Mythology and the Superhero: A Personal Reflection on Genre. Part 1

As a 12 years old on a rainy Saturday afternoon I would have nothing to do but lie on my bed and stare at the ceiling. Growing up in rural Western North Carolina there was only one television station we could pick up, so many times  I would look to the stack of comic books sitting on my desk for entertainment. I would reach over, pick one up, open one up and I would be whisked away into your mythic world where superheroes prowl the Super Informativenight and fly in sunlit skies. This my rainy Saturday afternoon dream realm. This was the dream realm of my youth where I went on adventures alongside my favorite superheroes. I did not know it at the time, but I was participating in a long tradition of hero worship. I learned many lessons from these heroes. From Superman I learned morality, from Batman I learned perseverance, and from Wonder Woman I learned tolerance. These are the type of lessons that embody heroes from ancient mythology all the way to modern day comic books. It is a journey many young readers just like me have taken throughout history and it is on this journey heroes that teach us these lessons. Heroes such as Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and any number of iterations of the superhero from the last 70 years are a means to stoke our imaginations and provide a type of wish fulfillment. It was during these brief, quite respites from my alcoholic father and detached mother that I was able to immerse myself in a place where the lines between good and evil were clear.  It is during this time I found find myself flying through the skies or lifting a 100 ton tank over my heads and hurling it at the bad guys. This is the stuff of myths and legends. We see all the inequities in the world, all the wrongs that need to be righted, and we wish that we could be like our favorite superhero to make society better. These are archetypal images for the psyche to feed. It is a place where I was able to form an understanding of right and wrong and my instructors where superheroes.

Joseph Campbell states in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, “the archetypes to be discovered and assimilated are precisely those that have inspired, throughout the annals of human culture, the basic images of ritual, mythology, and vision.” (Campbell 14) We are inspired to be something better than we are, even if we cannot pick up a train or break the sound barrier when running. Comic book superheroes live in our “dream world” (Campbell 14) where myth resides and they become our “personalized myths” (Campbell 14) manifest in the world as “depersonalized dreams” (Campbell 14). The comic book  genre is an American invention and stems from “old world sources” (Chase, American Folk Tales and Songs 11) deeply rooted in “Christianity as it developed in the Greco/Roman world” (Chase, American Folk Tales and Songs 11) where Western civilization got much of its traditions. If we look at these traditions, we find a wealth of source material to base the modern superhero mythology ranging from Heracles and the Homeric cycles to the founding of Rome myth. These mythic cycles culminate in the amalgamation of the Christian moral system into the Greco/Roman system of hero worship.  The Christian narrative allows us to personalize the stories on a deeper level and externalize them in the form of art and literature so that others might participate as a community thus insuring not only the spread of the tradition but also as a means of its transformation over time.

This historical grounding for the comic book superhero allows readers to draw on a deep historical background for our dream world. Some would relegate mythology and legend to the past, but as Jane Chance argues in her book Tolkien and the Invention of Myth, Tolkien would “strongly disagree” (Chance 19) because ” mythology is neither allegory nor historical document, but a true secondary world born out of language to be experienced, not excavated.” (Chance 19) The language of the comic book is an amalgamation of image and text called the icon. It is the means in which the story is told through interaction of the reader and image. By placing the image in frame of reference such as cave painting, cathedral stained glass, or on a tapestry, the viewer is moved along through the events of the story. In the case of the modern superhero mythology,  the “icon” of the superhero is the representation of the archetype from our personalized myth on the page of the comic book and creates a strong cultural reference for the archetypes  for the reader on each page. It is the culture that defines the reader’s experience while interacting with the image and text of the comic book. . One particular way is to examine the icons that the superheroes give us.

