Sunday, April 16, 2006

Superheroes are not Mythology

This was originally to be a blog post, then an article, and now its back to a (rather long) blog post. I hope it stimulates some good conversation. Enjoy!

I'd like to address a common thread among comic analysis/scholarship: the belief that superheroes are modern myths. While I usually refrain from discussing "interpretive" issues like this, I can confidently say that superheroes are not modern myths in any real sense comparable to the cultural functions that myths serve.

First off, myths provide an understanding of the world for people. They can be spiritually oriented, and can give insight to daily living. This is true as much for the myths followed by people practicing the dominating religions today as it was for ancient civilizations.

Often times, people think of myths as something in contrast to the belief systems we currently have, forgetting that myths are just as much a part of modern life as they ever were. At present, we have a variety of myths that have been popular for several millennia, featuring such memorable cast members as Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha, Krishna, Laozi, and many other figures. These myths inform and instruct their followers (and non-followers sometimes) on how to live good lives through the stories they tell.

Granted, superheroes might inform people's lives with moralistic advice, such as Spider-Man's "With great power comes great responsibility." However, the ethics they impart are not unique to the superhero genre, and don't do so any more than other forms of literature.

The second reason that this belief is troublesome relates back to my ever pervasive interest in language. Beyond a system of beliefs, myths also provided much more for many ancient cultures, where the stories began as oral traditions and only later became written down. For these cultures, myths created a memorization system to record and pass on knowledge.

In today's literate societies, when we want to know information, we can reference a book or the Internet. In a literate society, recording of events can be done with writing, so it can be looked up at a later date. Oral cultures lack this sort of permanent and fixed record, and in its stead myths can fill the same roles.

For example, some plants are poisonous. In our society, we can record which ones are dangerous in writing to reference and pass that information on to other people. Instead, an oral tradition might use a story of some god or spirit becoming that plant -- with some aspect of the story giving the reason for why the plant is shaped as it is.

Let me make up a myth to illustrate this:

A particularly stand-off-ish woman breaks the heart of a spirit because of her "poisonous" and "sharp" tongue. Out of despondency, the spirit transforms her into a plant with pointy leaves. Thus the plant is called a "heartbreaker," and is avoided at all cost.

Myths like this are found across the globe. It not only gives a name and reason that the plant is poisonous, but also offers a way to remember the plant through a purpose for its identifying features.

This is a practical function of mythology. These stories can then be passed on orally in a package that people can remember. It is far easier to remember a series of stories than to remember a catalog of encyclopedia entries.

Superheroes do none of these things.

Sure, superheroes may be a genre with fictional reflections of our culture. But saying that they are "myths" implies that the term means just "stories" of a fantastical nature. People have often emphasized how modern narratives follow the same structures as myths, like Luke Skywalker in the Hero role popularized by Joseph Campbell. However, this only means that these modern stories draw on the same "raw materials" as myths (or the myths themselves). It doesn't mean that they are myths. Literature and myth differ to the extant that they affect people's lives.

Of course, most myths are just stories -- but the cultural context of their use makes the difference in what distinguishes them. In many ways, I think equating modern comic book superheroes to mythology denigrates the belief systems and cultures of people whose lives are or were infused with mythology. If, and only if, superheroes can serve an equal function in modern society can they be thought of as mythological.

Once you consider the practical roles myths can play to a cultural system, superheroes carte blanche do not fulfill any of the same sorts of functions. Nor should they need to. Superheroes can do just fine as a literary genre reflecting the culture we currently live in, without needlessly attempting to be legitimized through unsubstantiated comparison to other inappropriate contexts.

29 comments:

Neil said...

I should add that my citation for the linguistic basis of myths comes from the ever-intruiging:

Abram, David. 1996. The Spell of the Sensuous: Perceptions and Language in a More-Than-Human World. New York, NY: Vintage Books

AlexanderD said...

On a technical level, I see nothing to disagree with here -- you're absolutely right that modern superhero stories aren't myths.

