Modern Mythology? Fuck No!
(Soundtrack: Heavens to Betsy–Calculated)
I first encountered Richard Reynolds’ Super Heroes: A Modern Mythology in the Concordia stacks about 7 years ago. It’s a well-written, earnest piece of Campbellian scholarship–and I disagreed with it in an insanely visceral way.
I still do.
If you ask me, Reynolds actually does what I’m always accused of doing–i.e. exhalt these texts to a preposterous level of “significance”. Reynolds absolutely buys into the high art/low art binary–i.e. “high art” as cultural “base”, “low art” as mere superstructure–and he argues strenuously in favour of placing superheroes in the former category.
And he’s certainly not the only one in thrall to this way of looking at the issue.
In the infamous Ninth Art thread, Alasdair Watson made this claim:
I am not covinced that the a serious dissection of nature of faith, to use my earlier example, is going to be well served when the protagonists must dress in spandex and fire lightning out of various orfices. I’m sure it’s not impossible to do, but I think it’d either come across as a bit of a joke – (see Chuck Austen’s recent religion-based storylines for examples), or kill the franchise, because lets face it, people come to the X-men for costumes and ass-kicking, not existential crises. Which is my point about not being allowed to do certain things with a given franchise.
So. In order to break out of the “light entertainment” box (“transcend the genre” as they say), a superhero comic book would have to tackle a “serious” issue like “the nature of faith”. And without getting “jokey” about it either!
Well, that’s exactly what Richard Reynolds says these comics do! After all, this is a guy who describes every issue of Damage Control as a “canonical text”. And of course I find that just as laughable as I’m sure Alasdair does.
Here’s what Mark Gruenwald had to say about this, way back in the eighties:
Super hero comics have sometimes been described as “modern mythology”. I am not certain who first spoke of them in those terms but it seems that I first read these references in the mid-60s when Marvel Comics first became a media phenomenon. The surface similarities between our modern day super heroes and the gods and heroes of ancient myth are undeniable: both contain larger-than-life characters in fantastic situations. Indeed, my own interest in mythology undoubtedly sprang from the same basic impulses as my interest in super heroic fiction in general. However, super hero comics are not modern mythology, and here’s why:
The manner of creation is different. Myths are the product of many minds reworking the same basic material orally through successive generations until they are finally written down. Super hero comics are the product of only a few minds working directly for the print medium.
The purposes of myth and super hero comics are different. Myths were created to explain nature, rationalize the metaphysical mysteries of existence, and instruct and enlighten their audience about life and human nature through the use of allegory and symbolism. Super hero comics are created to entertain their audience and, once in a blue moon, get is to think while it’s being entertained. Myths are not without entertainment value (to those they were created for as well as today’s audience) but comics are strictly for their entertainment value.
The cultural bases of a body of myths and a body of super hero comics are different. Virtually everyone in a given culture had a basic knowledge of its culture’s myths. In our culture, the majority of the population only has a passing familiarity with a handful of the beter known characters (Superman, Spider-Man, Wonder Woman, etc.). Mythology was common knowledge, super hero comics are an esoteric interest.
At the core of each myth are its culture’s universal truths, whether the myths are believed to be literally true or but symbolically true. In super hero comics, only the very young or naive believe the stories to have literally (or even figuratively) happened or the heroes to be real people. Myths were meant to be believed on some level; comics are meant to entertain on some level.
That sounds more like it, no? Mythology comes into being in order to justify the ways of God (or fate) to men and women–and that’s not what super heroes are about.
But here’s the thing–since the Reformation, all of the most cogent thoughts in the West have been wrecking balls aimed at mythological structures. Oh sure, there was a lot of mythologizing going on in the 20th century (Nazism, monotheistic fundamentalism of all stripes, “Gaia theory”, essentialist gender theory, etc.) but all of it was (and is) either counterproductive or just plain evil.
I prefer a metatext that is generated by the profit motive–we’ve all had enough of the “prophet motive”, haven’t we? I’m an unabashed supporter of “pure narrative”–is it any wonder that Morrison and Auster are my two favourite writers these days? Don’t bother me with what “you think”. Whatever it is, we both know it’s “wrong”. The most “serious” thing a storyteller can do is tell a story. End of story.
The real difference between mythology and Marvel is that, while the former is a “closed system”, the latter is wide open. Obviously, myths are the products of many minds–but myths qua myths certainly aren’t perceived that way. Mythology is a “homogenous” body of work, the structuralist’s dream come true–it is taken for granted that, given enough time, a rigorous exegete could tease THE meaning out of the canonical writings.
But the Marvel Universe is a poststructuralist field of narrative. It may be the product of fewer minds than the norse legends, but, contra Gruenwald, that is not the way it appears to the public. The fault lines are clearly visible in the credits and the lettercols.
“Why does Thor look like an overweight croquet player in the latest issue of Strange Tales Stan?”
“I don’t know Frantic One, ask Sturdy Steve!”
The multiple founts of inspiration within the “batty bullpen” were glaringly apparent in the early Marvels, and that’s what makes these stories more than mythology. The Marvel Universe, like our own world, is built out of parts that coexist on the same plane without fitting together. As far as I’m concerned, that is Stan Lee’s main achievement. He’s the anti-Tolkien! He presided over (and contributed to) the creation of a metatext that opened itself up to “the higher criticism” from the get-go! And the highest criticism is reinterpretation.
Good Afternoon Friends!