When it comes to satirical comics about religion, the menu is generally pretty limited. They tend to break down into two camps: comics in which Jesus has superpowers and fights demons (Loaded Bible: Jesus Versus Vampires, Jesus Hates Zombies) and comics in which the Pope (or some other major religious figure) has superpowers and fights demons (Battle Pope).
Virgin, written by Steven T. Seagle with art by Becky Cloonan, is the story of Adam Chamberlain, evangelical youth minister and author of the chastity memoir Save Yourself to Save Yourself. He’s a superstar on the Christian-speaker circuit, and his stepfather—a smarmy televangelist with some skeletons in his closet—is grooming Adam to suceed him as the head of “the Chalice Channel.” The other members of Adam’s family paint a dark picture of the private lives of outspoken moralists. His mother is power-hungry and domineering; his brother Kyle, also a youth minister, is a promiscuous pothead when he’s not preaching. Adam is a unique animal in the world of American Virgin—despite his fame and wealth, he remains humble and honest while all those around him descend into hypocrisy.
When we first meet Adam, he is in his element: speaking before a school group. He opens up his entire life to a roomful of strangers as he describes his eternal love for his fiancée, Cassandra: “God told me Cassie is the woman I am meant to be with, only her and no one else. Forever.” It’s a perfect send-up of speakers like Eric and Leslie Ludy, whose abstinence ministry revolves around their “God-written love story.” The Ludys urge teenagers to constantly consider the feelings of their future husbands and wives.
The main story of American Virgin kicks off with a cynical response to this idea when Cassie, who is working as a missionary in Africa, is murdered by terrorists. He begins to experience visions of Cassie, speaking from beyond the grave in a possibly-divine voice, and calling into question everything he’s believed about his sexual destiny. Adam faces a worldview-shaking dilemma: what do you do when your divinely-ordained future spouse dies before you can get married? There are signs of a critique of the ultimately selfish nature of Adam’s faith—when he first learns about Cassie’s death, he demands: “Why would God let this happen to me? …I mean her.” That critique hovers in the background throughout the series, but it soon becomes clear that Seagle’s real interests for the series lie elsewhere. The quest for answers about Cassie’s death leads Adam on a world tour that explores ideas about sex in a plethora of other cultures. In the twenty-three issues of the series Adam visits no fewer than 10 countries—a big reason why American Virgin ultimately doesn’t work.
The series sets up Adam’s world briefly, in a sort of shorthand. We get intriguing glimpses, and we want to learn more about him, his followers, and his family. But the series’ first international trip—Adam’s trek to Mozambique to retrieve Cassie’s body—feels like a detour. Adam periodically returns to America between trips, but the book can’t seem to get him out of the Bible Belt fast enough. It soon becomes apparent that the book’s goal isn’t to satirize Adam’s world, but to put him in different environments for fish-out-of-water stories—what happens when we put the youth minister in an Australian gay club? In Rio for Carnival? In Japan for Kanamara Matsuri, the Festival of the Steel Phallus? But doing so means taking the character out of the milieu in which he works best—and, worse, presenting whitewashed portraits of cultures whose sexuality isn’t necessarily as healthy as Seagle would have us believe. American Virgin tries to give Adam a complex odyssey, a sort of sexual hero’s journey. But the world they leave is far more bizarre and ultimately more interesting than anything that their author can throw at them. There’s also an undercurrent of unintentional irony to Adam’s quest after his visions tell him that Cassie wasn’t really the woman he was supposed to be with for eternity. His quest for the real girl of his dreams—it’s not exactly a spoiler to say that he finds her—ends up reinforcing Adam’s moralistic concept of relationships.
These story problems are exacerbated by some character inconsistencies. It’s difficult to buy Adam as a conservative Christian once we’ve seen him in bondage gear in issue #7. Like the evangelical world he comes from, Adam’s own faith is drawn in shorthand. He begins questioning his beliefs as soon as the series begins, so that before too long the “conservative” label doesn’t really stick. It’s hard to tell if Seagle is trying to get us to question the assumptions we make about public and private faith or if he’s just as unsure about who Adam is and what he believes as we are. It’s not just the evangelical world or Adam's past that’s described in shorthand; it’s Adam himself. Issue #19, for example, provides some clues when we learn rather late in the game that Adam’s theology isn’t conservative at all. We learn that he’s never believed in hell, and, more importantly, that he’s “not sure” about Jesus (which I assume means that he doubts the Incarnation, though it’s not entirely clear). These are pretty big bombshells, but they make us question whether or not we know Adam at all.
More importantly, it makes us question the extent to which the book’s creators really understand evangelical Christianity. After all, the cornerstone of evangelical theology is a personal relationship with Jesus. There’s another wrong-note moment in the following issue when Adam argues, in contradiction to Acts 15 (and everything after on the subject), that circumcision is a sign of a Christian covenant. And that t-shirt he wears throughout the series that reads “save yourself”—it might seem a clever means of underscoring the self-righteousness that lurks beneath Adam’s message, but you’d be hard-pressed to find an evangelical speaker urging his audience to “save themselves.” The entire evangelical concept of salvation relies on the absolute impossibility of saving oneself—that’s God’s job. The series has a number of clever takes on the surface of evangelical Christianity, but after a few of these wrong notes we begin to wonder how deeply Seagle looked into the culture he was lampooning. Is this picture of spirituality complex, or just confused?
Even so, American Virgin’s cancellation after a mere 23 issues was a minor tragedy. The events of the final issue fly past—it seems likely they were intended to take up 5 issues instead of just one. It’s a particular shame because it’s in the pages of the final issue that Adam’s religious experiences throughout the series come to a head. Cassie’s spiritual appearances throughout the series give the story a nice air of mystery, but the high-point of Adam’s visionary experiences occurs in a flashback to his baptism, where the voice of God called him to his abstinence mission. The final issue contains a mysterious theophany as Adam converses with the divine—first a disembodied voice, then a burning bush, and ultimately a serpent. There are some truly intriguing moments, but they don’t have much room to breathe as the story rushes to its conclusion. Whatever problems the story may have had, Seagle still deserved a bit more room to finish it.
Ultimately, American Virgin is a missed opportunity. It never lives up to the promise of its opening pages, which hint at a thoughtful, complex critique of American religion that never really materializes. And a thoughtful, complex critique is exactly what is needed—the gun-toting messiahs and sneering preacher-villains that have become go-to clichés for comics that deal with religion are well-past their sell-by date.
American Virgin avoided those pitfalls and pratfalls, though it was still not the outstanding satirical comic it could have been, but is this near-success that renders the failure that much more frustrating.