Category: Comics

Dark Maiden Number One is now on Amazon Kindle

 
 
Going to promote this like crazy this morning. This comic is the first issue of a three issue limited series. The proceeds from this book will go entirely to getting myself and my wife to Battle of the Nations to fight for Team USA in Italy. Here is a link so those who aren’t familiar know what Battle of the Nations is… https://www.youtube.com/user/battleofthenations
In Memoriam: David A. Kyle and First Fandom

In Memoriam: David A. Kyle and First Fandom

First Fandom closed its doors for good last week with the passing of David A. Kyle at the age of ninety-six.  Kyle had been a part of science fiction fandom from the very beginning, as a member of New York’s Futurians, and was one of its ablest historians for half a century. In particular, Kyle’s 1976 book A Pictorial History of Science Fiction had a massive influence on my own development as a science fiction fan. Purchasing the generously-sized book for just three dollars at a used bookstore with the money given to me for my thirteenth birthday, it helped to encourage me to not just read even more of the genre, but to read as much about it as well. Through Kyle’s chronicling of the history of science fiction and the people involved in its development, I learned to respect the writers, artists and fans alike who helped to build it up, and became more determined than ever to know more about what had come before me. Clearly, there was more to this field than just the few prominent authors I had read or movies I had seen, and it had a rich legacy that deserved to not just be preserved, but explored and enjoyed. Continue reading “In Memoriam: David A. Kyle and First Fandom”

Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.-Skye is a Disney Princess

Is her name Luna?

I have a crazy theory that Skye on Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is a Disney princess.

Almost everyone believes that Skye is an inhuman…my theory explains who she is? What the Obelisk is? Who Skye’s father is? and how this all ties into the Civil War storyline.

Skye is the daughter of Black Bolt’s brother Maximus the Mad.

Her name is Luna. I realize that Luna is the daughter of Quicksilver in the 616 Universe, but in the Ultimate Universe Quicksilver never fell in love with Crystal and I believe that the Marvel Cinematic Universe is going to mirror the Ultimate Universe when it comes to Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch.

Her mother is the inhuman Crystal who has been engaged to Maximus in the comics.

Her father has been king of the Inhumans several times. Her mother is a member of the royal family as well.

If Skye is the daughter of Maximus then she is a certified Disney princess.

What is the Obelisk?

The Obelisk is a Terrigen-bomb. The same type of bomb that restored the powers of all mutantkind after House of M. Terrigen will kill baseline humans in grotesque ways, but does not kill mutants or humans that have inhuman DNA.

The bomb will cause any human with inhuman or mutant DNA to develop powers. the detonation of this device and the resulting explosion of people with super powers will force the government to  implement the mutant/inhuman/superpower registration act and the cause of the Civil War.

I believe the key to the entire Marvel cinematic phase three is in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

or I could be totally wrong.

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

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.

The Secret History of Costumed Heroes Part 1: Victorian Superbeings Invade London

The Secret History of Costumed Heroes Part 1: Victorian Superbeings Invade London

tumblr_lyl9sdm1xy1qcbo9lo1_500Masks and costumes have been a part of human culture since man first began making art. We disguised ourselves as animals with the belief that sympathetic magic would endow us with the physical and mental aspects of these creatures.

I have long been fascinated by werewolf mythology and the origins of the man/wolf hybrid. A major aspect of the werewolf myth is the belief a man  could take on the animal form by wearing it’s skin. I believe that our modern conception of the comic book superhero derives directly from man’s early attempts to harness these natural forces through the donning of masks and costumes.

I want to start this series of articles by looking at the beginnings of our modern fascination with costumed superbeings then branch out in later articles to discuss the broader implications of masked heroes throughout history. We begin this journey in 19th century London. A mecca for Gothic horror writers and the birth place of modern popular culture.

