The Myths of Capitalists

In the Sept/Oct edition of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, renowned writer Lucius Shepard, went on a brief rant in his Films column about the contemporary penchant for describing blockbuster superhero movies as the myths of our times.

“Myths…are not simple stories with cartoonish morality foisted upon a dumbed-down audience, but intricate distillations that arise from a culture over time. They do not come attached to automobile tie-ins—they have nothing to sell other than a consensus expression of mankind’s place in the universe.”

My first instinct, as a lover of the classics, is to embrace Mr. Shepard’s comments, but both the durability and elasticity of superhero stories, and the socio-political contexts of ancient myths, counter his arguments.

Let’s start with the purpose of ancient myths. Mr. Shepard contends that they represent a “consensus expression of mankind’s place in the universe.” That sentiment is true, to an extent, but these stories also represented the unique worldviews of the people who originated these myths—including cultural signifiers, prejudices and ulterior motives.

As an example, let’s look at the Enûma Eliš, the sacred text of the Babylonians. There are any number of scholarly treatises on the original purpose of this text—here’s a good essay by Stefan Stenudd—that all agree it was designed to promote the elevation of Marduk, the chief god of the Babylonians, above all other Mesopotamian deities; and by extension, reinforce the presumed supremacy of Babylon itself. The Enûma Eliš represented the myth of Babylon that the Babylonians wanted to tell themselves.

But does the fact that the original purpose of the Enûma Eliš was primarily political negate the resonance of the stories it contains? I wouldn’t be alone in arguing: absolutely not.

In Supergods, Grant Morrison wrote:

“Writers and artists build by hand little worlds that they hope might effect change in real minds, in the real world where stories are read. A story can make us cry and laugh, break our hearts, or make us angry enough to change the world.”

A quote that could just as easily apply to the storytellers of ancient societies as to the creators of modern-day superhero comics.

Furthermore, the superhero stories of today might serve the same purpose in terms of our “place in the universe” that Mr. Shepard mentions. In an interview with Wired—based on his book Supergods—Grant Morrison argued that superheros…

“…fill the gap in a secular culture, because they open up dimensions of the cosmic and transcendent, which is stuff legends usually have to deal with. It’s not so much that they are new versions of the gods, because the gods were always just our eternal qualities. Superman possesses the qualities of the very best man we can imagine at any given time. In that sense, he’s divine. Batman is representative of our dark subconscious, who nevertheless works for the good of humanity. They embody the same ideals.”

Maybe a little New Age-y for my taste, but Mr. Morrison makes a valid point about the way humankind used ancient myths to relate to the world being essentially the same way we currently use superhero stories. Gilgamesh and Enkidu represented different aspects of human nature (much like Superman and Batman) in addition to being a possible retelling of earlier stories and a version of the lives of historical figures—all at the same time. The literary construct of Gilgamesh was as elastic as Superman and was as open to reinvention by successive artists for different purposes.

When we look back at the myths of Babylon we see traces of stories that existed prior to the creation of the Enûma Eliš and continued on through into Zoroastrianism and The Old Testament. Part of the enduring quality of myths are their adaptability. In Grant Morrison’s words again:

“Actually, it’s as if [Superman is] more real than we are. We writers come and go, generations of artists leave their interpretations, and yet something persists, something that is always Superman.”

The longevity and variation of superhero stories points to their being something more than simply marketable franchises. I would also argue that, somewhat contrary to Morrison, the iterations rather than the overall process of “distillation” (Mr. Shepard’s word)—or the original sources—are more important to us. How and why each new version of a myth is told reflects the culture of the moment and impacts how those stories continue to echo into the future. Where did most of us first encounter Norse myths for example? In Marvel comics.

Further, Marvel’s Captain America movies are, to me, a perfect example of a modern myth. In the movies, Cap is an old-before-his-time, world-weary survivor, besieged by enemies without and within, who nevertheless retains a core of unspoiled decency that others are drawn to—even in spite of their cynicism.