One of the most recognizable icons for us as comic book readers is the  “S” shield on Superman’s chest. Since its introduction in 1939, this symbol has undergone several changes but still retains a basic recognizable image. In Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics he defines for us the means to understand the icon as related to the comic book superhero. He states, “For the purposes of this chapter, I am using the word ‘icon’ to mean any image used to represent a person, place, thing or idea.” (McCloud 35) For McCloud the “icon” is an image which generates a certain amount of power in the viewer when viewed. It is an image with universal understanding attached to it because of the ubiquitous nature of that image within a certain culture. For example, Superman’s “S” shield on his chest is iconic because it not only represents the image of Superman, but it  also carries with it a certain cultural impact when we view the shield on any number of products the Superman franchise generates. The cynic might see this as a marketing ploy to increase the sales of Superman comic books, but it goes beyond that because of the embeddedness it has achieved in our culture. When Superman and his shield crossed over into being an icon, it made him an image that represents something beyond the original intention and this is why McCloud wants to step away from the “loaded” (McCloud 35) nature of the symbol. He seems to think symbol is more related to a particular culture than the universality of the icon. He addresses the loaded nature of the symbol because ” ours is an increasingly symbol-oriented culture. As the Twenty-First Century approaches, visual iconography may finally help us realize a form of universal communication.” (McCloud 65) It is this universal communication that McCloud sees in iconic image that is the strength of an iconic superhero like Superman. The iconic superhero image of such heroes as Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman is not only part of American culture but can be used as a universal statement which is understood throughout the world images of hope and perseverance. In this case, Superman is not only an icon but because of the universal nature of his image, he becomes an archetype. Finally, archetypes and icons can only go so far and cannot maintain themselves without some form of collective adoration. This adoration manifests itself in some form of “hero cult” and for the modern superhero fan; we need look no further than the comic book convention.

To understand the role the mythic superhero plays in modern life all we have to do is go to any comic book convention on any weekend anywhere in the United States. These conventions range from small one-day conventions where a few comic book dealers get together and buy and trade Golden and Silver age comics to the large conventions such as San Diego ComicCon which last year attracted over 70,000 people on Saturday alone. It does not really matter which convention you attend, for you will find people who come to these conventions dressed as their favorite heroes paying homage to what these heroes mean to them. If we examine why these people attend these conventions in such numbers, we might find a lot of different personal reasons but what it comes down to is the modern comic book convention is a type of hero cult that dates back to ancient Greece. As James Whitley states in his article for The American Journal of Archaeology called “The Monuments That Stood before Marathon: Tomb Cult and Hero Cult in Archaic Attica” there were four types of “hero cults” in ancient Greece. The most important type of hero cult that relates to comic books superheroes is what Whitley designates as “cults to named heroes” (Whitley 218) which were those ancient cults dedicated to known heroes of Greek classical mythology, especially heroes from the Iliad and the other mythic cycles. The earliest of these cults were dedicated to male heroes and connected strongly with a female presence due to the predominance of the priestess. Whitley also connects figures such as Odysseus, Agamemnon, and Menelaus with strong local connections associated with specific towns and areas in ancient Greece.

The first time I participated in a comic book convention was 1980. I was 18 years old and some friends of mine and I went to Atlanta to the Atlanta Science Fiction and Fantasy Fair. Comic book collecting was in its infancy and still relegated as a nerd pastime. For two days I circles the dealer’s room and rubbed elbows with other people like me who immersed themselves in the world of superheroes. There was a kid dressed as Wolverine from the XMen and a group dressed as Elfquest characters. It was here I got my copy of Conan the Barbarian#1 signed by the Marvel Comics Editor –in-Chief, Roy Thomas, who had written the first comic book adaptation of Robert E. Howard’s character.  However , it was not until fifteen years later and many dozen conventions later I got the biggest thrill of my life. By 1995 the Atlanta Science Fiction and Fantasy Fair combined with several other conventions to become the largest convention in the Southeast call DragonCon. The dealer’s room had grown to the size of a football field and showcased everything from games to celebrates signing autographs. We arrived on Friday afternoon and since the dealer’s room was still open I thought I would wonder around for a while before it closed and take in the costumes. Around 6pm an announcement was made that the dealer’s room would be closing soon and to please find the nearest exit. I was walking slowly when I looked to my right and noticed I was walking by Lou Farigno, the man who played the Hulk on the television in the 1970s. “No big deal,” I thought I have hung out with him before at conventions. But when I looked to my left, walking right beside me was Julie Newmar, Catwoman from the television show Batman. I was stunned. Here I was walking beside Catwoman and all I could do was drool on my shirt. As we neared the door I look at her and stuttered, “yyyy-ou’re Julie Newmar. I’ve had a crush on you since I was a kid.” Now mind you, I did not expect what happened next. I am sure she heard things like this all the time from awkward man-boys but she stopped, placed her hand on my cheek, kissed me on the forehead, and cooed in my ear, “ such a dear boy.” The only thing that started me breathing again was Lou Farigno patting me on the back while he had a big grin on his face. As I later came to understand, I had been blessed by the high priestess of comic book nerd-dom while in the temple of the superhero cult. A cult that can trace its origins back to ancient times.

