Whatever Happened to the Myth of Tomorrow?: Superhero Comics and Mythology

[N.B: This essay is a slightly edited version of an academic essay written in 2015. The tone is rather different than most of the other writing on this blog, and I have left citations as they were included in the original, with specific quotations endnoted in this post.]

A quick perusal of studies of superhero comics rapidly reveals a pattern: Super Heroes: A Modern Mythology (Reynolds 1994), Myth of the American Superhero (Jewett & Lawrence 2002), The Myth of the Superhero (Arnaudo 2013), and The Gospel According to Superheroes: Religion and Pop Culture (Lang 2005) are just a sampling of a few recent titles that connect American superhero comics to mythology. A description of a course offered by the Smithsonian Institute on “The Rise of Superheroes and Their Impact on Pop Culture” states that “the ancient gods of Egyptian, Greek and Roman myths still exist, but today, they have superpowers, human foibles and secret identities.”[1]

Clearly, at least in the popular mind, there is some sort of link between the medium of superhero comics and classical mythology. What shape this link takes, however, is more difficult to pin down. For some writers, the relationship between myth and comic is as simple as source material. George Kovacs, in his introduction to Classics and Comics, writes that “images from Greco-Roman mythology and history permeate the comics medium,”[2] and indeed figures from Ares to Medusa pop up in superhero comics, with varying levels of resemblance to their mythological counterparts. Other scholars focus on the ways in which superheroes follow the “hero’s journey” monomyth of Joseph Campbell, a model which supposedly underlies all heroic stories.[3] However, the ways in which superhero comics may function similarly to myth remains largely unexplored. Superhero comics, as a medium, are able to respond flexibly to the needs of their culture of origin, written and rewritten, using the same set of characters, with a combination of continuity and adaptability relatively unique in modern narrative – but extremely familiar to the scholar of myth.

One initial problem comes with the first question that ought to be addressed in any consideration of a so-called “modern mythology”: what exactly is myth? In his study, Richard Reynolds states that modern superheroes form “a body of contemporary mythology”, but does not go on to define what he means by this phrase.[4] The fact that this question so often goes unaddressed speaks, perhaps, to one of the primary difficulties of study of mythology in general and the idea of “modern mythology” in particular. Writing in 1974, G.S. Kirk surveyed five major approaches to myth and finds all of them reductionist and lacking, unable to account for the scope and variety of Greek myths. His own definition, simplistic almost to the point of absurdity, is to call myth a “traditional tale”, a definition that further complicates the idea of a “modern mythology.” If such a mythology is modern, how can it also be traditional? According to Kirk, the hallmark of the “traditional” aspect of myth is that it has “some enduring quality that separates it from the general run of transient stories.”[5] What that quality may be varies, but usually, according to Kirk, the endurance of myths is because they carry some kind of cultural value.

Superhero comics, a medium with a clear starting date for each character, might seem to be an odd candidate for the title of “traditional tale.” As Arnaudo notes in The Myth of the Superhero, however, between 1938 (the date marking the publication of Action Comics #1, the first appearance of Superman, considered by many to be the first modern superhero) and the present there has been near continuous publication of superhero comics.[6] Moreover, from its relatively modest beginnings the genre has proliferated wildly. Not only have new companies emerged with new types of superhero narratives (such as Image Comics or Wildstorm), the existing companies have expanded far beyond Superman (or even the Trinity of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman). Furthermore, the influence of superhero comics is now visible on film and in music, and the more well-known superheroes have become a part of popular parlance for many who have never picked up a single comic book. While it cannot yet be said that superhero comics have endured for centuries, there seems to be something decidedly durable about the medium, and it has shown remarkable longevity with surprisingly little change.

Something in superhero comics endures because something about the medium and the stories it tells speaks to our culture. Furthermore, writers have noted that the serial nature of superhero comics, along with their longstanding continuity and collaborative nature, all make them more similar to the structural form of myth than any other existing genre today. Dennis O’Neil writes that producing comics is like “a maniacally accelerated version of the folkloric process.”[7] Different creators each bring out different aspects of a character, creating a wildly complex and intricate continuity that builds on itself over the decades, just as mythologies are a proliferating variety of texts from different writers at different times, each employing a familiar motif but to different effect and for different reasons.