The Real Life League of Extraordinary Gentleman

1837 sees the first appearance of Spring-heeled Jack. If the above picture of Jack looks familiar you are not mistaken. Spring-heeled Jack could easily be mistaken for Batman. The descriptions of Jack parallel Batman in more ways than one. From scaling buildings, to jumping from rooftop to rooftop, Jack was even said to wear a skin tight oilskin suit with a winglike cape, and had metal razors on the end of his fingers. Mike Dash in his article  “To Victorian Bugaboo From Suburban Ghost” states that Jane Alsop who spoke to Jack describes him as, “hideously ugly; its eyes blazed red as the coals of hell and its pinched, tight features were topped by a peculiar sort of helmet; the body, meanwhile, was encased in a tightly-fitting, shining suit, and a strange object, resembling a lamp, was strapped to the chest. ” (Dash)

Beyond  some superficial similarity of Jack to Batman (ignoring the lamp on his chest) officials at the time believed Jack to be a gentleman of means who was engaged in a series of nightly pranks. Of course as the legend of Spring-heeled Jack grew so did his array of super powers. From breathing fire, to being able to fly, and shoot beams out of his eyes (that sounds familiar) Jack’s powers grew as his legend did.  Jack was never seen to stop crime and often caused mischief but the idea that a costumed person with super abilities (springs in his heels) certainly did not go unnoticed by fiction writers. Jack was soon the subject of many penny dreadfuls and his legend moved from the streets of London to the pages of popular fiction.

Jack was not the only costumed character running around Victorian London. At the same time that Spring-heeled Jack was terrorizing London another lesser known figure was also on the prowl. Called the “Rossian Bear” and sometimes mistaken for Jack, the bear roamed London in a Bear skin suit frightening those who saw him. He was considered either the same person as Jack or another one of a gang of well off gentlemen who were playing an elaborate game of dress-up on the streets of London at night.

There was also Queen Victoria’s own stalker “The Boy Jones”. Boy Jones was not quite as successful at concealing his identity as the other masked men, but he achieved fame for being able to enter Buckingham Palace repeatedly. “Time after time, he sneaked into Buckingham Palace to spy on her, sit on the throne, and rummage in her private apartments…the Boy Jones had been discovered lurking underneath a sofa in the room next to the one where she (Victoria) slept.” (Bondeson).  Jones had an uncanny ability to use disguise, guile, and his physical prowess to enter one of the most guarded buildings in the British Isles not once but three times often hiding for days before being discovered. Like the others Jones was built up in the press and it was suggested he had some sort of supernatural abilities which allowed him to enter the palace unseen. He was caught and eventually exiled to Australia, but only after another adventure where he was kidnapped by the British Government and forced into service with the navy.

These masked “supermen” in Victoria’s London were more often than not merely criminals and pranksters but they are just the tip of the iceberg when it came to  masked and costumed characters that paraded through the 19th century. In the second part of this article we will examine the many masked men of the American frontier and how that nation owes it’s very existence to a group of masked vigilantes.

 

Works Cited

Dash, Mike. “To Victorian Bugaboo From Suburban Ghost” mikedash.com, n.d. Web. 10 Jan. 2013.

Bondeson, Jan. “Queen Victoria’s Stalker: The remarkable story of the ‘Boy Jones'” Fortean Times, July,2011. Web. 10 Jan. 2013.

Mythology and the Superhero: A Personal Reflection on Genre. Part 2

Carl Jung defines the archetype as “forms or images of the collective nature which occur practically all over the Earth as constituents of myth and at the same time as autochthonous, individual products of unconscious origin,” (Jung 88). In other words, Jung is saying these mythological constructs reference structures within our psyche and we can evaluate these constructs against a normal and dynamic psyche, so we might see the correlation between the structures of subjectivity and objectivity. This collective is a social conscious we all share through collective unconscious. This means our personal experiences are categorized through the shared experience of our species’ biology. As humans we have a need for stories and this need predates or written history when our ancestors sat around the camp fire and told tales that not only entertained, but also instructed in the ways of the particular culture. Since these structures in our psyche are shared it allows the listener to participate in the society be it Cro-Magnon, ancient Greek, or modern American. Because we have evolved a need for heroic stories in prehistory, we now have the heroic archetype passed to us through the collective unconscious.