To understand how the modern superhero comic book participates in the ancient Greek tradition of the “hero cult” we might examine Carla M. Antonaccio’s article “Contesting the past: hero cult, tomb cult, and epic in early Greece,” where she documents the transformation of ancestral veneration in the hero cult with the circulation of Homeric poetry. This corresponds to the circulation of the comic book as a vehicle for eventual rise of the comic book convention where fans of superheroes come together to collect and trade. Just as the ancients traveled to local temples to venerate their patron heroes, the modern comic reader travels to the nearest convention center to venerate their favorite superhero as well. Antonaccio correlates the rise of the “polis,” or city-state, where the worship of Homeric heroes became dominate because of the circulation of written epic poetry. In these epics the heroes perform feats of strength and cunning beyond those of mortal men much like the modern superheroes. In other words, Homeric poetry was the superhero comics of ancient Greece where the heroic feats where celebrated in temple rituals and like their ancient Greek counterparts, modern superhero fans create a sort of temple at convention centers around the country.

These weekend worshipers are not the only means to identify the modern comic book superhero genre as a carrier of modern mythology  As icons are the outward manifestations of the superhero we must say that the archetype is the inward collective manifestation of the superhero as related to us through our collective history from mythology and legend. Joseph Campbell queries, “the hero is the man of self-achieved submission. But submission to what?” (Campbell 11). This is the primary question we must ask of the superhero genre if we are to examine superheroes as archetypes. However, to get a meaningful examination we must first define how the archetype works in the collective unconscious.

To Be Continued. Same Bat-Time, Same Bat-Channel.

Bibliography

Antonaccio, Carla M. “Contesting the past: hero cult, tomb cult, and epic in early Greece.” American Journal of Archaeology 98.3 (1994): 389-411.

Bulfinch, Thomas. Bulfinch’s Mythology. New York: The Modern Library, 2004.

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. 3rd. Novato: New World Library, 1968.

Chance, Jane, ed. Tolkien and the Invention of Myth. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2004.

Chase, Richard. American Folk Tales and Songs. New York: Dover Publications, 1956.

—. Grandfather Tales: American-English Folktales. Ed. Richard Chase. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1948.

—. The Jack Tales. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1943.

Coogan, Peter. “The Definition of the Superhero.” A Comic Studies Reader. Ed. Jeet Heer and Kent Worcester. Jackson: Univesity Press of Mississippi, 2009. 77-.

Jung, Carl. Psychology and Religion. Vol. II. New York: Yale University Press, 1958.

McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics. New York: Kitchen Sink Press, 1993.

Milligan, Peter and Davide Gianfelice. Greek Street. 1. New York: Vertigo, September 2009.

Ndalianis, Angela. “Do We Need Another Hero?” Superheroes: From Hercules to Superman. Ed. Angela Ndalianis, Chris Mackie Wendy Haslem. Washington D.C.: New Academia Publishing, 2007. 1-10.

Superman/Shazam!: The Return of Black Adam. Dir. Joaquim Dos Santos. Perf. George Newbern, et al. 2010. DVD.

Whitley, James. “The Monuments That Stood before Marathon: Tomb Cult and Hero Cult in Archaic Attica.” American Journal of Archaeology 98.2 (1994): 213-230.

Younis, Raymond. “”Restlessly, violently, headlong, like a river that wants to reach its end”: Nihilism, Reconstruction and the Hero’s Journey.” Superheroes: From Hercules to Superman. Ed. Angela Ndalianis, Chris Mackie Wendy Haslem. Washington D.C.: New Academia Publishing, 2007. 97-110.

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