Superhero characters are a form of modern mythology. Argue for or against this view.
Done by: Marsya binte Abdul Rashid (A0187628M)
According to Eco (1972):
The mythic character embodies a law, or a universal demand, and, therefore, must be in part predictable and cannot hold surprises for us; the character of a novel wants, rather, to be a man like anyone else, and what could befall him is as unforeseeable as what may happen to us. (p. 15)
With regard to Eco’s point, I think that superhero characters do not really fall under the category of modern mythology. Eco talks about how mythical heroes have to be predictable, in short they have to be everything we expect them to be – heroic, just, and good. They fit into our idea of what a true and noble hero would be, and this idea does not include any surprises. However, in the early 1960s, Marvel brought about a new kind of superhero to the comic book scene – superheroes with problems. Moreover, these problems were problems that everyday people faced and could relate to. This brought about a new depth and complexity to superheroes. People no longer looked at them as perfect, ideal characters. Instead, Marvel’s new way of portraying superheroes showed that they had flaws and problems but this did not stop them from trying to do their best as superheroes. For instance, Hulk faced breathtaking anger management issues, Iron Man was revealed to be an alcoholic, and the X-Men faced predators for being different. These problems would definitely not fit into a predictable idea of what superheroes should be like. Thus, I think this shows that superhero characters today do not come under the classification of modern mythology as they are portrayed with problems and surprises that do not fit into the ideal classic mythical hero.
Apart from this, Winterbach (2006) stated that the mythological hero’s adventure consist of three parts – firstly, the Departure, secondly, the Initiation, and, lastly, the Return (p. 116). To add on, Lefkowitz (1990) also talked about how “A modern mythology focuses more on the hero’s journey and individual development rather than his external achievements” (p. 430). These show that in mythology, the more important aspect is the hero’s own growth and development. However, it can be seen in most comic books today that the story plot usually focuses more on the exciting action such as taking down the villain rather than the hero’s development and growth as an individual. This can be attributed to comic book’s role as a form of entertainment while myths focus more on the aspect of self-growth and development as they “are stories of our search through the ages for truth, for meaning, for significance” (Lefkowitz, 1990, p. 429). This is not to say that there is nothing valuable to be learnt from comics because they do impart valuable teachings to us. For one, X-Men tackles the issue of racism and Wonder Woman shows that women can be on par, if not greater, than men. This is more to say that myths and comic books have different focuses and as such, people perceive them differently. Thus, I think this further shows that superhero characters today do not fall under the category of modern mythology.
Lastly, I would like to bring up one of the original functions of myths. In the past, myths were used to explain that which was unknown, such as natural phenomenon that could not be explained at that time with science. For one, in Nordic mythology – Thor was the embodiment and explanation for thunder, a natural phenomenon. In Aztec culture, Tlaloc was their rain God and Huitzilopochtli was their sun God. When floods and droughts occurred – also examples of natural phenomenon, they believed that it was because they had angered these Gods. Myths were a way of explaining terrific natural phenomenon before Science existed. On the other hand, the first form of comics – comic strips, were published to increase the sales of newspapers (Gordon, 1998). Hence, comic books originated as a way of increasing capital gain, rather than for explaining the unknown. As such, superhero characters, to ensure their relevance and popularity so that they would increase sales, centered around the social and political context of that time. For example, during World War II (WWII), the war served as a dramatic context to set comic book stories. Storylines were more war-related and in Marvel comics, their superheroes were depicted as directly fighting against German Nazis and helping to defend American democracy and the American way of life. This contrast in the origin of myths and superhero characters further proves the disparity between superhero characters and mythical heroes.
In conclusion, I do not think that superhero characters should be considered a form of modern mythology as firstly, mythical heroes had predictable characters and storylines and this is not the case for superhero characters today. Moreover, mythology focused more on self-growth and development as an individual while in comic books, more focus is placed on the exciting parts of the stories like taking down bad guys. Lastly, myths and superhero stories came about due to very different reasons and I think this further adds on to how superhero characters do not fall under modern mythology.
Word count: 854 words
Eco, U. (1972). The Myth of Superman. Diacritics 2, 14-22.
Gordon, I. (1998). Comic strips and consumer culture. Washington, DC: Smithsonian
Lefkowitz, M. R. (1990). Mythology: The Myth of Joseph Campbell. The American
Winterbach, H. (2006). Heroes and superheroes: from myth to the American comic book.
South African Journal of Art History 21.1, 114-134.