Why Superheroes Matter

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A Look into the Popularity of Modern Comic Book Mythology

When we hear the term myth, mythos, or mythology, most people immediately think of the Greek or Roman Gods and of the Heroes from thousands of years ago (unless of course one is from a differing part of the world with a more relevant mythological background such as the Maori, Chinese, Indian, etc.). One can imagine Zeus throwing lightning bolts, or Perseus fighting Medusa, Aphrodite radiating love and beauty, or Poseidon waiting to drown a boat with all their crew members because of the lack of a good offering to the god of the sea. These are the gods who demand to be worshiped, and Heroes wanting to be admired for their bravery and sacrifice. However, we hardly think of mythology that is closer to home, one of more modern time. There are lots to choose from such as fables, fairytales, Harry Potter, Star Wars, but what of those that are closer to real-life and the events of today? Ones that reflect more of what happens in the world today. Ones who’s heroes are created, built, or born with abilities, who are deeply flawed characters, socially aware, and has wants and needs just like you?

When a someone who has no formal experience with the comic book superhero genre, they normally brush off the format citing that they are for children, that the stories are simple and not sophisticated, have no relevancy, that they are irrelevant children’s picture books for nerds and geeks and it serves no purpose in today’s society and consumes precious earth resources. I beg to differ and put forth the argument that comics and the superhero genre provide the opportunity to take part in the Hero’s Journey, that today’s Superhero matters more now to us individually and socially than ever before, and that today’s comic book provides a unique reflection on the happenings in society.

The definition of Myth
Before we can define the term ‘mythology’ it is important that we understand and look at the meaning of the word ‘myth’. The word comes from the Greek “mythos” which means “speech” or “discourse”. Over time it became to mean “fable” or “legend”.  Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines ‘myth’ as: “1. a usually traditional story of ostensibly historical events that serves to unfold part of the world view of a people or explain a practice, belief, or natural phenomenon; 2. a popular belief or tradition that has grown up around something or someone; especially :  one embodying the ideals and institutions of a society or segment of society; 3. a person or thing having only an imaginary or unverifiable existence”. An example use of the word myth is: Contrary to popular myth, no monster lives in this lake [Definition of MYTH]

The definition of Mythology
Mythology refers to a collection of myths that all together create the basis for a mythological system. With this definition, we can then speak of the various mythological cultures such as ‘Greek Mythology’, ‘Egyptian Mythology’,  ‘Indian Mythology’, etc. This allows us to describe a series of myths that have existed within a certain period of time within human history. It is also possible to also group the myths geographically and speak of them in the sense of ‘Oriental  Mythology’, ‘African Mythology’, etc.

Concerning Greek Mythology
As with other ancient cultures, Greek Mythology was used to describe the natural world which the Greek society lived. Humankind created myths and connected it to their polytheist religion and explained the origin of the gods, humanity, the passing of the seasons, and how to live a happy life. The myths were important in the re-telling of historical events so that people could maintain contact with their ancestors, the wars they fought, and the places they explored [Cartwright].

Myths initially were initially passed orally. Popular myths would, over each re-telling, become more and more embellished overtime to not only improve the story but most likely to increase audience attention. With the development of language and the invention of poems around c.800 – c.700 BCE, mythology was presented in writing by Homer of Greece who wrote Iliad and Odessy both which describes the Trojan War and the hero Odysseus and his voyage home from the war respectively. Hesiod, a Greek poet, wroteTheogony which for the first time gives a written account of the genealogy of the gods. The gods were described with typical human feelings and failings, but the heroes were noted to provide the connection of mankind and the gods by having one divine parent and one mortal. The next important milestone was a representation of the myths in a myriad of scenes on pottery and ceramics of varied shapes and function which allowed the myths to spread with to a wider audience. The continued popularity of the myths found public buildings being decorated with larger than life sculpture celebrating dynamic scenes from mythology; i.e., the Parthenon at Athens, the Temple of Zeus at Olympia, and the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. By the 5th century BCE, the myths began being told under the new medium of theatre. While this was all taking place, from approximately the 6th century BCE onward, pre-Socratic philosophers began to reject the basis of the myths and gods while searching for a more scientific explanation of the phenomena and events of the natural world. The first historians, Herodotus and Thucydides, in the 5th century BCE began to document as accurately as possible a less subjective view of events, thus the subject of history was born.


