Orma Sodalitas Anthropologica, Cluj-Napoca, Romania
Comic Books as Modern Mythology
Abstract: This article deals with the issue of comic books as modern mythology, exposing some arguments that prove the importance of comic books for today’s Western (and in some aspects, global) imaginary world and mentality. This topic is difficult to tackle because of the difficulty in defining myth, since its present semantic load is negatively constructed, and because of the stereotypes regarding the academic evaluation of comic books. The arguments are picked from different disciplines (history, anthropology, cultural studies, linguistics or sociology) and aim different aspects of the relation between comic books and myth. The first is Arthur Asa Berger’s theory of the culture seen as an onion with multiple concentric layers that cover a nucleus provided by myth. The second argument deals with technical aspects, insisting on the visual definition of comic books, which makes them an ideal channel for myth dissemination. The third argument regards their economic, social, cultural and political relevance, seen as meta-textual implications. The fourth argument discusses the reinterpretation of classical ancient or modern myths comic books revisit. The final argument deals with the myths comic book created in the last century, some of them reaching global recognizance and influence. This article does not aim at giving a definitive interpretation but at stimulating debates and future contributions in the study of comic books, modern mythology and popular culture in general.
Keywords: comic books, myth, popular culture, entertainment, mass-media, ideology, super-heroes.
“Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, Wonder Woman;
among the most widely-known fictional characters ever conceived.”
The issue of myth and its relevance for and influence on the contemporary world seems to be an ever-growing and inexhaustible area of cultural research. The theoretical and methodological conundrum hits from the very start, involving the sheer definition of myth. Although everybody uses this concept in various contexts following overused stereotypes (and sometimes in the most surprising and unorthodox ways), a generally agreed upon definition has not yet been given. As K. K. Ruthven puts it, nobody ever managed to obtain a degree in mythology, all the specialists coming from different fields calling “myth” completely different things that bear the same name.[i] The number of valid definitions of myth has long surpassed 500[ii], many scientific disciplines bringing their own important contributions to the topic, yet none succeeding in exhausting the subject. Incommensurable or even apparently contradictory considerations are all contributing to the big fuzzy puzzle the notion of “myth” inspires. It is of no wonder that almost all disciplines in humanities and social sciences have their own theoretical and methodological strategies to deal with myth, anthropology, psychology, theology, linguistics, political sciences and many other bringing their arsenal to a theoretical struggle that has not yet reached consensus, and intuition tells that as long as humanity exists and uses its imagination, it never will. The difficulty in defining myth might discourage occasional attempts of using this concept, but the same richness of perspectives provides opportunities for innovative researches which could add to the general understanding of today’s cultural ambient, reflexes and trends.
Another major difficulty the researcher finds in this exploit is the negative semantic load the concept of myth accumulated through history, especially during the last century. Myth’s conceptual sphere constantly expanded in theory, together with the development of new research areas, but its status deteriorated at the same time, mostly being reduced to the role of opposition to the logical discourse, of reason, the evil twin in the ever-present pair mythos-logos. As science evolved (the good daughter of the sane logos), myth became the equivalent of obscurantism, superstition, false belief or plain lies. Even Plato himself expressed his mistrust in the ability of myth to educate the young generations, seeing it as a source of damaging ethic and political behaviors (admitting its important role in identity construction and even using it in his discourse).[iii] This unilateral perspective towards myth culminates with the position of Roland Barthes, who considers myth simply a perverse tool of manipulation used by the bourgeoisie for deceiving its members and keeping a dominant status in contemporary societies.[iv] In fact, this perspective is the one that got adopted by the dictionaries and penetrated the public mentality worldwide. General dictionaries offer two major layers in myth’s definition: the first one referring to “an ancient traditional story about gods, heroes, and magic”, and by expansion, “ancient traditional story”, while the second clearly stating it is “something that people wrongly believe to be true”.[v] Therefore, myth would be today only a literary artifact, devoid of social, psychological or theological relevance, or a simple logical error, an institutionalized lie.
This trend is not only a proof of superficiality in defining key concepts in order to make them vaguely operational at a popular level (a phenomenon that affects all areas in humanities, social sciences and even “hard” sciences, in the case of vital concepts such as “energy”, “democracy” or “self”), but also a sign of the importance of specialized studies dedicated to the study of myth coming from as many disciplines as possible. Common and final agreement regarding the definitions of myth is not attainable and neither should it be intended, but the diverse contributions add to the knowledge mankind holds about itself (and unquestionable arguments have been formulated to prove the fact that some aspects of human existence cannot be understood if not taking myth into account). From theories that argue for the existence of myth in the case of cerebral activities some animals experience, therefore preceding human existence[vi], to scholars that completely negate the relevance of myth or only conceive it as a negative function of the psyche, a plethora of conceptions show that myth has always been (and it always will be) a major defining function of the human mind, influencing social, cultural, political and even biological existence.
Rather confused by the choir of so many definitions of myth, the researcher has to admit that at any given moment or context more of these definitions are operational (myth may be a belief, a type of discourse, a certain narrative load or the subtext of a ritual, at the same time), this forcing the taking into account of more disciplines, each with its own methodology and conceptual apparatus. Of course, myth is not everything and too many times the trap of mistaking myth for something else or rather taking other concepts as myth (legends, sagas, fairytales, ideologies, or even gossips) encumber various attempts at analyzing ancient or modern myths. This theoretical difficulty often leads to unbalanced or ideology-driven conclusions which fuel the stereotypes regarding myth (keeping in mind that in this field the researcher’s personal profile and professional background also plays an important part).
