Mythology and the Superhero: A Personal Reflection on Genre. Part 3

For thousands of years humans were supplied with myths and legends to fuel their psyche’s need for the archetypes and icons that came to them from their dream realm. Perhaps we could say that the rise of modern science and humanism subjugated that need but the need was still there as a shadow under the surface. We could trace the decline of myth back to the 17th century during the Age of Reason when scientific method was born and formed be backbone of The Enlightenment and humanism which is prevalent today.  Once this began, religion and superstitions began to fall by the wayside and were replaced with humanistic heroic imagery. For example, in America the myths of founding fathers such as Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, Patrick Henry, and Thomas Jefferson became the standard fare for Americans. Instead of heroes with mythological godlike powers, the American heroes were an “everyman” sort of hero that was a person and was not too far removed from the normal man walking the street. In essence, it allowed every early American to participate in the heroic adventure of America’s founding.

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All the myths of the American founding fathers fulfill a certain need in the psyche for a mythological type hero, but it is American folklore that picks up where past mythology trailed off into academia. Figures such as the gigantic Paul Bunyan and his blue ox Babe or Pecos Bill bring back the fantastic elements into storytelling. It is these types of stories the reader/listener learns about the American character. Paul Bunyan chopping down trees with one swing of his ax and taming the American wilderness plays very well into America’s believe in manifest destiny in the early 1800s. This time of expansion gave rise to fantastic tales of men and women using their wits and the strength of their backs to carve the American dream out of the raw materials abundant in the wilderness. These types of figures are archetypical in that they help us understand the American myth as a means to teach the American story and give a sense of homogenous culture to an otherwise heterogeneous population.

Archetypes such as cowboys, pioneers, gangsters, and entrepreneurs speak of American independence and drive. One such story is told by my Great Aunt Ethel Marie Trantham. Aunt Ethel was born in Fines Creek, North Carolina in 1903 and she lived as a recluse in the backwoods of Haywood County in a log cabin on the North Carolina/ Tennessee border. The only road to her house was an old logging road which had fallen into disrepair and required a 4 wheel drive to navigate it. That night before bed she told my brother and I several stories but the one that stuck out the most is the one about Daniel Boone. She claimed that Daniel Boone was one of our ancestors which made us listen more closely because Daniel Boone is one of our cultural archetypes, the pioneer woodsman. Although at the time I did not know what an archetype was, I did know that Daniel Boone was very famous. She related to us that “Ol’ Dan’l,” as she called him, was out hunting one day and he had just killed a deer and he had not reloaded his rifle yet when a bear attacked him. She said, ” the bear opened his mouth wide and was about to swallow Ol’ Dan’l whole when Ol’ Dan’l reached down bears throat, grabbed him by his tail, and jerked him inside out so the bear had to run the other way.” And so my brother and I were tucked in bed with our bellies full of bear sausage and gravy and our heads full of stories.

Aunt Ethel never knew she was participating in the collective unconscious by telling us the story nor did she care. She was a simple woman that lived in the backwoods of Western North Carolina that meant to entertain two little boys before bedtime. In this story Daniel Boone is the American “Everyman” much like the Jack from the Richard Chase’s The Jack Tales where he says in the introduction, “for all true folk traditions have this dynamic appeal. They stick with us, and they grow and change with every individual who receives them.” (Chase, The Jack Tales XIII) Ol’ Dan’l is one of the archetypes that helped feed the comic book superhero’s development while Disney developed the icon of Daniel Boone. The classic image of Daniel Boone is a frontiersmen clad in buckskin with a raccoon skin hat. However, once again these American icons and archetypes are relegated to the past and need a new fresh face to stimulate our minds in the present.

We must ask ourselves what these heroes represent in the form of icons and archetypes? Is there a clear lineage for the superheroes to the past? Mythological heroes like Gilgamesh, Achilles, Aeneas, Moses, and Percival served a psychological need in the human psyche. They played a part in the history of our civilization. They connect us to our ancestors in ways that we might not understand because they go through the same trials as we do but only mythological scale. As Joseph Campbell states:

“In a word: the first work of the hero is to retreat from the world scene of secondary effects to those causal zones of the psyche where the difficulties really reside, and there to clarify the difficulties, eradicate them in his own case(I. E., Give battle to the nursery demons of his local culture) and breakthrough to the undistorted, direct experience and assimilation of what C. G. Jung has called “the archetypal images.”(Campbell 12)

