We don't wake up in the morning and sacrifice a pig to the gods so our crops will grow. We don't even sit around the fire telling stories to pass the time between sundown and bedtime. Our world has changed dramatically from the time and place of epic ballads, when Hercules and his kin would strangle monstrous lions and slay gargantuan dragons. Some say that our society remembers these tales of mythic heroes—even studies them in class—but it seems we no longer create them.
Well, I don’t believe it.
I think we still do create heroes; ones that may claim the right of epicness though their looks, actions, and even attitudes have changed from the myths that have come before. These are tales of strong men and women with powers beyond those of common people. They fly about the tallest buildings; they swing between metal girders. They crush one another in combat, proving that truth, light, and justice will always win out over lies, evil, and darkness. I’m talking, of course, about Superheroes.
Listen: the only difference between Captain America and Hercules is time. Hercules is considered myth, but is still important. We read about him in class, watch him on television, and hear about him in stories. Why is Captain America any different? He’s just as strong—if not stronger. He’s faced just as many challenges—if not more. And to be honest, we can relate to him facing off against Nazis more than we can to Hercules killing the hydra—though Captain America has taken on his own “HYDRA” in his time.
But that’s what it comes down to: time. Hercules has had hundreds of years for his story to be passed from father to son to granddaughter. Captain America has had just over sixty.
Captain America is just one example. I believe that comic book superheroes are our modern day myths. In a few centuries their stories will be recounted in the same way as Hercules or Achilles or Thor (though the lines there are already being blurred).
Another difference between the mythic heroes and comic book superheroes is the validity of their lives. We’re consciously aware that a man with the strength of ten has never existed—but he has gained literary significance because his myth has been passed to us from a dead empire. Hercules served as an allegory to teach people life lessons and about the consequences of their actions. Superheroes are not give the same attitude because we know they aren’t real—they’re just creations cooked up by storytellers like Stan Lee. Unlike Hercules, the likes of Captain America are dismissed as entertainment concoctions. But why should our modern day storytellers have any less weight in the stories they weave than those that lived centuries ago?
Joseph Conrad, a scholar that has dedicated his life to the study of mythic heroes and is the author of The Hero with a Thousand Faces, said that mythic heroes evolve as their culture evolves. Superheroes are just the next level of evolution. As a society, we have moved away from superstitious religious belief into a realm of science and fact. Our heroes have transformed with us, becoming creatures no longer of the gods but of science experiments and human creation. Their tasks are different and rooted in our world. Dragons are no longer giant lizards that kidnap princesses, they are rubber-faced demons gliding around on metal bat-wings. (Okay, we don’t see that kind of thing on a daily basis, but have you ever seen a dragon, either?)
Comic books are the new medium of heroic storytelling. I’ve already written about why they deserve to be treated as high art, and now I'm merely adding to my argument: they are modern day man’s way of passing stories of epic deeds and heroic tales to new generations. They may be made to titillate; they may be made to separate me from my hard-earned cash. But they are also cautionary tales like Don Quixote, and they are legendary tales like Hercules. To ignore their myth making potential is to turn down one of the greatest aspects of culture that humanity has ever created.