The Comicbook Superhero: Myth For Our Times – Nigel Kaw

Comicbook Superheroes as Mythology

The story of Moses, David’s slaying of Goliath, the labours of Hercules, Gilgamesh’s battle against mortality itself, ‘all resonate with what would later become the stuff of superhero legend’[1]. C.G. Jung and others[2] have written about archetypal theories such as the ‘universal hero’ and in The Hero With A Thousand Faces, Campbell talks further about how, from the monomyth, much heroic fiction is derived.[3] These writers tell us why mythic stories of heroes and specifically ‘stories of heroes with superhuman qualities have reverberated for millennia with humans’[4]

Myths have existed for as long as there has been human communication and story telling. At its core, Myths are stories. Derived from the Greek word mythos which means ‘story’, they are stories which speak of meaning and purpose. Some scholars, such as Donna Rosenberg describe myths as ‘sacred stories from the past. They may explain the origin of the universe and of life, or they may express its culture’s moral values in human terms.’[5] Richard Slotkin describes mythology as : … a complex of narratives that dramatizes the world vision and historical sense of a people or culture, reducing centuries of experience into a constellation of compelling metaphors … Myth provides a scenario or prescription for action, defining and limiting the possibilities for human response in the universe.[6] No definition of myth is acceptable to all scholars and at the same time intelligible to non-specialists. Then, too, is it even possible to find one definition that will cover all the types and functions of myths in both traditional and archaic societies? Myth is an extremely complex cultural reality, which can be approached and interpreted from various and complementary viewpoints.

Perhaps an attempt to summarize the different scholarly ideas to define Myth could be: Myths at its core are stories. These stories usually are about gods and other supernatural beings [7] . They are symbolic and metaphorical[8]. They orient people to the metaphysical dimension, explain the origins and nature of the cosmos, validate social issues, and, on the psychological plane, address themselves to the innermost depths of the psyche[9]. Often, they are enacted in rituals[10] with religious myths being sacred histories. Myths can be both individual and social in scope, but they are first and foremost stories. [11]  

The Study of Myth in Literature

All reading of literature takes place within a larger system of meanings. These ways of thinking about literature are part of a specific system of meanings known as ‘literary theory’, ‘critical theory’ or just ‘theory’. As to what those meanings are is still open to debate. There have been many proposals and multiple literary theories have proliferated as a result of this questioning. What all these proposals have in common, according to Thomas McLaughlin is a ‘shared commitment to understanding how language and other systems of signs provide frameworks which determine how we read, and more generally, how we make sense of experience, construct identity, produce meaning in the world’.[12] . The study of mythology in the fields of History and English Literature as Cultural Studies is one such attempt. German philologist Max Müller (1823-1900) could be said to have pioneered this area of study with his influential essay entitled Comparative Mythology, first published in Oxford Essays (1856)[13], which examined fairy tales and religion as mythology. However, it is my view that Müller’s pioneering scholarship was weakened as he worked from the belief that fairytales were an inferior form of literature fit only for children, and that only his religious beliefs was valid and all other belief systems were primitive superstitions. Müller’s two-volume Contributions to the Science of Mythology (1897) argued that mythology was ‘a disease of language’ but J.R.R. Tolkien, in his 1938 essay On Fairy-Stories, countered ‘It would be more near the truth to say that languages, especially modern European languages, are a disease of mythology.’[14]

The next literary theory of significance to mythology study was Archetypal theory. Its foremost proponent C.G. Jung, a psychologist, posited a collective unconscious, as expressed in both dreams and in literature, as archetypes – basic universal symbols. Whenever people expressed themselves, their utterances and work could be seen to contain archetypal imagery with universal meaning. Jung considered myth to be an expression of the collective unconscious. [15] Canadian critic Northrop Frye was influenced by Jung’s idea of archetypes. Frye focused on literary archetypes. In his books The Great Code and Words with Power (1999)[16], he suggests as an example, that due to the intense degree in which European culture has immersed for centuries in the language and thought of Christianity, the archetypal images and structures of European and therefore, mainstream North American literature have emerged from the central images and narrative patterns of the Bible. The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion (1922)[17], by Scottish anthropologist Sir James George Frazer (1854-1941) used archetypal theory to draw parallels between mythic beliefs of cultures from all over the world. Frazer’s book (while outdated in a few small ways), is still considered one of the great books of the 20th Century, and for good reason: Frazer was the first person in the world to map out the mechanics of what we might call ‘magical thinking’, the essential building block of myth. The book makes an excellent argument that magical thinking is one of the primary keys to understanding human consciousness. Frazer was an enormous influence on Joseph Campbell, whose theories we will later discuss in greater detail.