Captain America represents the myth that the American empire wants to tell itself today—and that myth is inextricable from the worldview, and even the consumer products, it’s meant to sell.

About andrew

Andrew James Cornell reads, writes, sometimes sells books and cooks. He spends an inordinate amount of time talking about the differences between types of dashes. He will also lecture anyone who stands still on the importance of Dune (the book), 2001 (the movie), about how under-appreciated Paul Bowles and Italo Calvino are, and the correct way to make an Old Fashioned cocktail.
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4 Responses to The Myths of Capitalists

  1. Michael Hind says:

    I think you are describing two different processes here. One is a creation of myth and the other is the editing of myth.

    Most myth’s origins are “shrouded in the mists of time” but some particularly famous ones, or ones shared across cultures, have been linked to particular natural events or historical people. The flood myth that the Judeo-Christians have as part of their Bible exists in many cultures including North American aboriginal ones. Achilles was a real guy who fought in Troy.

    Myths were created in the oral tradition of relaying stories, not of the printed or written word. Their mutability was at times due to the imprecise nature of the form, the vagaries of memory, the interpretation of a particular teller and perhaps those with an axe to grind. Mainly, they existed as another aspect of man’s “ordering instinct”; in other words, to answer the questions about the universe man and his community was asking himself. To wit: why did all that water kill everything? Why was Achilles so darn tough? And heck, why does the world exist as it does anyways?

    Myths served this ordering function as did art, song and ritual.

    Super-heroes serve none of these functions. They are serialized pulp.

    When myths were written down, an editing process began. Politics entered the fray because scribes found many variations on these myths from region to region and wanted to create a definitive text. Various groups lobbied for their version to be designated the “truth” or more cynically, “the definitive version”.

    Super-hero comics are more like that. They are a written form that over the years has been collectively created, edited and reinterpreted. Each superior creator tries to create the “definitive” Super-man (John Byrne, for example) or Thor (Walt Simonson).

    They are not myth. They explain nothing. They are modern creations created by one or two young guys. They are omnivorous and voracious consumers of pulp conventions and are designed to be minimalist, thereby flexible to interpretation (and re-interpretation, and re-re-interpretation).

    Can anyone honestly claim Superman or Batman has a personality? Spider-man might have one, but then to reinterpret him, the editors will kill off the original and have a cipher replace him. This doesn’t indicate aspects of myth, but vacuousness and marketability.

    Are myths still being created? Sure, and for much the same reasons.

    I’m sure you know that the World Trade Centre was destroyed by the Mossad and the CIA. That explains everything.

    Lance Armstrong overcame testicular cancer and won the Tour de France 7 times in a row due to force of will. Why is Achilles so tough?

    Steve Jobs invented the computer, the mouse, the smartphone, the MP3 player. He was a genius who died tragically young.

    For those who don’t pay much attention, who are naive or easily swayed, all of the above would explain a lot. Repeated enough and by enough people (like with Lance), they take on an aspect of truth.

    A super-hero comic is far from that. A super-hero comic has never been the truth, interpreted the truth or been interpreted as the truth (except perhaps by the mentally deranged). Grant Morrison and his ilk link their strip-mining of some of the superficial aspects of mythic tales to myth itself to rationalize their involvement in the industry. They are not creating modern myth; they are creating modern pulp. They are no different than Danielle Steele.

    “Writers and artists build by hand little worlds that they hope might effect change in real minds, in the real world where stories are read. A story can make us cry and laugh, break our hearts, or make us angry enough to change the world.” -Grant Morrison

    A quote that could just as easily apply to the storytellers of ancient societies as to the creators of modern-day superhero comics.”

    The above quotes are relevant to the power of story, not necessarily those stories derivative of mythic tales.

    Pulp is popular for a reason: it appeals to our baser instincts: love of violence and sex or to our higher curiosities about our place in the world or our thirst for revenge or justice. Great literature does much the same but with better language and fewer conventions. Pulp is not myth and has never intended to be.

