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Modern Mythology: Character of the Superhero

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What is mythology?

Robert Segal defines myth as a story that denotes something significant either in the past, present or the future, where at least the main figure is a personified character (either human, divine or even animal) and one that is held steadfastly by its believers even if it is not categorically proven to be true.This definition would include traditional mythology but the question is whether it would include superhero characters.

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The story of the superhero in this regard cannot be restricted to the story in a single edition. It must include the entire series of comics featuring the superhero. This is because, unlike a traditional literary piece, the comic runs open-ended, with each new edition adding to the legend of that superhero.Another question to be answered is whether the story is believed by its followers.Paul Veyne explains that a myth is truthful if seen as philosophical teaching in the form of an allegory rather than a historical truth.

Although superhero characters are written with an intention to entertain, they carry powerful messages such as the famous line Spider-man is told by his Uncle, “with great power comes great responsibility”.Michael Uslan makes the case that stories of superheroes should be considered contemporary mythology or folklore as the same elements that can be found in traditional myths can also be found in superhero stories. He then compares the story of Moses and Superman which are both about an infant son sent away by his parents to protect him and who then subsequently becomes a hero as an example.

This concept was popularised by Joseph Campbell with the term ‘monomyth’. The monomyth as Campbell explained was a myth that originates in one society and then spread across cultures with timeless and universal themes.An example of a common monomyth would be the hero with extra-human abilities overcoming obstacles and saving the day and can be found in the story of Hercules as well as in the stories of Superman.

Sometimes, the monomyth included even the heroes themselves. The world of Thor has been created from Norse mythology, and Wonder Woman has been declared the daughter of Zeus.

However, it is not relevant where the characters have been inspired from, as the stories still followed the unique comic format and storytelling style that will be explained below. This characteristic of superhero stories, has resulted in arguments raised by Umberto Eco to not include superheroes as modern mythology.

Characteristic of ‘Oneiric climate’

There is a sense of finality about the traditional mythology as they are written eons ago and the stories cannot change. Hercules will always complete his trials and Perseus will always behead Medusa. The heroes in these traditional myths are therefore powerless as their fate is sealed.

This is not the case for superheroes. As Eco says in his seminal essay ‘ the myth of Superman’, the superhero stories take place within a narrative stasis. The reader of a Superman comic did not need to know what happened in the previous weeks in order to understand the current edition, as each edition stood alone. This was called an ‘oneiric climate’ by Eco and helped make the stories contemporaneous and contributed to the allure of the comic book superhero .

However, the problem with this according to Eco, is that Superman can never truly develop (leaving him a shallow character), because this would take him one step closer to an theoretical narrative end. This suspension of time therefore, separates the superhero from traditional mythology.The reason this differentiation matters is because mythology grows through stories being repeated and re-told. The traditional myths have cemented their place in history by doing so, but this will be hard to do for superhero stories that are always ongoing with no end in sight.

However, this comparison is not appropriate because of the difference in the medium between the typical literary novel and a comic book. Comics books as mentioned earlier are periodic in nature and the superhero is meant to exist in the ‘oneiric climate’ and is not meant to have a definite end. That is the formula for a traditional myth.

Richard Reynolds argues that this ‘extra-textual continuity’ in fact is very important for the superhero is to be considered as ‘modern mythology’ because it affects the manner in which the comic stories are perceived by the reader. The reader would be capable of filling in the necessary information in the story where it is left blank using the knowledge they have gained from their previous experience reading the comics. The focus here is not on a singular adventure like in a traditional myth but the character themselves.

Effect of these stories on the people

Even with these open-ended adventures, the superhero has impacted the world greatly. Superhero characters while not as old as the traditional myths, have still been around for long enough to influence public opinion. As they were targeted at children and teens, a large number of adults today were exposed to the lessons contained in the comic books. While they may not be able to tell you what happened in a certain edition of a comic like they would be able to for a traditional myth, they would be able to tell you what superhero character stood for and what they often did and who they worked with. There are even certain symbols that have become synonymous with certain superheroes such as the bat symbol shining in the night sky or a giant red and yellow S of the Superman shield.

Conclusion

Superhero characters should therefore be considered modern mythology, because of the impact they have on people and the society. Although the superhero stories do not possess a foreseeable ending, and the story is open ended, the characters themselves possess some aspects that are set in stone and are easily identifiable. Superman will forever be a beacon of virtue, Captain America a symbol of integrity and Batman, a vigilante dispensing justice.

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