Mythology is a significant aspect to explain the life of past times. Civilizations that historians still try to fully understand today are only analyzed through artifacts and records. The Ancient Greeks were one of the most influential civilizations in history, and historians find evidence of their lives through their monuments, the temples, the art, their religion. Religion, foremost, reflect how ancient Greeks explained their surroundings, their unknown. Stories of Prometheus, Zeus, Apollo, Medusa, Theseus are mythic stories that give explanation to how things were the way they were. Legends like the tale of King Midas was told to teach society moral lessons about greed and desire. All in all, myths were created to elaborate the human condition and to educate society of the right and wrong.
Today, superheroes that matched the power of mythological gods were created to provide another perspective of the human condition. Times have changed and technology is more advanced, yet there are still many concepts that is difficult to understand so we revert back to magic. Tales of a flying man in a cape, a man gaining powers through a radioactive spider, someone running faster than the speed of sound entertained the minds of many children and adults alike. But the idea of superheroes is more than just entertainment. The unrealistic universe that these extraordinary creatures were created came from a simpler origin: reality. They reflect historic events and also human elements that can be beneficial in understanding society. However, the superhero culture has been left more to entertain than to educate. Fewer and fewer people are reading comic books and superheroes are degraded into nothing but bodies in flashy costumes. If readers were to see that there are certain realistic human aspects that inspired authors to create superheroes and be seen as a respectable genre of literature and media then it would provide an effective and educational role model for society.
The creation of superheroes all started out with an author and a pen. Before the making of its graphic format, authors would write the plot, the storyline down on a paper and with for every author, there must be an inspiration. Before their characters don a suit or a cape, before they could fly or turn invisible, they have to find their inspiration for their human beginnings. Then, authors and artist will focus on that one certain human element and exaggerate it, emphasize it to the extraordinary levels. Human concepts and emotions are very complex and abstract concepts that only experts can fully explain and understand. But what these authors and artists are doing is to provide a tangible explanation for the unknown. They take something that is so nonconcrete and raise it to a hyper-realistic world in hope that a reader can see at least an ounce of reality in it. Along with the vision of making it entertaining to readers, there is also the idea of explain and educate.
One of the most well-known superheroes in history is Marvel’s Captain America. The idea of the patriotic hero sparked during the 1940s, the World War II era. Captain America was first written for the political agenda, to provide propaganda against Nazi Germany and the War back in the home front. Creators Joe Simon and Jack Kirby felt it was necessary to make such a character in hope to defeat the rising power of the Nazis: “The opponents to the war were all quite well organized. We wanted to have our say too” (Wright 36). They created Steve Rogers, a man too weak and unhealthy to enlist in the army, to be chemically enhanced into a super soldier. He instilled great nationalism to the people in the universe and also the readers. He inspired children and adults to have a strong sense of right and wrong, and perseverance. The star-spangled hero also symbolized in a kind of leader that everyone looks up to. Moreover, Steve Rogers/Captain America was a soldier who saw the depth of war and also saw that his own government had faults too. Beyond the nationalistic idealism he instilled, he realized that his own nation that gave him his powers was not an entity he should follow. In Captain America #323, his political views were questioned by the government (Captain America). Then in issue #332, the committee that oversaw his missions stated that they cannot give the name of Captain America to him unless he follows orders from them (Captain America #332, 9). At the same issue, page thirteen, Rogers defined himself as an independent that will only believe what is morally right and just:
Those men are not my country. They are only paid bureaucrats of
the country’s current administration. They represent the political system—while I represent those intangibles upon which our nation was founded . . . liberty, justice, dignity, the pursuit of happiness . . . By going back to my wartime role as a gloriﬁed agent of America’s ofﬁcial policies, I’d be compromising my effectiveness as a symbol that transcends mere politics. (qtd in Dubose 930-931).