This is an everyman quest and a quest for each individual who hears these stories and participates in the actions of the hero. This is the same quest of superheroes like Superman or Batman. They descend into the dream world of their alternate identities where they might participate in this quest and we might participate along with them. To go on this quest the superhero means to participate and interact with the archetypes just like our ancestors did when they attended a Greek play or worshiped in a cathedral. The fact that our ancestors chose to endow their mythological heroes with “extraordinary powers” (Campbell 274) gives deep roots to our superhero archetypes. It is because of these “old world sources” (Chase, American Folk Tales and Songs 11) that we must take the superhero archetypes more seriously. Our modern superheroes “go back through the adventure narratives of the last two centuries into epic, legends, and mythology.” (Coogan 115) It is these myths and legends that we participate in every time we read a comic book. It is a form of catharsis to participate in the “mythic narrative” (Ndalianis 3) which helps us “resolve conflicts, fears, and desires of the city-state ” (Ndalianis 3) or, in other words, the modern nation-state which we live in now.

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When we speak of catharsis and the archetype in comparison to the superhero genre we find that Superman /Kal-El is unique and singular among his peers. He is the alien /immigrant who will eternally be the outsider on Earth. As teenagers and even adults we can identify with this because there are times when we feel we do not fit in to society. Although Superman is the outsider because he is an alien, Batman as an outsider because of events in his past drove him to be something beyond that of a mortal. Many comic book critics compare Superman to the Nietzschian “ubermensch” (Coogan 164), translated as “Over-man.”  This is the person that Nietzsche says has the ability to overcome the animal side of themselves and go beyond human morality to achieve something greater and be an example to the herd around them. While sometimes this term is translated as “super-man,” that is not the meaning or the translation that Nietzsche intended. The “ubermensch” is the creator of new values in a world where the old Christian values are meaningless. This is the world of Batman. He is the true comic book “ubermensch” not Superman.  Batman rose above common herd and chose to be a champion. It is this “ubermensch” quality that all superheroes possess in way or another that allows them to participate in the ancient archetypes.

We might say that Superman represents hope of the future and what society should be and it is this hope of a new future it makes him more Christ-like than “ubermensch”. However, Batman represents what society really is and the stark harsh reality of modern life. In his article, “”Restlessly, violently, headlong, like a river that wants to reach its end”: Nihilism, Reconstruction and the Hero’s Journey” Raymond Younis discusses Nietzschian nihilism and how superheroes walk a fine line between being the”ubermensch” and falling into a villainous nihilism. This is the line of the existential quandary that every human being experience in their life. The fact that superheroes, such as Batman, choose to put on a costume and attempt to make sense of the chaos around them is a powerful archetype. This is the archetype of the ancient hero such as Odysseus, who must make his way back to his home after being lost at sea. This is the archetype of Heracles, who must atone for killing his family in a fit of madness. And finally, this is the archetype of the immigrants of the early 20th century. The immigrants who used mythic stories to help them make sense of the new American experience.

It is these immigrants that helped propel the comic book superhero into archetypical status in American culture. They fed on the stories and carried whatever lessons they learned out into the broader world. These are lessons of truth, justice, and for the new immigrants, the American way. Superman’s example encouraged them to integrate into America and gave them hope that their new home would treat them as well as Superman was treated. These comic book superheroes told them that they were in a place where all things could be possible and hard work and perseverance always paid off. These are lessons for all Americans not just the immigrants. We can look at the archetypical images of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman as reflections of our hopes dreams and desires for a better world. It is this better world the superheroes created for themselves and inspire in all of us the hope that we can create a better world as well.

In final analysis, we must ask what does all this do for the reader? Reflecting back to the 12 year old boy on the rainy Saturday afternoon I come to realize that all my scholarship on mythology and superheroes comes from my love of the genre. It  is a love I developed to take the place of my alcoholic father and codependent mother. It was a world I needed to ground me in a sense of right and wrong. Through the monthly installments of characters like Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman I learned the things I needed to become a good adult. Things like morality, perseverance, and tolerance embedded themselves in my psyche and drew me into the world of myths and legends. It is in these stories I saw the better side of humanity and was inspired to push myself beyond my upbringing to join the military, go to college, become an Army officer, and finally to become a teacher to kids like me.

