Friday, May 02, 2008

Comic Books: Modern American Mythology

This is the term paper I did for my English class (which I got an A in!). After my
conversation with Mark Waid on the topic (which is near the end of pt. 2 of the interview), I found myself wanting to lay out a solid argument for the idea that comic books are American mythology. I noticed in my research that many people feel that only certain comics have a mythic quality and before anyone delves into my essay I wanted to address that thought. While I do feel that certain comic books haven't achieved mythic status, I feel that, as a whole, many have. This doesn't apply to individual comics as much as it applies to the idea of the pantheon. When looking at myth in other cultures you can find innumerable 'minor' characters, that while almost unknown, are still counted as mythic figures in the academic world. For example, how many people know who Asclepius is? Probably not many people (at least without looking it up first) and yet he is a mythic figure - a son of Apollo and God of medicine and healing. That's only the start - there are many background characters in all mythology and despite what may seem like small roles, they still contribute to the bigger picture. My point is that while Superman may be the first name to pop up in discussions about superheroes as myth, he is not alone in his status. Myth is a creation of human imagination - it encompasses far more than one would expect.

Comic books have suffered a difficult childhood. They’ve been traditionally viewed as anything from ‘kid stuff’ to pulp magazines. Even so, the iconic images stemming from these ‘picture books’ have leaked into almost every aspect of American society: t-shirts, movies, novels, news broadcasts, libraries and even our classrooms. Comic books have surpassed all expectations to transform into something much more significant: comic books have become America’s mythology. Mythology is many things to many people. It is difficult to define something that encompasses so much in human culture. A dictionary definition of the phrase puts mythology into fairly basic parameters, “myths collectively; the body of stories associated with a culture, institution or person.” This is a rather broad and less than informative definition. Ron Smith, a former Associate Professor of English at Utah State University, states that mythology deals with basic concerns such as, “where we come from, why we’re here, what or who started it all, how we’re supposed to act…”(Smith, pg 4). With this idea one can begin to more clearly define mythology’s role. However, the definition of mythology is still lacking. Many stories are referred to as mythology ranging from religious parable to heroic epics. So what is it that truly makes a story myth? Bill Moyers, an acclaimed journalist, said that, “Myths are the stories of our search through the ages for truth, for meaning, for significance” (Campbell, Moyers, pg 4). With these various definitions to work from it can be concluded that myth serves many functions, it is both a manifestation and representation of its culture, a guide to the people of said culture, and a way to provide insight into the potential of the culture it was born from. Using these mythic parameters as a guideline it is easy to see that American comic books, in general, have evolved beyond their humble beginnings to become modern day American mythology.

Superman is an alien from the planet Krypton who, with an origin resembling the story of Moses, finds himself as a helpless orphan in a strange new place: Earth. Despite this fantastical tale of an alien crash landing on Earth to later become a super powered hero defending ‘truth, justice and the American way’ Kal-El is a manifestation of a basic human experience. The character of Superman was created Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster - both children of Jewish immigrants. When giving the story of Superman a second look it becomes apparent that Kal-El himself is an immigrant following the American dream. In fact he even undergoes an experience in which most American immigrants were personally familiar with: Kal-El escapes a place on the brink of destruction to come to a land full of potential, he is given a new name to fit his new surroundings, Clark Kent, and once establishing himself as an American he fights to protect the ideals he has come to cherish (Action Comics #1). Superman has even evolved as the idea of the American dream has. Superman became a patriotic image associated with supporting the war efforts during WWII, as well as serving to illustrate the evils of the Axis (images below).

As society grew to distrust the American government in the 60s, 70s and 80s Superman no longer had such a close tie to the president. Instead Superman sacrificed himself to save the world from Doomsday, a monster created from cloning technology, only to be reborn with long hair and temporarily a darker costume (The Death of Superman/ Return of Superman). While this image of Superman was ultimately rejected, it was a manifestation of American frustration and rebellion. America’s best known hero continues to evolve with America’s cultural evolution. It’s more than coincidence after all that as America began to distrust President G.W. Bush Superman found his arch nemesis, Lex Luthor, in the White House. If there is any doubt in the fact that Superman is a manifestation of American culture it can be quelled by the simple fact that Superman embodies and protects the American dream, truth, liberty and justice for all, in every story told about him, and in every struggle he wins or loses.

In continuing to explore these ideas one can see this theme of American cultural manifestation throughout comic books. Comic book heroes represent American concerns as can be seen in the ever changing status of comic books storylines and characters. During WWII the roles between women and men began to become blurred. Women had been able to vote since 1920, but their roles were still clearly defined as homemakers until WWII. It comes as little surprise that one of the first major female superheroes was created around the same time as these traditional sex roles began to change. Wonder Woman was created in 1941 (All Star Comics #8) wearing bold American colors and presenting herself as a warrior-woman (albeit with a more traditional feminine side). As women have established more equal footing in American culture Wonder Woman, as well as other female superheroes, have evolved to better represent American women. Black Canary has grown from a damsel in distress to the leader of the Justice Society of America, master of various fighting techniques and strategies, wife to Green Arrow and adopted mother to an orphaned girl (GL/GA vol. 1-2, JLA#1-present, Black Canary #1-4). Batgirl has become Oracle, a mastermind of technology and information (Birds of Prey). Wonder Woman is now a peace diplomat with a part time career in black ops (Wonder Woman #1-present). As American women found a place for both family and career in their lives so did their comic book counterparts. Yet again comic books prove themselves to be a manifestation and representation of American culture.