The Golden Age (1938-1950)
The Golden Age of Comics saw the emergence of the superhero archetype. The birth of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Captain America and more helped increase the popularity of the comic book. These characters drew heavily from fantasy and mythology. Superman came from Krypton, Wonder Woman was an Amazonian goddess, and Captain America was given a “super-serum” that made him heroic in stature. These were the invulnerable heroes who were rugged individuals who rarely doubted themselves and would fearlessly battle enemies in the cruel adult world. This was the time where the heroes would join the military under their secret identities and fight the Axis-Powers and defeat the NAZIS.

The Silver Age (1956-1970)
By the time the Silver Age was upon the comic industry the restrictions of the Comics Code Authority and self-regulation was in full swing and restricted how and what content could be presented and in what circumstances. Even though there were limitations, there was Science! The Silver Age of comics grew alongside the Space Race. Science was seen as that answer and the source of every problem. The fantasy-based heroes of the Golden Age were remade in this new image, and new characters were created in light of these new science fiction tropes. In the 1960s Marvel introduced the Fantastic Four who while on a scientific mission to outer space gained their powers after exposure to cosmic rays. The X-Men are a subspecies of human that are born with superhuman abilities who fight for peace and equality between normal humans and mutants where anti-mutant bigotry is widespread. The most interesting of the rise of these new heroes is that they are self-doubting, deeply flawed, and socially aware. They were vastly different from their Golden Age predecessors, they were more real and believable, even though they were in fantasy stories.

The Bronze Age (1970-1985)
Comics were swept up with the continuance of the social revolution from the ’60s through the ’70s. The United States was in the middle of a Cold War with Russia, post-Vietnam, post-Watergate, and overall disillusionment with the whole of the United States of America. With all of this happening, character conflict became the rule. Comics were starting to address more mature issues, and the creators were wanting to bring more realism to the Superhero genre. This was the time that the birth of the Graphic Novel was born, and epic story arcs that covered multiple issues became the radical departure from the single-issue self-contained stories of the Golden and Silver Age. The Dark Phoenix Saga was the first storyline that not only put a female character in a Tragic Hero role but ended the storyline with a major, well-established superhero being killed; and just as unprecedented,  her death was not immediately forgotten, but continued to affect the characters who had known her for some time afterward [Howe 183-6].

The Modern Age (1986-present)
Although with some Comic fans would like to separate the Dark Age and the Modern Age into two separate categories, what is important to realize that this is a major turn in the development of the comic industry. The characters and stories became much darker and psychologically more complex. The industry saw the rise of independent comic houses, and Marvel and DC became more commercialized. No matter how one saw the disputes between the creatives and the executives of Marvel and DC over creative rights, the advent of the smaller comic publishing houses lead to new titles, new characters, and better writing [Howe, 273-280]. After DC was purchased by Warner Bros., and Marvel by Disney, the procurement of 65 years of stories and mythos from the realm of the comic hero have started to be told on the silver screen.

Although it is not the purpose of this article to delve into large details about the ins and outs of the overall comic book industry, it is important to note how the industry has changed over time. Like the Greek Mythology of old, the Superheroes and the storytelling of the comic book has striking similarities concerning the telling and re-telling of the stories, and the changing of the technology which has allowed the development of the mythic story and increase of the spread of the modern mythology to more people.

So what are comic books? What is modern mythology? What does the superhero have to do with this?

