This article originally appeared in Vulture.
The turn of the millennium was a weird period for superhero comics; an era when financial desperation opened a path for wild experimentation. Marvel Comics was particularly hard hit, plunging into bankruptcy and emerging as a wounded giant. The company welcomed bold, weird ideas: Punisher became a zombie, Spider-Man and the X-Men got rebooted series where they were all angsty teens again, and … a Scientologist joined the Avengers. And then the Avengers teamed up with the evil super-powered leader of Scientology. And they all flew in a spaceship powered by the souls of Scientologists. And they fought a giant alien pyramid.
Okay, let’s take a step back. Technically, the religion in question wasn’t the Church of Scientology; it was an extremely thinly veiled stand-in for it called the Triune Understanding. The story line about it was the brainchild of Avengers writer Kurt Busiek (who fully admits to the Triune Understanding’s status as a Scientology pastiche), that story line ran for an astounding four years, and—perhaps most remarkable of all—this bizarre narrative thread was oddly tender and empathic toward Scientologists. In honor of the current barrage of criticism lobbed at Scientology in the wake of the documentary Going Clear, let us revisit this strange chapter in superhero history.
Busiek knew next-to-nothing about Scientology when he got the Avengers gig in 1998. “I’d read stuff from old-line SF writers who’d been around when [Scientology founder L. Ron] Hubbard decided to create it, so I had a grounding in at least their view on it being a cynical creation,” he told me. Nevertheless, he thought a “Scientology-like organization” would make for a fun story element and moved ahead without much information. “I’d read various exposé-type articles about the modern state of the organization. But I didn’t do any research beyond that, because I wasn’t trying to do an exposé myself. I just wanted to take the idea of a corrupt pop-psych religion and use it as story fodder.”
Thus, in Avengers No. 8 (the series had just been rebooted with a new No. 1 issue), a mysterious new superhero appeared and the Triune tale began. The previously unseen superhuman abruptly shows up during a battle at JFK Airport, saving the Avengers’ butts and—in between kicks and punches—he introduces himself thusly: “The name’s Triathlon—and I’m three times as strong, fast and agile as an ordinary human!”
As far as superhero boasts go, that one … wasn’t all that thrilling. But in the next few issues, we found out Triathlon’s appeal wasn’t his power set: It was his beliefs. As it turned out, Triathlon’s name was surprisingly literal: He had once been a successful track star named Delroy Garrett Jr. He scored gold medals at the Olympics, only to get busted for using steroids. His life shattered, the fallen athlete wandered the streets of Philadelphia until he stumbled across a local chapter of the Triune Understanding.
“They’re kind of, I dunno—a way of thinking, or maybe a church,” Garrett tells Hawkeye while the two of them crawl through an air vent to fight some baddies in Avengers No. 9. “I didn’t believe in what they had to say at first—but they showed me a way to find peace, to let go of the anger I had toward myself—and in time—a way to unlock the power within me.” Through an unexplained method, the Triunes gave him superpowers. The belief system he found there was pretty vague, but centered around finding balance between various triads in your life: mind, body, and spirit; head, heart, and hands; past, present, and future; and so on.
Busiek wasn’t a Scientology expert, but he was presenting a reasonably common path toward Hubbard’s real-life church: wayward celebrity struggling with substance abuse gets roped in with promises of realizing his buried potential. (Hell, you don’t even have to take out the superpowers part: Tom Cruise apparently thinks Scientology has made him superhuman.) Although the Avengers were taken aback by Triathlon’s audacious explosion into their lives, he proved himself to be a decent dude. As it turned out, the Avengers’ liaison with the U.S. government was also a member, and he was a nice guy who posed no threat. So far, it didn’t seem like Earth’s mightiest heroes would have any trouble with this quasi-Scientological movement.
Nevertheless, readers soon got reason to raise their hackles. When we finally see other Triunes in issue 15, they’re at a massive get-together in Texas and they’re addressed by their leader, a flashily dressed gent named Jonathan Tremont, who sports suspiciously expensive jewelry and a ridiculous salt-and-pepper beard. (David Miscavige, he was not.) When the Avengers stop by Triune HQ to investigate a nearby supervillain sighting, Tremont watches them on a screen, strokes his whiskers, and muses to an assistant, “Hm? Oh, I wouldn’t worry about it, Teodor. It will be … taken care of …” By issue’s end, we see him privately communing with a cosmic baddie named Lord Templar. They chat about how the Understanding needs to sow “suspicion of traditional authority structures” and, accordingly, Templar advises Tremont to deploy a common Scientological tactic: discrediting people in the media. In this case, the Suppressive Persons were the Avengers.