So now we must return to Campbell’s question as it relates to the superhero archetype. If we examine the superhero genre as a whole, we find that universally the hero/superhero is allowing himself/herself to be subjugated to a higher moral calling. In the article “The Definition of the Superhero” by Peter Coogan, he cites the court case that National Publication brought against Fox Publications in 1940 where Judge Learned Hand defined the superhero as

(a) heroic character with a selfless, pro-social mission; with superpowers —   extraordinary abilities, advanced technology, or highly developed physical, mental, or mysterious skills; who has a superhero I dandy embodied by a codename and the iconic costume, which typically express his biography, character, powers, or origin(transformation from ordinary person to superhero): and who is generically distinct, i. e. can be distinguished from characters of related genres (fantasy, science fiction, detective, etc.) by a preponderance of generic conventions. Often superheroes have dual identities, the ordinary one of which is usually a closely guarded secret.

(Coogan, The Definition of the Superhero 77)

This effectively defines the superhero archetype in a cultural context where the superhero is subjugated due to their responsibility to use their extraordinary abilities for the betterment of mankind. Anybody who has seen the first Spiderman movie directed by Sam Raimi will recognize the creed that Uncle Ben Parker gave to young Peter Parker. Uncle Ben said, “with great power comes great responsibility.” This defines the superhero archetype as the individual who is willing to use their gifts not in a selfish way but as a person who recognizes they are to affect change in the world and be an inspiration to those without power. This is Superman’s primary strength as an icon and why he has remained relevant as an icon and an archetypal superhero for almost 70 years.

Before we can address the superhero genre in any proper fashion, we need to examine some of the old myths and legends that fed into creating the modern superhero. The first hero from antiquity we must consider is Gilgamesh. The epic of Gilgamesh is one of the oldest written stories on Earth where it is preserved between 2750 and 2500 BCE in cuneiform on 12 Clay tablets and tells the adventures of the King of Uruk. The first tablet introduces Gilgamesh, who is two thirds god and one third mortal. The citizens of his city petitioned the gods for help because Gilgamesh oppresses them, especially the young women. Because Gilgamesh is King of Uruk he believes it is his right to be the first with a bride on her wedding night and deflowers them with a particular glee that is reminiscent of a super-villain.  The gods hear the pleas and create an opponent for Gilgamesh called Enkidu. Enkidu is a wild man and meant to distract Gilgamesh from his overly passionate pleasures with all the young women of Uruk. However, Gilgamesh does not directly engage Enkidu but sends a skilled temple seductress to help subdue him. Once Enkidu is subdued by the harlot and civilized, he learns of Gilgamesh’s improprieties with his subjects and goes to Uruk to change Gilgamesh’s mind.

Once he reaches Uruk, Enkidu blocks Gilgamesh’s entry into a bridal bedchamber. This enrages Gilgamesh. He is king and is denied nothing in his kingdom, especially the “lord’s right” of the first night with a new bride. The fight that ensues is truly epic and ends with Gilgamesh being barely able to subdue Enkidu. This fight made them friends and allows Enkidu to influence Gilgamesh against his lordly right to a new bride on her wedding night.

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From a certain perspective we might say that this tells us a great deal about the ancient Samarian culture. First of all in Samarian culture, the King has the right to do what he wishes whenever he wants. It also tells us that while they are a warrior culture that places a premium on strength and courage; they also prize cunning and intelligence. We see when Gilgamesh did not directly engage Enkidu but uses his wits to devise a plan to bring the wild man under control.  Gilgamesh is a Babylonian archetype, a God-King, the epitome of manliness in Samarian culture. While we have no real icon of what Gilgamesh may have looked like we can say that Samarian culture had a sort of “hero cult.” Gilgamesh’s hero cult was the hero cult of a living breathing king who gathered a whole city around him as worshipers.