To illustrate my point we need to examine the recent animated short called Superman/Shazam!: The Return of Black Adam. In the film a young 10 year old named Billy Batson lives in a rundown slum with almost no food for him and his pet rats. As the film progresses Billy gets out of bed and put some a T-shirt bearing the Superman crest. This should indicate to the audience that Billy admires Superman. (For those who are unaware who Billy Batson really is in the comic book world, he is Capt. Marvel. Capt. Marvel was a property of Fox publications in the primary reason for litigation between National Publications And Fox Publications because National Publications felt that Capt. Marvel was infringing on the Superman copyright. ) When Billy leaves his rundown apartment to have breakfast with Clark Kent, he runs into a group of bullies robbing a homeless man. In an attempt to save the homeless man, Billy is beaten up by the bullies. However, he is rewarded by the homeless man with a subway token.  Billy meets Clark at a diner where Clark buys Billy breakfast and billy  relates the story of what happened in the alley with the bullies and how he got his black eye. Billy states that he tries to be good to matter what it is not help him in life. Clark’s reply is being good is hard but the reward for being good is a reward itself. At this time Black Adam attacks and a battle ensues between Superman and Black Adam. Because Black Adam’s powers are magic-based Superman is particularly vulnerable to them and he is being hurt severely by Black Adam’s power. At this time Superman could just leave. He has the power to do so but he stays to protect Billy even at the peril of his own life. Superman feels a duty to protect life no matter the cost to him. Some critics will say that because Superman is so powerful that this is no real threat and his actions are not in embodiment of any moral action. I will also point out that any such critic is not a comic book reader and does not understand the full extent of Superman’s vulnerability to magic. He is more susceptible to magic because Kryptonians are from a world where there is no magic. Is the simple fact that he stays and fights a villain who has the ability to kill him because he feels a duty to another sentient being that makes it a ethical act.

During the fight between Superman, Capt. Marvel, and Black Adam, Black Adam rips a woman from a car and holds her by the neck revealing to Billy Batson/Capt. Marvel the reason why he is Black Adam and chose to stay in his powerful form that he got when he said the magic word “Shazam!.” He said the power changed him; made him realize he was far above regular humans and God like. In other words, he is indulging his baser instinct and not acting according to a higher moral calling of duty for which the power should be drawing him toward. He is the antithesis to Superman because of this indulgence of the baser instincts. And Black Adam says if Billy does not revert back to his mortal form he will crush the woman like “ant.” At which time Billy says the magic word and reverts back to a child although he knew this would be his death it was Superman’s inspiration that drew Billy to this selfless act in an attempt to save the woman, whom he did not know, from death at the hands of Black Adam. At this point, being the villain, he truly is, Black Adam throws the woman over a skyscraper and grabs Billy by the mouth so he may not say shazam! again. Although Superman had been off saving the city from one of the many catastrophes set up by Black Adam in an attempt to separate Superman and Capt. Marvel from each other, Superman returns carrying the woman Black Adam had thrown over the skyscraper and distracting him long enough for Billy to revert back to Capt. Marvel. Filled with rage Billy begins to beat Black Adam into submission with the thought of ending the threat of Black Adam forever. Once again, Superman reminds Billy/Capt. Marvel that being good is hard and that the murder of Black Adam will serve no purpose other than to corrupt him.

It is stories like this that inspired me a boy and still move me as an adult and it is in the comic book superhero where the old stories are given new life. In Peter Milligan’s Greek Street he takes ancient Greek stories and modernizes them by setting them in the Greek Street area of London  and has each comic beginning with chorus much akin to the chorus of ancient Greek plays. This is not a chorus in the traditional sense because Milligan uses strippers of a nightclub to act as chorus for his story. The stripper Chantel sets up each comic as the chorus did in ancient Greek plays. In the first issue she says,

“I ‘ve been doing this dance for thousands of years. This is the old dance. This is the old story. You see, these old stories aren’t through with us. No matter how many different names or mask we might wear… They’re just not finished with us yet. What you might call eternal recurrences running through the generations like….. like blood. We think our science means we’re different or better than he used to be. We think we’re actually making progress. Every new Darfur reveals just how little we really change. Medea and Agamemnon are still playing at the Temple of Dionysus. It’s standing room only.” (Milligan and Gianfelice, Greek Street#1 2-3)

She is speaking of the old heroes and gods and how stories seem to be recycled into fresh new clothes. These new clothes are the superhero icon developed from the ancient archetypes from civilizations past and celebrated in the comic book convention and the superhero genre that I love so dearly.

 

 

 

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.

About Coleman Trantham

Coleman E. Trantham was born in Waynesville, NC way back in 1962. He served in the U.S. Air Force as an Air Traffic Control Radar Tech from 1981 to 1985. Upon exiting the Air Force Coleman played bass in several bands. None of which were very good and made him realize he better get some sort of education because he liked to eat. This lead him to Western Carolina University and the Philosophy program where he got a BA in Philosophy and Religion and an BSed in English Literature. While all of this craziness was going on Coleman joined the local National Guard unit the 211th Military Police Company in Clyde, NC and was a cadet in the WCU ROTC program and an officer position with the 211th. In 2008 Coleman pursued a Masters at Fort Hays State University where he focused on 18th and 19th Century Literature and the novel as genre. Coleman is currently working on an MFA in writing through Lindenwood University
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