Atheists battling supernatural villains: Q&‥038;A with Justin Aclin

December 20, 2013

Justin Aclin, 33, is the co-creator of a new comic miniseries from Dark Horse Comics called “S.H.O.O.T. First.”

“S.H.O.O.T. First” stands for “Secular Humanist Occult Obliteration Taskforce,” and the series involves a band of atheists who fight evil supernatural monsters that prey on human faith.

Aclin, once a religious Jew, now identifies as an atheist, and the three-year process of writing the comic helped him make the journey. The third of the comic’s four issues appeared in comic shops on Wednesday (Dec. 18), and the story will continue in the anthology “Dark Horse Presents” in 2014.

Aclin spoke with Religion News Service about the new miniseries. Some answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Q: What is the premise of “S.H.O.O.T. First”?

A: The premise is that any supernatural creature humanity has encountered — from angels to demons to yeti to elves — are all outside actors. They are not divine, but extradimensional creatures that draw energy from humanity and especially from human faith. They are able to change shape and take on forms that humanity has faith in.

S.H.O.O.T. fights them because these creatures have realized science and reason will eventually overtake faith, so their backup plan is to trigger a global apocalypse. They figure if they can pull that off, what is left of humanity will cast aside science and reason and be a source of energy for them forever.

Q: How did you come up with this idea?

A: Dark Horse Comics has several comics in which a team of not-quite-superheroes fight supernatural menaces. I wanted to do something in that vein with a twist. My idea was to do a team of monster hunters that takes on creatures with science-based weaponry rather than on the monsters’ own terms. The more I developed it, the more it dovetailed with things I was going through, which was struggling with my faith and letting go of that last bit of belief in a divine. So the team being atheists started as something like a gimmick, but then it became a more serious venue to explore some things I needed to explore. Writing “S.H.O.O.T. First” was part of that process of being able to admit that I am a full-on atheist.

Q: What are some of the things you struggled with that appear in the comic?

A: My children were getting older so I had to think about what are we going to tell the kids. My first daughter had a Jewish naming ceremony, and that was important to me at the time, but when my second daughter was born I found myself not having the heart for that. I was hitting a point where religion just was not part of who I was anymore and I had to think about what I was going to tell them when they started to ask the big questions. You can see that in the very first page of “S.H.O.O.T.” where there is a conversation between a mother and her child about what happens after you die. It was an important question to me, but it ends up being an important question to the series in ways that you will see later.

Q: But if the members of S.H.O.O.T. are all atheists, who by definition reject anything supernatural, how can they fight supernatural beings?

A: That is a question that a lot of atheists have when they hear the premise. I always say they are fighting creatures they don’t believe in, but it is more accurate to say they don’t believe that the creatures they are fighting are what they claim to be. All these seemingly supernatural creatures are actually scientifically explicable beings that S.H.O.O.T. refers to as “Outside Actors.” What S.H.O.O.T. uses to fight them is their own disbelief that has been weaponized and channeled through the bullets in their sci-fi guns — this is comic book science!

Q: Do you plan to involve historical figures of faith, such as Jesus, Moses or Muhammad, into the story?

A: If I have a dogmatic view, it is definitely not that all religion is awful. The comic is a reaction against fundamentalism — any system of belief where you can’t even entertain doubt that you have the absolutely right answers. You can lay a lot of the world’s problems at the feet of that. I am not trying to rabble-rouse, and I think having the team fight Jesus would be rabble-rousing.

What I am trying to do is explore some of the issues and struggles atheists have in walking away from faith. One of those is that you lose access to having a tidy and reassuring explanation of what happens after you die. That is definitely not something I have seen explored in a lot of fiction, especially in the action-adventure genre, and it was something I thought was worth exploring.

Q: What has reaction been like?

A: It’s been good. The most controversy and bewilderment has been from atheists. The reason is the same you expressed earlier — they don’t understand how S.H.O.O.T. doesn’t “believe” in something that’s right in front of them, and there’s a suspicion that I am trying to undermine atheism. And I’m definitely not! But I think people are excited to see a comic book about atheists that speaks to an atheist experience, even when it is refracted through the lens of crazy sci-fi, off-the-wall adventure.

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