For as long as civilizations have existed the people within them have always held certain stories, legends, and myths in high regard to the point where even though no material evidence is presented to confirm their literal existence, they are still honored, even worshipped as gods or other kinds of deities. Today is no different. However, even though religion plays a big role in this system, another source of modern-day myths has emerged in recent years: comic books (or as some would prefer to call them, graphic novels) and of course the superheroes within them.
The very concept/idea of the superhero, not even so much the “superhero” but simply a “hero” is a staple in mass American media, not only in the desire to achieve the very pinnacle of the human condition, even surpassing it, but the aspiration to be so widely known and as courageous as the heroes in these stories as well. It is needless to say that although we as normal people can never achieve the kind of abilities or “powers” these characters possess, it is still fascinating to think about, which is one of the most compelling aspects of and why so many people read comics.
Religion is a big part of how comic book content relates to mythology. Even though superheroes are in no way related to modern day Christianity or other such religions of other such creeds, they nonetheless portray certain god or at least demigod-like qualities. There have been innumerable instances in which the comic heroes have taken the law into their own hands and become less like vigilantes and more like earthbound gods deciding what is best for mankind who they supposedly serve and protect. The image of the superhero, though in no way “divine,” eventually evolves into the symbol of the “man-god,” i.e. – one who is not at all on the level of a mystical deity, but far above the average human condition.
It should first be explained exactly what a myth is. In an interview author and Sarah Lawrence professor Joseph Campbell did with Bill Moyers, when asked what a myth was Campbell responded, “Myths are clues to the spiritual potentialities of the human life” (Campbell, 5). Quite simply, that mythology is the untapped potential in us all to do or desire to do great things with our lives. However, more importantly, myths are the proverbial thread that helps to intertwine our routine, every day lives with the existential eternity of the universe.
Myths and legends are not simply ancient stories from the past; they were once and still are (though now to a much lesser extent) the reasons behind our very existence. In author Rollo May’s book The Cry for Myth he explains,
“Myth is a form of expression which reveals a process of thought and feeling – man’s awareness of and response to the universe, his fellow men, and his separate being. It is a projection in concrete and dramatic form of fears and desires undiscoverable and inexpressible in any other way”
So, when May states that myths are inexpressible in any other way, he is basically saying that in order to truly come to terms with that which we do not understand or fear about life, we construct stories and fantastic tales in an attempt to justify and/or explain the unexplained/able aspects of life that cannot be easily explained through scientific evidence and mathematical algorithms. And for every problem, danger, or threat that we encounter, we require some sort of protection. And it is here where the concept of the superhero is brought to light.
Even though over the past few years superheroes have become less of an iconic form of American media than they used to be, they are still nonetheless very popular amongst the American youth. Adolescents and teens still enjoy the illustrated world of comic books and the super-powered protectors of Earth that they portray. Now, it is safe to say that humanity will never achieve many of the abilities that common-day superheroes display such as flight, elevated senses, or invulnerability, but it is not so much what these heroes are on the surface so to speak. It is what they represent that matters on the whole.
In these comic books, the superhero is really just a gifted individual (some more than others) who strives with all their heart and soul to do what’s best for humanity. This usually entails fighting crime and holding concepts like justice and peace in high regard. They simply have a greater and more convenient means to that end than the average person. However, they seldom fail to stress that anyone can be a hero. It doesn’t require superpowers to do something amazing (although quite frankly, they would be nice), it simply requires a strong force of will and the courage to stand up and fight for what you believe is right. I believe that is what heroism is all about.
Now, the way in which the comic book superheroes relate to modern mythology is not quite as clear-cut. Of course, we are all familiar with the ancient tales of Hercules and other such legendary figures who fought monsters and worked for the benefit of mankind, and there are certain similarities from back then and today, but how is that relevant to how exactly the characters about which these stories are centered around have taken their place as current-day myths? Well, let’s start with the first real superhero ever.
Superman — the Man of Steel. He is the patriarch of many of the current day superheroes we read about. First created by the teenage Jerry Siegel in 1932, Superman has become the iconic superhero of our time. With powers including flight, invulnerability, and super-strength, (which many nowadays might say is either “too easy” or “cliché”) Kal-El is ironically an alien from the distant, doomed planet of Krypton who fights for truth, justice, and the American way. In author Richard Reynolds book, Superheroes: A Modern Mythology, Reynolds remarks that according to Siegel, Superman was inspired by “characters like Samson, Hercules, and all the strong men I have ever heard tell of rolled into one. Only more so” (Reynolds 9).
