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Comic Books and Modern Mythology
Ever since ancient times, humanity has sought to use stories to explain the world in which it lives. Just as ancient man used stories of gods and monsters to explain the world, modern man uses stories of godlike heroes and monstrous villains to do the same.
Comic books are modern mythology in that they are modern man’s method of explaining the world around them through the fantastical. There are some major, iconic characters particularly exemplify this concept. These characters regularly tackle such major, philosophical, cultural and narrative concepts: the nature of good and evil, man’s inner struggle, the anti-hero, the feminist, and the savior. We'll be tackling five of the biggest of these characters in this article:
5 Comic Book Characters Who Help Us Explain the World
- Wonder Woman
- The Hulk
- The Silver Surfer
1. Wonder Woman: Daughter of Myth and Warrior of Strength
Wonder Woman is perhaps the most obvious example of a superhero in a modern myth. Wonder Woman’s stories are steeped deep within classical mythology. Wonder Woman was created as ancient Greek Amazon, formed from a lump of magical clay, and bestowed with power from the gods (Dougall 376). Her mother, who formed her from the clay, was Hippolita, the queen of the Amazons in classical Greek mythology (Day 97).
Emerging from an origin engulfed by myth, most of Wonder Woman’s most iconic and memorable stories have been deeply embedded in mythological characters and concepts. In fact, according to modern comic book continuity, Wonder Woman’s journey to the super heroic world of costumed adventuring began when the Amazons’ held a contest to choose a worthy champion to journey to “man’s world” to end a plot created by Ares, the god of war, to destroy the planet, and ever since that first adventure, the legendary figure has remained among her most common foes.
In addition to Ares, many of Wonder Woman’s other prominent foes also come from Greek mythology. The most notable example is the sorceress Circe, a powerful enchantress who encounters the hero Odysseus in Homer’s classic, The Odyssey (Day 356).
Although the characters in Wonder Woman’s stories often differ from their mythological counterparts, the basic elements of the myths often remain the same. Despite all her connections to classical mythology, Wonder Woman is not simply an adaption of mythic ideas but her own unique modern myth.
The main concept which makes Wonder Woman a modern myth is the concepts that her character deals with on a regular basis. Wonder Woman was created in the 1930s by esteemed Harvard psychologist William Molten Marsden, who saw comics as a way of transmitting myths and ideas (Grey, A Subversive Dream).
In a world full of gender discrimination, Molten created a woman who could not only stand on equal footing against men but actually stand quite high above most. He created a woman who was one of the strongest and fastest beings on earth, and one of the most brilliant, skillful combatants the world had ever seen (Beatty 376). This marvelous creation was very unique, and quite revolutionary, in that Marsden did attempt to make her remotely masculine in order to show her strength.
Wonder Woman has always been a deeply feminine character. Although Wonder Woman was aggressive and warlike she was also compassionate and loving. Wonder Woman even showed her femininity in the weapons she used. Her arsenal of tools consists predominantly of weaponized jewelry, a tiara capable of cutting through virtually anything, and bracelets that virtually no force in all creation could damage. Wonder Woman exists above all as a symbol of the inherent strength of womanhood.
2. Batman: A Man Among Gods
The Batman is a dark and frightening force, an avenging angel of the night, a character who is simultaneously frightening and awe-inspiring. He is a reflection of human pain and the depths to which that tragedy can send humanity, as well as the drive which tragic situations can produce within a person.
Even further, he is a reflection of how high a person can rise from the depths of tragedy and despair. All it took was one terrible moment to send an innocent little boy to the very brink of utter anguish. Yet, out of that anguish, that little boy rose out of the ashes to become one of the greatest forces for good his world had ever seen. Veiled behind his dark persona, he stands within his world as a beacon of light and a symbol of hope.
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Furthermore, Batman is a representative of all that man can achieve and overcome. In a world populated by beings with enormous, godlike power, Batman stands as a man with nothing more than his training, his wits, and an assortment of weaponry. He is very much the modern representative of the classical idea of the man who does battle with gods.
Some of Batman’s most common foes possess extraordinary abilities, far beyond those of mortal men. Villains such as Clayface, a monstrous, shape-shifting, criminal with a body made of an amorphous, mud-like substance (Beatty 85), should be far beyond the scope of a single human being, yet he prevails. Perhaps the most poignant example of Batman’s stature as the man who did battle with gods, is the climax of DC comics landmark story, Final Crisis, in which Batman, armed with the cosmic bullet, kills the all-powerful god Darksied (Morrison).
3. The Incredible Hulk: The Monster and The Man
The Incredible Hulk is an examination of man’s inner struggle. A very little-known fact about The Hulk is that there are multiple incarnations of the character, each representing a different aspect of the psyche of Bruce Banner, the unfortunate human being who transforms into The Hulk when he becomes angry or agitated (DeFalco 14-15), and his constant battle with the rage inside him. The most famous is what is commonly known as Savage Hulk.
This Hulk possesses a childlike mind and an indescribable level of power, and the desire to be left alone. This persona is representative of the scared and angry child within Banner, suffering horrid abuse at the hands of his father, and just wanting to be left alone. Banner often felt weak as frail as a child; consequently, this Hulk is one of his most powerful incarnations.