In this article I shall expose some special links myth and comic books share, arguing that in the contemporary world comic books are a major media channel which favors the dissemination of old myths and the creation of new ones, which follow (sometimes astonishingly closely) ancient certified mythical mechanisms.[vii] Some aspects of modern mythology include comic books among other cultural phenomena, referring to larger categories, while others are strictly defining comic books in the present cultural ambient. I am not asserting that myth is the source of comic books (at least not more than in the case of other forms of art or media channels), and I am not stating that every comic book is mythical or that they can only exist if carrying mythical load. I am stating that myth and comics have close ties and that they are both strong identity-forging instances (comics being in some relevant cases the carriers of mythical backgrounds, figures and fluxes), holding privileged places in today’s local and global imagination. Furthermore, only by taking this relationship between the two into account can some important cultural, social, economic, anthropological and even political phenomena be explained.
1) The cultural “onion”
Arthur Asa Berger proposed a suggestive metaphor which could really help draw a diagram in order to understand the ties myth establishes with other areas of culture and society, by forming and informing them, as the author puts it.[viii] He sees culture as an onion with multiple layers, holding the myth (the sacred story) at its core. This essential nucleus is covered by the historical events put into connection to that myth. A third layer comprises the elitist creations containing reverberations of the myth, covered, at their turn, by the layer of the popular culture creations. Finally, Asa Berger identifies the largest layer, that of the everyday activities which reflect the myth. He exemplifies this diagram with the American case, selecting the myth of the Lost Paradise and the constant search for a regretted original innocence. On the layer of the historical events are placed the moving of the puritans to the New World (in order to escape the European corruption and decadence), together with other utopian communities. On the high culture level are placed many creations that deal with the image of innocence put in danger by the actions of the (European) civilization (and we can follow other subsequent ideas generated by this mythical flood, such as “the noble savage”). Popular culture also contributes to the exploiting of this mythical core in its western or science-fiction creations in which heroes have to cleanse towns or planets of turbulent elements and pursue a redemptive act for the society. Finally, at the level of everyday life, the same call of innocence is to be identified in the fascination with the suburbs, with the “green”, with the intimate linking with nature.
Comic books belong to the popular culture layer, not accepted yet as a strong artistic medium, their access to a higher “cultural capital” (to use Bourdieu’s concept) still being denied, although they have become tremendously influential and a very lucrative business (the scarcity of academic researches dealing with comic books also indicates the secondary place they hold in the cultural “hierarchy”). Sometimes the mythical influences over the comic book production are obvious (and at times the forced mythical references are confusing, useless or even annoying, because their simple use does not grant a high-quality story), but in some cases they need thorough research, just as it happens in literature or other forms of art.
It is true that in this diagram comic books, as part of the popular culture field, are not the carriers of a specific mythical load, but a part of the general picture, together with other media, such as films, cartoons, music, popular novels or video games. Their technical or narrative specificity is not relevant at this stage.
2) Comic books are visual (technical aspects)
Sight is the most important sense and the human mind operates mainly in visual parameters. Even the whole human civilization is visually-oriented, from the archaic times to the present-day explosion of the image (in fact, the predominance of the writing and of the abstract thinking is temporally just a short period compared to the eras dominated by images). Jean-Jacques Wunenburger underlines that images are representations of affective nature, which are the source of affects but also of beliefs, at the same time activating a cognitive function, by associating multiple signifying layers and placing them into a symbolic setting.[ix] Operating with strong and expressive images, myths exert an overwhelming influence over the affects, usually escaping rationalistic attempts of explanation (some authors even state that any single myth needs its own explaining principle, due to its structure of irreducible singularity[x]). Images are created and disseminated by myths, but they can also create strong and resilient myths (we only need to point to the cave drawings of Altamira to plunge into the abyss of the undecipherable and indescribable).
Comic books are visual by their nature, and there are some historians and theorists of the genre that find long-term filiations with other ancient, mainstream forms of art (identifying the origins of comics in Hogarth’s paintings, in the Bayeux tapestry, in emperor Trajan’s column or even in the cave drawings).[xi] Being visual and static, offering diverse reading codes and tropes (either segmented into frames separated by blank gutters or covering whole pages, sometimes in more than a single possible sequence), comic books are expected to impress the eye and the mind with influential images, bringing concrete shape and color to help imagining adventures, landscapes and characters. When artistically accomplished, such images might stay a long time in the mind of the reader, and at times they might even determine future conceptualizations (for example, the way many people imagine the Gauls is influenced by the extremely popular Astérix French series, a caricaturized but impressively well drawn and narrated version of Antiquity).
Of course, there are other visual media, and at the present some exert a more powerful influence on the public’s mind than comics (to name just the movies and the video games), but comic books own a trait that makes them unique and offers them an advantage in presenting durable and powerful images: they are static. It is true that movies offer “actual” movement (in fact, just the illusion of movement, suggested by the fast passing of static frames, Scott McCloud loosely naming comics “an accelerated film”[xii]) and sound, while video games offer the possibility of actually taking control of the story (a pre-defined story, nevertheless), but they both impose a certain “reading” rhythm and strategies, a certain type of awareness, based on fast stimulus and constant paying attention.[xiii] Comic books give the reader the option of calibrating his/her own reading pacing and rhythm, they are less strict as it regards attention and in-story continuity, sometimes allowing scores of points of interest on a page and multiple layers of action in the same panel, containing many surprises and therefore benefiting from high re-reading value (it is understandable that not all comic books have the same artistic or narrative value and that the majority fail at delivering challenging and rewarding experiences).