Just as Folktales, fairy tales, and the ancient myths of the world say something about the culture where they come from, comics and superheroes says something unique about the American culture and present new unique mythology for the culture of our time. Although since their inception, comics and superheroes are no longer an American art form or method of storytelling, the invention of these things says a lot about the culture and the attitude of the culture of the American society.

The visual narrative of the comic book is the basis of modern mythology in America; just as Zeus, Hades, and Poseidon came to us through the Greek culture, Superman, Captain America, and the X-Men represent the American culture from which they came. These are our modern-day Gods, Heroes, our mythos, our commentary on our society.

During the Golden Age of Comics, American idealism can be clearly be seen through the written word, how rugged and fearless each hero was, but more importantly, how invulnerable they were.  The heroes went to war, took on day-to-day crime, and all the while helping the average person around town. The early heroes were designed to be the perfect heroes.

Over the years, Superheroes have changed with the times. They became socially aware, sometimes cynical and sarcastic. The heroes started to come with flaws and aware of the issues that awaited us in the real world such as the Cold War, the War on Drugs, and most recently, the current War on Terrorism. In other words, comics and their hero counterparts reflect the attitude and feeling of the society to which they belong. This is our living mythology. Just as the Greeks, our mythology has been created and evolving year after year, decade after decade.

But what if our society became obsolete? If our society was to fall to ashes. Would these stories survive? And if they did, what would it say about us? 

What does this say about us?
For the most part, one of the reasons why we like hero stories, singular or multiple, is that we can see that hero as an extension of ourselves. We see the story from that heroes perspective, learns things as they learn them. We can identify with them. Not that we want to be truly heroic, but because we can relate on an emotional level and that in turn draws us deeper into what is perceived as a shared cause. When our hero feels happy, so do we; when our hero feels loss, we are right beside them feeling the pain they do. This is the journey of the Monomyth—the Hero’s Journey. It’s not about getting from A to B, but rather the changes that occur to the hero along the way.

The hero identification takes place in part in how we tell stories. How the hero relates to their environment and grows their identity over time. As a reader, we get to watch their struggles, walk in the hero’s shoes, and identify with overcoming the challenges that is set in front of them. We want to experience the Hero’s Journey ourselves and experience the personal growth that it brings. What comics allows us to do is look at our hero and see if they have already struggled enough if they have evolved, and shows us what we would like to be; a yearning desire to be the best version of ourselves that we can be. One that can rise to the challenge, set aside fear, and do what is right when needed. We all aspire to see the potential for change, both within ourselves, and in the world.

In Summary

Myth, when used in the context of speech, discourse, fable, or even legend, it’s not hard to imagine the stories of old, of the Gods and the Heroes which they are based on, no matter what part of the world one comes from. Myths, and their collection, detailing a Mythology, can be easily be remembered as stories of the past. However, those stories of the past were once stories of the present. There were based at one time on trying to make sense of the world where people lived. They told these stories verbally to begin with until they had the means to write prose for a permanent written record. From there as technology increased, they put their stories on pottery, buildings, and eventually performed theatre, retelling the stories over and over. The Greeks did this to make sense of their world. They told their myths because they had no other means to describe the world which they lived, and it helped them make sense of their past, remember their ancestors, and the places they visited.

We today are no different than the Greeks of old. Only today we have a variety of methods that help us make sense of the real world such as science, history, psychology, philosophy, and many more. We also have our stories. Our modern gods. Our Superheroes. It is through the pages of the comic book and graphic novel that we can learn lots about ourselves and our place in the universe through the varied stories and heroes that have been told since its invention. We must not forget our roots as a society of people who use language and imagination to help describe the world we live in and reflect upon it. 

The Superheroes of DC or Marvel lore are as fallible, as self-doubting, and as deeply flawed as you and I. Just like the Greek Gods and Heroes. This has helped root Our Gods within the real world, helped tell their story with context,  and allows us to share in their personal journey of growth as an extension of our own.


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