Structuralism has also been extremely influential in myth studies. Structuralist theorists pay attention to what Roman Jakobson calls the ‘codes’ of text. [18] Structuralists try to develop a grammar of stories by focusing on the relations among the elements of texts. They describe what elements are common to all stories and what kinds of relations are or can be established among these elements. French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908 – ) was one of the chief proponents of structuralism. In his book Myth and Meaning (1978), he attempted to isolate the “atomic elements” of myth. His theory was based on an exhaustive analysis of Native American myths, written between 1964 – 1971. [19] Using the Structuralist approach, Russian professor Vladimir Propp (1895-1970) published an extremely influential analysis of Russian folktales called Morfologiia Skazki (Morphology of the Folktale, 1928). He contended that folk tales could be studied and compared by examining their most basic plot components. Propp reduced the folk tale to a series of actions performed by the dramatis personae in each story. He argued that all folk tales were constructed of certain plot elements, which he called functions, and that these elements consistently occurred in a uniform sequence. By breaking down 100 Russian folk tales into their smallest narrative units – narratemes – Propp was able to arrive at a typology of narrative structures. By analysing types of characters and kinds of action, Propp was able to arrive at the conclusion that there were 31 generic narratemes in the Russian folk tale. While not all 31 functions are always present, Propp found that all the tales he analysed displayed the functions in an unvarying sequence.[20] Propp’s work did not study myth but the formula he set out may have been adapted and later expanded by Joseph Campbell.[21]
It is from these early frameworks to study myth that Joseph Campbell brings forth his theories that synthesize both structuralist and archetypal theories to not only study myth but also demonstrate its evolution from early mythologies to its current mythological incarnation.

The Monomyth

The many myths ranging from the Greeks and Roman Gods, Norse Viking Gods, King Arthur and even the Judeo-Christian Biblical tales which range from Samson to Moses to Christ, are all mythology in one form or other, giving form and identity to the cultures they are told in. In order to understand the concept of the monomyth, an understanding of its background is first required. As earlier mentioned, Jung first proposed the concept of a central creative unconscious in the form of archetypes. Archetypes are typical images, characters, narrative designs, themes, and other literary phenomena which are present in all literature, and so provide the basis for study of its interconnectedness. The origins of archetypal criticism were in psychology and myth analysis. This was then termed ‘myth criticism’. Jung stated that there were two parts to the human unconscious, the personal and the archetypal. Personal unconscious is our own repressed or other memories which influence us. The archetypal, or collective unconscious is a theoretical pool of memories that everyone shares, a sort of shared knowledge. This was related to myth first by James G. Frazer, who in 1922 wrote a comparison of the myths and legends of different cultures, entitled The Golden Bough. The concept of the monomyth is a natural extension of his early work. Its foremost proponent, Joseph Campbell in his book, The Hero With A Thousand Faces popularized the monomyth, as a term. He described it as a myth that occurred cross culturally with timeless themes[22]. Billie Wahlstrom and Carol Deming describe it further, stating some patterns of events and figures persist in myths around the world over time. The similarities in the expression of these myths occur because they represent human behaviour and embody human behaviour patterns towards which humans seem to be disposed.[23]

In The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell talks about how myths come from every culture but with similar universal themes. He states that the ‘inflection is to the culture’[24] which results in variation in stories. Jung talks about the ‘universal hero’ archetypes and how these have appeared ‘all over the world and at different times in human history’[25] but in ‘different costumes’. Mircea Eliade mentions primal archetypes common throughout his study of various religions among numerous cultures around the world stating that myths may be different depending on culture or religion, but once ‘the husk is removed and the kernel exposed, the story remains the same’.[26] These differences occur as a result of historical and cultural conditions.

Myths can be said to be part of the core human experience and rarely change except in the most superficial ways. They defy any attempts to rewrite them with drastic changes, always returning to their original forms. The setting of the myth might be modified depending on the telling, the characters may have different names, but fundamentally, it is still the same story. Myth exists in almost every culture.

A good example in demonstrating the universality of mythology would be the mythic archetype of the saviour or messiah. Many cultures believe in a saviour who will come from outside the community and right injustice, effectively bringing the world into a golden age. Belief in the Jewish Messiah, the Christian Messiah and the Islamic Maud are key messianic elements in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Messianic elements are also present in Egyptian culture in the story of Osiris, Hindu mythology in the story of Krishna and also present in Zoroastrian tradition in the character of Saoshyant. These are just a few examples of the myths from past to present which share common themes.

