Behind the Shades

Super hero stories - modern day myths?
DAJB at 5:09AM, Jan. 6, 2008
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Boo
"Once upon a time, people did use to call us heroes or legends. Or even myths some of us … I don't know what you'd call us today. Maybe we are super heroes. Maybe that is what we're called now."
- Shades, Chapter 4 page 14
I put that line there as my answer to the following question: Are super hero stories modern-day myths?

For some reason it's one of those questions people tend to get very worked up about. Students of popular culture are keen to argue that they are. Students of the Classics are often the most vociferous in arguing that they aren't. Well, you can see their point. Many of the ancient myths were far more than stories.

Some were attempts to explain natural phenomena in a way that people could understand (and remember), since the scientific knowledge they possessed wasn't quite up to the job. The various Creation myths are excellent examples of that, as are the beliefs in spirits of rivers and woods etc. Other myths were morality tales, establishing guidelines for correct behaviour. George Lucas has explained that the Star Wars movies are based on his understanding of myths as a means of demonstating the rite of passage that youths must go through to become adults.

But that's the trouble with simply saying that super hero stories aren't myths. The argument rests on the assumption that myths perform a specific function that super hero tales don't. In fact, however, there are many different kinds of myth and, at different times in history, they have each performed different functions in different cultures. And some of them, I suspect, were simply intended to be stories with no purpose other than to entertain!

I like to look at the question the other way round. Instead of asking whether super hero stories are myths (that all gets far too complicated far too quickly!), I prefer to consider whether the heroes of myth are, in fact, the super heroes of the ancient world.

Looked at that way, I have no problem concluding that they are. Whatever other functions their stories may have performed (or, more accurately, we assume they performed!) the ancient heroes of mythology are super-powered beings fighting super-powered monsters, villains and spirits. That's why Wonder Woman and Thor, for example, are able to draw so extensively on mythology and still fit so neatly into their respective super hero universes.

Herakles is clearly a super hero of his time. Odysseus, the master strategist, could be an ancient Bruce Wayne. The super-warrior Achilles is not so different from Steve Rogers. You want flying heroes? Icarus was there way before Angel. Super speed? Mercury. As far as I'm concerned, ancient myths were defining the super hero genre long before Action Comics gave us Superman!

last edited on July 18, 2011 10:23AM
Abt_Nihil at 4:51AM, Jan. 7, 2008
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I agree, and you know I approach superhero comics quite similarly. And now I can see what your comment on my first Bombshell page implied.

One open question to me would then be what separates myths from other stories - because if at one time myths satisfied all sorts of needs, we should consider any sort of contemporary story (fact/fiction) or theory (science) to have their roots in myths. Myths would expand to be everything that had to do with the realm of words. That would make them deflationary, wouldn't it? And we shouldn't have to make the concept “myth” deflationary in order to make the concept include superheroes.

Another thing: I've always found superhero comics which draw on heroic myths, especially the ones you mentioned (WW, Thor), to be far less powerful than those rooted in contemporary “original characters” (Many JLU episodes using myths and magic were quite weak too). If I want to read stories drawing on classic myths I prefer fantasy stuff like Conan (especially the new Conan series - I'd never been a Conan fan before Busiek, and I'd never been a fantasy fan before Peter Jackson's well-known trilogy). I wouldn't wanna analyze the whys and hows, but I thought I'd add that bit. Oh yeah, I DO read WW, but only for Terry & Rachel Dodson :-)
last edited on July 18, 2011 10:23AM
DAJB at 6:21AM, Jan. 7, 2008
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Abt_Nihil
One open question to me would then be what separates myths from other stories - because if at one time myths satisfied all sorts of needs, we should consider any sort of contemporary story (fact/fiction) or theory (science) to have their roots in myths. Myths would expand to be everything that had to do with the realm of words. That would make them deflationary, wouldn't it?
I don't think we need to devalue the idea of the myth. We just need to accept that there are different kinds of myth. Some, for example, may have been as significant in their own times as, say, Mediaeval folk tales (as collected by the Brothers Grimm or written by Rabelais) but perhaps no more than that. We still call them myths because they happen to be set in the classical world, so we group them all together.

Abt_Nihil
And we shouldn't have to make the concept “myth” deflationary in order to make the concept include superheroes.
I absolutely agree. I wasn't trying to argue that super hero stories are myths (with a capital “M”!), so much as saying that - if we consider myths (especially those with a small “m”!) - as early super hero stories, then the differences aren't quite as extreme as most people's inital reaction would suggest.

Abt_Nihil
Another thing: I've always found superhero comics which draw on heroic myths, especially the ones you mentioned (WW, Thor), to be far less powerful than those rooted in contemporary “original characters” (Many JLU episodes using myths and magic were quite weak too). If I want to read stories drawing on classic myths I prefer fantasy stuff like Conan (especially the new Conan series - I'd never been a Conan fan before Busiek, and I'd never been a fantasy fan before Peter Jackson's well-known trilogy). I wouldn't wanna analyze the whys and hows, but I thought I'd add that bit.
I know what you mean (I think!) Personally, I do like Thor when he's being a super hero, flying about with his hammer, and I do like his backstory as a Norse God. I find it irritating, however, when all the other Norse Gods (especially Odin and Loki) keep appearing in the modern day stories. Similarly with Wonder Woman. I like her backstory and the whole “created by Gods” angle, but I find it annoying when we see Zeus and co. wandering around Olympus like Laurence Olivier in Clash of the Titans!

I don't think the problem is with the characters. For me, it's more the mixing of the genres. WW is fine, for example, in a JLA setting. I have a similar problem with magic in super hero stories. I've no problem with wizards who can throw balls of fire in a fantasy story but, in a super hero story, I want to know there's some kind of scientific explanation for Pyro's power (no matter how far-fetched!)

