My first exposure to mythology came at a very young age, when I was given a book that contained the story of Icarus. I wanted it, apparently, because I thought that it was a book about the Marvel comics’ character The Angel. Since then, I have learned that myths are not just fantastic stories, but stories that were also used to explain the happenings of the day. The Sun did not rise and set, but instead was a fiery chariot driven across the sky by Helios or Apollo. In the modernized world, we have science to explain these amazing phenomena and need not rely on mythic tales to explain where thunder comes from or the moods of the sea. However, this does not mean that myth has no place in our modern world, but instead this ancient literary tradition has been modified to fit into our culture. The tales of comic book superheroes are the myths of the modern American.
The story of the superhero in America began when Superman premiered in 1938 (Knowles, 2007), when comic books featured mostly detective stories or horror tales. However it wasn’t until the 1960’s, when Marvel Comics came onto the scene, that the superhero really took his or her place in American culture. These super-powered beings tend to follow the pattern set forth by Joseph Campbell in A Hero with a Thousand Faces; specifically they follow the path of countless other mythic heroes on the Hero’s Journey. “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man” (Campbell, 1968, p. 23). In the world of comic books, where heroes and villains never die, the comparison loses a little because these stories never end. Yet, this is more because of the serial nature of the comic books and the need for infinite stories, than any literary choice.
Many of the comic books characters are based, if only slightly, on mythic heroes of the past. Wonder Woman and Thor are both blatantly taken from classical mythology and Hercules has appeared in both D.C. and Marvel tales. However, when it comes to D.C., Hercules is less of a Herculean hero than is Superman. In fact, Christopher Knowles, the author of the book Our Gods Wear Spandex, discovered that the iconic cover for Action Comics #1 bears some striking similarities to “Hercules and the Hydra” by Antonio Pollauoio. In an article on the subject he notes that Jerry Siegel, one of Superman’s creators, was fascinated with Hercules (Knowles, 2007). Artistically, Superman is certainly the new Hercules, but what about within the mythology surrounding the character?
Hercules was born of a woman and a god; Superman born of mortals on another planet, but shipped to Earth where he would have fantastic powers. After crashing in Kansas, Ma and Pa Everyman, or Kent in his case, raise the boy to as a human. Once he discovers his great power rather than try to use it to his own advantage, he decides to become humanity’s greatest champion. He is an unbeatable force and morally incorruptible, unlike many of the gods in the classical myths. Even though Hercules was eventually let into the pantheon of Gods, the tale of Superman seems to have no true end. Before a “reboot” of the series, D.C. had a now-powerless Superman retired in the future with the love of his life Lois Lane in Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? publised by D.C. in 1986, while some other stories imply that Superman is immortal (Origin Stories, 2009).
These comparisons do not stop with Superman. Knowles divides comic book heroes into four archetypes: Magic Men, Messiahs, Amazons, and Golems (Knowles, 2007). Just as the pantheon of Olympus was a collection of diverse and different characters so are the pantheons of the comic-book world. Their powers do not come from the gods of old, but from scientific accidents or, in some cases, the hero is merely born special, for example the mutants in The X-Men. In the various incarnations of The X-men, the members of this team are often seen as gods even to the other mutants due to their mastery of powers and exploits. Although the recent narrative in the comics has the mutant population of the world shrink from millions to hundreds (Hero Bios, 2009). Now that mutants are not as prevalent as they once were, those with powers, and who know how to use them, are more god-like than ever.
The Magic Men are heroes whose powers are magical in nature. The first hero that comes to mind for this category is the Marvel Comics hero, Dr. Strange. Strange is an egotistical surgeon that loses the control over his hands. He travels to a man that he thinks can heal him, but instead he is trained in the mystic arts (Hero Bios, 2009). Other characters that fit into this archetype are Captain Marvel, a DC Hero that summons his powers with the magic word, “Shazam,” and Dr. Fate, D.C.’s version of Dr. Strange (Origin Stories, 2009). These wizards are usually advisors to other heroes on a quest and are often saved to battle their evil, magical counterparts.
Messiahs are self-sacrificing heroes that are dedicated to helping mankind, even at the cost of their own happiness, wealth, or ambitions. Superman falls into this category, but the most messianic hero in this sense, is our friendly, neighborhood Spider-Man. Despite being groundbreaking for giving the powers of a superhero/god to a nerdy adolescent, the true tragedy of Spider-man is found when the character reacts in what is an honestly human reaction: how to use these powers for personal gain. His uncle is killed because he couldn’t be bothered to stop a fleeing criminal. The fear that something like this could happen again motivates Spidey's every decision.
Amazons are a group of mostly female superheroes, however it is specifically taken from the story of Wonder Woman. She is a princess of the Amazons and a character practically surrounded by classic mythical figures, such as Aphrodite and Hera (Origin Stories, 2009). For a time, she was given a secret identity, but for the most part she is Wonder Woman all of the time, an emissary of the Grecian Amazons to bring peace to the outside world. Other characters, She-Hulk, Super-Girl, Elektra, are all powerful women that take up the mantle of warrior and all typically do not bother with secret identities.
Golems are the most interesting archetype at the moment. These are the anti-heroes, usually “berserkers, whose rage causes them to kill indiscriminately” (Knowles, 2007, pg.145). These characters, such as Wolverine, the Punisher, or DC’s Lobo, are well-intentioned, but nonetheless mass-murderers. The popularity of this type of antihero is continually on the rise. Batman is perhaps in this archetype, although one of Batman’s sworn tenets is that he will not kill, despite having done so often in the movies of the early 1990’s. The Messianic heroes are not nearly bloodthirsty enough for 21st-century Americans.
With god-like powers, deeply involved mythologies in their origin stories, and shared elements with classical myths, the superhero stories are our modern myths. They do not explain why the sun sets or why the seas rage, but they do attempt examine and explain things such as revenge, empathy, responsibility, and duty. As science progresses towards giving humans extraordinary strength, the ability to see through walls, or to turn invisible, the mythic quality of these superheroes may wane. I imagine, though, we will still be able to turn to the comic book industry to determine what the future myths of our society may be.
Campbell, J. (1968) The hero with a thousand faces. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Hero Bios. (2009). Retrieved from http://marvel.com/universe/Main_Page November 18, 2009.
Knowles, C. (2007). Our Gods wear spandex. San Francisco, CA: Weiser Books.
Knowles, C. (2007, November 28). The Action comics #1 cover debate. Retrieved from http://www.comicbookresources.com/?page=article&id=12056 November 18, 2009.
Origin Stories. (2009). Retrieved from http://www.dccomics.com/dcu/heroes_and_villains/ November 18, 2009.