The Marvel Cinematic Universe is ready to get weird. After spending the last decade rolling out A-listers like Spider-Man and the Avengers, it’s digging deeper into its huge canon of characters for some more obscure gems known only to die-hard comic book nerds. This year alone will see Shang-Chi and the Eternals — two properties with rich histories in Marvel lore but none of the mainstream name recognition enjoyed by Iron Man, Captain America and the rest. It should be fun.
But just how deep is Marvel willing to dig into its back catalog? Because there is one character languishing in obscurity whose time has come. A superhero who brings not dark vengeance or grim justice, but the cleansing light of divine purification. A hero whose brief time in comics was outweighed by his mighty — even heavenly — potential. We speak, of course, of the Illuminator — Marvel Comics’ short-lived Christian superhero.
The story begins in the early 1990s. They were lean times at Marvel, which was still more than a decade away from any luck at the box office. To supplement the lack of interest in actual superhero comics, Marvel was entering into partnerships with lots of different brands. One of those partnerships was with Thomas Nelson, the Christian publishing firm that was in the midst of its own attempt to modernize its output, launching a record label and books division. Thomas Nelson was interested in printing some Christian comics and Marvel liked the idea. Nelson Comics was born.
At first, Nelson Comics kept things superhero-free, working on graphic novel adaptations of C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters, Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and a few comic book Bible stories. But in 1992, Nelson decided they wanted to get in on the cape and costume action. They wanted a superhero. They got the Illuminator.
The Illuminator Rises
Andy Prentiss is a mild-mannered teen bookworm who stumbles across a strange light in the sky when he gets lost at summer camp. Andy decides the light must be extraterrestrial in origin, even as it surrounds him and gives him the power of flight and a ethereal glow. Back home, he uses this power to save himself and his brother from a demon-possessed amulet-wielding drug dealer (comics!) and meets Gus, an elderly biker who recognizes Andy’s newfound powers as being divine in nature. He gives Andy his motorcycle helmet and jacket, which become the Illuminator’s uniform.
The series follows Andy coming to terms with his God-given powers. He’s a man of science, not given to belief, but his new powers get stronger and weaker depending on his level of faith. So, reasonably enough for a crime fighter in such a situation, he becomes a Christian to take a stand against a number of demonic villains.
This was a new one for Marvel Comics, which has been traditionally shy about religion. Daredevil and the X-Men’s Nightcrawler are both Catholic, Ben Grimm and Moon Knight are Jewish and Ms. Marvel is a Muslim, and while their respective faiths do factor into their characterizations, none of their powers have ever been directly tied to their beliefs. The Illuminator literally has to be “true believer,” or he’ll be powerless to fight the demonic villains who seem to be crawling all over his hometown of Nashville, Tennessee. Hey, why should New York City get all the superheroes?
Speaking of New York, Andy’s friends do reference some events taking place in the X-Men comics at the time so, yes, the Illuminator is definitely in the official Marvel Comics timeline. Or he was, for all of the three issues The Illuminator ran before being unceremoniously canceled for meager sales.
There are a few reasons the series didn’t take off, but quality isn’t necessarily one of them. The book was written by Glenn Herdling, who’d done solid work for Marvel in the past including a well-regarded stint on Namor the Sub-Mariner. The art, by Marvel veteran Craig Brasfield, was serviceable as well. Both of these guys are genuine pros, and neither seemed to be phoning the job in. True, the stories were a little heavy-handed, but it’s not like that’s ever hurt Christian fiction in the past. Left Behind would become one of the bestselling books in the country just about a year after The Illuminator made his debut, and no one would accuse that series of theological nuance.
No, what more likely hurt the comic was Thomas Nelson’s insistence that the books be longer than the average Marvel Comic but have none of the usual ads Marvel used to offset the price. This took an enormous chunk out of the book’s profitability and would have made publication a squeeze even if the series had been a big hit. Each issue of The Illuminator retailed at $4.99, an enormous sum for a comic book in those days, especially one featuring an unknown character.
Frankly, the series never stood a chance. But whether it was because the rights issues got complicated or Marvel was embarrassed, the three issues are not available on Marvel Unlimited, the digital app that stores Marvel’s vast library of comics. If you want to read the comic, you’ll have to do it collector-style on Amazon or flip through the used section at your local comic book store.
The Illuminator …Returns?
Cancellations happen all the time in the comic book industry. A new creative team launches a brand new take on a beloved character like Batman or Captain Marvel, the idea fails to ignite fan interest, and the company shuttles the idea, gives the character a breather, and then tries again with a new team and a fresh vision. This is how we got from the smiling, square-jawed Caped Crusader of the 1960s to the grim, moody Dark Knight of modern times.
So if that worked for Batman, why couldn’t we try again with the Illuminator? The time is ripe. The MCU should give the Illuminator his own feature film or at least one of those Disney+ shows. Christian movies are doing great business right now (say what you will about those God’s Not Dead flicks but they make money), Disney has never been a company to turn down an easy buck and bucks don’t get any easier than marketing to a Christian audience.
You could even get one of those Hillsong groups to curate some sort of special soundtrack or, hey, even cast a Hillsong Young + Free member as Andy Prentiss himself. That’s called synergy and it’s about as surefire a strategy as you can find in filmmaking these days.
Even more synergistic? The idea of a character being resurrected. Death is a fickle thing in superhero comics, so bringing a character back after a two decade hiatus would be hardly unusual, but it’d make even more sense for the Illuminator — a character with resurrection right there in his DNA.