Another example of comic books reflecting American culture can be found in the use of both characters of different ethnicities and homosexual characters. As America has become more concerned with political correctness, open mindedness and general equality, there are more and more comic books characters around to reflect such sentiments. The newest incarnation of Blue Beetle, until now a Caucasian, is a young Spanish speaking Latin-American (Blue Beetle #1-present). The new Question, also formerly a Caucasian man, is a Hispanic lesbian (52 #1-52). Characters such as Frenchie and Obsidian are now written as gay men when previously they were assumed to be heterosexual (various titles). These are only a few examples of the growing diversity of the superhero pantheon. As a manifestation of culture myth must evolve and change as its parent culture does. American comic books clearly demonstrate this mythic quality.

The next important qualifier in identifying mythology is myth’s function as a guide to the people of said mythology’s parent culture. During Bill Moyer’s interview of Joseph Campbell he asked what message mythology imparted to Campbell’s students. Campbell replied, “They’re stories about the wisdom of life…”(Campbell, Moyers pg 11). In the comic book world the Silver Age ended in the 1960s. The role of the American citizen had become uncertain. Women had gained in standing as had many minorities. The government was no longer to be trusted and many Americans began the struggle to ‘find themselves’ in the midst of political change, fashion rebellion and a more public acceptance of sexuality. During all this upheaval comic books had to change to continue to be relevant to American culture. In late 1960 Green Lantern became Green Lantern/Green Arrow and marked a major change in comic books. The Comic Book Heroes states that: “[GL/GA] was a comic that broke all tradition. GL/GA was a comic that sought to educate as well as entertain, a comic that grappled with pressing social issues” (Jacobs, Jones pg 157). Throughout the course of this seminal work Green Lantern had to come to terms with the fact that the world was not divided into right and wrong, that, in fact, many issues had several different points to consider. In view of the law-abiding and seemingly childlike morality of GL, this came as a revelation. GL and GA embark on a road trip (America’s equivalent of a spiritual quest) to comes to terms with morality in modern day society. These comics served to speak to America on the right ways to deal with issues such as racism, drug use, pollution, overpopulation… the list goes on.

GL/GA is only one example of comic books functioning as a moral compass for American culture. Historically comics have always dealt with everyday morality. These mythic heroes teach Americans the value of sacrifice – Barry Allen gives his life to save not just the world, but all of existence (Crisis on Infinite Earths). Ferro Lad destroys the terrible Sun Eater at the cost of his own life (Adventure Comics #353); Batman gives up any claim to his own happiness to protect Gotham’s citizens from his own tragedy (Batman: War on Crime – among other titles). Comic book heroes teach about the choice between right and wrong, good and evil, the struggle to change the world and taking responsibility for our actions. Despite having very human problems these heroes continue to fight for all that is precious in the world. In this comic books serve as a guide to what it is not only to be American, but what it is to be human. Edith Hamilton states that, “…mythology is quite generally supposed to show us the way the human race thought and felt…” (Hamilton pg 13). While she was referring to myths of the past, this shows us that as a guide, myth serve to speak about a culture’s thoughts and introspection. Comic books continue to teach what it is to be a member of American society in today’s ever changing world. This serves to fulfill mythology’s role as a guide to its parent culture.

The last important function of mythology is to serve as a looking glass for human potential. Myth forces the parent culture to look toward what that culture hopes to achieve. As Campbell puts it, “Myths are clues to the spiritual potentialities of the human life”(Campbell, Moyers pg 5). Mythology illustrates the potential of humanity, and within the realm of American myth, superheroes represent human potential. Like Greek myth in the tradition of Prometheus and Heracles, comic books teach Americans that they have to potential not only to walk amongst the ‘Gods’ but to become godlike themselves. While Superman is born with godlike abilities, he chooses to walk amongst humans and even takes a human for his wife. Superman understands that his ‘humanity’ is of immeasurable value. The ‘ending’ scene for Superman, in Kingdom Come, is that of a ‘God’ reclaiming his humanity – after years of living outside of man’s civilization Superman puts his glasses on and rediscovers Clark Kent. It is only by emphasizing the good qualities of humanity that Superman’s powers are able to be used for the good of mankind (Kingdom Come pg 203). Batman stories are another example of comic books showing the potential of mankind. Batman has no special powers, only powerful motivation. Batman rejects the necessity of evil in society and makes himself into a defender of the innocent and protector of justice. Batman’s story more than any is used to illustrate the idea that man can achieve anything, even the status of a ‘superman’, with enough effort.