If superhero comics can be found to be “traditional,” then, and by virtue of their narrative content the “tale” aspect is indisputable, the question remains as to what this means for the deeper relationship between superhero comics and myth. It is not enough to “focus on structural and surface similarities” without analyzing what lies underneath.[8] Toward this purpose, it may also be relevant to ask why superhero comics so frequently borrow from classical mythology, whether in the form of the appropriation of classical models (for instance, characters or motifs) or what Kovacs calls the creation of “new narratives within popular constructs of antiquity” – either by transposing classical myths into a comics medium or using the ancient world as a background for new stories. Arnaudo attributes this borrowing to a combination of “narrative and thematic analogies” that include the hero’s journey;[9] another possibility is simply the strong connection between American culture and Greco-Roman thought. The United States has long drawn on Grecian imagery and mythology as a source of inspiration and a point of comparison. It is possible that by borrowing imagery and names from classical mythology, superhero comics both seek to legitimate themselves and to locate themselves within a continuum of material, situating themselves self-consciously as the inheritors of the mantle of myth.

Within superhero comics, there is undeniably a reflexive awareness of the connections between their stories and ancient mythologies. Issue #400 of Superman, for instance, contains a series of stories that describe how Superman might be seen in the future, after he has become a figure of legend and folklore. One of the first stories is framed as a tale told in the distant future by “Doc Homer,” an old man who claims to have been one of the last to see Superman in the flesh.[10] This transparent reference to one of the best known Greek mythological poets is a nod not only to existing mythology, but also locates Superman as the future subject of mythological storytelling. In the fictional DC Universe, Superman has become a hero analogous to Achilles or Odysseus. Within the world of comics, of course, Superman is a real being who lived in the past; in the primary world of the reader, however, the story becomes a metatextual reflection of the Superman comics themselves. In another story, taking place even further in the future, the story of Superman has “passed from the realm of legend into myth…[and] from reverence to ritual”.[11] On “Miracle Monday”, a family leaves an empty dish out for Superman, which they then each contribute food to.[12] Even within his own comic title, Superman has become a myth – in each story, he is a model to which future people look, as both symbol and example.

superman 400

In Wonder Woman’s early origins, she was attributed qualities of Greek divinities (“beautiful as Aphrodite, wise as Athena, swifter than Hermes, and stronger than Hercules”) and was created from a clay statue sculpted by her mother Hippolyta, given life by Athena.[13] She was a member of the all-female Amazons, whose first home was Paradise Island, changed in 1987 to Themiscyra (the mythological home of the Amazons according to Herodotus and others).[14] While the stories of Amazons in Greek mythology, however, focus on their warlike ways and (frequently) their defeat at the hands of male warriors, the Amazons of Wonder Woman comics for the most part live in peaceful isolation, removed from the world at large.

For her creator, William Marston, Wonder Woman was defined by her compassion and willingness to reach out to her enemies, an antidote to what he saw as the excessive violence of comics of his day.[15] In fact, her greatest enemy (and the greatest enemy of the Amazons) was Ares, god of war and symbol of masculine domination – in early Wonder Woman stories, he was even aligned with the Nazis, and Wonder Woman was recruited by Aphrodite to fight on behalf of the United States, “last bastion of democracy and equal rights for women.”[16] The threatening warrior women whom the Athenians drove back and conquered here become the representatives of peace and compassion, allied with the new democracy of the United States.

Even Hercules appears in this early issue, shown less than positively as a deceptive brute who promises peace to Hippolyta after his defeat only to turn on her after surrendering. The old world of Greek myth, explicitly masculine in Ares’ army of men, represents violence and brutality with no redeeming characteristics. In the words of scholar Lillian Robinson, this issue “completely [reverses] the categories of good and evil, civilization and barbarism, and, by no means incidentally, male and female, as the Greek sources delineate them and the Roman ones elaborate and extend them”.[17] Marston is not only creating a new origin story for a superheroine, he is rewriting Greek myth itself, reacting and adapting it just as writers of classical mythology have been doing since Homer.