Steve Rogers demonstrates the importance of morality beyond the bounds of politics, a promising example to readers. Politic is a realistic entity. It exists here in the real world and an aspect people are inclined to move towards to and forget the fundamentals that make a nation better. Rogers emphasized that people should not stray away from the idea of moral justice and freedom, that protecting society is not just about politics but a reasonable and virtuous desire of a human for another.
Desire, greed, pain—these are considered faulty elements that humans possess. These elements were the basis of the creation of the dark hero, Batman. One of DC’s most iconic heroes is the avenging dark knight that people fear. In contrast to the favorable reception of the red, white and blue Captain America, this character is haunting. His tragic origin involves the death of the parents of the billionaire, Bruce Wayne. Traumatized as a child, his own heart was covered in the black mist of despair and tragedy. He epitomizes the depth of human pain and the distances an individual can tread because of absolute anguish. Pain is something all humans can relate to and Batman represents that out of all the trauma, good will come out of it as a symbol of hope. He battled the corrupt politicians and criminals that shared the same darkness as him, and shone a light amidst the night sky to show that justice and light will rise.
Furthermore, Batman represents that he is a man among the gods. He is one of few superheroes that did not transcend into superhuman capabilities and powers. In a universe filled with beings from other worlds, with different powers, Batman showed that man can achieve the same powers of a god, which is a strength meaningful to people in the ordinary world. Trauma is a powerful weapon against the frail mentality of humans. There are soldiers who suffered through PTSD, victims of crimes and war, and men, women and children that live in pain because of disease and death. The myth of Batman is a motivation to use that pain for something beneficial. It is an optimistic symbol that inspired many victims of abuse and pain. A digital comic was published in the beginning of 2014 by comic book artist, Dean Trippe, which explained how Batman changed his traumatic life as a sexually abused victim. He showed how, for many years, he kept a “phantom gun” pointed to his head in fear that he would grow up like someone who would abuse and traumatize children. Through Batman’s adventures and famous words, “No guns”, he realized that “[he] could wrap [the darkness he lived in] around [his] arms like a security blanket. Or a cape. The yellow on [his] chest was [his] light defended by a black creature more powerful than anything crime could throw at [him]” (Trippe 18). Terrible things to humans and superheroes like the Dark Knight himself can bring good and hope out of it.
Modern mythology also delved into the power stratum of women in society. The creation of Wonder Woman inspired a significant number of women. She is a super woman whose origin is myth itself, an Ancient Greek Amazon who was born out of clay molded by the queen of the Amazons, Hippolita (Emad 958). Her most iconic stories emerged from a classical competition to choose who would be the warrior worthy enough to travel to “man’s world”, in order to stop the evil plots of the Greek god of war, Ares (Wonder Woman #1). This connection to classical mythology is the basis of Wonder Woman’s every day adventures, battling foes from Greek mythology such as Hades, Circe and Medusa. However, despite her mythic roots, the creation of this super woman saga is its own entity as modern myth.
One of the reasons that make Wonder Woman iconic is the situations that handle gender roles in society. Her origin alone, created by Harvard-trained psychologist and lawyer, William Moulton Marston, was intended to present “utopian ideals for social reform… [by setting it] “into motion with a gender-reversal image” (Emad 957-958). Wonder Woman contradicts the trope in which the princess in distress is saved by the brave knight or warrior. She heralds inherent strength in everyone, simultaneously emphasizing that femininity is an empowering trait to rise above most. The idea of this powerful princess became an active role model for children and women, but there are times where writers would subtly submit the superwoman to conventional gender roles such as the need for marriage. The pilot that she rescued in Sensation Comics #1, Captain Trevor, insisted the princess to marry him, as if her life would be complete if she married him which contradicted the purpose of her creation. But nevertheless, her strength over masculinity still remains “a relatively stable trope.” Marston’s greatest intention in creating this superhero was to teach girls that if they “feel [they] can do things, [they] can do them” and women are encouraged to “get strong and earn your own living” (Emad 959). Even to this day when women have acquired more rights as it was in the 1960s, Wonder Woman still inspires the importance of strength and womanhood.