Comic books consist of temporal selections in a storyline, of focusing points that practically only highlight certain moments, the quantity of time from one panel to another varying from a second to hundreds or thousands of years, the art of comics being at the same time subtractive and additive and so “finding the balance between too much and too little is crucial to comics creators the world over”.[xiv] This sequential profile of comics-books forces the reader into the situation of reconstructing the actual causal link between these highlighted moments and his/her effort is the most important aspect of the art, as Scott McCloud puts it in his groundbreaking cited book (this active stimulation of imagination is an irrefutable argument against those who accuse comics of keeping the young reader in an illiterate state and also a valid proof that this art requires certain “cultural competences”).
Furthermore, comic books are neither defined by drawing nor by text (they are not illustrated text as illustrated books are, and they are not explained drawings, as some graphics or instructions are) but by a structural combining of the two, up to the point of text becoming a functional internal part of the image. Certain indicators for movement, sound, smell, emotion markers (surprise, anger, eagerness, joy, etc.) and text shaping markers (indicating the tone of voice, the attitude, etc.) are added to the particular language comic books have created and exported to other cultural areas. Text in comic books does not play just the role the phylacteries played in medieval images, that of an additional explanation or an identity marker (due to not “trusting” the drawing or the painting?), but it becomes an internal actor of the whole picture, sometimes even a character in itself. Judging from a formal perspective, text is even more valorized than in traditional writing, getting its own image, playing part, visual personality (words get shapes, “flesh”, clothes, and they even can use tools – or other words). Not only comic books do not avoid using text, and by consequence encouraging illiteracy, but they help dealing in new, different and challenging ways with it, stimulate new and inventive relations between the text and the reader, and in a true meta-textual interpretation, prove that different kinds of text are always present in our world and in our minds, determining our actions and even finding their own physical space.
All these technical aspects (and they are by no means all that is important when speaking about comic books) bring the comics art in the area of myth, which also sometimes reifies words, abstract formulae or texts. Myths also need strong and revisiting images, repetition being, along contradiction (as Claude-Lèvi Strauss asserts) a defining trait of myth.[xv] Myth expresses itself in comics not only because of the image’s dominance, but also due to an inherent laconism. Both of these areas use words economically, therefore they choose them carefully and put important symbolic loads on them. Rarely a word is just a word in myth or in comics, and diverse phrases overlap their strict meaning, sometimes completely changing the reader’s perception. There are comics that strictly separate the drawing and the text (Prince Vaillant, Tarzan, etc.), but this strategy did not have a long and successful career in the industry, because it keeps a “distant” approach, a sort of narrating about a narration, due to the separation of the two components, the reader not feeling completely immersed into the plot. We can also find comics that lack any kind of text, but again it is an exception (usually humorous short stories), since complex stories need the presence of text and its narrative implications.
3) Economic, political and social life of comic books (meta-textual implications)
Comic books have started out as pure entertainment, and this has remained their main attribute all throughout their short history. Not really being taken seriously by the academic establishment, comics have passed their maturity exam as an important and influent American art-form (or at leas medium) once they reached the status of the main form of entertainment, during the Great Crisis and the Second World War (largely known as the Golden Age of comic books). Once the new type of character, the super-hero (Superman being the first in 1938), has been thrown out on the market, comics became, first of all, a huge millions dollars business.[xvi] This quick and oversized development of an unconventional business generated a wave of emulation and a sort of hysteria among the artists and the producers (if initially comics were considered to be the moral equivalent of pornography[xvii] and the majority of artists preferred anonymity in order to protect their professional credibility, in short time almost everybody wanted to be a part of it). The reasonable thinking of this business got surpassed by the dreamy euphoric possibilities in the troubled context of the war economy, bringing a strong imaginary aspect to the whole endeavor, which many times reached mythical status. Given the state support for some home industries, including comics, huge amounts of money (but also influence and fame) got involved and the successful stories are now seen as modern-day legends, great ideas brought into reality by inspired individuals (it suffices to name Detective Comics and Marvel), while the not so successful stories were long forgotten and only to be found in archives and scholarly works.
