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.