Creators: Joe Benitez, David Wohl and Malachy Coney.
Warrior nuns. Not the first thing you think of when you think of comics. But they are a thing, and an explicit connection between religion and comics. The most well-known and developed are Warrior Nun Areala and The Magdalena, as well as others such as Chrono Crusade, The Sisterhood and, obliquely, Sisters of Sorrow. Of all of these, The Magdalena is currently the most active, with the Reformation story line, published in 2017, setting up the series for further adventures with a further generations of the supernatural protector.
The Magdalena first appeared in 1998 in the comic series, The Darkness, set in Top Cow’s universe that includes Witchblade, the Angelus, the Aphrodite characters, and the Artifacts series. Over time, she appears in various crossovers as well as her own eponymous title. The Magdalena character is cast as the supernatural and superheroic protector of the Catholic church and wider world. Armed with the Spear of Destiny, the Magdalena is the Church’s trouble shooter – a kind of special operations figure – handling things the regular church apparatus can’t handle.
The Magdalena conforms to the warrior nun genre in a variety of ways: attractive, energetic women, serving in a Catholic-oriented religious order, with martial arts skills, often with a connection to Mary Magdalene, and who engage in both spiritual activities and physical violence in the pursuit of opposing evil in accordance with the Catholic Church’s will.
One interesting dimension to the warrior nun characters, and the Magdalena in particular, is the way in which religious authority is challenged and subverted. As one critic puts it you have ‘sexy violent nuns who brandish pistols to ward off the enemy.’ Thus, the characters challenge to the notion of women who become nuns putting aside the things of this world, dressing modestly and chastely, and engaging in acts of charity and love for the sake of the Church and the world. Indeed, the portrayal of the characters in this way is typically where criticism is targeted, rather than through any theological or ecclesiological objection.
At another level, this engages with a wider conversation about the way that the men, and particularly the women, are portrayed in the entire genre of superhero comics. Interestingly, as characters such as Magdalena and Areala have developed and moved more into the mainstream their appearance has become more modest, perhaps under pressure from this critique and also as the characters themselves have deepened (leading to some ironic dialogue breaking the fourth wall).
Another related theme running through the genre is the issue of how those in power can be corrupted by it, leading to the manipulation of those they oversee. This is a ongoing theme in the Magdalena comics, where the current Magdalena, Patience, has lost her faith in the Church for the way she sees herself and all those who have gone before her used by that institution for their own, and not God’s, agenda. The ongoing narrative contains the stories of those who represent institutional powers of oppression, along with those of people who are trying to reform the institution.
The Magdalena has crossed over into other comics publishers’ universes, as well as interacted with a variety of other comic book characters such as Vampirella, Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft, and Marvel’s Daredevil. The later is a particularly interesting story revolving around the two Catholic characters attempting to solve the same supernatural crime. More on Daredevil in the next instalment.