Comic books quickly get bigger than themselves, becoming the symbolic carriers or strong political and social messages. Almost all artists got involved into the war effort, putting their much-loved characters fighting the propagandistic war against an actual enemy, the powers of the Axis (Superman, Batman, Robin, they got together in order to motivate the population resist fatal ideological influence and contribute to the war effort by buying war bonds, while Captain America made his debut in March 1941 by hitting Hitler’s jaw, even before the Unites States actually declared war to Germany). Since the American soldiers were great comic books consumers (around 35 000 Superman comics were being sent to the soldiers in Europe on a monthly basis, them being a channel the cultural contact between the locals and the freeing army from the “New World”[xviii] took place, and these wartime comic books were considered to be another proof of the lack of sophistication American culture suffered from). Even more than that, comics and politics interacted at the highest level: when the hero of the comics series Terry and the Pirates was forced out of a Pacific island by the Japanese forces, none other than the president Roosevelt intervened and recommended the retaking of that particular island, in order to avoid affecting the morale of the American troops.[xix]
Even after the war, when strife-oriented comics lost their power of attraction, other issues got hold of the (young) public, social and cultural anguish finding its perfect medium in the drawn pages (the fear of an atomic war, social dissolution and loss of power of the law, Communist fears in Orwellian scenarios, all depicted in waves of crime, mystery, sci-fi and horror stories). Contesting the establishment and the moral consensus, they stimulated the “atomization” of youth culture, emancipated from the parental control, even before rock music or Hollywood productions exploited the imagery of rebellious youth.[xx] During the fifties, comic books and their revolt caused extreme reactions, culminating with the American Congress hearings linking them with juvenile delinquency, generated by the activity of Fredric Wertham and his book that almost destroyed comics, Seduction of the Innocent. It was the moment that certified the importance of comic books in the American cultural (and by contamination, during the decades that followed, almost global) context and their constructive (or disruptive, depending on the situation) influence over an important part of society (if not society as a whole). But the point of no return had already been reached and the trend of socially, culturally, economically and even politically empowering of the young continued and grew (culminating with the protesting movements that swarmed the Western world during the sixties), and the way comics contributed to this trend was not to be ignored.
Although losing a bit of visibility after the huge scandal, comics never retreated and if the great publishing houses (DC and Marvel) got closer to the establishment, new and subversive titles and artists appeared and offered counter-cultural channels (titles such as Kurtzman’s Mad, or untamed artists such as Crumb, Spain, Shelton or Spiegelman) that pointed to the hot issues of the day (drugs, sexuality, ideology, consumerism and so on) by claiming and glorifying the right to free speech. In fact, comic books always brought to light difficult issues and transposed them in clear and direct messages, friendlier to a large audience than difficult novels or cryptic works of art (such as experimental movies): social and racial marginality, homosexuality, AIDS, immigration, technology, and later terrorism, lack of solidarity and the power of information.
Comic books are also an identity statement, referring to their status in the cultural hierarchy, as it happened in France, where rather poor young people who could not afford an expensive hobby such as photography, found a scene to exercise their talents and (political) opinions in the art of comics (and it must not come as a surprise that many artists showed leftist sympathies). Similar identity statements via comic book reading preferences are to be found in other places, such as Japan, where manga (the generic Japanese term for comics) have evolved into strictly specialized segments, from working categories (brokers) to social groups (housewives) and sexual orientations (gay and lesbian people).[xxi] We should also think of the Indonesian context where, during the period following the gaining of state independence (the seventies), comic books helped orienting young people towards the written culture (in an overwhelmingly illiterate culture) by organized public readings, and they also helped at modernizing an almost complete rural society (comics were an urban hobby, which adult and educated people such as students, medics, lawyers or teachers indulged in).[xxii]
Another example proving that comic books have expanded beyond their strict function as an entertainment medium or an unorthodox form of art consists of their receiving in the former communist block. The official ideology considered comic books as an emanation of the capitalist mentality, with a corrupting effect on the working-class, and imposed brutal censorship as it regarded their narrative content and even their sheer existence. Finogenov, one of influential ideological aestheticians in Moscow defined comics as “imperialist filth” and recommended their total excluding from the public space.[xxiii] In Romania comic books have been banned from editorial space from 1949 to 1953 and even after that its production was strictly surveyed by the communist party clerks, who promptly sanctioned any deviation from the official line (Puiu Manu, one of the most respected Romanian comic book artists remembers having drawn a space story in which a spy had infiltrated the spaceship and the political supervisor rejected the whole story, arguing that on a Soviet spaceship there could not be any spies)[xxiv]. But for the general public in the eastern block comic books exerted huge fascination and even if the local production was reduced and the occasional western imports were almost inexistent, many young (and not only) people became avid collectors of such magazines and books. Bradford Wright finds a cultural explanation for this phenomenon, stating that comics symbolized all that was attractive and possible in the western consumerist culture, their influence not always depending on their quality or inner ideology (the author remembers a trip he took as a 9 year old child together with his father in Eastern Berlin in 1977, carrying some of his personal comic books in the car’s trunk; the only thing the visibly irritated custom officer confiscated were these comics).[xxv]
4) Comic books revisit old and recent mythologies
Myths have always provided attractive narrative content to all types of communication channels, which have all offered their own variants of the same major and easily recognizable mythical characters, events and backgrounds. If numerous examples from high arts, such as classical literature, painting, sculpture, architecture or classical music are expectedly retellings or reinterpretations of the well known myths (mostly originating in the West’s Judeo-Christian and Greek-Roman inheritance), modern arts and media, such as film, comic books or video games also use this content in their production, exporting it all over the globe, due to their power to influence and their ability to forge easily understandable and identifiable messages. Comic books are not unique in this aspect, but their exploitation of classical or modern myths is obvious and clear.