Strength within humans is, however, difficult to find in a world filled with diversity. Throughout history, society has found to base its structure in hierarchy of the superior over the inferior. Differences in gender, race, views, and sexual orientation become the source of contempt and negativity in society. Marvel uses this concept for the creation of the X-men. Despite the achievements of Captain America, Batman, Wonder Woman and other superheroes, characters that were born with startling superhuman capabilities were introduced as mutants, and these mutants are unexpectedly shunned by society. They are discriminated against by normal humans and also by government; more specifically, they are seen as a threat to all humans, which functioned as reflection of social issues such as racism:
“The X-Men are hated, feared and despised collectively by humanity for no other reason than they are mutants,” Uncanny X-men writer Chris Claremont once said, So what we have here, intended or not, is a book that is about racism bigotry and prejudice.” (qtd in Dem)
The mythology of the X-men focuses on the theme that prejudice is within society no matter what difference a person possesses. In the human world, they are the abominations of nature that are dangerous and uncontrollable. In the perspective of other superheroes, there are some mutants who are considered outsiders because of their belligerent view of the world. Two types of mutants became a stable plot device throughout the X-men universe: “Some mutants tried to hide who they were in order to avoid conflict. Others became angry towards the rest of world” (Dalton 84). These different reactions is more commonly seen the fight between Professor X and Magneto. Professor X shares the same compassion as civil rights leader, Martin Luther King Jr. (Dem), who sought the peaceful co-existence of minorities and other people, through peaceful tactics in politics. Magneto, however, a child who was traumatized during the Holocaust, believed that mutants are powerful enough to overcome social hierarchy and rise above the normal humans (Dalton 84). Readers may find sympathy for some mutants or find contempt in the villainous acts in some but the main point of the mutant characters is to reveal the effects of prejudice. Prejudice and racism is still a significant social issue in the modern era, despite the government’s judiciary decisions and the X-Men series should be used as an educational tool to help people understand the evil of it: Stan Lee, the writer of X-men, was quoted, “Bigotry… [is] among the deadliest social ills plaguing the world today. But unlike a team of costumed supervillains, they can’t be halted with a punch in snoot… The only way to destroy them is to expose them” (qtd. Dalton 84). Society would move forward if it encourages confidence in self-identity.
There are more characters that can be discussed as respectable role models for society. More iconic superheroes such as Spider-Man and Superman teach responsibility and sacrifice. All of these mythic characters are created to provide a sense of moral understanding that can be beneficial to children and adults. In a psychology study conducted by Justin F. Martin, he studied children’s moral attitudes to situations correlating their familiarity with superheroes. Through conducting a survey, he concluded that “student’s personal attitudes are positively related to their attitudes about superheroes” (Martin 249). Also, he found out that most of children are not familiar with most superheroes listed above (results finding that the children were most familiar with Batman, and least with the X-men) (Martin 245). He believed that a child’s moral development can be fostered if teachers and parents find a superhero that the child can most identify with: “monitoring children’s exposure to superheroes and emphasizing superheroes’ prosocial behavior may help better prepare children to recognize the difference between positive and negative influences in other contexts” (Martin 249). Morality is a difficult concept to teach to children. It encompasses many human elements and behaviors that children would not comprehend instantly. Martin proved that these modern mythic heroes can be a tool to educate them.
Although comic books today have a more specific readership, superhero movies are on the rise. Films such as The Amazing Spider-Man, The Dark Knight, Avengers, X-Men series, is growing in popularity and it seems that there will be more in the future. The only thing left to do is to determine what to take out of it. People grew up with these mythic heroes and they continue to be a part of future generations. Superheroes exist in their own complex, extraordinary worlds in which people find great amazement and entertainment. But beyond the skin-tight flashy costumes, they are characters infused with a humanity that seemed to reflect our own. People will get a certain thrill through all the explosions and the magic of superheroes and all they need is to realize that superheroes are just larger incarnations of very human shapes and elements—all they need is to understand and learn.
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