    Grant Morrison should stop basking in the glow of Joseph Campbell’s scholarship and get back to his real job: who is faster – Superman or the Flash?

  2. andrew says:

    Love these comments Mike, let’s get into this thing:

    In fact, what I’m saying is that I categorically reject the idea that it is two distinct things at work here—there’s nothing but the process. I don’t believe in some Platonic ideal version of these stories that exists outside of that slow transition from oral storytelling to written word to Hollywood blockbuster. To my mind, myths only exist as that broken-telephone process.

    To believe in the inherent superiority of myth drags your argument closer to the mysticism of Grant Morrison, which is, ironically, where he starts to lose me.

    And to denigrate superhero stories as mere “pulp” is to elevate the original oral storytelling traditions too much. I also reject most high and low art divisions and that includes ancient oral storytelling. Considering thousands of years of stories of murder, adultery, illicit sex, incest, patricide, matricide…bestiality (I’m running out of prurient ideas)…regicide…ancient myths could be as pulpy as any issue of Weird Tales. And what you might dismiss as appealing to baser instincts I would agree, but also add that Jung-style digging into shadows is equally prevalent in this titillating material. I’m confident that ancient oral storytellers tried to entertain as much as they tried to enlighten—you can do both at the same time.

    The most recent Captain America movies remain good examples to me. Sure they’re pulpy, but isn’t that idea of a warrior struggling with his past and digging into the dirt of modern politics and warfare, yet trying to cling to a core of nobility—isn’t that a universal, humanistic impulse that transcends the relative junkiness of the source?

    Isn’t that a kind of ordering mechanism for the battered American psyche of today?

  3. Michael Hind says:

    That both myths and pulp can and do appeal to our baser (and higher) instincts is unarguable.

    The difference is primarily about motivation for their creation. Yes, myths entertained, titillated, shocked etc as do pulps, but I argue that they were primarily created to explain and preserve historical events. Is this candy coating or romanticizing the creation of myths? No. It’s actually why they were created before we had scientific inquiry to explain events beyond our ken. That we can identify with the struggles of Captain America and see them as an allegory for the American nation is just good story-telling and too much EngLit 101. Is science a replacement myth? Some argue that certain aspects of it is. The Big Bang Theory (not the show) is a story explaining the creation of the universe and has some basis in observable phenomena. Is this far from frogs raining upon Egypt during Exodus as a sign of God’s wrath?

    Is myth superior to pulp? It depends. There are some pretty lame myths out there (Manabozho the Trickster comes to mind) and some great pulp (Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe stories). Whether it is semantics or not, culturally we ascribe greater importance to myth than pulp. Morrison aspires to be interpreted in the context of creating “modern myth”, not “modern pulp” (unless he’s slumming, of course).

    In these days of science, we see Greek Mythology and the rest as quaint, fabulous stories. For many, the Bible is now falling into that same category. In 50 years, we may laugh about Big Bang Theory as we do about the pre-Gallileo world or pre-Darwin world of thought.

    But myth, in its day, was more than that. It had adherents. It had defenders. I gave examples of modern myths, of Lance Armstrong circa 2005, and people willing to ignore the evidence in front of their face because this myth was so appealing.

    That does not happen with pulp. They are good yarns. The myths that survive as just stories today are also good yarns but their original function was broader, and yes, maybe “higher”.

  4. andrew says:

    Your Lance example is compelling, and speaks to the idea that a story told well enough could change the real world by becoming the “truth.”

    [As an aside: it physically hurts me to put quotes around the word ‘truth’ but here we are deep in the territory of postmodern thoughtcrimes.]

    I think I have to, reluctantly, concede that you have a point about the relationship between myth and historical events. But I would also point out that when you say “It had adherents. It had defenders.” you come perilously close to describing the typical kind of argument that arises between fanboys such as: “who is faster – Superman or the Flash?”

    For those combative geeks dedicated to a pure vision of their idols, the difference between a superhero and a deity becomes slim.

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