First of all, classical accounts of mythic origin are dealt with in the comics medium, well-known myths getting graphic sequential dimension. The adventures of Hercules, the Olympian intrigues, the creation of Rome or Biblical episodes have all appeared in many versions in comic books, some even being used as teaching support or for institutional message dissemination (for example, in the case of various Christian groups, involving Biblical scenes). Other mythic traditions have received a rather marginal treatment, since they were not an immediate part of the ancient European inheritance and therefore not constituting all-known reference points: Chinese, Japanese, Hindu, Egyptian or Native-American (to be noted that this happens in the Western comics tradition, because emerging comic book scenes from other cultural areas exploit their own myths, adapting them to this modern western medium, as it happens in the young but very vigorous Indian scene). Even though some of these stories might offer exquisite examples of artistic success, the sheer transposing of classical myths into a new medium would not be a reason of enthusiastic acclaim (the mechanism not being a novelty at all), but the mythic characters are inserted into their own continuity, in new settings and new scenarios, which stimulate imaginative speculations and prove once more that the fascination ancient patterns exert over the large public did not vanish (and it might never will). Hercules and Thor are part of earthly super-heroic teams for the Marvel publishing company, Wonder Woman is the daughter of the Amazon queen Hyppolita, Flash wears Hermes’s winged helmet, Captain Marvel uses the acronym SHAZAM to obtain his powers (Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles, Mercury), while the creators of Superman have admitted aiming him to be a combination of Hercules and Samson.[xxvi]
Not only imaginary characters played a role in giving narrative substance to the comic book industry, but also real life personalities entered their pages, many times in “larger than life” scenarios. Graphic biographies of historical and cultural leaders, scientists, artists or sportsmen are abundant, and if some try to be accurate and keep an air of credibility (mainly for educational purposes, as it was the case of Simon Bolivar, Lincoln or Churchill), most of them use real people, places and events but intertwined in imaginary (or at least imaginative) stories, reaching mythical status in respect of Joseph Campbell’s assertion that “when a person becomes a model for other people’s lives, he has moved into the sphere of being mythologized”.[xxvii] Public figures coming from the entertainment industry have also reached mythical status and their images have been inserted in all media channels, either as (what was generally considered to be the image of) themselves or as fictional characters they have played or invented (Marylin Monroe, James Dean, Marlon Brando, Michael Jackson, Ozzy Osbourne and many more).[xxviii] Even when they are not present as acting characters, as “real” or fictive persons, they might be present as references, carrying a semantic load varying from excellence, style or resilience, to failure, confusion or self-loathing.
Another mythical aspect of comic books regards the story-building strategy and the narrative tropes, the omnipresent motives and culturally accepted psychological structures. Mostly in super-heroes comic books (the most influential and rich type of comics), the overwhelming majority of stories are built following an ancient and certified recipe active in myths. They are always dealing with exceptional characters, placed in unusual status-quo breaking situations, usually caused by a turbulent factor (an evil intervention, an event or a natural disaster). A clear and usually schematic Manichaeism is functional in almost all strife-oriented comic books, although some of the evil characters have become so liked by the public that their allegiance changed over time, even up to the point of surpassing the good heroes (Magneto, The Joker, Catwoman, Darkseid, Doctor Doom, etc.).[xxix] “Writers and artists recognize this fact (publishers even more so) by protecting their best villains jealously from poor handling or over-use”, states Richard Reynolds.[xxx] Brotherly betrayals, spiritual journeys, demigod saviors, legendary worlds (Atlantis, Lemuria, Hell, Mars, etc.), resurrections, animate weapons and tools, hidden knowledge, hubris, tricksters, all the traditional narrative arsenal myths have always used is abundant and vital in comic books. Only the forms are new (mostly related to technology, fashion or tastes), while the substance of the stories is the same, even the epic construction reminding closely of the ancient storytelling tradition: the status-quo is threatened (by a villain or by a cataclysm), the hero/heroes comes/come to save the day, the ultimate battle/effort takes place (every new battle/effort has to be greater than the last and all have to seem apocalyptical), the order is restored and, very important, the hero subtracts himself/herself from the rejuvenated order, in the stance of a silent watcher[xxxi] (the hero is not part of functional society which relies on its own resources and institutions, and when he/she gets involved, it is only as his/her regular and civic alter-ego).
5) Comic books create their own mythology
Beyond all other mythical aspects we can identify in the art (and in the industry, if not even in the politics) of comic books, maybe the most relevant and the richest is that of the myths created and maintained by them, myths which have passed the borders of the medium and invaded all the other media and even the popular mentality (sometimes at a global level).