Still, by disproving the argument on a semantic level, I feel you’re not quite addressing the point that’s actually being made. For instance, you’re correct in pointing out that true mythology is still active in the modern world. But while it’s true that the term “myth” can be applied just as accurately to stories of Buddha as to stories of Hercules, it’s equally true that the people who make the argument that superheroes are modern myths clearly have in mind stories of Hercules and not stories of Buddha. Yes, they ought to be more specific, but it’s not useful to debate what was said when what was meant is clearly discernible. It prevents you from getting at why the argument was made in the first place.

Looking at the kinds of myths specifically being referred to—those of the ancient Greeks, Romans, and Norse—we see a lot of exciting adventure tales, featuring men and women possessed of superhuman powers, sometimes battling evil creatures to save innocent lives, sometimes just battling each other in pointless tests of power. And while many of these stories do serve some allegorical purpose—whether to revere one of the Gods, or to instill practical information about poisonous plants—just as many are simply ripping yarns told to entertain in a world without television. Many were episodic, many left the featured heroes with conflicting histories, many tossed their heroes together with heroes from other regions, creating all sorts of jumbled continuities. The similarities to modern superhero comics are numerous and worth exploring.

Now, as you said, “this only means that these modern stories draw on the same "raw materials" as myths.” And I agree with you on this point. The argument that superheroes are myths makes the same mistake that McCloud makes when he calls cave paintings comics—conflating common structural elements with common identity. But just because the conclusion of common identity is mistaken doesn’t mean that the common structural elements aren’t worth exploring. That the heroes of modern comics bear such a striking resemblance to the heroes of ancient mythology may not actually say anything about modern comics—but it certainly says something about the people who make them and enjoy them, linking us to a civilization thousands of years gone. It’s intriguing that the desire for these sorts of stories is still with us, despite how much the world has changed—in other words, it’s notable that we’re still drawing on the same raw material.

Of course, I also wouldn’t argue that this analogy somehow legitimizes superheroes—linking modern culture to a culture that considered vomitoriums a good idea doesn’t sound like automatic elevation to me.

Daniel said...

I would agree completely with this, and on more than a "technical" level. And, just because I've seen other posts you've made on the listserv and even perused some essays, I think I understand what you addressing, and what others are saying you aren't. I think it boils down to the same reason I completely disagree with the idea of trying to "define" superhero as a genre, which I'm sure you've seen discussed. As a student of literature and creative writing, it seems like the terms in both cases (myth, as in here, and genre in terms of superhero) are basically setting themselves up in this semiotic realm that is trying to create its own scholarly application, rather than operating by the same functions and methods that they typically do in most literary scholarship. Which, to me, is not a good thing; especially if the goal is to bring the medium fully into the "accepted" material of academia. Perhaps it is similarly why I think superhero comics are far too dominant as the subject of conversation on the listserv, and in comic scholarship as a whole. It seems like there is certainly some distinction taking shape, or opposition, between "the study of the comic book and its mainstream history in our mainstream culture," and "the study of literature and art which includes comics." I mean, as a literature student, you don't study the large majority of "mainstream" novels, grocery store romance books, and so forth. You study rare exceptions to those. Anyway, don't get me started.
My point is that I think these two approaches to the comic is a factor in where people aren't quite getting your point. Perhaps this is over-simplifying it, but it seems like mis-uses of the terms (mythology, genre). The idea that episodic stories of heroes and such link us to an old culture seems to be implying that there was a "gap," so to speak, between the two, which there wasn't. I think those associations between mythic stories and superheroes are ignoring the rest of the entire human history of narrative where the very same traits can be found. I think what they are really drawing from, albeit unknowingly, has more to do with elements of narrative that are being mistaken for elements of myth. Which is, in another way, exactly what you are pointing out. It would be mythic if people believed that there was once a Kal-El, and that we as humans created the stories of Clark Kent in an attempt to understand something about identity, or whatever. There isn't that initial belief as once being true (or perhaps the belief that there was once an initial belief of once being true) to the superhero, by any means.
And as far as what it says about the people who make them - well, I would say all it shows it that they are humans who make narratives like all the rest of storytellers in human history. And of course, the superhero is currently the most popular, and has remained so for a number of reasons that I would classify as anything but mythic. In fact, I would even go so far to say that the reason the superhero has remained is similar to the same reason Greek/Roman stories remained and continued to be made beyond their "life of being believed as true;" the only difference is that in the latter, you got your head chopped off by the Romans if you didn't, while in the former you simply didn't get any work (and arguably because after the Comics Code there was little else one could use a narrative structure). It's the very same reason people like Shelley or Byron created dramatic narratives NOT about the King or Queen - because it's the only way they could get away with talking, subversely, about the King or Queen. The same reason why Pope had to hide his identity for some narratives, and the same reason in the Victorian era you did NOT talk about sex. Writers write, and writing is read; if that writer wants his/her writing to be read, it has to be able to get to the reader.
So, I guess I'm trying to say I completely agree with your final statement there - it seems a misuse of terms in an attempt to form legitimization - which is only going to hinder it in the long run. Either that, or it will ultimately get misused so much that the term myth itself will change in its meaning, to have more to do with elements of narrative rather than the actual meaning we have now. It just seems like it is going about it all wrong; I mean, poetry and literature would have never gained "legitimate" academic status if all we studied were nurse novels; photography and film would have never been considered serious mediums of art if all we did was take the mainstream "content" of them and studied the visual similarities to earlier types of images. Wouldn't it be easier to pick up something other than a superhero book once in a while, rather than pervert and misuse terms in order to avoid doing so? Don't get me wrong - fun is fun. I pick up and read just as much garbage as the average fanboy. But I also venture to that dusty dark shelf in the back where there is other stuff. Hell, sometimes superheroes are back there also - my point is that when you "read" a work as a literary or visual art scholar - whether it be a comic, a painting, or a novel - you should be able to tell the difference, almost instinctly, between something that COULD be studied as a cultural artifact, and something that SHOULD.