One of the things that make Superman so popular, especially among youth is his origin. Not so much in the story itself, but in that for one thing, Clark never knew his real parents. Never once did he have a choice about being stuffed in a rocket and sent to Earth while his home planet imploded. In a world where so many children are put up for adoption, it’s somewhat of a comforting and relatable facet that the most powerful man on Earth is still an orphan. Another relevant aspect of Superman’s life is that he is, for all intents and purposes, “the successful immigrant – the orphan boy from the old country who makes it on his own in America” (Reynolds 62). Again, this makes the greatest superhero in history seem a little less god-like, and little more human.
In one of my favorite Superman comics, written by Jeph Loeb Clark teams up with Bruce Wayne (Batman) in an effort to take down a veritable army of super-villains (of whom it is assumed is under the employ of Superman’s arch-nemesis, Lex Luthor) and in an ongoing inner-monologue running in tandem between the two heroes throughout the book, they describe what each of them thinks of the other. In a particular panel, while being freed from a block of ice encasing him from the waist down by Superman’s heat-vision, Bruce remarks, “It is a remarkable dichotomy in many ways, Clark is the most human of us all. Then…he shoots fire from the skies and it is difficult not to think of him as a god. And how fortunate we are that it does not occur to him.”
This is indeed a very interesting dichotomy, as Batman points out. In recent years, Superman has earned the nickname “boy scout,” because of his sometimes naïve attitudes toward life and his absolute loyalty to his adopted world. And that coupled with the fact that he does indeed possess god-like powers; it is an appealing concept to readers that he doesn’t use them to display dominance or godhood over man, following the underlying moral of the story of Marvel Comics hero, Spiderman: “With great power, comes great responsibility.”
It is worth noting that Superman’s life seems strikingly similar in a few ways to the supposed life of another individual who recorded history was said to have possessed special abilities. And it is also where some of the comic book mythology ties into modern religion: Interestingly enough, Superman’s story shows a number of similarities with the story of Jesus Christ. For starters, at the very beginning Clark’s spaceship attracted the attention of the passing farmers Jonathan and Martha Kent, as it fell from the sky like a star, guiding them to his crash site. And as Reynolds states, “the sky-spanning spaceship crashes to Earth, leaving – in later versions of the myth, at least – a deep gash in the soil. So Superman is born from a marriage of Uranus (Heaven) and Gaia (Earth), In due course, Superman will acquire his Father on Earth (Kent Senior) to go with Jor-El of Krypton, his Father in Heaven” (Reynolds 14). But unlike the story of Jesus, Clark did not grow up to become a target of aggression and ultimately sentenced to death. Instead, Superman is not displayed as a deity figure at all, more along the lines of a “man-god,” very similar to characters like Hercules.
Of course, there are those few superheroes that are not possessed of powers and have no superhuman abilities with which to do their jobs. A prime example of course is Batman, the dark knight. And although he is in no way super-powered, Batman represents something just as good, perhaps even better: the pinnacle of the human condition. Batman is indeed human, and as such is much more susceptible to the meta-physical threats he and his superhero colleagues face on a daily basis. However he makes up for his lack of powers by displaying above-average human intellect and by being in the best possible physical condition. And armed with an array of ingenious gadgets and other tools, Batman is combination of such fictional figures as The Shadow, Dick Tracy, and even Sherlock Holmes, making him the icon for the “super-human hero.” Clark even points out in the previously mentioned book that, “sometimes, I admit, I think of Bruce as a man in a costume. Then, with some gadget from his utility belt, he reminds me that he has an extraordinarily inventive mind. And how lucky I am to be able to call on him.”
Batman is representative not only of the super-human but also of the darker side of reality, which we all must face. Batman simply embraces it. His war on crime, his melancholy, tied in with his ruthless methods make him one of the most satisfying of all the major superheroes. Even his basic modus operandi, which deals in death and retribution for the murder of his parents as child and his vow to rid the world of that same evil which gunned down the only two people he ever loved, slightly resembles the character Hades, the Greek lord of the Underworld.
It is actually quite surprising, the level of similarity that comic book subject matter has with Greek mythology, particularly DC comics (as apposed to Marvel). Probably one of the single greatest comparisons is the superhero group known as the J.L.A. – the Justice League of America, of whom Superman is the self-appointed leader. Strikingly similar to the Gods of Mt. Olympus, this group of heroes seems to represent a different facet of humanity, just as the old gods of legend did.
