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The Religious Affiliation of Comic Book Character
Robert Baldwin
Penance
previously known as "Speedball"
previously of the New Warriors, now of the Thunderbolts

Speedball is a Marvel Comics super-hero who was created by legendary comic book artist Steve Ditko. Speedball debuted in Amazing Spider-Man Annual #22 and soon thereafter starred in his own self-titled series. He later was a founding member and mainstay of the young superhero team known as the "New Warriors."

Speedball is a Presbyterian, although his religious identity is not a major aspect of his character. He has typically exhibited a moderate degree of heroism, selflessness, and positive ethical values. He is also a clownish character known for his penchant for practical jokes and levity. Speedball has never in any way been as overtly religious or devout as Marvel's best known Presbyterian superhero: Wolfsbane.

Since dropping his original "Speedball" identity and adopting the guise of "Penance," it can safely be said that Robbie Baldwin may be the most Calvinist superhero character ever featured in a mainstream comic book series. (Calvinism is, of course, most prominently manifest in today's religious landscape within Presbyterianism, the largest heir to the movement.)

As portrayed in Marvel's hugely successful "Civil War" storyline (2006-2007), Speedball was the only one of the active New Warriors who survived their team's raid on a small group of supervillains hiding out in Stamford, Connecticut. This group of New Warriors had their attempt to capture these escaped super-villains filmed as part of a TV reality show. Unfortunately, one of the villains present - Nitro - used his super-power to explode, and the explosion killed over 600 people, many of them children at a nearby school. This event polarized the country and led to the rapid passage of the Super Human Registration Act (SHRA).

As the only one of the New Warriors involved in this event to survive, Robbie Baldwin became a target for the anger and even hatred that emerged among regular Americans who were upset at the senseless deaths of so many innocent people. Of course Robbie Baldwin never intended for anybody to be hurt, and after being arrested by federal authorities, he fought any attempt to get him to accept blame.

But as what had happened slowly sunk in, Baldwin came to feel great guilt and responsibility for what happened. Baldwin learned that his super-powers had not actually been burned out by the Stamford incident (as he had originally thought). He learned that intense pain allowed him to tap into his powers. Baldwin commissioned the creation of an armored suit lined with 612 inward-pointing spikes - one spike for each of the people who died in the Stamford incident, and whose deaths Baldwin now feels responsible for. The spikes continually rake Baldwin's skin, causing him pain that allows him to trigger his modified super-powers.

The spikes that torment Baldwin's body while he wear's this suit of armor his way of taking responsibility for and "doing penance" for the hundreds of Stamford deaths. Baldwin's attempt to atone for his actions (and the actions of his deceased teammates) in such a pointedly Calvinist way is especially poignent given his Presbyterian upbringing.

The five points of Calvinism summarized by the mnemonic "TULIP" are:
- Total depravity as a consequence of the fall of man
- Unconditional election
- Limited atonement
- Irresistible grace
- Perseverance of the saints

Another well known fictional Calvinist character who shares some points of similarity to Robbie Baldwin's post-Stamford journey is Robert De Niro's character "Travis Bickle" from the classic 1976 film Taxi Driver, written by Paul Schrader (who studied in a Calvinist seminary) and directed by former Catholic seminarian Martin Scorsese. Taxi Driver pointedly incorporates the "TULIP" points of Calvinism.

Before Stamford, Robbie Baldwin was never really interested in serious matters of faith and was merely a nominal Presbyterian. Now, as "Penance," Baldwin's persona and behavior drip with religious significance. Far from thinking of himself as a "religious" person or a representative of any faith, Baldwin simply regards himself as a depraved individual striving for atonement, but usually appearing as if he has little hope of ever achieving grace or peace of mind.

Discussion

From: "Atheist superheroes?" thread, started 21 September 1999 on rec.arts.comics.marvel.universe newsgroup (http://groups.google.com/group/rec.arts.comics.marvel.universe/browse_thread/thread/e8d686f0b20944a6/2f9353e0760b00e7; viewed 23 June 2006):

From: JARJR2
Date: Wed, Sep 22 1999 12:00 am

re: "Anyone care to post a list of those characters whose spiritual beliefs are on record?"

...Speedball - Presbyterian (he made an offhand remark in NW [New Warriors] #35)...

From: Jean-Claude Van Doom, "Which god's side are they on?", posted 20 August 2006 on "Legion of Doom" blog website (http://legionofdoom.cheeksofgod.com/?p=170; viewed 9 May 2007):

Seems only fitting to post this on a Sunday.

I wrote a piece for another outlet about all the wiki projects involving comic books, and one of the most interesting links I found catalogued a ton of Marvel, DC and smaller press characters by their religion (or lack thereof). Here's the link to the page with photos [link to: http://www.adherents.com/lit/comics/comic_collage.html] and here's the link to the main page [link to: http://www.adherents.com/lit/comics/comic_book_religion.html].

Sadly, as a Presbyterian, my only protectors are Wolfsbane and Speedball, apparently. If I gave a crap about Civil War, maybe that would be cool or ironic or something . . .

However, I was raised Methodist, so if I fall back on that (and really, how much different are Methodists and Presbyterians?) I can claim Superman, Supergirl and Superboy (although he's dead now/for now).

An interesting aspect of this is looking through the list of super villains and noting which religions are most represented during specific periods of the characters being created. For instance, some newer ones are Muslim, while older ones tend toward mystic religions, Catholicism and the very popular atheism.

Another interesting aspect is the trend toward greater affiliation between characters and faith (this is not a new development, starting really after Stan Lee retired, taking his intentional disclusion of religion with him).

Taking this in another direction (don't worry, I'm about out of steam), there's the launch of Virgin Comics [link to: http://www.virgincomics.com/home.html], which will tell mostly Indian stories, many based in the nation's religious background.

From: "Denominational Affiliations of Superheroes", posted by Sheridan Voysey on 2 July 2006 on "The Open House (life, faith, culture)" blog website (http://www.theopenhouse.net.au/2006/07/denominational_affiliations_of.html; viewed 19 June 2007):

...So, Dr Bruce Banner, The Incredible Hulk, is a lapsed Catholic; Batman is a possible Anglican; Superman is a Methodist, and Spider-Man an unnamed Protestant. I'd like to know what a Presbyterian superhero would look like, or even a Pentecostal! ...


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Webpage created 23 June 2006. Last modified 19 June 2007.
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