In the beginning, there was the myth.
These stories (call them myths, legends, folktales) were used for sociological reasons: to teach children lessons, to define religious rites, and to keep order among tribespeople. As a collective discovered unknowable phenomena in the natural world, they described it as best they could. As said collective grew into a society, these stories became codified into a belief system.
While pantheism was reduced greatly after the beginning of the Common Era, its mythological basis became something else: literature. Greek and Roman tales are part of the greater canon, studied from early education through doctorate programs.
But, as Joseph Campbell would have told you, the power of myth never declined. Nor would the scale of such stories. So, even though the history of superhero comic books and literature is less than 100 years old, they have become the modern equivalent of mythology.
The aliens, metahumans, mutants or any tights-mask-and-cape-clad crimefighters morphed into our gods and demigods, their exploits played out monthly in primary colors. And, of course, if a few of the older characters seeped into the new pantheon, well, that’s just good storytelling.
But while this idea isn’t new, what we can bring to the front is how the lessons are presented. Sometimes we ignore the values presented in these stories, easily dismissing them as “kiddie fare,” so much so that an attempt to tell them on the level of the Grimm Brothers was crushed under a very restrictive code.
We remember the big ones of course. “Truth, justice and the American way.” “With great power comes great responsibility.” “Criminals are a dark, cowardly lot.” But while those words are memorable, what about the actions?
Unfortunately, here is where we find a strictly defined morality, especially when we are talking Golden and Silver Ages.
Violence must be met with violence. Good and evil are absolute, a black and white division that allows for little nuance. The bad guy tries to take over the world and he must be stopped. How?
But comics did not remain static. Some writers infused their otherworldly tales with street realities, tackling drug abuse and inner city rot but still from an action-oriented viewpoint. While deep problems were addressed, the solution remained throwing lots of punches.
Gradual, administrative changes are not the stuff of drama. But we see them happening in society, so what is the consequence when we bring modern viewpoints into these new mythologies?
Two 20th century movements could help answer that question. Communism (developed in the late 1800s, but not acted upon until the Russian Revolution) and libertarianism, two polar opposite political philosophies, have one major thing in common: they are both unworkable in the real world.
While their more practical cousins (socialism and small-government conservatism) have been fighting each other for years, the source materials have become a secular religion. If we believe enough, the governments will wither away, leaving either collective or individual power. In these times, the high priests don’t wear robes and burn incense, but rather present white papers and help create laws.
And how do they seep into our mythology? Let’s look at one of the latest controversies in comicdom:
The absolutist opinion was simple: “That’s not my Captain America.” The relativistic answer was a bit more complicated.
To tell a story about one character for 70-plus years, even with continuity realignment, is difficult. And the best weapon any author has in their utility belt is surprise. So why not explore the road never taken to see what lays at its end? What could we find?
Nerd rage. That’s where everything comic book-oriented ends up.
But these political opinions have always seeped into the full-bleed. We at Vex Mosaic have looked into this subject before in our comparison of Batman and Superman. But joining that discussion are creators like Steve Ditko and the Frank Miller/Alan Moore divide.
Ditko is famously Objectivist, the philosophy first designed by Ayn Rand who wrote, “[M]an [is] a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.” Selfishness is a virtue because it gets a person exactly what he/she wants.
After leaving Marvel Comics, he put this into action by demanding complete control over all of his projects. While we can and should cut some slack to the co-creator of Spider-Man and Dr. Strange, this stance has isolated him in his later years. Of course, it may also be that his style has remained unchanged and looks very old fashioned to today’s reader.
Moore and Miller occupy similar ground. In the 1980s and ‘90s, they were the top creators in the field, but they staked out different territory. Moore was clinical in his approach, breaking down comic tropes in Watchmen and V for Vendetta to mock the moral absolutes usually presented.
Miller, in contrast, sought to free his characters from any restraints. The Dark Knight Returns showed Batman as the only force able to redeem a crumbling, decadent society. And with other works, like Hard Boiled, ultraviolence was presented as something akin to the Biblical flood: cleansing the world of sin.
By the 21st Century, they had each wandered far from the mainstream. Moore concentrates as much on writing fiction as comics, pushing his magical beliefs as cure for ills. Miller became extra-reactionary, famously wanting to send Batman to kill Osama Bin Laden. The point being that when control of your work is more important than the story itself, your beliefs get pushed to the forefront.
So, yes, this isn’t your Captain America. Zack Snyder has ruined your Superman. The push and pull between audience and creator becomes extra-aggressive in the face of history, continuity and personal vision. And we will rage against the dying light of our version.
But these characters, the ones we love, have changed and will continue to do so. They will live in the modern world and become something new. Some of us will disagree (and very loudly), some of us will accept it, and some will move on. Who wins in all of this? The future generations who get to contemplate an ever-changing set of values. Those of us in the now rarely have the luxury.
In terms of values here on the Vex, Eduardo Frajman gets the first lick in our December issue. He expresses his opinion on Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War, looking at the moral choice between Iron Man and Cap. Where he falls may please or enrage you, but it will be worth discussing.
In terms of character fungibility, Brian Baer will take us through the many versions of The Joker, including the most recent Suicide Squad iteration.
And finally, myths and legends would be nothing if there weren’t storytellers to relay them to us. For our continuing “How To” series, noted filk artist S.J. Tucker examines her creative process to show how these elements become music.
On top of that, we here at the Vex hope the rest of your holiday season is merry. Remember, Santa is also a myth, but he churned out lots of good boys and girls. And that’s the lesson that really took hold.