First of all, together with the adaptation of an existent mythological content, of ancient or more recent origin (western, horror, sci-fi, or from the anthropomorphic imagery), some characters, imaginary spaces and narrative strategies invented in the field of comics imposed themselves into the contemporary imagination. The most successful invention comic books brought into the world was the super-hero, a particular type of character reminding of mythical heroes or demigods, but functioning on his/her own mechanisms, which are connected to the contemporary sensibility and entertaining preferences. Super-heroes are known worldwide; they have entered all communication channels and have generated huge fandom phenomena, some up to a clinical point, reminding of hysteria or even schizophrenia.[xxxii] The everyday language is permeated with comic book references, and common idioms were created around super-heroic trivia (“don’t hulk up over it”, “my spider-senses are tingling”, “my X-ray vision tells me you are lying”, “who do you think you are, Superman?”).[xxxiii] Danny Fingeroth remarked that every generation creates the heroes it needs (if during the Second World War Superman brings Hitler and Stalin to face international justice to the Geneva Court, during the fifties he hunts Communists, while in the seventies he takes the side of pacifist and ecologist militants against the corrupt judicial system).[xxxiv] We tell ourselves the same stories to strengthen group ties, continues Fingeroth, and a story in which the Good does not win might seem closer to reality, but it does not hold motivational value. The characters penetrate various media by a process of cross-pollination, and they manifest a super-heroic conscience (even those who are placed in the middle of the road between human and super-human, like Rambo or James Bond) with the hope (and the fear) that there is more to the world that meets the eye, possibility which needs to be seeded in our “cultural diet”.[xxxv]
Jean-Bruno Renard identifies four common attributes super-heroes share and which indicate their mythical filiations. The first one would obviously be the super-power, surpassing their predecessors’ (pulp heroes who were just exceptional humans, such as The Phantom or Mandrake), which makes them resemble to ancient mythical beings. Some of them are placed at the crossroads of distinct reigns, just as the gods bearing animal traits, mostly originating in the Egyptian mythology (Batman, Wasp, Hawkman, Spiderman), others are personifying elemental properties (Aquaman, Iron Man, Plastic Man, Atom, Flash or the Fantastic Four), others come from fabulous peoples and have an intermediate status, between humans and gods (Wonder Woman, Superman, Silver Surfer, Namor, Sasquatch), while others hang suspended between the living and the dead (Deadman, Black Widow, Spectre). The second attribute would be the double identity. Although some heroes do not wear masks (Superman, Thor), they are not recognized due to the context that keeps them from being recognized, but the majority wear masks or are unrecognizable due to controlled or fortuitous metamorphosis (Captain Marvel, Hulk). The third attribute would be the already mentioned Manichaeism, which makes the good heroes always win (sometimes paying the ultimate price) but only temporarily (and not only for practical reasons, to keep the series going). The final attribute would then be the eulogy of the body and of technology. Comic books are a display of beautiful bodies in action, bodies following a Greek canon, with strict limits (explicit sexuality is forbidden, although their sheer presence is ridiculously sexualized – the male’s muscles are unnaturally developed, while the female’s breasts are huge gravity-defying devices which do not encumber them while fighting to the death almost naked). The technology in comic books, in fact a true magic of science (populated by robots, rocket ships, mutants, time travels, orbital stations and other phantasmagorical artifacts of a pseudo-scientific imagery)[xxxvi] which is as far from a scientific reasoning as it gets, reminds of the promethean myth of Hephaestus. Renard concludes that super-heroes are the expression of a polytheist thinking, inherent to the human mind, which lends human traits to nature, giving personality to the elements, to psychological traits, to abstract notions, stimulating a playful imagination.[xxxvii]
Another aspect that needs to be brought into discussion in the comic book code and which generated its own mythology (with social, cultural and economic implications) is the costume. The hero’s semantic load and evocative force resides in his/her image, which makes him/her unique: the costume, a genuine uniform, a professional obligation. It provides hints to the hero’s power but also indicates that the character acts in his “official” heroic quality, and therefore fighting is soon to occur. The costume grants power (Iron Man), conceals the identity[xxxviii], but also suggest the modus operandi (Batman) and is a sign of the character’s inner evolution (some characters change their costumes over time – Batman, Storm, Wasp, while other characters fill the same costume, putting in place a dynasty – Green Lantern, Flash). Finally, the costume is also a fetish, a sign of virility and a source of sexual power, a true mixture of fear and sexual arousal stimulated by a “pornographic arsenal” (chains, handcuffs, pointy high-heeled boots, ropes, rubber masks, fishnets) integrated into non-pornographic narrative structures, signs that sustain a large sub-textual construction.[xxxix] Finally, the costume coagulates communities within the comic book universe (virtually including all the characters belonging to a certain company). Reynolds constructs his argument by associating the costume rule in comic books to Saussure’s langue et parole system (langue being the costume convention and parole a particular instance in this structured signal language).[xl]
Comic books are an important segment of Western (and by influence, global) popular culture, which do not have a long history (just a century and a few decades) but have contributed immensely to the forging of the 20th century urban Western mentality, playing important roles in various fields of human identity, from cultural, social and philosophical areas to economic, political and even anthropological levels. Disregarded by the cultural establishment for the most part of their existence, comic books have gained their own field, comprising specific codes, tropes, references, consuming reflexes, public and policies. And taking Fiske’s and Blewitt’s point into account, the decoding of popular culture products also require certain “cultural competences”, just as the respected products of the high arts do.[xli]
The importance of comic books in the imaginary (and not only) world of today is granted by the special relationship they establish with myth and mythology, on different layers (technical, narrative, thematic, semantic and even structural). Of course, not all aspects of myth are to be found in comic books, and not all comic books are functioning as myths. Both of these spheres share some traits but are not to be superficially put together. They share a special relationship due to their nature, to the centrality of myth in every culture (as in Arthur Asa Berger’s theory), but also due to the context they are created in, and carry a mythical load in the world of today, just as other communication channels did in the past (storytelling, popular poetry and songs, stone or wood carvings, etc.). The ultimate proof of the mythical function comic books have (among others) is their influence over the contemporary imaginary world, some of their creations, topics or artistic and narrative dimensions infiltrating the everyday language, habits and lifestyles, up to the point of taking the place of “reality” at various times for various individuals or groups.
Comic books do not need to be defended as an art or research field (although many enthusiasts fall into this trap and search for justifications). They are here and they might stay for a while longer; they have not been here long, but their presence cannot be ignored. They have taken inspiration from the political, social or anthropological reality and have given in return strong escapist, critical or lucid accounts that sometimes forged parallel realities. We do ourselves a favor by studying their impact on the world and we have the opportunity of sharing a few laughs in the process.