Religion is another example of mythology. Granted, religion is myth in what Campbell calls a ‘bounded field’[27] as a result of its focus on supporting and validating a certain social order. However, it is none the less still myth and shares common threads with the myths of the past. Take for example, Christianity with its sacred text, the Bible. There is good evidence that the Gospel of Mark was based on the Greek epics. Dennis R. MacDonald in his book, The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark, shows that Mark’s account of Jesus contains not just parallels but allusions to the Homeric epic of Odysseus and impossible to rule out direct influence.[28] The evidence is so compelling that it is impossible to dismiss it on mere grounds of a cultural convergence mediated by Old Testament traditions. Why do universal themes occur and endure? Perhaps in everyday life, humanity needs leaders or stars to act as role models, to admire and copy, to encourage and inspire us to greater achievements. In our imperfect societies, myth perhaps fulfils the need of not only sustaining us in the meaning, but also the value of our existence. Perhaps, humanity is intrinsically linked to myth. Campbell goes as far as to state that Mythology is ‘so intimately bound to the culture, time and place that unless the symbols, the metaphors, are kept alive by the constant recreation through the arts, the life just slips away from them.’[29]

The Universal monomyth of the (super)hero

A recurring focus of many mythic stories is the character of the hero and the nature of the obstacles and trials the hero has to overcome, which are often (though not always) the result of the machinations of a villain. This is the simplest and perhaps, most widely appealing of all the monomythic themes. Classical monomyth usually outlines the hero and his adventures. For example: A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder. Fabulous forces are encountered and a decisive victory is won.[30] The specific characteristics of the hero depend on the cultural motifs and themes that are embodied in many adventure formulas. Many myths occurring throughout the ages and across cultures have extremely similar main motifs, either a hero with exceptional strength or abilities or as an everyman or ‘one of us’, a figure marked, at least at the beginning of the story by flawed abilities and attitudes presumably shared by the audience. Danny Fingeroth in Superman on the Couch further states that ‘a hero can be said to be someone who rises above his or her own fears and limitations to achieve something extraordinary’[31]. The hero ‘embodies what we believe is best in ourselves. A hero is a standard to aspire to as well as an individual to be admired.’[32] Against this monomythic theme of the hero and his/her adventures, the concept of the comicbook superhero as current incarnation of the monomyth becomes obvious. Furthermore, superheroes usually do not have just one of the hero motifs described earlier but embody both since they posses the dual identity of being a superhero with a superpower or ability but also simultaneously being an everyman or one of the common man with their secret identity. As all myths are stories, mythology primarily occurs in literature[33], first as the oral tradition and later, the printed word. Myth often flourishes in mass or popular culture where it is purest. It is not surprising therefore that the comicbook superhero, being not only a form of literature but also mass culture, would flourish as a form of mythology of this current age.

Comicbook superheroes are a new form of mythology as they draw on previous incarnations of myths and draw them into themselves to form the latest myth for the times. These mythic themes historically repeat themselves in endless variations. The superhero in the comicbook can trace its ancestry back to Greek, Roman, Nordic and many other mythologies of ages past. Ancient mythologies may be considered as a way of explaining the forces of nature to man. Examples of myths may be found worldwide that describe how the universe began, how men, animals and all living things originated, along with the world’s inanimate natural forces. The heroes/heroines of the Greek and Roman myths for example, had super human qualities that satisfied man’s desire for an invulnerable guardian or protector. Resisting evil was the primary goal. The comicbook superhero is a modification of this monomythic theme that expresses man’s need for feeling control in his life in spite of his vulnerability and mortality.

Superhero stories are the myths of today and they require a lot of color and sense of fantasy,’[34] said veteran American comicbook writer and multiple superhero creator, Stan Lee in the LA Times, 8/28/01. That is to say, superheroes fill the same role as the legendary mythological heroes, the gods and demi-gods, warriors and knights of the past.

The connections between mythic gods and superheroes range from the implicit to explicit. On the explicit side, there are gods and demi-gods who are superheroes: Thor, Hercules and the New Gods are some examples. In the superhero of Thor, we see the ‘first successful attempt to harness existing mythology on a large scale’[35] to construct a comicbook superhero. Marvel Comics’ The Mighty Thor, really is the Norse God of myth but with superhero updates.

Captain Marvel has powers which are gifts from mythical gods and heroes every time he utters the magic word SHAZAM (an acronym for names of the gods he derives power from, wisdom from Solomon, strength from Hercules, stamina from Atlas, power from Zeus, courage from Achilles and speed from Mercury). His origin is that of a young boy, Billy Batson meeting a divine personage (drawn to look like the ancient of days from children’s Christian catechism books) who names him his successor and grants him the power of the gods to ‘right wrongs and crush evil everywhere’. [36] One could even suggest that in his origin story, Captain Marvel, by taking over from the aged (senile?) mythic personage that he is taking over the mythic mantle for his age. The superheroes of Namor, Aquaman, Flash and Hawkman are just some examples of modern mythic figures derived from past gods and legends. The Flash is a derivative of the Greco-Roman gods of Hermes/Mercury while Hawkman can be likened to the bird-headed Egyptian gods of Horus and Ra and the Greek story of Icarus.
Namor and Aquaman, created by Marvel and DC comics respectively, could be said to have taken over the role of Poseidon/Neptune.
Aquaman is ‘King of the Seven Seas’, the undisputed ruler of Earth’s oceans and its inhabitants.