The next group of mythic cycles that exerts a great deal of influence over modern comic book superheroes derive from the ancient Greeks. In ancient Greece we have many heroes who, because of their exploits and the writings of Homer, have been able to survive until modern times. Perhaps one of the most important of these heroes is Achilles. Achilles fought for the Greeks during the siege of Troy and is, perhaps, their most celebrated hero from that time. Achilles was the son of Peleus, the King of Pithia and a sea nymph named Thetis, who because of a prophecy attempted to make Achilles invulnerable by dipping him in the River Styx which left his heel unprotected. This small weakness led to his death by a poison arrow during the final day of the Trojan War. What is important to note about Achilles is that he shares many characteristics with the comic book superhero. He is invulnerable like Superman and like all good comic book superheroes he has a weakness that can be exploited against him, although in the Achilles case, it turned out to be his death.

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Another Greek hero that served as an inspiration for comic book superheroes is Heracles. It is appropriate to use the Greek spelling here because we will be discussing the Greek hero born in Alcaeus and not the Romanized hero spelled Hercules. Heracles is the son of Zeus and is hated by his stepmother Hera because he reminded her of her husband’s, Zeus, infidelity. Once again, we have a character from antiquity who shares a great deal with modern superheroes. Heracles has a level of invulnerability because has divine parentage and a magical lion skin, extraordinary strength, and endurance above the levels of any mortal man. He also has one of the most important defining characteristics of any comic book superhero: he has an arch-nemesis that will go to any length to destroy him. Hera’s first attempt to destroy started Heracles when he was only eight months old, Hera sent two snakes into his cradle to kill him. Even at this time Heracles possessed great strength and overcame the serpents, saving not only himself but also his brother Iphicles. This antagonistic relationship would last Heracles’ entire life and lead to many epic adventures, the most famous of which are the twelve labors that made Heracles the most famous Greek hero from antiquity.

The Twelve Labors of Heracles were a penance given to Heracles by the Oracle at Delphi after  he killed his family in a fit of insanity given to him by Hera. The Oracle told to him to serve King Euystheus for twelve years. In each of the labors Heracles is asked by King Euystheus, Hera’s representative, to kill or subdue and animal or retrieve a plant. The sites selected by King Euystheus were either a stronghold to Hera or the entrance to the Greek Underworld. All of these labors were designed in mind to kill Heracles or so hard, they could never be accomplished. In one of these labors Heracles is accompanied by, what we call in the superhero genre, a “sidekick,” his nephew, Iolaus, helped him kill the Hydra.  This caused King Euystheus to not count not only this labor but the Augean Stables as well because he received payment for the work. To reach the required twelve labors King Euystheus required Heracles to retrieve the Golden Apples of Hesperides and capture Cerberus, the three headed hound guarding the gates of the Underworld. While these labors where designed to destroy Heracles, they only cemented his place in the Greek pantheon of heroes and made him the archetype for the superhero genre.

Lastly, the Greek hero whose life is the subject of a whole epic poem by Homer was Odysseus. While Odysseus showed strength beyond that of a mortal man by being the only one strong enough to string his bow,  he was better known for his wit and cunning. It was Odysseus who designed the plan to break the stalemate with the Trojans by creating what came to be known as the Trojan Horse. This ingenuity and cunning are reflected in modern comic book superheroes like Batman, who uses his wits to survive against super-villains who have him outclassed physically. These three heroes are part of the development of the Homeric hero cult that Whitley discussed in his article. While these three epic heroes helped develop the hero cult, it is the hero cult that helped develop them as icons. As a result, they became ubiquitous, appearing in architecture, pottery, and even weapons and armor.

Roman mythology is based around a founding hero myth in The Aeneid and perhaps is the ultimate expression of the Greek hero cult. Rome took from heroic Greek legends and meshed them with local legends. This allowed them to create a continuity that went back to ancient Greek civilization. This continuity extends back through myth and legend to Aeneas, a Trojan prince was able to escape the sack of Troy. Just as many Greek heroes, Aeneas is the son of a mortal Prince Anchises and the goddess Aphrodite. This carries on a tradition started with the Greeks that their heroes must have some sort of divine parent or ancestor in their background.  Aeneas is one of the few Trojans who did not get killed or enslaved at the end of the Trojan War and was commanded by the gods to gather the survivors together and find their way to the Italian Peninsula were they would be the founders of Rome.

