last year as part of the imprint’s 25th anniversary relaunch, which included seven new titles.

Is this controversy the reason Vertigo is going away at the end of the year? Did Second Coming kill Vertigo?

Um, no, not that I’m aware of. But it was intended to be part of what would end up being Vertigo’s last “class,” you could say, and it wasn’t the only comic of the seven that ran into issues. Border Town by Eric M. Esquivel, Ramon Villalobos and Tamra Bonvillain was also announced at the same time, and it would later be canceled after allegations of sexual abuse against Esquivel became public. I should also note that another one of those announced Vertigo titles, Safe Sex, never made it to print at the publisher; instead, it has moved over to Image Comics, and has a slightly different title now — SFSX (Safe Sex). It’s first issue arrives in September.

None of these issues appear to be related, but do illustrate the problems Vertigo has run into over the past year. In December, DC will shut the imprint down, and more mature content will be published under their shiny new Black Label imprint.

And then finally, AHOY Comics — they’re new, too, right?

Pretty new, yes. They are a comics publisher that launched last fall, by founder Hart Seely, editors Tom Peyer and Stuart Moore, and chief creative officer Frank Cammuso. Our own Alex Dueben spoke with Peyer about the origins of the company last year. They publish High Heaven, another comic with a Biblical theme, so maybe Second Coming is a natural fit. They also publish The Wrong Earth, Captain Ginger and Hashtag:Danger, among other titles.

OK, so getting into the controversy … Vertigo announced Second Coming in June of 2018. When did people start noticing that they were going to publish a comic with Jesus in it?

Good question. There was actually a gap between Vertigo’s announcement and the solicitation of the first issue, so it wasn’t right away. DC solicited the comic for March of 2019, so those listings hit the internet in December of last year. While there were some interviews about the book before that time, this article by CBR.com seems to be what started the groundswell, according to Bleeding Cool.

That article led to this article on a site called Christian Headlines, which led to this article on the Fox News website, which in turn quoted an older interview with Russell from August 2018 on Bleeding Cool. These articles hit in early January, followed by many others on other sites, and were soon followed by a petition on a website called Citizen Go, asking DC to cancel the book. It started by saying “I am appalled by your decision to publish ‘Second Coming,’ a comic that features Jesus Christ as a clueless superhero sidekick,” and went on to call the comic “inappropriate and blasphemous.” Each signature would auto-generate an email to folks at DC, including Publishers Dan Didio and Jim Lee, according the petition.

Whoah whoah whoah, hold up … you seem to be skirting over the bigger controversy here, that these people somehow obtained the first issue before it was published. Were copies already printed and then pulped, like that baby Superman story? Did they somehow hack DC’s servers, or maybe the creative team’s computers, to steal the files and read them before they were public? Isn’t that illegal?

Hahaha. Funny. No, the basis for the outrage and the petition were the solicitation information and the quotes from Russell that appeared first on Bleeding Cool and then in several of the news articles that followed months later. None of this was based on anyone reading the first issue, as it hadn’t been published yet.

I would also note this Q&A with Pace on the AHOY Comics site, where he talks about some of the very un-Christian-like emails he received about the book during that time frame.

Anyway, in February, DC told comics retailers that orders for the first and second issues had been canceled and they had no plans to resolicit it. DC did not give a reason for the cancellation at the time. Russell then posted the following to Twitter:

Several days later, Russell spoke with the Huffington Post about why DC had cancelled the series:

Series writer Mark Russell told HuffPost that DC requested changes to the series that he and artist Richard Pace weren’t comfortable with ― including removing some profanity and covering up a nude Adam in a Garden of Eden scene. Russell said the publisher told him significant and larger changes would be coming but didn’t specify what those changes would be. DC also wanted to delay the release to an “unspecified date,” he said.

Russell told the HuffPost that these changes were requested before “the outrage machine” was set in motion by Fox News.“Though I imagine finding 200,000 auto-generated emails in your inbox can’t be too pleasant,” he said.

Pace also addressed the “why” in an interview with Polygon:

“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.

