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!



  1. Amen, brother! Reynolds’ book has some great formal analyses, but the “superhero as modern mythology” trope has got to be put to rest. Let’s all agree to let go of the notion that myth (and his little sidekick metaphor) is the only way a popular genre can achieve meaning.

  2. At that, I’m increasingly skeptical of the detachment implicit in ideas like “mythology is there to explain stuff”. It is, but it’s there to explain things _through stories_, and a lot of academic analysts seem ill-prepared to talka bout how stories are made, how audiences shape stories’ evolution, and so on. In these regards, mythology is much closer to modern commercial storytelling, including superhero comics, than to theology or philosophy. I also wonder from time to time, in light of modern phenomena like the Otherkin, how much of what we now treat as mythology began purely as someone’s ripping yarn to which someone else attached a high value of truth. (It is very weird to deal with people who think that the stuff you made up late one night just before deadline expresses a powerful central truth of their existence.) — Bruce

  3. Ah, Bruce, have you read Foucault’s Pendulum? I was lucky enough to get to it at an impressionable age, so now it’s my basis for looking at how any conspiracy theories work.

    As for the rest of this stuff, I’m starting work on a post of my own. So thanks, Dave!


  4. I think you’re right about the possible roots of mythological writing Bruce. The only claim I would make for Marvel is that these texts wear their “particularities” upon their sleeves in such conspicuous places that they resist posthumous homogenization/mythologization… And certainly the Marvel Universe is an entirely different animal from full-blown “auteur” mythologies like Lord of the Rings and Narnia…


  5. Rose: I rather dote on Foucault’s Pendulum.

    Dave: Not really arguing here, just pondering out loud. I note that a lot of the systematic presentation of mythology comes from people who no longer believe in it, or who believe in it in ways that the original tellers wouldn’t have. (Thinking of Robert Graves in that second category.) The myths of people who actually do believe in them seem a lot more haphazard and even outright contradictory, which is what you’d expect from the accounts of living beings doing the sorts of weird things living beings do.

    Digressive note: Roy Thomas and Joseph Campbell – A Comparison. There’s a paper for someone to write.

  6. Dave — I’d resist calling LOTR an auteur mythology. It’s a pretty basic mishmash of European folklore and Norse mythology, right down to the dwarves.
    At any rate, I don’t see the Marvel habit of characters wearing their symbolism right on their sleeves is particularly a strike against them being mythological. Just about every major (and minor) god and goddess of every major mythology symbolized some particular ideal or practical aspect of life, and in many cases a lot of them (Saints are the same way). Their resultant depiction in art makes them have uniform, consistent appearances — all depicting what it is these gods and goddesses represent.
    I’m not entirely for saying comic books are modern mythology… but I’m not entirely against it, either.

    (or it could be that it’s very late, I’m very tired, and I misread everything you said. c’est la vie.)


  7. Ken,

    I think that’s fair, although I do believe that Tolkien was attempting to bring some kind of coherence out of his maelstrom, while the Silver Age Marvels play up their “pasticheness”. And it’s not really the diversity of sources that creates this atmosphere–it’s the diversity of creative approaches, in juxtaposition… This is the old centrifugal/centripetal divide. With LOTR, the energy tends toward the centre–toward Tolkien. In Marvel, the energy tends toward the reader. The “particularities” I see on the sleeves of these works are differences between creative approaches (when Ditko draws Thor in a guest appearance, for instance, it’s hard to think of Kirby’s Thor in iconic terms anymore), not so much the symbolic role of the characters…


  8. I’m not at all an art historian, but I wonder whether it’s true of saints and deities that “their resultant depiction in art makes them have uniform, consistent appearances — all depicting what it is these gods and goddesses represent.” Or I’d say it’s true, but in an interesting yet relevant way. With so many artists working on corporate characters, often the only way to recognize them is by costumes. This works for saints and at least the deities and mythical figures (basically Greek) that I can recognize. You have to be able to say, “Oh, eyes, Lucy. Wheel? That must be Catherine!” because there’s nothing intrinsic in the depiction of the saints themselves that has anything in common with other depictions. Similarly, you can pick up on gods and goddesses by what they wear or carry, and it’s always nice to see that familiar lion skin and know you’re dealing with Herakles, but it’s not as if there’s a Herakles face any more than there really is a Jean Gray one (since women seem to be drawn even more divergently than men). It’s all about context clues.

    If I cared about Romans I could insert some smart comment about how their art has a more concrete identification, but I can’t recognize emperors by their hairstyles, which is maybe the art equivalent of saying, “Ah, sunglasses must mean Cyclops!” And Cyclops without his eyebeams wouldn’t really be himself, right?

    I guess I’m thinking of this because of David’s comment about Ditko’s Bloomian Strong Thor who eclipses all those who came before him to the extent that they must be viewed in his light, even though I have no real idea of what either Thor looks like, and as far as I can tell the apotheosis of Thor depictions is the frog version. I don’t know what I’m saying at this point except that multiple iterations around a very loose core don’t seem to deny the possibility of myth-like significance. But that doesn’t mean I think they have it either!!


  9. “With LOTR, the energy tends toward the centre–toward Tolkien.”

    Would that be– the author?

    Naaaaah. I’m sorry. I know I’m being snippy, but I just don’t understand the point of this particular bit of criticism. -Of course- The Lord of the Rings is the result of one man’s vision– that’s what makes it so great.–rob

  10. I understand that Rob, and I respect your appreciation of the work. Clearly you are not alone. But I truly prefer narrative structures that open outward toward the reader…


  11. “But I truly prefer narrative structures that open outward toward the reader…”

    I suppose I’m just being dense here, but I have no idea what that means. — rob

  12. I’m not sure that I know exactly what it means either Rob–but that’s what I’m trying to figure out on this blog…


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