In a more general sense, the superhero pantheon also functions to depict the potential of American, and eventually Earth, culture. With stories like Kingdom Come portraying hope even in a seemingly desolate future, and heroes like the Legion of Superheroes demonstrating life in an amazing and seemingly Utopian society (referencing the original LoSH), comic books guide Americans towards their ideal future. When interviewed in regards to his work on Kingdom Come Mark Waid states, “Be patient, but know this: the story we began here isn’t over, not by a long shot. If it’s taught us anything, it’s this: The future holds promise for us all” (Kingdom Come pg 221). Comic books teach just that, the future holds promise, and goes on to show us what that promise could be. Comic books thus demonstrate the mythic quality of exploring human potential, both within a single person and an entire world.

Myth explores an infinite horizon, much like comic books and their superhero pantheon. Mythology, and its modern American voice, comic books, are both born from a culture, represent said culture, serve to guide and teach humanity and work to discover the potential of humankind. American comic books are not only a cultural manifestation, but a mythology that continues to grow and evolve. Everyday there is someone in America wearing a Superman shirt, not because Superman has powers or a cool costume, but because idea of Superman holds some sort of meaning for them. That truth, justice, or even just the word hero has value. Comic books have become American myth, and in the tradition of all myth, teach Americans what it is to be human.

Works Cited (separate comic books listed within essay text)

previous Myth post


  1. First, I envy the fact that you used this for a *class*. This is a topic I've kicked around a lot philosophically, but never posted anything about. Probably because I didn't have to use it for an assignment:)
    Anyway, I have some things to add. Another factor that contributes a LOT to the mythical status of comics is the fact that a lot of the stories have been retold multiple times. It's something that happens with verbal storytelling and with folk legends: each new storyteller/writer gets to tweak the story a little, adjust the details to suit their own whims or the needs of the audience. As time goes by, the details blur and continue to be flexible, but a CHARACTER emerges: someone who's identity is almost tangible. Just as we know all the "important" parts of stories like cinderella or Paul Bunyan or the ancient pantheons (how DO you plural that, anyway?), we know all the essentials of Spiderman or Batman or Black Canary: who they are, how they came to be.

    So, I guess I'm saying that Comics are more aptly defined as "legends" than "myths." In my mind, legends grow into myths when we can't *quite* hear the character's voices anymore and lack the essential details of their personalities. That's happened to Zeus and company, but hasn't quite hit fairy tales or comics yet. Which is fine by me:)

    Next, I'd like to remark on the American-ness of comics, and the fact that it has a lot to do with things besides war efforts. When you look at American folk-tales, both pre- and post-colonization, you encounter several identifying traits. Off the top of my head, I've got the following:
    Native American mythology features lots of crazy powers and shapeshifting and generally impossible stuff, with lots of bizarre psychotropic incidents. ( I realize that I'm generalizing HORRIBLY, but it's a comment, not a thesis) Point being: this stuff shows up in lots of comics heroes.
    What I'm going to call American expansion legends didn't feature magically powered people, they featured HUGE people: heroes who were literally larger than life. Which, again, shows up as any number of superpowers in "modern" heroes.
    And . . . looks like I've maxed out my comment space! (Sorry) Obviously, I'd love further dialog if you get the chance!
    Again, cool post!

  2. First off, thanks for commenting.

    Anyway, while I agree with the idea that the repetition involved in comics helps establish them in our culture (and helped them to reach a mythic status) I don't agree that they are more aptly defined as legends. The reason I presented a definition of what myth is in my thesis was to show why I defined comic books as qualifying. I tried to bring together a definition from several different sources - all of which are from academic sources.

    The term legend is used to describe stories of mythic quality - true. However looking at a few different sources these are the definitions I find for the term: a non historical or unverifiable story popularly accepted as historical (Websters) or: a story about mythical or supernatural beings or events (Princeton wordnet). You can look up others online - but actually most definitions I found pointed to the term legend being used in reference to a story either already regarded as myth or having some sort of basis in fact.

    Myth on the other hand can be current. Myth is a reflection of culture whether current or ancient. Take Christianity for example. How many stories about God and Satan and the various supernatural entities associated with them are around? More than are in the Bible, that's for sure. You can look at anything from apocryphal text to Paradise Lost to TV. That is Christian myth, and yet it is current, some of it well known, and constantly evolving.

    As for the 'Americaness' you were speaking of - I can agree that it's easy to see a certain amount of older American myth reflected in comics. It's another example of American comics representing America and our culture.

  3. A myth is a story based on tradition or legend, which has a deep symbolic meaning. A myth 'conveys a truth' to those who tell it and hear it, rather than necessarily recording a true event.

    This is what I view a myth to be, which means that comics would be mythology. However, the definition of a legend or folklore also cross the boundaries. To really decide if comics are myth or not, you'd first have to fully define mythology, which is really hard to do.