Posted by: Doc Comics | August 31, 2011

Superhero Mythology & Origins: Week 1

“Every lover of myth is in a sense the lover of wisdom.” ~Aristotle

One might fairly wonder if superheroes are indeed mythology or not, and there is plenty of room to debate the relative merits of categorization. For now, it may be enough to engage a useful understanding of mythology put forth by William Doty:

The very definition of myth is problematic today; here narrow, partial, “monomythic” definitions are rejected in favor of a complex, inclusive one, the seventeen items of which are then discussed. A mythological corpus consists of a network of myths, which are culturally-important imaginal stories conveying, by means of metaphor and symbol, graphic imagery, and emotional conviction and participation, the primal, foundational accounts of the real, experienced world, and humankind’s roles and relative statuses within it. Mythologies may convey the political and moral values of a culture, and provide systems of interpreting individual experience within a universal perspective, which may include the intervention of suprahuman entities, as well as aspects of the natural and cultural orders. Myths may be enacted or reflected in rituals, ceremonies, and dramas, or provide materials for secondary elaborations. Only a polyphasic definition will provide appreciation of their manifold roles within a society. [Mythography, 2000]

Simply put, mythology performs a plethora of rhetorical and socio-cultural functions besides ‘mere’ entertainment. On the one hand we can examine some (mono)mythic archetype for patterns of structural consistencies and recurring themes or formula across cultures or over time, as Joseph Campbell does in The Hero With A Thousand Faces: “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.” This separation/ initiation/ return formula, Campbell argues following Jung, is a nigh-universal pattern for myth. On the other hand, we might attend to the telling variations of a tale to examine the distinct fantasy culturetype that conveys new meanings or values for some specific people, time, place, and context. This tension between formulaic convention and innovation (and the conservative versus progressive rhetorical functions of mythic fantasy) is nowhere more clearly illustrated than in the superhero’s origin story.

publicity ad for 1987’s BATMAN: YEAR ONE

The Batman is a particularly fascinating example of just how much narrative flexibility a mythic corpus can exhibit. In fact, it’s almost impossible to even speak of THE Bat-Man when there have been so many BatmanS over time, and I’m not just talking about the movies. In the early days, Batman carried a gun and had little problem dealing death to evil-doers but it wasn’t long before he traded his gat for a sidekick and acted more like a benevolent scout-leader than a grim avenger.  BATMAN: YEAR ONE is Frank Miller‘s turn at RetroActive Continuity or RetCon, a re-telling of the characters origins, motivation, and methods. Here are some discussion questions on B:Y1 that we’ll explore together in class as we delve into the MYTHIC RHETORICAL PERSPECTIVE of Rushing & Frentz. A central issue that will emerge: What tensions result from the superhero’s status as a “commodified myth,” and what important cultural beliefs and American values are on display within these tutelary archetypes?


  1. A great article at Sojourners on “Why Christianity and Comics go together.” Gene Luen Yang explores the tangled history of comics and Christianity, both of which, he points out, were started by a bunch of Jewish guys who loved a good story.


    For a great documentary look at the history of these caped crusaders, watch “SUPERHEROES UNMASKED” from the History Channel!

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