If you’ve looked at my website, perhaps you’ve noticed that among my list of influences are some rather colorful characters, best known by the name of “super heroes”. Yes, on my book shelf figures like Superman, Batman, Robin, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, The Flash, Captain America, Wolverine, Spider-Man, Thor ( comic book version), Iron Man and the Fantastic Four stand shoulder to shoulder with Mellville, Dickens, Twain, the epic Gilgamesh, Homer, Milton, Dante, CS Lewis, JRR Tolkien and Thor ( Norse mythology version). They even stand shoulder to shoulder with Christian authors like Ted Dekker and Frank Peretti.
To many writers, English majors, and Christians this may be nothing short of anathema. After all, Iron Man is not part of Chaucer’s Cantebury Tales. Shakespeare did not write Batman. Faulkner did not write for Spider-man. Superman’s creators were not Henry James and James Joyce. Superman, Captain America and their ilk have never preached a sermon, cured the sick, fed the hungry, or done anything of great importance to the “real world”.
How can these characters influence me as a writer, or for that mater a person? What can a man running around in spandex or body armor like a ninny ever teach anybody? How can these admittedly flamboyant figures have in literary or spiritual worth?
Maybe I need to start at the beginning. It all goes back to my childhood days spent at my uncle’s comic book store. I can remember seeing the covers of many comic books on the wall. Like paintings on cave walls, or stained glass windows in cathedrals, or even the hieroglyphs on pyramids, each of these images told me a story, even more so at a time before I could read. These single picture covers told me stories of bravery, heroism, courage, tragedy, loss, grief and a whole host of other concepts, all while using only a few words, only the character name and if needed the title of the story arc. They taught me that it is possible to tell a story by using as few words as possible, but only using what is necessary.
My parents certainly saw the value in these characters. Classics Illustrated and Marvel’s Thor comic books were used in my mother’s family to help urge her brother into reading. Sure enough they were a more then suitable gateway into a much larger world for him. Noted Science Fiction writer Ray Bradbury once said that if you want to get a twelve year old boy to read, hand him one of his sci0fi books, and he will learn to love reading. Comic books share a similar “language” if you will to sci-fi and fantasy, Bradbury said it was a language full of images and metaphors, and these open minds to much wider concepts.
Even a Christian Magazine, World, observed that there was such an importance. They pointed out that comic books featured a more advanced language then most of the little primary readers given to kids in school. What was more these words were accompanied by images. For example a child could read the word “invincible” and see a bullet bounce off of Superman. They could see the sentence “Captain America throws his indestructible shield threw a wall” and see the shield smashing through a wall, with out even getting a scratch.
Further more, in an age that is growing increasingly impatient and lacking in focus, they teach a much more difficult form of reading and tracking. One does not read a comic book in the simple “left to right mode” as is done in the Western world , but they have to follow conversations with characters in the dialogue boxes . As a child when I was being tested for a learning disability, my parents brought in some comic books and showed the people conducting the screening what I was reading and they were amazed.
From a literary standpoint, I see these characters, as nothing short of a modern day mythology. Webster defines a mythology as a story or series of stories that explains the beliefs customs and practices of a culture. There are many aspects of these comic book heroes that are echoes of ancient mythical figures and even other Biblical heroes and literary figures.
Superman shares much in common with Hercules in terms of their great strength, and in fact Disney’s Hercules film had aspects of the Superman mythos grafted in to make it acceptable for younger audiences. Bruce Wayne: Prince of Gotham is on just as futile a quest for vengeance as Hamlet: Prince of Denmark, as both men seek to avenge wrongs that have gone unpunished. Like Hector in the Illiad, Captain America stands ready to defend his home during war, and is selfless, noble and honorable even until the end. Dr. Henry Jekyll still tries to tame Mr. Edward Hyde, he just calls himself Dr. Bruce Banner and tries to tame the Incredible Hulk. Aladdin still discovers a lamp that can give him an everything, he just calls himself a member of the Green Lantern corps, and instead of a lamp is a ring from an advanced alien race. Amazons are still fierce warrior women, it’s just that they are represented in the modern world by Wonder Woman of Thymsicara. Gilgamesh still fights with and is tamed by his friend Enkidu they just dawn suits of armor and call themselves Tony Stark AKA Iron Man and Col. James “Rhodey” Rhodes AKA War Machine. Thor is still mighty, he just happens to be an extra-dimensional being with golden hair instead of his traditionl red tresses and bares the Marvel brand.