Once Aeneas and the survivors arrive in Italy, they were greeted by King Latinus, who gives his previously betrothed daughter to Aeneas as a wife. This angers Lavinia’s former fiancé, Turnus, and he gathers an army to get revenge for the slight against his honor. Aeneas wins the war but Lavinia’s father, Latinus, is killed. To commemorate the victory and to honor his wife, Aeneas founds the city of Lavinium. Later when Aeneas dies his mother, Aphrodite, asks her father, Jupiter, to make her son the immortal. Jupiter grants this boon raising the Roman founder to the level of a god. Aeneas is a Roman archetype in that he overcame great odds and through strife and chaos was able to bring order to the world around him.

While Samarian, Greek, and Roman mythology supplies a wealth of archetypes on which to base comic book superheroes, it is perhaps Christian mythology that has the most profound effect on the genre. This effect has its origins in the Old Testament heroes such as Noah, Sampson, and Moses all the way through the New Testament accounts of Jesus. As Joseph Campbell states, “Jesus, for example, can be regarded as a man who by the dent of austerities and meditation attained wisdom; or on the other hand, one may believe that a God descended and took upon himself the impact of the human career. (Campbell 275) Through Jesus, God’s wisdom is imparted to Western Civilization by means of the Golden Rule which states, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” and is reinforced by Jesus in his parable of the “Good Samaritan.”  In this parable Jesus tell the story of a Jew who is beaten and robbed while traveling. He is happened upon by first a Jewish priest and later another Jew, both of whom ignore him. It is only when a Samaritan, an enemy of the Jews, finds the beaten man, does the man get help.

The widely accepted interpretation of this story holds that we should help others because we hope that they would help us in times of need.  Jesus’ story is one of the central themes of the superhero and a hard lesson learned by Spiderman shortly after he gained his powers. Nowhere and comic books is this parable more evident than in the Spiderman origin story. In the beginning, Peter Parker used his newly gained powers for personal gain. Because he was so selfishly focused on getting money to impress girls, he ignored the plea from a police officer to stop a fleeing robber. There is robber went on to murder his Uncle Ben. From that point Peter Parker swore to use his powers to help society. Perhaps if Peter Parker had followed “The Golden Rule” he would still have his Uncle Ben. When Peter Parker ignored this creed  passed down to us through Christian teachings, he ignored a mandate developed in a Christian society.

spidermansad

These mandates and archetypes were integrated into western society throughout the Middle Ages in a profound way and were reinforced when the Church created the cathedral as a means for communal participation in the Christian virtues and archetypes. If we extend this back through the civilizations before the rise of Christianity we might equate this with a type of “hero cult” where Jesus and the saints are held up for worship. To help this worship the Church used art to tell the stories. This art took the form of murals and stained-glass depicting various scenes from the Bible and various biblical figures. This iconographic imagery instilled in the viewer a sense of wonder and awe that allowed them to participate in the worship practice and carry it out into the community where the Church’s moral agents were able to act upon the population and spread Christianity.

The spreading of the Christian virtues gave the hero a moral base from which to operate. This is shown in the Christianization of old pagan stories such as Beowulf where Beowulf attributes his strength due to his closeness to God. Not only did Jesus’ teachings influence old stories’ but they also influenced the creation of new stories such as the Arthurian cycle of stories that use Christian morality to impose order into the lives warriors. The knightly virtues such as “valor, justice, modesty, loyalty to superiors, courtesy to equals, compassion to weakness, and devotedness to the Church” (Bulfinch 349) are virtues that appear in one form or another and the modern superhero archetype.

To Be Continued in Part 3 True Believers.

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.

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

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.

The Last Son of Krypton: Superman as the Metaphorical Embodiment of Kant’s Categorical Imperative.

The Last Son of Krypton: Superman as the Metaphorical Embodiment of Kant’s Categorical Imperative.