Nor is DC the only company to do this sort of playing with classical mythology. The mythical hero Hercules has appeared in Marvel’s titles as well; in one storyline in the 2000s he was manipulated by the comics version of the goddess Hera and her henchman Eurystheus into taking on a modern version of the Twelve Labors, filmed on reality television. These “new labors” include the defeat of a number of villains. His task concludes when he receives forgiveness from his murdered wife.[18]

In another story, the Marvel Comics version of Ares (here a rival with Hercules for their father Zeus’s attentions) poisons Hercules with the Hydra’s venom, causing him to go on a violent rampage for several issues until he is stopped by his former lover Black Widow.[19] In all of these stories, mythological events are blended together, frequently combined with one another, and simultaneously modernized – as in the filmed “new Twelve Labors” in which “Olympus Corporation” appears, overseen by the god Zeus. Old figures are being coopted and made new in a self-conscious adaptation of classical mythology materials. Furthermore, there is even a limited series starring Ares himself, also by Marvel, shows Ares attempting to raise his mortal son as an ordinary man, humanizing a character who until then appeared strictly as a villain.[20]

But the question remains as to why modern American writers would choose to emphasize these connections, and why these mythological figures and connections fit so well into the medium of superhero comics. The key is the flexibility of both modes: the ability to change and adapt to fit the needs of a culture across time. While, unlike in superhero comics, it is impossible to trace the origin of a myth, it is possible to see the ways in which it evolves over time. The story of Clytemnestra, Agamemnon, Orestes, and Electra, for instance, appears in the Odyssey, the Oresteia, Sophocles’ Electra, and Euripides’ Electra and Orestes. Aeneas, a minor character in the Illiad, becomes the central figure of the Aeneid. Myths are adapted and retold as needed, with different aspects emphasized – Hercules can be the buffoon of Roman comedy and the sage of the Stoic philosophers.

In the same way, superheroes have always been adaptable. While in the 1940s Captain America responded to World War II (fighting the Nazis even before the United States entered the war), in the Civil War event he stands against a thinly veiled allegory for the United States Patriot Act, the Superhuman Registration Act. Numerous studies have charted the ways in which comics superheroes respond and react to the pervading cultural mileau of the day, and how writers and artists use established characters to comment, however obliquely, on policies or events of their time.[21]

The superheroes of superhero comics are flexible enough, and have passed through enough hands, that their stories can be adapted with relative ease to fit the needs of the time. In the 21st century in particular, figures like Captain America and Wonder Woman are established and familiar enough that their characters can be pushed and pulled as needed to suit the story that the particular storyteller of the momentary issue needs to tell. At the same time, however, the character itself endures outside of each individual story, no longer bounded by the issue but existing somehow outside of it, the accumulative product of a vast number of texts and stories from a vast number of creators.

Scholarship on comics is still in its infancy, and scholarship on superhero comics still more so. Much of the existing literature still focuses on the history of individual creators (such as the recent spate of books on William Moulton Marston, creator of Wonder Woman). There are some motions toward an examination of the place of comics within their culture of origin, however, and it is this direction that may be most fruitful in examining the links between superhero comics and classical mythology: not just a matter of borrowing elements, or even how those elements are adapted, but why – and why, despite all naysaying, superhero comics endure. Not because of Jungian archetypes or Campbellian monomyths, but because they fill a need in their culture, just as, in their time, myths of Hercules or Romulus did for the Greeks.

[1] “The Rise of Superheroes and Their Impact On Pop Culture.” edX. Accessed May 7, 2015. https://www.edx.org/course/rise-superheroes-impact-pop-culture-smithsonianx-popx1-1x.

[2] Kovacs, George, and C. W. Marshall. Classics and Comics. Classical Presences. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2011, 5.

[3] See for instance Indick, William. “Classical Heroes in Modern Movies: Mythological Patterns of the Superhero.” Journal of Media Psychology 9, no. 3 (Fall 2004): 1–13. For Campbell’s monomyth see The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Second edition. Bollingen Series ; 17. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1968.