The second incarnation is that of the weaker, yet far craftier Grey Hulk. This incarnation is sadistic, manipulative, and selfish, all of the things which Banner never allowed himself to become. This is very much representative of all the repressed, self-indulgent side of Banner, which he never allowed to come out.
The third incarnation is Professor Hulk. Professor Hulk possessed the strength of Savage Hulk and the intelligence of Banner. This Hulk was also separated from the other Hulk incarnations by his appearance, while most other personalities were quite monstrous and bestial in appearance, Professor Hulk aside from his green skin looked more similar to a square-jawed, slightly disproportionate bodybuilder. He was egotistical and flashy, and, in many ways, acted as a much more classical super hero than The Hulk ever did before.
This particular incarnation was very much an embodiment of what Banner longed to be. He was strong, handsome and confident—all the things which a small, nerdy scientist would long to be. The final incarnation which shall be discussed here is the Devil Hulk. The Devil Hulk is very much what it sounds like. He is a creature of pure, unadulterated evil, representing all of Banner’s darkest thoughts and desires (DeFalco 113).
The constant war within Banner has always been a key point of the character’s history. Scenes often depict the personalities warring with one another or multiple personalities working together to contain the Devil Hulk. The war does not just exist between the personalities but between Banner and The Hulk. The Hulk has said many times that the person he hates above all others is Banner. And yet, in the midst of the constant struggle to overtake him and unleash ultimate rage and nigh-infinite power on the globe Banner remains vigilant.
In Banner, humanity sees a man struggle, and struggle, and never give in. He is an inspiring figure not in that he ever overcomes his struggle—for The Hulk always has and always will plague him—but in that he simply refuses to stop fighting. Banner is the triumph of the human spirit over constant opposition, and a representation of a never-ending battle within the human soul. The tragic, human saga of Bruce Banner, the man and the monster, contrasts very deeply with one of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s other famous creations, The Silver Surfer.
4. Silver Surfer: The Savior From the Stars
The Silver Surfer was introduced in the pages of comic book legends Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s revolutionary series Fantastic Four, and came to this world as the servant of Galactus, an all-powerful godlike being who sought to destroy the earth, not out of greed, vanity, or hatred for the human race, but simply because he needed sustenance.
Galactus was beyond good and evil, a cosmic force of nature, who survived by consuming the life energy of planets. He was a being so far beyond the scope of humanity that when asked how he could destroy an entire planet of living, breathing people, he simply replied “Would you care to tread upon and anthill (Lee Surfer)?” Surfer, on the other hand, despite his demigod-like position as Galactus servant and herald, saw the plight of humanity and the beauty which our race possessed.
Inspired by the purity of a young blind woman named Alicia Masters, The Silver Surfer abounded his mission and defied Galactus to save humanity. Although the earth was spared, in punishment for The Surfer’s rebellion, Galactus cast him out and trapped him on the earth which he claimed to love so much, forcing him to never again roam among the stars as he so longed, banishing The Surfer from his sight, like a vengeful god.
Religious imagery has always been a major part of The Silver Surfer’s symbolic history. When The Surfer first rebelled against Galactus and attacked his master, Galactus responded by raising his enormous hand out before him and launching beams of light, and titanic balls of fire, shown coming from off the panel, above The Surfer, from his fingertips. Later, when Galactus casts The Surfer from his presence, he does so by blasting him with beams of light, his ominous, shadowed figure stands in the background. Fire from above, the hand of God, and lightning, are all forms of religious imagery (Gabilliet 208).
In another story showcasing The Surfer’s origin, the humanlike alien Norrin Radd is reborn within the hand of Galactus as The Silver Surfer, kneeling and praying. In The Silver Surfer’s only major live-action appearance, in the 2007 film, Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, The Surfer moves his body into a position very reminiscent of Christ hanging upon the cross, before sacrificing his life to save the planet from Galactus, only to rise from the grave at the last moment of the film. Even the great comic book legend Stan Lee has described The Surfer as a Christ figure (Sentinel).
5. Superman: The Ultimate Ideal
Superman is perhaps the most overtly mythic superhero in the entire pantheon of magnificent characters. Everyone knows his story. A desperate father, whose world is dying around him, and whose people have, for ignorance and pride, ignored his warnings until the very end, sends his only son to Earth.
The infant is taken up by a kindly, farming family. The child is blessed with gifts and abilities far beyond those of mortal men and eventually grows to become the greatest champion for truth and justice that any world has ever seen. That very description almost sounds as if it were describing an ancient myth. The story and essence of Superman is one filled to the brim with brilliant, mythic concepts.
Superman, like The Silver Surfer, is a being beyond the scope of humanity. He was sent to earth from a place beyond the stars, a place far more advanced than our world. He is the savior sent from the heavens coming forth to rescue mankind.
In many ways, the Superman myth is quite similar to the myth of The Silver Surfer. Both are mysterious heroes, from places beyond the earth, with power beyond human comprehension. They are humanity's otherworldly saviors, willing to sacrifice all for the sake of mankind. There is, however, one very important difference between the myths of these two great, godly heroes.