 

As a student of philosophy I have asked many time what is the practicality of my discipline and how I might apply it to the concrete world? This is a reasonable inquiry for the layman who sees a discipline so esoteric and obtuse that it defies understanding on the practical level. Many times philosophers have to resort to breaking down the concepts for those not in the discipline for the non-philosophers to understand the conceptual erudition that goes on in philosophy. Also, if the philosophers are unable to conceptualize philosophical concepts in such a way that the layman is able to understand them than on a practical level the philosophical concept is nothing more than flotsam and jetsam on the theoretical ocean. This is where characters such as Superman, Batman, or Wonder Woman may be used to deconstruct philosophical concepts and show the uninitiated reader how these concepts would work on a practical level. If we are to examine philosophy for its practical uses and how those uses might be distributed to the general population, what better way than using comic book superheroes to help with this distribution.

One of the most complex of all philosophers in the Western tradition is the Enlightenment philosopher, Immanuel Kant.  His various critiques set forth complex propositions that sought to reconcile several schools of opposing philosophy. There is no doubt Kant is easily one of the most complex thinkers to rise in the Western tradition. However, that does not mean he is indecipherable and closed off from practical understanding. One of Kant’s most important ideas is the “categorical imperative” which appears in two of his works: first in Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals and later in Critque of Practical Reason. Both in which he creates a dense, complex argument for the treatment of fellow humans. Although these ideas are our complex and usually left to philosophers to decipher, they need not be. We need only look to Siegel and Shuster’s Kryptonian immigrant as an inspiration and metaphorical example of Kant’s “categorical imperative”  and should be used as an example of how easy it is to integrate philosophy into a practical and moral conceptual framework.

Due to his earthly parents’ inspiration Superman is a being who considers that he should do what is honorable because he has the potential to do so. Because Superman always selects to do the right thing no matter the costs, he is cast in the part as an inspirer. He is unassuming and does not believe his astonishing capacity gives him the right to be more than he should be. He realizes it is not his physical capacities that make others admire him  but it is his desire to do good and make life better for those around him. He sees his role as protector because he has the power to do things others cannot. In Alex Ross’s Kingdom Come, The Spectre foretells an Armageddon caused by all the Metahumans because Superman withdrew from public life. The Spectre declares to Norman McCay, a pastor the Spectre compels to travel with him, “Those who, a decade previous, felt the crush of Superman’s greatest and most necessary failing… His inability to perceive himself as the inspiration he is.”  (Ross and Waid 33) This is Superman’s real capability and the basis for  his endurance for over 70 years and why he achieved icon and cultural archetypes standing. Superman is the American “everyman.” He believes in hard work and doing the most with the abilities you are given. There are comic book critics who would assign Superman a godlike status, and there is an element of truth to this statement; however, if we were to ask Superman/Clark Kent, he would reply that he is merely a man who is gifted and he chooses to use these skills for honesty and ask us why we should see him as the metaphorical embodiment of Kant’s categorical imperative.

Before we can ground  Kant’s moral philosophy, we need to determine if the Last Son of Krypton is worthy to be considered the modern metaphorical embodiment of the “categorical imperative,” and  we must allow Kant to first decide what is commonly called the “paradox of freedom.” The paradox focuses the obvious inconsistency between one’s sense of sovereignty, a who person considers that he is the source of his own acts, and the apparent universal axiom of causality that infuses nature. Such as a rock has no choice about falling off a precipice; whether it does or does not is controlled by intricate but determinate natural laws. Insofar as humans are part of the same physical world, there seems no good motive to prohibit them from the same requirement. Kant solves this conundrum by referring, once again, to his transcendental philosophy. He says that if we  consider the problem empirically, humans are indeed part of the physical world and therefore not free. However, if considered transcendentally, that is, “considered as objects in themselves,” separate from the world of appearances, they are free. We might justifiably asked how this does not oppose Kant’s own principles, according to which such “noumenal knowledge,” understanding of things as they are, is impossible. Kant has no answer to this protest, but without human autonomy, his moral system, or any moral system, is unmanageable.

