It is often said that our modern day comic book characters such as Superman, Spider-Man, and Batman are the “new mythological heroes” and in many ways this sentiment is true. However in others there simply cannot be a comparison, at least not at this point. Amongst the feathers of my odd upbringing is the tidbit that, despite my ongoing admiration of silver-screen superheroes, I never really got into reading comic books as a child. Instead of reading the latest edition of Spider-Man I enjoyed reading stories from the classical world, stories such as Jason and the Argonauts, The Twelve Labors of Heracles, and my personal favorite The Odyssey. Here I will identify the common threads between these brands of heroes and discern the differences that to this day keep them apart.
Although to some it may sound bizarre to me to find commonality between Jason of Ioikos and Peter Parker of New York City there really is some there. At its’ core the term ‘Hero’ symbolizes a person whom conforms to the most revered and sought-after traits one can possess: Strength, Willpower, Tenacity, Intelligence, and Humility. Indeed many if not all Homeric heroes and comic book characters exhibit these traits to varying degrees with the express purpose of giving audiences icons and by an extension ideals to aspire to. Because of this it can be said that the heroes present within both mythology and the comic book world are reflections of the ideals that their respective societies hold dearest. Mythology in particular offers readers a fascinating window into the ancient world, a window which shows the workings of a time long past on its’ own terms. The Odyssey in particular does a fantastic job of showcasing both the expectations of ancient Greek society but the retribution for the hubris of going against it. Likewise, comic books display societal norms and anathemas of the same. However, there is no one single uniform setting for these modern stories to follow – many different universes exist.
This brings us nicely to what separates mythology and its’ modern upstart, comic books. In this case the evidence is in the name of the former; “Mythology”. Mythology rightfully implies that these are stories from a time long past. One does not simply attempt to alter stories that have stood the test of time for over two millenia, these are stories that are set-in-stone and cannot be fought against on a literary level. Comic books however are a completely different story because their own mythos is constantly being re-written as a result of them being contemporary. Nobody can settle on one single narrative of comic book stories so their validity as being “new mythological heroes”, heroes whom embody the widespread ideals of their audience, is completely debunked.
Then there is the fact that mythology, Greek mythology in particular again, has had a resounding and obvious effect on modern society in ways that most people are not even aware of. The Olympic games that captivate the world every four years actually has its’ origins as a religious and athletic festival that was held every four years at the sanctuary of Zeus in Olympia. As mythology has it, the Olympiad was founded by Heracles, the son of Zeus, as a means of uniting people in the name of sportsmanship after his own hardships during his twelve labors of penance. As it transpired this actually worked: Whenever the Olympiad took place conflict across Greece came to a screeching halt as Greeks flocked to Olympia to compete. Another prominent sporting event has its’ roots in the classical world: Marathon. The Battle of Marathon was a pinnacle moment in the Greco-Persian war in 490 BC, and since it was such a monumental event mythology inevitably sprang up around it. The popular legend is that a messenger called Pheidippides ran all the way back to Athens from the front line with news of the Athenian victory before collapsing from exhaustion. This became the inspiration for the Marathons which take place every year. However, since this particular myth takes place around an actual historical event its’ validity is somewhat hampered but not to an extent where people cease taking part in Marathon runs.
Comic books in comparison, have given society absolutely nothing that can be compared to the likes of the Olympics and of the Marathon. Off the top of my head the only occasion when people gather in the name of comic books is at conventions which, whilst being enjoyable for those who attend, do not impact wider society on a significant level.
Then again, what will future societies see when they look back at our comic book heroes? By then all of the issues that exist with them in their current form could and probably would have been resolved as they would not longer be contemporary in the eyes of the future society in question. It may well turn out that future generations formulate their own mythology and look back to the past much like I am right now to draw inspiration. Superheroes may well become the stuff of legends, on the same stage as the likes of Jason and Heracles but as it stands… they’re just too modern.
I think there is a key difference between mythology and the mythology of comic books. Comic books and graphic novels are not supposed to encompass the ups and downs of long, harrowing journeys and the accumulation of tragedy. Comic books are inherently episodic. The reason being that they rely on a the visual to even…well…exist. Comic book heroes experience immediate tragedy and triumph; they bounce from one evil scheme to the next, and their heroic acts are not based on the philosophy of good versus evil whereas (especially Greek) mythology relies on a religious basis where sometimes good and evil are blurred together, and where trickery and mischief is common among even the good characters.
I don’t see this as being a division between the ‘ancient’ and the ‘modern’ but just a difference in craft. Or just a simple difference in genre. A difference between the ‘epic story’ and the ‘graphic novel.’ We still have modern epic stories which are much more relatable to the Odyssey. And we have ‘ancient’ examples of artwork that are much more relatable to graphic novels (think Hieroglyphics).
Good post; thought-provoking. Also, I LOVE the Odyssey. So any excuse to read about it.
Great post, and thank you for sharing!
The Odyssey is my personal favorite, as well! I love the film, The Odyssey, starring Armand Assante.
I think you may be comparing apples and blossoms here. While it is true that mythology of Greece had a huge impact on both the Greco-Roman world and our own, I think it’s important to note that by the time of the classical period of Greece, the myths had been around for hundreds of years, so you have things like the Olympics, which had been around for a while, being explained as having been founded by Heracles. Which is something that can only happen over a long span of time and has to develop naturally. Comic books have only been around for one century, and I expect it will be several centuries further on before we will see that kind of impact on life.
I better modern mythology comparison (apples to apples, if you will) would be the American myths of the colonization and revolutionary war. Columbus Day and Thanksgiving are all real-world events that are based off of myths which originated several hundred years ago.
For ‘modern’ myths i tend to see Star Wars and LOTR as fitting the bill more than comic books. Part of what distinguishes a myths from a collection of tales is the way it unites the culture that embraces it. Both Star Wars and LOTR (and Star Trek) have seen subcultures dedicated to that specific mythos grow up around them. As popular as comic books are, I haven’t seen the equivalent built around them.
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