This is where the Triune plot gets uncomfortable. In secret, Tremont launches a whisper campaign accusing the Avengers of not having enough nonwhite members, leading to hate mail and protests outside Avengers Mansion. (Protesters in issue 24 carry signs with truly delightful slogans, such as “’OF COLOR’ DOESN’T MEAN RED PLASTIC” and “SEND ‘EM BACK TO SCANDINAVIA WHERE THEY COME FROM.”) And after Tremont frames some Avengers back-benchers for the destruction of Triune property, the media starts wondering if the team is religiously bigoted, too. The aforementioned government liaison issues an ultimatum: Prove you’re not prejudiced by recruiting Triathlon—he’s an African-American Triune, after all—or risk arrest. Garrett doesn’t like the idea of being an affirmative-action hire, but says he’ll join “for one reason and one reason only. I’m going to prove you’re wrong—wrong about me, wrong about the Triunes—and then I’m going to rub your noses in it!”
For the next few years, Triathlon was a member of the Avengers lineup. He wasn’t terribly thrilling as an action hero, to be honest. He was just a nice guy who was good at fighting and who would occasionally muse on the difficulties of being a person of color in a white environment. The Understanding, as an organization, didn’t show up for a long while.
But hoo boy, when it did reappear, things got really weird—and theoretically quite insensitive toward Scientology. In Avengers Annual 2001, we find out that B-list heroes Justice and Firestar went undercover as Triunes. While there, they discovered that the religion is preparing to fight some kind of “giant threat from space” and, as part of that effort, they’ve built a massive spaceship. “I’ve seen the plans,” Firestar says. “It’s supposed to be powered by the spirits of the acolytes. By their belief.” In other words, it’s a Thetan-powered spacecraft.
Sure enough, a few issues later, some Avengers who’ve been marooned in outer space get picked up by that Triune starship, where a robed Tremont tells them they’re on their way to fight what could be “the greatest danger Earth has ever faced”: something called the Triple Evil. “Its coming has been foretold, and it must be stopped,” Tremont tells the heroes. “That is the one and only reason the Triune Understanding was created.” In a loose adaptation of Scientology’s alleged teachings about how humans are players in an interstellar battle between good and evil, we learn that Tremont stumbled across an alien artifact that gave him knowledge of the Triple Evil’s millennia-old history. (Through means that are too complicated to get into here, Tremont also was able to grant superpowers to Garrett and ally himself with some Avengers villains.)
But when Tremont and the Avengers come upon that Triple Evil—which is, for some reason, a giant pyramid piloted by aliens—Tremont shows his true colors. Although he intends to use the souls of his followers to defeat the extraterrestrial threat, he plans to keep that power and conquer Earth himself afterward. Long story short: Triathlon beats the Triple Evil and de-powers Tremont. The day saved, they all return to Earth. Garrett is disappointed, but—in a sweetly sympathetic twist—ultimately doesn’t demonize the Triunes. He finds out that the organization is trying to reorganize after Tremont’s fall from grace, and although he doesn’t plan to return to the fold, he muses that “they’ve done a lot of good, even if their leadership was corrupt.”
And that, for the most part, was that. Busiek left Avengers and we haven’t seen much of the Marvel universe’s answer to Scientology since then. Triathlon has popped up a few times, but the religious subplot has gone the way of the Dodo. It’s not surprising, given that fan response to the Triune narrative had never been all that positive. “Overall, people didn’t seem to like the story, but mainly because of the racism and prejudice angles,” Busiek said. But the most surprising part of the story’s reception is the fact that the Church of Scientology—so infamously litigious and willing to attack anyone who critiques them—didn’t raise a peep. Busiek recalls no complaints from the organization, nor its adherents: “Readers seem to feel there was no problem doing a Scientology-like villain-group.” Accordingly, his bosses at Marvel didn’t offer any resistance to the story (“Not a lot of encouragement, either,” he recalled).
It’s near-impossible to imagine Marvel doing anything like this story today. When Busiek invented the Triune Understanding, American culture had largely left Marvel Comics by the wayside, and anything that happened to the Avengers was invisible to all but a few thousand dedicated readers. Now, nearly 15 years later, Marvel is at the forefront of American—and global—entertainment, thanks to its mega-successful Avengers film franchise. Although Marvel Entertainment’s comics arm only accounts for a fraction of its revenue, every creative decision goes through a fine filter of scrutiny and its comic story lines are regularly in the headlines (usually while being praised for greater inclusion of female and nonwhite characters). No company owned by Disney would dare take pot-shots, however veiled, at Scientologists in 2015. So even though the Avengers’ struggle with faux Scientology wasn’t a hit with fans, it stands as a fascinating artifact of a time—not so long ago—when Marvel was so unpopular that it could afford to get this weird.
See also: The 6 Most Miraculous Things Scientology Has Ever Done (According to Scientologists)