Supposing that this last, step is effective, Kant goes on to conclude the substance of the “moral law.” For Kant, the “moral law” is based on the concept of autonomy.  What differentiates people from the rest of reality is the will and, more specifically, the” rational will;” for Kant, to be unrestricted is nothing more than to be able to obey one’s sense. Rocks, plants, and animals all obey natural laws of causation, even if they are inconceivably multifaceted rules. Humans, however, are free from this necessity, and this freedom or autonomy is what gives them their intrinsic dignity and ethical substance. The specific kind of logic which is relevant to the good life is what is called “practical reason”. “Practical reasoning,” Kant contends, is just as characteristic to human nature as the unity of apperception; not only do humans experience, they also see the world as a “field of action.” Practical reason is what directs humans as to what they ought to do. Now, the ethical law, Kant considers, should flow decisively from practical reason; if it is contaminated with separate requirements and conditions, one is no longer free. One must be committed to reason alone.

When Kant says “I ought never to act except in such a way that I could also will that my maxim should become a universal law.” (Kant, Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals) he distinguishes two different kinds of imperative or “ought” statements. There are hypothetical imperatives which place some state or requirement on their imperative. For example, one might say “If you want to make a lot of money, you should go to school.” This declaration may or may not be true, but it certainly does not apply to a person who is not concerned in making a lot of money. A categorical imperative, on the other hand, is completely unqualified; it is a “ought” statement which applies equally to every conceivable actor: “You should not steal.” Kant believed that at the origin of all morality, there was a lone categorical imperative, though he delivered several interpretations for it. The first formulation is that one ought to act in a way that is always consistent with a universal law. In other words, one should not act in such a way that he would not want others acting. The next formulation of the categorical imperative, professed to be derivative from the first, is that one must treat people always as ends and never as means. That is, one cannot just use other individuals to fulfill their own objectives, with no reverence for the fact that they have aims of their own as well. The third formulation, comparable to the first, asserts that one should always act as if his actions were establishing some rule that the rest of civilization had to follow.

From this foundation, Kant is able to grow a ethical law that is more or less in agreement with “common sense.” It forbids such anti-social actions as homicide, robbery, and rape because such things are not consistent a “universal law” and view other individuals as means and not ends. Kant’s moral system, however, does challenge “common sense” in some areas. Particularly, he has a peculiar way of handling the problem of emotions. Kant believed that an act is good only if it is opposing to one’s proclivities; to merely act in agreement with one’s wishes is a submission of autonomy and, therefore, not a uninhibited act. It is not corrupt, but simply nonaligned act. The only ethically worthwhile acts are those which are done in harmony with obligations divergent to one’s proclivity. Thus, an accomplishment is only worthy insofar as it is demanding.

If we scrutinize the superhero genre as a entirety, we find that collectively the hero/superhero allows himself/herself to be subjugated to a higher ethical vocation. In the article “The Definition of the Superhero” by Peter Coogan, he cites the court case National Publication, later to become DC Comics, brought against Fox Publications in 1940 where Judge Learned Hand defined the superhero as

(a) heroic character with a selfless, pro-social mission; with superpowers — extraordinary abilities, advanced technology, or highly developed physical, mental, or mysterious skills; who has a superhero I dandy embodied by a codename and the iconic costume, which typically express his biography, character, powers, or origin(transformation from ordinary person to superhero): and who is generically distinct, i. e. can be distinguished from characters of related genres (fantasy, science fiction, detective, etc.) by a preponderance of generic conventions. Often superheroes have dual identities, the ordinary one of which is usually a closely guarded secret.

(Coogan, The Definition of the Superhero 77)

This successfully expresses the superhero archetype in a cultural framework where the superhero is subjugated due to their obligation to society to use their amazing facilities for the betterment of mankind. Anybody who has seen the first Spiderman movie, directed by Sam Raimi, will recognize the creed Uncle Ben Parker gave to young Peter Parker/Spiderman. Uncle Ben said, “with great power comes great responsibility.” This defines the superhero archetype as the individual who is willing to use their gifts not in a selfish way but as a person who recognizes they are to affect change in the world and be an inspiration to those without power. This is Superman’s primary strength as an icon and why he has remained relevant as an icon and an archetype for the superhero for almost 70 years.