Didio answered a question about the book’s cancellation on Facebook, as noted on The MNT:

On Facebook, DiDio commented about the cancellation, providing a little additional insight about the cancellation. “I hated to see this series leave DC, but we needed to make edits and it was Mark’s preference to keep it as originally presented,” DiDio said, responding to a fan upset about the series’ cancellation. “So we respected his request to return the project. I love Mark’s work I wish him and Richard nothing but the best when they publish.”

Russell continues to work for DC, as he’s currently the writer on their Wonder Twins title. Which brings this tweet to mind:

So wait … we’re still talking about Vertigo here, right, deciding not to publish this book?

That’s right.

And they published Preacher?

Yes, that’s correct.

The Garth Ennis/Steve Dillon Preacher?

Yep. But that was a different time, of course. Going back to that Q&A with Pace on the AHOY website, he said:

I think this needs to be said: There is no way in hell that any mainstream publisher would publish PREACHER right now. Especially Vertigo. Warner Brothers has too tight a leash on it. That’s ultimately why the book was given back to us. As much as Dan Didio at DC Comics and everyone at Vertigo believed in the book, Warner Brothers was scared of the controversy. So, they gave us back the book. Honestly, I think the book is better for it.

But it isn’t like this was the first time Vertigo would have been publishing a book that featured God and Jesus and Heaven and other Biblical themes, right?

No, and Preacher may be the most extreme example, considering its portrayal of God and Jesus, but it’s far from the only book that ever featured these themes. The other side of the coin, i.e. Hell, demons and the Devil, are way more common in mainstream comics than their holy counterparts. Sandman, for instance, featured the Devil giving up his job and going off to Los Angeles … and eventually getting his own spinoff series, Lucifer. Hellblazer also hit on these themes fairly regularly. And of course, there was the Swamp Thing controversy …

Which never actually made it to print.

Correct. Back in the late 1980s, Rick Veitch was telling a time travel story over the course of several issues, and in issue #88, Swamp Thing was supposed to arrive at the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, featuring the art of Michael Zulli. You can read more about it here (and see the script and artwork). It was a similar situation to this, as it was a comic that would feature Jesus Christ that was initially approved by editorial — but was killed after the issue was already written and drawn. With Swamp Thing being a DC-owned character, Veitch and Zulli unfortunately couldn’t take the story to another publisher. Those time travel issues, BTW, were excellent; it’s too bad the story had the rug pulled out from under it like it did.

And now two of those books you mentioned — Preacher and Lucifer — are TV shows.

Yes. Preacher, the TV show, has been targeted by its own petition recently, too. As was Lucifer, which is now on Netflix — but its current petition is to give the show another season, not to cancel it.

OK, so moving on … Russell and Pace were able to find a new publisher pretty quickly, weren’t they?

Yes, on March 12 of this year, The New York Times broke the news that Second Coming would be published by AHOY Comics.

Again, from the Polygon interview:

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.

Did Russell and Pace have to change anything in the comic for AHOY to pick it up?

I believe the only change I’ve seen noted by them is that the book expanded from 22 pages to 30 pages. Also, previous interviews called the superhero in the story “Sun-Man,” but in the review copy that went out last week, he’s now called “Sunstar.”

Wait — you’ve seen a review copy?

Yes, review copies went out last week. The embargo for reviews lifted today, so we should start seeing them pop up on the internet. Look, here’s one now.

Uh oh. So more petitions then, right?

Let’s hope not, because it’s a really great comic that’s pretty respectful of Jesus. Adventures in Poor Taste gives it a perfect 10, noting “What could have easily been disrespectful to the point of insult is instead a poignant look at the message behind Christianity.” I would also point you to this Daily Kos piece, which noted, “We already know that Mark Russell gets the historical Jesus’s message better than those who currently control the narrative” and that both the story and artwork spark “joy.” Explore the Multiverse also gave it a perfect 10, saying: “In short, Second Coming is not the herald of the end-times that was predicted by some comic critics. It is a thoughtful and well-drawn story in the same vein as Kevin Smith’s Dogma.”

I would agree; the first issue is one of the best single-issue comics I’ve read this year. It reminded me of one of my other favorite books featuring Jesus, Christopher Moore’s Lamb.

Anything else I need to know?

Pick up the first issue on Wednesday. It’s really good. There’s also an essay by Russell in it where he goes deep into the premise of the book, the controversy and more. I recommend it highly.

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