***, Macmillan English Dictionary for Advanced Learners, Oxford: Macmillan Publishers Ltd., 2006.
***, Comic Books and Juvenile Deliquency. Interim Report of the Commitee of the Judiciary pursuant to S. Res. 89 and S. Res. 190. A Part of the Investigation of Juvenile Deliquency in the United States Library of US Congress Catalogue Card Number 77-90720, 1955-6
Arthur Asa Berger, «Mediatribes – Making Sense of Popular Culture, the Mass Media and Everyday Life in America», in et cetera, vol. 59, no. 4, 2002, pp. 378-386.
Ernst Cassirer, Filosofia formelor simbolice vol. II: Gândirea mitică, trad. Mihaela Bereschi, Pitesti: Paralela 45, 2008.
Bradford W. Wright, Comic Book Nation. The Transformation of Youth Culture in America, Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.
Chantal Delsol, Michel Maslowski, Joana Nowicki, Mituri şi simboluri politice în Europa Centrală, trad. Liviu Papuc, Chişinău: Cartier, 2003.
Danny Fingeroth, Superman on the couch. What superheroes really tell us about ourselves and our society, New York: Continuum, 2004.
Dodo Niţă, Europa benzilor desenate, Bucureşti: POL Media, 2001.
Dodo Niţă, Alexandru Ciubotariu, Puiu Manu. O monografie, Craiova: MJM, 2010.
Eric Maigret, “La reconnaisance en demi-teinte de la bande dessinée”, in Réseaux, vol. 12, no. 67, 1997.
Gelu Teampău, Mit şi bandă desenată, Iaşi: Institutul European, 2012.
Ion Manolescu, “O călătorie în lumea benzii desenate”, in Dilemateca, no.7, 2006, p. 14-21.
Jenny March, Mituri clasice, trad. Stelu-Cristian Fulaş, Bucureşti: Lider, 2010.
Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth (with Bill Moyers), New York: Anchor Books, 1991.
Kensuke Okabayashi, Manga for Dummies, Indianapolis: Wiley Publishing, 2007.
Lisa Barnett and Michael Patrick Allen, “Social Class, Cultural Repertories, and Popular Culture: the Case of Film”, in Sociological Forum, vol. 15, no. 1, 2000.
Marcel Bonneff, “Les bandes dessinées en Indonesie: diffusion et public” in Archipel, vol. 4, 1972, pp. 169-178.
Pierre Brunel (ed.), Mituri ale secolului XX, trad. Sanda Oprescu, Bucureşti: Univers, 2003, 2 vol.
Richard Reynolds, Super Heroes. A Modern Mythology, Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1992.
Roger Caillois, Mitul şi omul, trad. Lidia Simion, Bucureşti: Nemira, 2000.
Roland Barthes, Mithologies, trad. Anette Lavers, New York: The Noonday Press, 1972.
Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics. The Invisible Art, Harper Perennial: New York, 1993.
Tim Blackmore, “McCay’s McChanical Muse: Engineering Comic-Strip Dreams”, in Journal of Popular Culture, vol. 32, nr. 1, 1998, pp. 15-38.
Umberto Eco, Cinci scrieri morale, trad. Geo Vasile, Bucureşti: Humanitas, 2005.
Vasilis Vitsaxis, Mitul. Punct de referinţă al căutării existenţiale, trad. Elena Lazăr, Bucureşti: Omonia, 2007.
Victor Kernbach, Miturile esenţiale, Bucureşti: Editura Ştiinţifică şi Enciclopedică, 1978.
[vi] For example, V. Henry, who stated that “any perception of an external event by an organism endowed with a certain degree of conscience is a potential myth. The universe in the brain of a superior animal is translated in a series of myths, meaning instant representations that disappear as soon as they are produced.” – apud Vasilis Vitsaxis, op. cit., p. 18.
[vii] This article is a follow-up to the book I have published in 2012, as a result of a PhD program (Teampău, 2012), in which I have dealt on a larger scale with the issue of comic books as modern mythology. I have tried to provide a large theoretical framework consisting in the different definitions of myth and their functionality in the world of today in general and their relevance to the study of comic books in particular. In the Romanian context, in spite of various important contributions to the study of comic books (historical, technical, sociological, cultural, and so on) an integrative framework was lacking. I have tried to draw such a canvas on which different colors and shapes can be constantly added, with the participation of specialists from different fields, in complementary approaches (my own perspective is shaped by my specialization as an anthropologist interested in the field of cultural studies). Although I have explicitly expressed my intentions of providing just the perimeter for necessary further contributions, not emitting the pretention of being exhaustive (neither in myth nor in comics), considering that many correspondences were implicitly visible, some reviews pointed out the lack of connection between the two concepts as they were presented in the book. This less than enthusiastic public receiving requires a concise presentation of the scheme elaborated in the book, to underline the arguments I have brought into discussion, with the hope of a more opened attitude towards this enterprise which, of course, might not be perfect (but it is a starting point). Due to the lack of space, this article only offers the opportunity of listing and presenting in short the arguments, their more thorough elaboration and interaction being available in the named book.
[viii] Arthur Asa Berger, “Mediatribes – Making Sense of Popular Culture, the Mass Media and Everyday Life in America”, in et cetera, vol. 59, no. 4, 2002, p. 382. The author adopts Mircea Eliade’s remark that myths are not always visible, due to the long process of laicization that might have affected them over long periods of time.