Chris Murray said...

Your understanding of myth seems very precriptive. Barthes said anything can become myth, anything can pass from a "silent state" to a state where it is infused with meaning. It is in this sense that superhero stories are myths - they tell us something about society that it is important to know, whether about our laws, gods, morality etc (that's Northrop Frye's definition). Your resistance to the idea of these narratives as mythology seems to stem from your overtly stated reluctance to deal with issues of interpretation. Its the classic structuralist's fear of something as messy as "meaning". Remember, language/communication/myth are parts of the same field, and are dialogic. Language, including visial language, isn't science, and all communication exists in the messy trappings of interpretation, not merely as a formula on a page.

AlexanderD said...

Daniel -- I certainly agree that there is a continuity of narrative elements through the history of storytelling from the ancients to today. I didn't mean to imply some wide gap that superheroes had somehow bridged. It's the very continuity that makes this connection interesting--the fact that the raw materials of (Western) storytelling have remained so consistent over thousands of years is striking--though perhaps more so from a sociological perspective than from one of literary analysis.

And you're right that it's a mistake to confuse this commonality of narrative elements for a commonality of mythic elements -- I was attempting to make much the same point.

(Also-- you seemed to bounce back and forth between Neil's points and my response to Neil. I just want to make sure that it's clear that most of the points you disagreed with were mine and not Neil's.)

Neil said...

Remember, language/communication/myth are parts of the same field, and are dialogic. Language, including visial language, isn't science, and all communication exists in the messy trappings of interpretation, not merely as a formula on a page.

I would say that these fields are only tied on a mind-external level. The usual type of study of language that I consider myself to do – that done in linguistics and psychology – would take great offense at being called "not science" and interpretative.

To say that linguistics is stuck in interpretation is to ignore the "cognitive revolution" of the past fifty years. One can always fess up to the subjectivity of an analysis, but that is true in every science as well as the humanities.

Also, if the criteria for myth is just being infused with meaning (being semiotic), and everything is myth, then what good is it as a descriptive term? If everything is myth, its as good as nothing being myth.

I will state, as I thought I said in the essay, that I do believe that superheroes can draw on "mythic narrative" which is what other people are saying here too. I have no argument with that. But, I feel to that degree. again, it doesn't mean they are myths, it means they share common raw materials.

Oh, and Danial and Alexander, you both make very good points. Bonus points for working in a vomitorium reference. ;-)

Anonymous said...

