Superhero Concept and Mythology

superheroes Superhero Concept and Mythology

We all treasure our favorite comic book heroes.  We read about and collect their adventures, dress as them for conventions or parties, and are alternately delighted or appalled at the many movies about them.   But how often do we think about some of the deeper meanings behind our heroes?  In the 1992 book Superheroes: A Modern Mythology, pop culture writer Richard Reynolds does an  in-depth study of the phenomenon.  The main point of this well-researched and accessible book is that the heroes we all know and love grip our imaginations  because they are based on  some very old stories : myths.  Reynolds devotes a good part of  his subject matter to showing  just how this is done.

In the excellent first chapter, “Masked Heroes,” he goes over the first origin stories of Superman and Batman.  These characters are used as examples to illustrate what makes the hero myth.  Some of the qualities that they {and others} have in common include:

1.not knowing their real parents, or not having them at all.

2. valuing  justice above man-enforced law.

3.having an extraordinary nature or powers, contrasted with an ordinary world.

4. existing in a world in which magic and science combine to “create a sense of wonder.”

Heroes of this type intrigue readers with their combination of human and superhuman qualities.  As the author notes later, there is some common ground  here with the famed Joseph Campbell hero  myth.  He goes on to discuss the importance of costumes {“the sign…of a new identity”} , which set these characters apart from the ordinary, and how continuity is set up.  One of my favorite sections concerns the mythical reading of the story of  Marvel`s Thor, who is based on tales from Norse folklore.  The book concludes with a detailed study of Alan Moore`s Watchmen, a work which reverses many of the superhero myths, treating them in a cynical manner.  It makes a great case for comics  as both art and myth.

I found this an interesting  read which usually flows well, although sometimes Reynolds  gets a bit dry when he discusses theory.  He`s much better when he talks directly about the heroes, and    you  can tell he`s really into them.  He provides lots of great comic panels to back up his examples.   I love the full-page cover of Superman vs. Muhammad Ali, to name but one.   Also of note is the list of further reading:  it includes both non-fiction and comic books.  Reynolds gives high marks to the Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore`s Watchmen and Miracle Man.  To sum up, this is a  fun and informative book which treats superheroes with respect and true affection.

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