[4] Reynolds, Richard. Super Heroes : A Modern Mythology. Studies in Popular Culture (Jackson, Miss.). Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1994, 7.

[5] Kirk, G. S. The Nature of Greek Myths. London, England: Penguin, 1990, 28.

[6] Arnaudo calculates the approximate number of pages in what he calls the “superhero macrotext” – between Marvel and DC, from 1938 to 2010 he estimates a body of work consisting of somewhere between 2 and 3 million pages. (Arnaudo, Marco. The Myth of the Superhero. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013.)

[7] O’Neil, Dennis. “The Man of Steel and Me.” In Superman at Fifty! The Persistence of a Legend!, edited by Dennis Dooley and Gary D. Engle. New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1988, 51.

[8] Nevins, Mark David. “Mythology and Superheroes.” Inks: Cartoon and Comic Art Studies 3, no. 3 (November 1996): 26.

[9] Arnaudo (2013), 12

[10] Maggin, Eliot S. (w), Al Williamson (a). “The Living Legends of Superman: Chapter Two.” Superman #400 (October 1984), National Comics Publications [DC Comics].

[11] Maggin, Eliot S. (w), Klaus Janson (a). “The Living Legends of Superman: Chapter Seven.” Superman #400 (October 1984), National Comics Publications [DC Comics].

[12] Of course, the obvious resonance here is with the Jewish holiday of Passover, and the cup left out for Elijah. The narration even calls “Miracle Monday” the night “different from all other nights,” remarkably similar to the first of the Four Questions in the Pesach Haggadah, traditionally asked during the Seder. This may speak to Superman’s origins as the creation of two Jewish immigrants.

[13] Kanigher, Robert (w), Ross Andru (p), and Mike Esposito (i). “The Secret Origin of Wonder Woman.” Wonder Woman (vol 5) #105 (April 1959), National Comics Publications [DC Comics].

[14] Herodotus, Histories 4.86 mentions Themiscyra as part of the Thermedon territory he later links with the Amazons; Pausanias makes the link direct in Description of Greece, 1.2.1.

[15] Marston, William Moulton. “Why 100,000 Americans Read Comics.” The American Scholar 13, no. 1 (1943): 35–44.

[16] Marston, William Moulton (w), Harry G. Peter (a). “The Origin of Wonder Woman.” Wonder Woman #1 (July 1942), National Comics Publications [DC Comics].

[17] Robinson, Lillian. Wonder Women: Feminisms and Superheroes. Routledge, 2004, 31.

[18] Tieri, Mark (w), Mark Texeira (p), and Jimmy Palmiotti (i). “The New Labors of Hercules.” Hercules (vol 3) #1-5 (2005), Marvel Comics.

[19] Pak, Greg (w), Fred van Lente (w), Khoi Pham (p), and Paul Neary (i). The Incredible Hercules, #113-115 ( ), Marvel Comics.

[20] Marvel Comics to a greater degree than DC Comics have always blended the human and super elements of their heroes to a greater degree – thus while in DC Superhero is made into myth, in Marvel the mythical Ares is made into a man.

[21] For studies of this sort see DiPaolo, Marc. War, Politics and Superheroes: Ethics and Propaganda in Comics and Film. McFarland, 2011; Joseph J. Darowski editor. The Ages of The Avengers : Essays on the Earth’s Mightiest Heroes in Changing Times. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc, Publishers, 2014; and Johnson, Jeffrey K. Super-History Comic Book Superheroes and American Society, 1938 to the Present. Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc, Publishers, 2012.


One thought on “Whatever Happened to the Myth of Tomorrow?: Superhero Comics and Mythology

  1. Hey Elise,

    Just wanted to say that this was a fantastic piece, i never thought of going so in depth with the references but i guess it makes sense in regards to wonder woman.
    She practically meets every single member of the pantheon at one stage or another, let alone demi gods and other charecters haha.

    Just wanted to let you know that i’m in university in England and that were using this article as a starting point for our Mth class!

    I hope this finds you well and wish you luck in your endeavours!



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