You make my point for me. I didn't say linguistics isn't science, I said language wasn't. Linguistics is a description of language. Myth is a way of describing society and identity using certain patterns of thought (which can change in character and intent). As Barthes said, myth is a type of speech, and like all language it exists in a state of flux. He says "everything can be myth". Its boundaries are blurred, and it is in precisely this blurryness (between laws, morality, ethics, religions and science) that myth hovers.

It is an unstable category, defying rigid definition. I'm sorry if that makes it uncomfortable for you, but this is its power.

Your "great offense" probably mirrors that experienced by those who wouldn't want to see such bold statements as "superheroes are not mythology" supported by rather prescriptive structuralist analysis which attempts to define as a stable category something which exists to make and unmake categories.

To say that something shares common raw materials with myth but isn't mythic seems odd, and based on a rather narrow view of myth, and ignores how myth tends to work, by defying clear boundaries.

alschroeder3 said...

Well, I think MOST fiction can be traced back to mythic parallels. Grey-eyed wise Athena, for instance, might be paralled with grey-eyed wise Sherlock Holmes...

And there's a presumption here which I don't think is necessarily justified. It's an argument that most myths are made up to explain natural events. Given the long history of forcible rape, for instance, from the Sabine Women on, are we sure Hades abduction of Persephohone, and the search afterwards by her mother Demeter, was invented solely as an explanation of the change of seasons....or they took an already existing story or fable, perhaps of some historical abduction, and later, afterwards, applied an "explanation" to it? No less a mythological expert than Tolkien wondered if there was a real unruly red-haired hot-tempered farmer named Thor, who later took on the legendry of Thunder Personified, or whether Thunder was somehow identified with red-hair and short temper.
It's too simplistic. We don't even know the origin of myths.
We DO know, however, that Gardner Fox deliberately made Flash a modern Mercury---that Siegel conceived of Superman as an amalgamation of Hercules, Samson, and every other strong man of fable rolled into one--and certainly both Sub-Mariner and Aquaman have been influenced by Poseidon. Moulton deliberately modeled Wonder Woman after aspects of the Great Goddess of matriarchal times as he conceived her.---Al

Neil said...

Yes, but again, if all fiction relies on these same raw materials (and "everything can be myth"), what good is calling them "myth"? What is the usefulness of a category called "myth" when everything can become it. If something can be everything, it thereby loses its meaning entirely.

I have no problems with non-rigid categories, but I do think its important to make "responsible" analogies. I think its fine to compare Superman to Moses or Flash to Mercury, but to call them myths as if Flash IS Mercury or Superman IS Moses turns (validly) interpretive metaphor into a literal reading. Is it not enough to say that superheroes are like or draw on the same themes/archetypes/elements as mythic stories without saying that they are myths?

I didn't mean to imply that myths explain natural events – my example was a natural one, but it doesn't have to be. Moses and Jesus are both myths, but they don't explain natural phenomena (at least, I don't know it if they do). I was trying to make the point that myths are a method to encode information; that the narrative is a cultural tool to store non-narrative practical knowledge that extends beyond merely being a reflection on the culture.

Basically, I hear that the problem with my criticism is that I don't view myth broadly enough, and that if I toss out my rigidity then I won't have criticisms any more. But, I've yet to see my claims be addressed, only ignored.

Those aspects of myth that I commented on – the practical everyday ones (that I have never said are the only parts to myth) – are just being tossed aside as unimportant. Why should those aspects be ignored? Aren't the practical cultural aspects of myth that go beyond narratives and stories important?

(and as an aside, given that "we don't even know the origins of myths" and we do know the origins of superheroes, isn't that another strike against them being myths?

Derek B. Haas said...

So help me, I am not a spammer.

But, based on the content of this post, I seriously think you might be interested in this book about the interrelationship between myth, language, and cognition in preliterate societies, and how that affects what we as a (relatively) longstanding culture (or product of a lengthy chain of literate cultures, or whatever) read into myth.

It's not a masterpiece, but it's a good two-sitting runthrough of the basics.

fattaneh said...

hi.my name is fattane ,I am MA student of animation,my thesis is modern mythology in graphic novel as a source in animtion.if you help me more,i would be verry happy.thanks.
my email:fattaneh2016@yahoo.com

Anonymous said...

