The GeeksverseLeaving Proof 24 | Dispelling the Superhero Myth

Leaving Proof 24 | Dispelling the Superhero Myth
Published on Tuesday, March 8, 2011 by

Over the course of the past forty years or so, much discourse has been promulgated regarding the assertion that superheroes and their stories are, in a certain sense, the modern equivalent of gods and myths. These aren’t just history or comparative literature majors goofing off, mind you. Industry luminaries such as Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, Alex Ross, and Grant Morrison have long been drawing analogies between ancient myths and superheroic fiction. During a conference with Morrison at the 2006 Comicon, no less than multi-millionaire mystic and self-help guru Deepak Chopra declared that “[The] superhero is becoming a mythical being. It encapsulates a whole mythology of the extraordinary capabilities that human spirit is capable of... by creating these superheroes through our own collective imagination, we are in a way serving our deepest longings, our deepest aspirations, and our deepest desires to escape the world of the mundane and the ordinary and do things that are magical.” New Age mumbo-jumbo aside, Chopra articulated what Lee, Kirby, Morrison, Ross, and many other creators and fans believe and have been saying implicitly or explicitly, in one way or another: the superhero, as an exaggerated and hyper-idealized depiction of man, plays a similar role in current popular literature as that played by the god and hero in ancient mythology.

Jack Kirby explored the idea at length with his work on The Eternals, a comic book series published by Marvel in the late 1970s that was built on the premise that the gods of ancient myth were inspired by super-powered extraterrestrials, and that these extraterrestrials (the titular Eternals), having gone public in their actions, are now viewed as “superheroes” by the modern world. Grant Morrison has also explored thematically similar theses in his work on DC’s Seven Soldiers metaseries and Final Crisis. A cursory examination of the “superhero as myth” proposition seems to confirm the soundness of the comparative analogy. Superheroes, like the gods and heroes of myth, have powers beyond those of mortal men and in literary usage, are less fully fleshed-out characters than they are stylized human (or humanoid) representations of abstract, idealized concepts. There even exist superheroes, such as Marvel’s Thor, Hercules, and Ares, that are literally adapted whole from myths dating back to classical antiquity. But is a correspondence of superficial features sufficient for superhero stories to qualify as “modern myths?”

The biggest problem with the “superhero as myth” argument is its confusion of the myth’s form for its function. Myths and superhero fiction may share the feature of being allegorical stories, but the contexts in which they serve as extended metaphors are entirely different. Beyond the entertainment inherent in the telling of myths, myths were primarily used by pre-industrial societies to provide magical/mystical explanations for naturally-occurring and even historical events (for want of better interpretations). Superhero narratives serve no such function in the post-industrial, post-atomic, Information Age, where scientific knowledge and a more refined understanding of politics, economics, and history have largely supplanted magical, mystical, and fantastical accountings for the origin of real-world phenomena.

The utility of the classical myth as an explicative contrivance was the key to the form’s persistence through the ages. Modern myths exist side-by-side with classical myths (and their artifacts, such as the superhero). But these modern myths are the myths of various “isms,” theories, and ideologies that are appropriated by modern individuals and societies as catch-all devices for making sense of history and their world views.

I suspect though, that many of the proponents of the “superhero as myth” view in the comic book reading community simply misunderstand what is meant by myth and have conflated the term with Joseph Campbell’s “monomyth” (a.k.a. “the hero’s journey”), a related but wholly different concept, and their use of “myth” in the phrase “superhero as myth” is an unintentional catachresis. The adoption by writers of the monomythic narrative structure as the de facto default template for most superhero stories also carries with it a host of issues — most notably a widespread genericization of content — that add to the stew of problems that superhero comics writers face in keeping the genre fresh and inventive.

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