Superman, of course the leader, resembles Zeus in a way. And though he does not hurl down lightning bolts from on high, he is without question the iconic of almost any superhero ever created. Batman resembling Hade, and Wonder Woman, whose very name, Diana means goddess of the hunt is the amazon princess and who overall is probably the most connected to the Greek gods. Upon her birth, she was blessed with (among other things) “the beauty of Aphrodite, the wisdom of Athena, the speed of Hermes, and the strength of Hercules.” The parallel can even be drawn that their primary base of operations is settled on the very surface of the Moon, where they can keep a watchful eye on humanity from the Heavens, much like the high slopes of Mt. Olympus where the ancient gods made their home.
Now, one of the most predominant aspects of a myth is its ability to relate to its audience and make them feel as if they can connect to it or at least what its message represents. One of the most common instances is the example of the Marvel Comics hero Spiderman. His creation and publication in the 1960s was a direct result of the demand for a superhero that teenagers could directly identify with. The seemingly aimless teenage Peter Parker is still almost 45 years later a major favorite among comic readers. And his abilities stem from a bite from a genetically engineered spider, which is not an entirely impossible (albeit farfetched) source.
Another example is Marvel’s Captain America. Often seen as the American Spirit, Steve Rogers like Batman is also completely human. Created mainly as a fantasy outlet for consumers allowing them to read about the American hero beating the stuffing out of Hitler and the Nazis, as well as the Japanese and other wartime threats this county has faced, he is armed with his impenetrable shield, again symbolizing the unbreakable American spirit. However, ironically enough, in an unexpected, and somewhat shocking move, the authors killed Capt. America this year, a victim of a sniper’s bullet. This development seems almost to imply condition of the current state of America and perhaps tell us that that so-called unbreakable American spirit is more fragile than we would like to believe.
In fact, the image/mythology of the hero, particularly the superhero has begun to lessen in the minds of the public, especially recently. In his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell poignantly remarks,
“The problem of mankind today, therefore, is precisely the opposite to that of men in the comparatively stable periods of those great coordinating mythologies which are now known as lies. Then all meaning was in the group, in the great anonymous forms, none in the self-expressive individual; today no meaning is in the group-none in the world: all of it is in the individual. But there the meaning is absolutely unconscious. One does not know toward what one moves. One does not know by what one is propelled. The lines of communication have been cut, and we have been split in two.” (Campbell Hero, Thousand Faces 388)
The “two” which we have been split off into are those who are willing to buy into the mythology of the modern day hero just as many were in the old days of ancient Greece, and those who recognize those tales as well as the modern-day ones as nothing more than lies and complete science-fictional material with is not even worth their attention. The lines of communication have indeed been blurred to a point where we don’t even see them anymore. It’s not even so much that people have to believe that comic books and superheroes are simply the modern day versions of famous legends told throughout history. What truly matters is that people, particularly older people, have shut their minds off to the real issue of allowing their clear-cut, routine, reality to mix even slightly with the overall relative fantasy of mythology that comic books do such of wonderful job of portraying.
To some, comic books are just colored illustrations of ridiculously burly men in spandex that fly around and fight evil in order to save the day, but I think in truth, they are so much more. Even though I don’t believe that the comic mythology is something to be revered or worshipped as they were in ancient times, I do believe that they should still be paid their due attention. Because to live in a world in which everything must be finitely real would not only be incredibly boring, it would also be quite maddening. We have to recognize that just because the medium by which these stories are delivered to us has changed dramatically from simply sitting around a campfire relating tales of mythical figures and legendary heroes, to looking at the pictures in comics, the message is no different.
Even though comic books are still considered by many to be juvenile and simply for kids with affinities for a world of fantasy, there is so much more to the small square-by-square captions on each page than the authors, illustrators, and other staff that produce these fine works of art are given credit for. What many do not seem to realize is that these graphic novels have opened up a new window into a new kind of mythology, and new kinds of legends. If these characters have survived the last 60-some years and still going just as strong as before, what’s to stop them from being remembered eternally in the minds of children and adults? The key word, “eternal.” There are some stories in this world that will never die and will always exist in the hearts and minds of the people. Legends, myths, fairy tales, and nursery rhymes — all are examples of that ever-lasting aspect of humanity that simply cannot be forgotten. Comic book superheroes are simply the next rung of the ladder.