Myths serve four purposes:

1) Open one to the dimension of mystery (a higher power)

2) Seeing that mystery as manefest in all things.

3) Validation and maintaining of a society.

4) How does one live a human life under any circumstances.

Under this construction, superheroes are clearly mythology.

Neil said...

Wow, I'm amazed people are still posting to this! I'm glad to see it gets people worked up enough to keep at it.*

I can't possibly see any real validation for those "purposes" for myths that you list given that they are ephemeral enough to apply to almost any social construct. Truly, those seem less like "purposes" than they do like "interpretive attributes."

Using a narrative framework for memorization serves a cognitive and evolutionary function for memory storage. This is a very basic cognitive function for myths that superheroes don't do — I have yet to hear a comparable function for modern society that they do serve.

*deleted post above was of my own

Anonymous said...

The only way to accurately assess this theory (or opinion) on either side of the argument will be in 100 years, when they are (or aren't as the case may be) talking about Batman and Superman, and Spiderman, like we talk about Heracles and Achillies. Until then we're all just running our mouths nonsensically. But frankly, I disagree with you, and believe that Superhero stories will continue to be told for years and years and years, and years after you, myself, and every other hopeless pessimist alive today is gone.

Neil said...

You miss my point. Whether or not people are still talking about superheroes in the future has nothing to do with whether they are "mythology" or not. We still talk about Tom Sawyer and Hamlet, but no one calls them myths.

Anonymous said...

I thought you should know our english class is doing a paper based on this blog. Stating whether we believe superheroes are mythology or not.

Neil said...

Well, that's very flattering — thanks for letting me know!

Anonymous said...

This is very well written, however thank you for adding to my piles of homework. Our English teacher is making us write an essay about your blog. :(

Neil said...

Please do not spam my blog. I welcome comments, but ANY and ALL comments left here that do not pertain to the contents of the blog post WILL be deleted.

I want to keep discussions here open, however if activity of this nature continues I will be forced to turn off the ability for anonymous comments (and I will STILL delete off topic comments).

Juanita Jones said...

That is very courageous of you, Neil. The activity that was displayed on this blog was appauling and I applaud you for the stance you have taken on these immature people.
I have a question, though. Do you have any other blogs?

Neil said...

I have one other martial arts related blog, but it is private, given the nature of the topic.

Connor said...

I have to agree with the people who have suggested that your view of mythology is too limited to allow for a real debate of its principle, and I would expand that criticism and suggest that your dismissal of the ability of the superhero story to function in, as you call it, a 'practical' way as a conveyor of knowledge is also limiting.

I don't even have to look to find an example of superhero stories functioning in this way. Moore's Rorschach and Ozymandias both teach us,in an easily internalized and memorable fashion, about the dangers of corruption inherent in committing one's life to battling evil; and many of the more thoughtful Batman stories contain this same message. The Captain America Nomad cycle contains valuable lessons about the dangers of absolute authority and the need for a critical relationship with that authority on the part of citizens.

How do these lessons not function as as superhero stories preserving knowledge in a way very similar to that performed by classical myths? It seems to me that your entire argument is based on a desire to 'defend' the 'status' of the classical and traditional mythological systems, rather than on an interest in engaging with the claim.

It is apparent that expanding a descriptive category to the point of universality is problematic, but this is exactly the function of myth. You point out somewhere here the 'allegorical' function of certain myth stories, but here you are completely missing the point. Allegory is the opposite of myth; in allegory one thing represents another, but in myth on thing IS another. Captain America does not represent America; within the world of his stories he is America, and in that capacity is a mythic representation of the way in which the American culture views itself.

Neil said...

Connor, thanks very much for your comments. I'm still struggling to see what in your points makes these stories "mythic."

Having a moral and a message is a characteristic to many stories in general — what makes that mythic?

Also, my point for allegory is to emphasize their function as a method of storing information that otherwise wouldn't be remembered. It's a memory trick like a mnemonic.

I don't see though how "being the thing" makes something mythic. That just sounds like metaphor to me, which is also a characteristic of storytelling (and speech) in general. What makes that mythic?