Superman, unlike The Silver Surfer, is, simultaneously, both more than human and perfectly human. Superman is very interesting, when one looks at him as a mythic idea, in that, with all the physical power, all the inner strength, all the godlike qualities to his character, he is still, at his core, very human. Superman, while born in another world, was raised by very human parents, with very human experiences, values, and perspectives.
As such, Superman struggles, both emotionally, with problems such as the ever-present weight of the world hanging on his shoulders, and physically, with opponents even more powerful than even him. The most poignant example of this constant struggle is the classic story of Superman’s tragic death and triumphant return.
Throughout the story, Superman struggles to save the world as he battles the merciless monster known as Doomsday, taking beating after beating from the indescribable creature, never giving in. Superman ultimately sacrifices his life to save the world from the unstoppable beast but proves that not even death itself can keep him from fighting.
Through a combination of powerful alien technology, the unwillingness to surrender to his fate, even in the afterlife, and perhaps even a little divine intervention, Superman returns to rescue the world from a vile imposter and return to his place as humanity’s champion (Jurgens). Superman is an inspiration, not because of his power, but because of his spirit.
Superman is, in many ways, modern man’s vision of the ultimate ideal. He is a grand force from beyond humanity, yet perfectly human in so many ways. He is a representation of humanity's hopes and aspirations. In every era since his creation, Superman has embodied those qualities which the age admires the most.
In his early years, during the time of The Great Depression, a dark time in the history of the United States, when the nation was wracked with the pain of poverty and misery, Superman was a powerful crusader for social justice, fighting for the poor and downtrodden. The Superman of the depression was ferocious, tearing through doors and demanding justice for the innocent.
In 1979, in a time following Watergate and Vietnam, when the nation had become jaded with its leaders and heroes, director Richard Donner introduced the defining Superman of the era. The Superman of that time was simply someone honest and true, a person who claimed to stand for truth and justice, and actually did, a calmer and less violent Superman than his depression-era predecessor, a hero who stood for peace and truth (Secret Origin).
Now, in a time of a great recession, when men and women across the country lose their jobs, and the gap between rich and poor becomes wider and wider, Superman has returned to the crusader for social justice, once again bashing through walls and demand justice for the poor, battling the rich and fighting for the impoverished (Morrison and Morales).
In conclusion, comic book superheroes reflect and examine mankind’s struggles, its hopes its fears and its dreams. Some heroes look at the human nature, such as The Hulk, in his examination of the war within each person’s soul, Wonder Woman, in her reflection on the inherent strength of womanhood, and Batman, in his celebration of the possibility of human accomplishment, as well as his reflection on the darker side of human nature and our ability to overcome it. Other heroes examine more abstract concepts, such as The Silver Surfer, in his examinations of sacrifice and isolation and Superman’s reflection on the ultimate human ideal.
- Beatty, Scott, et al. The DC Comics Encyclopedia. New York: DK Publishing, 2008. Print
- Day, Malcom. 100 Characters from Classical Mythology. London, England: Quarto Inc, 2007. Print.
- Defalco, Tom. Hulk: The Incredible Guide. New York: DK Publishing, 2003. Print
- Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer. Dir. Tim Story.20th Century Fox. 2007. Film
- Gabilliet, Jean-Paul. "Cultural And Mythical Aspects Of A Superhero: The Silver Surfer 1968-1970." Journal Of Popular Culture 28.2 (1994): 203-213. Academic Search Premier. Web. 8 Nov. 2011.
- Grey, Alexander, and Jeff Maynard, prod. Wonder Woman: Daughter of Myth. Warner Bros. 1st ed. Disc 2. 2009. DVD.
- Grey, Alexander, and Jeff Maynard, prod. Wonder Woman: A Subversive Dream.Warner Bros.. 1st ed. Disc 2. 2009 DVD.
- Jurgens, Dan, et al. The Death and Return of Superman: Omnibus. New York: DC Comics, 2007. Print
- Lee, Stan, and Jack Kirby, “The Startling Saga of The Silver Surfer!” Fantastic Four May 1966: 50. Print
- Lee, Stan and Jack Kirby, “The Coming of The Hulk” The Incredible Hulk May 1962: 1. Print
- Morrison, Grant., Doug Manke, and JG Jones. Final Crisis. New York: DC Comics, 2009. Print
- Morrison, Grant and Rags Morales, “Superman VS The City of Tomorrow” Action Comics (Vol 2) September 2011: 1. Print
- Secret Origin: The Story of DC Comics. Dir. Mac Carter. 2010. Warner Bros. 1stth ed. DVD.
- Sentinel of the Spaceways: Comic Book Origin of The Silver Surfer. 20th Century Fox. 1st ed. Disc 2 2007. DVD
- Zimmerman, David A. Comic Book Character. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004. Print.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Megan Sinclair on August 15, 2017:
Really interesting article, definitely plays into what I am writing for my thesis. Do you mind if I quote it?
Super man on September 25, 2015:
batman's not really a super hero
Sand on September 25, 2015:
I wish I was batman's parents oh wait.