It is the selfless duty that Superman possesses and is his greatest means of inspiring others. If we examine H. J. Paton’s book  The Categorical Imperative: A Study in Kant’s Moral Philosophy in which he seeks to examine the Kantian categorical imperative as a means to ground moral philosophy, we find in Chapter 3 where he discusses duty he states,

Our concern, however, is not with a holy will, but with a good will under human conditions and therefore a will which acts for the sake of duty. Hence the phrase ‘under human conditions’–which it would be tedious to repeat–must be read into many of our sentences; but this must not lead us to forget that much, if not most, of what we say is not to be taken as true of all good wills without exception.  (Paton 46)

It is this human condition that Superman is inherently tied to because of his Kryptonian heritage, immigrant status, his earthly parents who instilled in him the concept of duty and sacrifice, and his unique status on the planet Earth.  According to Paton, Kant distinguishes between three types of action with a third of these actions breaking away from the animal instinct of self-interest toward something that is good and just. As Paton states, Superman might act “not for an immediate inclination or self-interest, but for the sake of duty”  (Paton 47) Superman could just as easily indulge his baser instincts and act in self-interest but he was not because he understands that his power implies that it was given to him for a purpose beyond baser ideals.

To illustrate Superman as the embodiment of Kant’s categorical imperative 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 a homeless man Billy is beaten up by the bullies but is rewarded by the homeless man with a subway token. It is when Billy meets Clark at the diner do we understand why we should see Superman as the embodiment of the Kant categorical imperative. 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 one 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.

Superman’s mission can be stated in one simple concept. He believes that if you have the means and the power that you must use those means as a tool to help humanity and not further yourself. As Peter Coogan states in his seminal work on the superhero genre he takes a quote from the DC comic arc called Final Night in which Robin and the Spoiler flight in a building with looters and it collapses on them from the weight of the snow and the ferocity of the fight. Putin states, “Robin picks himself up and revives the Spoiler. He then works to free the looters from the snow. The Spoiler disagrees arguing they should let the looters, who had tried to kill them, die. Robin rejects this reasoning, saying “that’s not how it works[…]. What Batman and I do isn’t all that venture and cheap thrills. There is a commitment and it’s never an easy one””  (Coogan, Superhero: The Secret Origin of a Genre) And this is what Superman does over and over again throughout comic book history. He repeatedly pushes himself to do the right thing not because he wants some gain from it but because it is hard and the correct way to act. This is why Superman should be seen as a metaphorical embodiment of Kant’s categorical imperative. He continuously and thoughtlessly places himself in a position that would morally compromise most other characters that he chooses the road of right because he believes in a higher moral calling that his great gifts and abilities have instilled in him.

Coogan, Peter. Superhero: The Secret Origin of a Genre. Austin: Monkey Brain Books, 2006.

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

Daniels, Les. Superman: The Compete History. New York: Chronical Books LLC, 1998.

Engstrom, Stephan. “Introduction.” Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Practical Reason. Trans. Werner S. Pluhar. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2002. XV-LIII. Print.

Kant, Immanuel. Critque of Practical Reason. Trans. Stephen Engstrom. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2002. Print.

—. Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals. Trans. Thomas Kingsmill Abbott. Project Gutenberg, May 2004. Web. 20 March 2012..

Paton, H.J. The Categorical Imperative: A Study in Kant’s Moral Philosophy. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1948. Print.

Reynolds, Richard. Superheroes: A Modern Mythology. Jackson: University of Missiissippi, 1992.

Ross, Alex and Mark Waid. Kingdom Come. New York: DC Comics, 1997.

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

 

 

Are the Wonder Twins Really Mormons?

Are the Wonder Twins Really Mormons?

What religion does your favorite Superhero practice.  The author of this page has tracked down thousands of comic-book references to create a database of hundreds of heroes matched to their philosophical and religious belief systems. This is really worth taking a look at. I had no idea that Superman was a Methodist. They also list environmentalism as a religion….I have said that for years.  The link is here.