Here's another difference — in the context of the cultures they arose in, myths were commonly thought to be real and true to some earlier time period. Does anyone think that superheroes are or were ever true stories?

Anonymous said...

While I agree with some of Neil's Statements that Modern superheros are lacking some elements of mythology I disagree that because they dont fill all of the functions they are not "Mythic" from the oxford american desK dictionary Myth: traditional narrative usu. involving supernatural or imaginary persons and embodying popular ideas on natural or social phenomena though they are written down rather than being told doesnt immediately dissuade them as not being mythical, they do portray popular beliefs of social phenomena, Superman on the Couch: What Superheroes Really Tell Us About Ourselves and Our Society by danny Fingerman shows that superheroes are more than just colorful tales of guys running around in spandex, they are a representation of our culture. I believe that they are the modern interpretation of the Heroic myth's while no one mature and an adult believes super heroes are real that is another similarity to Myth's they were usually used to teach the more impressionable young.

Also I have read Many Comics that serve that purpose making to teach a child that something they should do by making a very likeable Hero who shows why you should do things from brushing your teeth to doing your homework in a way that would appeal to a child better than some clinical application

it achieves the role of Mythology in hero worship immitation that because this Great hero does it maybe I'll be more like that hero if I start doing it. I just think that rather than being a black andd white issue that this is an instance of a shade of grey

brenna said...

So I agree that Superheroes are not Mythology, however, I'm taking a Theory and Practice classed based on Mythology in art. In this class, I'm doing a presentation on the idea of the superhero in modern mythology. If you think about it, the superhero actually is a modern play off of old mythology. Like Thor for instance, Jack Kirby took the story of Thor and modernized it and put a superhero spin on it for the sake of doing so. A superhero is based on the idea of the alpha male being able to save us, male heroes from old myths seem to be really similar, yeah?

Hiram said...

I do think that superheroes have at times fulfilled the role that ancient heroes did in ancient Greece, for instance, and universally in all cultures, creating or embodying new cultural paradigms and standards.

In Jungian understanding (which is the psychoanalytical school of thought that usually equates superheroes with mythology), they're archetypes of the collective psyche. They help collective groups of people articulate their shared experience and identity - like when Captain America was 'killed' in recent years. This is hugely symbolic of the country's self-image.

The main example I can cite comes from the 70's and the women's movement. Wonder Woman was the first popular icon to embody feminist ideals, the new American heroine, straight out of the Greek myths (she was Diana, the Queen of the Amazons - in Greece Diana was a deity and pretty similar to Wonder Woman).

Before Wonder Woman, few people imagined a woman fighting as an equal with men, kicking ass, and being half naked and sexy while at it. She broadened the definition of woman: this is what myths and deities do for the collective identities of their constituencies.

Wayne said...

Mythology is not only written to serve culture or explain something unexplainable, the myth of Achilles serves no purpose other than to entertain. Mythology is simply made to entertain the masses and leave them with the morals the creator feels are most important to society. Comic Book Superheroes do just that. By stressing the importance of truth and justice, they are stressing the importance of these ideologies to the rising generations, just as the Greek myths of old stressed strength and honor.

Anonymous said...

Taking a Mythology and Folk Lore class, my professor answered this question by saying something to the effect of super-heroes are not mythology as they have no survived the test of time, as opposed to what we consider mythology. While I can see where this is coming from, the term "modern mythology" simply refers to (in my opinion) stories that are being made and told in the form that stories of Heracles and others were told.

I call superheroes modern mythology simply by the fact that the hold to many similarities between the the mythologies of old and the mythologies of new. For example, look at Achilles vs. Superman. You can find amazing similarities, even in the fact that there are multiple versions of their story. You can also look at to what makes a hero, still within the Achilles vs. Superman.

To end, while superheros may not have a "Religious" symbolism to them, they do a have a cultural symbolism to them. Look at the Marvel: Civil War. Does it not have a echo of what was going on in the real world, both historically and present day?

Ms. Teacher said...

I have a question about this. I'm teaching the difference between myth and legend to my 5th grade students and one of them raised a very valid question - would superheroes fall into the myth or legend category. I couldn't give her a valid response because the debate is so wide open.

In your opinion, which does the typical superhero recipe fall into: myth or legend?