[xi] See, for example, Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics. The Invisible Art, Harper Perennial, New York, 1993. Beyond a questionable need to “justify” an inferior field or form of art, other researchers insist on the specificity of comics in their definition. Although stories told through images have always existed in human history, not all such stories qualify as comics, them being dependant on a certain editing and publishing technology, which allows quick and massive reproduction. Richard Marshall sees comic books as the result of a specific mélange between a certain literary and artistic trend and a certain technology, commerce and literacy level, while Couperie states that the history of the genre is the history of its distribution lines. (cf. Tim Blackmore, „McCay’s McChanical Muse: Engineering Comic-Strip Dreams”, in Journal of Popular Culture, vol. 32, nr. 1, 1998, p. 15).
[xiii] Films usually require a linear “reading”; theoretically they cannot be rewind or stopped, just re-watched, in order to attempt different layers of interpretation. It is harder to let two or more important actions take place in the same frame or allow more points of interest intersect at the same moment, because the public has to quickly react and adapt to the narrative specificity of the medium (sometimes, if someone closes their eyes for a few seconds, they risk missing vital pieces of information and therefore having troubles understanding the whole plot). Video games, on the other hand, allowing the public to take control of the characters (not just reading about them, so transferring the third person to the first), are much more limited in their narrative development (at least until technologies offer an alternative, a true virtual space, for example) and the possible actions and interactions are strictly pre-determined (they become utterly repetitious and the story does not really involve the player who just has to fulfil given tasks – there are some games with different endings depending on the options the player takes during the game, but the number of possibilities is also limited).
[xvi] By 1942 the sales reached 15 million items a year and by 1943, even 25 million (for a gross of 20 million dollars). – see Bradford Wright, Comic Book Nation. The Transformation of Youth Culture in America, The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 2001, p. 34.
[xviii] Even Umberto Eco remembers the allied forces freeing Italy towards the end of the Second World War, in the person of the first Yankee he had ever met, a black soldier named Joseph, who introduced the young Eco to the adventures of Dick Tracy and Lil’ Abner, “coloured comics which smelled good”. (see Umberto Eco, Cinci scrieri morale, Humanitas, Bucureşti, 2005, p. 26).
[xx] Bradford Wright, op. cit., p. 139-151. Although he admits the important role the image plays in both comics and films, Wright considers the first to be closer to rock music in their signification and societal role, by offering the young (as an independent market segment, with its own buying power, and many times explicitly opposed to their parents’ culture). Eric Maigret observed that even when comic books got accepted by the cultural establishment, those involved in the medium still reproduced some stereotypes circulating in that cultural establishment, which associated them with poor education, infantilism and youth counter-culture (Eric Maigret, “La reconnaisance en demi-teinte de la bande dessinée”, in Réseaux, vol. 12, no. 67, 1997, p. 117.
[xxviii] Even the new (at the time) British prime-minister Gordon Brown became a comic book character in a story issued by the Marvel publishing house, in which the chief of the government in London had to defend the planet against an alien invasion (political subtlety?). – cf. Cotidianul, no. 109/4th July 2008, p. 15.
[xxix] Richard Reynolds observes that these super-villains are in fact the active principle behind any plot, guaranteeing the serial continuity, the protagonists of episodic stories (the heroes are the passive, the reactive principle, guarding the status-quo, the main characters of their own myth as inter-textual reading, and “they function essentially as antagonists, foils for the true star of each story, the villain”). – Super Heroes. A Modern Mythology, University Press of Mississippi, Jackson, 1992, p. 51.
[xxxi] Danny Fingeroth, Superman on the couch. What superheroes really tell us about ourselves and our society, Continuum, New York, 2004, p. 159. The author identifies in this pattern a secularized version of the Judeo-Christian drama of communitarian deliverance.
[xxxii] A few examples: in America, super-hero costumes are sold together with instructions which clearly state that no such costume grants the wearer supernatural powers. (Apolodor din Labrador, in Academia Caţavencu, year XVII, no. 34 (819), 29th August – 4th September 2007, p. 16.) Despite that, some TV news stations broadcasted the case of an American child who scared away the burglars in his parents’ house by dashing downstairs dressed in his Spiderman pyjamas. There are more cases in which other kids, watching the recordings of the World Trade Centre attacks from the 11th September 2001 were convinced that a superhero would salve the victims.
[xxxiv] Ibidem, p. 95. Popular culture, argues Fingeroth, is made of the stories and myths the vast majority of the members of a society are accustomed to, and every fictional object is also a propaganda item, functioning as a “digestive” in the minds of the consumers. What inspires or frightens us is not the hero’s power, but the segment in our needs, fears and attitudes he/she stimulates. The most successful franchises in popular culture are those which determine the consumer to feel special and unique, but at the same time a part of a crowd which takes part in and enjoy the same phenomenon (we all need to be orphans and part of a large family or more at the same time, the author puts it, we all need to be the Lone Ranger, but also members of the Lone Rangers Club, where we gossip about other Lone Rangers).
[xxxviii] Fingeroth also observed that the attraction of disguise has an old history, also to be found in the Bible or in the Odyssey, and is a proof of the need to express oneself through actions alone, beyond one’s name or face, but also of the hope that we can be more than we seem, in an “visible invisibility”. – op. cit., p. 53.