More importantly, like ancient mythical heroes, comic book superheroes address a very real need. These modern day mythical beings first arose during the era of the Great depression and World War II. They came of age during the social unrest and fear of the atomic age of the 1650s and 60s. They delved into a dark area of cynicism and darkness of the 70’s and 80s. As such they addressed and continue to address the very needs that Americans have.
We want to feel safe. We want to feel secure .We want some one to right the wrongs. We want those who watch out for us to not be bought out by greed. We want good to win and evil to lose. Most importantly, we want a hero. We want some one to save us, to show us a better way does exist.
Also like a mythology these characters inhabit the “dangerous” part of our world. While ancient mythologies would fill our waters, seas and the air, the superheroes protect our cities. They fly into the far reaches of outer space. They dive into our oceans and sewers. They go to the places we fear and in there own ways brighten them for us. Instead of fighting monsters , they fight supervillians and corrupt politicians.
How could these characters address these needs and inhabit these places? In many ways it has something to do with their own ‘origin”. Among the top comic book creators, a vast majority were of Jewish heritage. Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster, Bob Kane, Jack Kirby, Joe Simon and Stan Lee, and many others were not White Anglo-saxon Protestants .They were from a minority. A minority that had an essential truth ingrained into their very fiber.
Christians have heard of the stories from the Bible, and sadly reduced many of them to be squeaky clean family friendly lessons. In doing so they miss out on the real core of many of these stories. When the Jewish people were being oppressed they cried out to God, and sure enough God would deliverer to save them. People like Moses, Joshua, Gideon, Samson, Deborah, Samuel, David and the prophets were champions of their people and were symbols to an oppressed people, and not just Jews. It is no secret that the story of Moses appealed very much to the African American slaves. It was because they hoped for some one to come and save them from their captivity.
While I cannot claim 100% that the stories from the Scriptures had been a basis for all superheroes, one thing is certain, they knew as well all know that if you cry out for help, some one will come. What is it we tell people when they go into a city? If some one corners you in an alley scream for help. If some one breaks into your home, call the police and help will come. If your home is on fire, call the fire fighters. Basically, when you are in trouble, call for help, some one will hear you and come and help you.
While the comic books may certainly address certain needs and function as a modern mythology, what possible moral fiber can I or any reader get from them? To be sure, Superheroes are like chocolate milk next to the regular milk of a Christian film or book. However along with addressing the need for a hero, and speaking to themes of justice, freedom, and the triumph of good over evil, what it means to be a hero.
Late actor Christopher Reeve, best known for playing Superman, said in an interview with time magazine, “I have seen that Superman changes peoples lives. I have seen children dying of brain tumors who wanted as their last request to be able to talk to me and have gone to their graves with a peace brought on by knowing that their belief in this kind of character is in tact. They are connecting with something very basic: the ability to overcome obstacles, the ability to persevere, the ability to understand difficulty and to turn your back on it.”
In those comic books I saw these exact lessons on how to be brave, courageous, noble, self sacrificing, compassionate, open, honest, determined, how to overcome obstacles, what it means to persevere, cooperation, and how to over come my inner demons before I ever understood what those concepts meant. In the end my closest friends said they saw those same things in me. In the end, I can only agree with the Green Lantern in an episode of the Justice League cartoon where he, Hawkgirl, Flash, and Martian Manhunter are blasted to a world that is inhabited by his favorite comic book characters. He says “Those comic books taught me what it meant to be a hero.”