Abt_Nihil
Oh yeah, I DO read WW, but only for Terry & Rachel Dodson :-)
Oh, no need to be apologetic … I'm a big WW fan! Sadly, I can't think of any other headline character who is so cool and yet so consistently let down by their writers and editors. I recently started reading the four-volume collection of George Perez's run from the 1980s. It still has lots of Gods and stuff strutting around and interfering, so that - to today's audience - it comes across as a little bit Xena but he did manage to get the character's personality exactly right!
last edited on July 18, 2011 10:23AM
Abt_Nihil at 5:45AM, Jan. 8, 2008
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DAJB
I wasn't trying to argue that super hero stories are myths (with a capital “M”!), so much as saying that - if we consider myths (especially those with a small “m”!) - as early super hero stories, then the differences aren't quite as extreme as most people's inital reaction would suggest.
What difference do capitals make here? As far as I understand, I agree - my emphasis would be on “early”, since the time factor may be more important to what we classify as myths than properties like “deals with superpowered beings, magic etc.”. Hence the concept of the “modern myth” - the fact that it needs the prefix shows that the concept “myth” doesn't include the concept “modern”.

DAJB
(…)I find it annoying when we see Zeus and co. wandering around Olympus like Laurence Olivier in Clash of the Titans! (…) I've no problem with wizards who can throw balls of fire in a fantasy story but, in a super hero story, I want to know there's some kind of scientific explanation for Pyro's power (no matter how far-fetched!)
Yup, that was my initial problem too. It's the logical consequence of the question “If there are superheroes, why don't they do something about wars, global warming and poverty? (Surely these are threats which would seem more imminent to us than many of the goofy villains they fight?)” Similarly there would be the question: If the gods of legend still walk among us, why is their interference with mankind's history so… selective? Another version of the same question: Why does Batman have to fight the Joker, when Superman could take the Joker out much more easily (- and why does Metropolis seem to have a lot more super-powered villains than Gotham in the first place)? It's the problem of the coexistence of beings with different power levels (and different “logics” by which these powers operate)…

As for Wonder Woman, to me Darwyn Cooke's “New Frontier” version seemed far more consistent than any I've seen so far… of course Cooke had the freedom of creating a more or less complete (and consistent) world for his characters to fit in.
last edited on July 18, 2011 10:23AM
DAJB at 10:34AM, Jan. 8, 2008
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Abt_Nihil
What difference do capitals make here? As far as I understand, I agree - my emphasis would be on “early”, since the time factor may be more important to what we classify as myths than properties like "deals with superpowered beings, magic etc.
Hmmm - no, I think we have a slight difference of opinion here. I was trying to draw a distinction between “myths” invented to explain the world around us (e.g. myths which attempt to explain Creation, or where the first human beings came from, or how landscapes are formed etc) - that's what I meant by myths with a capital “M” - and myths which are simply ancient stories (e.g. the heroic adventures of Theseus, Perseus, Hercules etc) - that's what I meant by myths with a small “m”. I don't think it's just a matter of age. I believe there is very little difference (except maybe in terms of quality!) between that second type of myth and today's super hero stories.

Abt_Nihil
“If there are superheroes, why don't they do something about wars, global warming and poverty? (Surely these are threats which would seem more imminent to us than many of the goofy villains they fight?)” Similarly there would be the question: If the gods of legend still walk among us, why is their interference with mankind's history so… selective? Another version of the same question: Why does Batman have to fight the Joker, when Superman could take the Joker out much more easily (- and why does Metropolis seem to have a lot more super-powered villains than Gotham in the first place)? It's the problem of the coexistence of beings with different power levels (and different “logics” by which these powers operate)…
Oh, that's a whole new can of worms! I've always thought that Superman, in particular, is ridiculously over-powered. He is, in effect, a God and as such he should indeed have solved all the problems you mentioned. That's one of the reasons why I designed my heroes in Shades with relatively limited powers. Their status as “heroes” is based more on who they are and the actions they take, rather than on what they can do. Boo, in fact, has no super powers (except for a two thousand year life-span in which to perfect her combat skills!)

Abt_Nihil
As for Wonder Woman, to me Darwyn Cooke's “New Frontier” version seemed far more consistent than any I've seen so far… of course Cooke had the freedom of creating a more or less complete (and consistent) world for his characters to fit in.
I've not read that, I'm afraid. I'll add it to my list!
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Abt_Nihil at 2:48AM, Jan. 9, 2008
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DAJB
I was trying to draw a distinction between “myths” invented to explain the world around us (…) and myths which are simply ancient stories
OK, now I get it.

DAJB
I don't think it's just a matter of age.
That would be my own interpretation then. I don't think it's JUST a matter of age either. It was more my way of trying to explain to myself why people wouldn't classify modern superheroes as myths when they're so similar to some actual myths. My guess was that it wouldn't be because of properties (which they share) but because the concept - for them - involves the passing of time. There are probably other external factors: cultural factors. How stories seem different when they're distributed by the mass media instead of mouth-to-mouth etc. These are “external” factors in the way that they do not describe properties of the tale itself. So even though the tales would be similar, there are many external factors which are not.

DAJB
Their status as “heroes” is based more on who they are and the actions they take, rather than on what they can do.

I welcome that, since I'm not quite satisfied with the “hero” concept - as it's often handled in superhero comics - either. And I think it's only natural to analyze the hero concept in relation to the actual intentions of the persons who are to be labeled as heroes, instead of their dispositions.
last edited on July 18, 2011 10:23AM
DAJB at 11:25PM, Jan. 9, 2008
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Ah - then we're all in agreement, it seems!
:)
last edited on July 18, 2011 10:23AM
Abt_Nihil at 5:03AM, Jan. 10, 2008
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As expected :-)
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