By kennybaese 30 Comments
America is a relatively young country, young, at least in terms of most other civilizations in the world. A mere two and a half centuries old compared to the thousands of years that Greece and Egypt have existed, America is like the proverbial college student who think he’s so much wiser and more knowledgable than those dusty old professors who think they know better then he does about the world. The relative young age of America, combined with its nature as a melting pot of culture, a Borg like assimilation and combination of the cultures and tastes and mythologies of all of the different immigrants and peoples that have traveled to America in its short lifespan, America doesn’t have a myth to call its own. Greece had Zeus and Poseidon and Scandinavia has Odin and Thor and Israel had God and Jesus Christ and David and Goliath. Folk heroes and gods exist and permeate the culture of these regions, and while America has the cowboy and Paul Bunyon and some other folk tales, they aren’t myths that have completely stood the test of time. There has been something of an exception to that rule, however: the superhero.
The first superhero appeared in 1938 in the very first issue of Action Comics, a monthly comic strip magazine published by National Allied Publications. The name that the two young men who had created the character, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, came up with for this fictional man who could lift cars over his head and leap tall buildings in a single bound was a simple one. They called him Superman. The next superhero to appear did so in 1939 in the 27th issue of Detective Comics, another monthly book also published by National Allied Publications, who would later change their name to DC Comics because of the success of the book. This hero was simply a man inspired by the pulp books of the day and blended with the cape and costume of Superman. Bill Finger and Bob Kane, the creators of the character, decided on the bat as it’s totem animal. Soon, the Batman would be swinging across the acid yellow skies of Gotham grabbing gangsters by the throat and striking fear into the hearts of the criminals in Gotham City.
For now, let’s just focus on these two heroes, the first two of the superheroes and the two extremes within the now bursting pantheon of characters that include The Amazing Spider-Man, The Flash, Green Lantern, The Incredible Hulk, The Fantastic Four, and Wonder Woman. If you didn’t recognize half of those names, even for the most hardcore of comic book readers some of them can be hard to keep straight. The other reason I’ve chosen to focus on these two is simple: they’re easily the most well known of the superheroes. Now, on one hand you have the Superman, a big bright and colorful older brother from another planet how has come to earth to live among us as the unassuming Clark Kent and fight for Truth, Justice, and The American Way, all while wearing the country’s colors. Then you have the Batman, the alter ego for Bruce Wayne, the millionaire playboy with fourteen cars and ten different women at his beck and call who goes out into the dark and the night and sets the world right with his fists and intellect.
From a story perspective, these two characters could not be more different. Superman, while he did lose his entire people when his home planet of Krypton was destroyed, grew up in the corn fields of Kansas and was raised by two kindly farmers who found him in the side of the road and decided to raise him to adulthood. Until recently, they had even been alive in the timeline of the comics and the now adult Clark Kent, while living in the thriving city of Metropolis as a journalist for the Daily Planet newspaper, would visit them regularly for advice and to help his Ma and Pa with their farm. He’s accepted the world over as a hero. The Batman, however, was thrown into a life of fear and anger when his parents were gunned down in an alley outside of a theater by a mugger. Bruce Wayne would then go on to be raised by the family butler, Alfred, and would forgo a childhood in favor of devoting his life to ridding the world of the evil that took his parents’ lives. He trained himself to be the perfect human specimen and used his vast wealth to build the tools needed to wage his one man war on crime, to turn himself into a monster of shadow and hunt criminals who were what he described as a “superstitious and cowardly lot”. He is appreciated by the police in Gotham but also feared and, in some cases, shunned as a dangerous vigilante.
These two characters tap directly into two very important parts of the American psyche. Bruce Wayne is the wealthy self made man that ostensibly is the epitome of the American dream. He does whatever he wants because he can afford to, both in his public life as Bruce Wayne and in his private life as the Batman. He’s the person that everyone in America, or at least those that buy into the idea of the American dream, strives to be. Superman is the kind of godlike figure every one wishes they could be. He is the proverbial big brother who is always stronger than those around him and isn’t afraid to use that power to protect those weaker than him. He always does it benevolently and because it’s simply the right thing to do, returning afterward to his simple white collar life as a reporter. The cities attached to these characters as well personify America. Metropolis, the city that Superman calls home, is big and bright and vibrant and everything that Americans dream of something like New York being. Even Smallville, the small farming town in which Clark Kent grew up, taps into the American ideal of small town Americana. While Gotham City, the home of the Batman, is dark, dangerous, and mysterious. It’s what everyone fears about the American city, with muggers and corrupt officials around every corner.
These two pop culture icons tap into these basic American ideas and have survived the seventy some years they have been around because of it. In terms of myth, seventy years doesn’t seem like much time; Zeus and Odin and the like have been around for centuries. However, in terms of the lifespan of America itself, the superhero, especially Superman and Batman in particular, have been around for nearly a third of the lifespan of the country itself. Comparatively, that’s quite some time. In seventy years, America fought in and recovered from two world wars. In seventy years, America went from a small British colony to owning nearly all of the land in the continental United States. A lot can happen in seventy years, and the fact that these characters have existed for so long, for one thing, is impressive. Combining that with the fact that they are household names and the basic elements of their stories are familiar to nearly everyone in America (Everyone knows that Batman is Bruce Wayne and his parents were murdered, and everyone knows that Superman is Clark Kent and that Kryptonite is his one weakness.) has proven the staying power of these characters, these costumed folk heroes, these superheroes, these myths.
The epics that were the genesis, or at least the stories of characters like Zeus and Odin, have full and complicated continuities, lives, and relationships similar to continuities that started to develop in the 1950’s when DC Comics had Superman guest star in Batman’s book. Suddenly, these superheroes existed together in the same universe. Superman and Wonder Woman could have a romantic relationship, or the Batman could struggle with the fact that he was just a man among these beings that could fly, dodge bullets, and create almost anything out of thin air with the power of their will. You suddenly could have these complex timelines and relationships and a team of these characters that work together with a base on the moon that gave these gods among men their Mount Olympus. You have a pantheon of heroes and villains, lovers and fighters, and stories connecting them all. If you look at these characters, not simply as the heroes in stories for children, but as characters within a greater mythology, it all starts to look the the common elements of mythology from around the world. Zeus would regularly come down to earth in a human guise and take lovers. Superman, when he takes off the costume, goes home to his human love, Lois Lane, and pretend to be one of the mortals while at the same time having his godly love interest in Wonder Woman.
The parallels are obvious, if you know to look for them. America, a country as young as it is, is far too young to have developed mythologies as complex as those of civilizations that are millennia old. America hasn’t had the time to build it’s Mount Olympus, its Asgard, its Heaven. However, the Superman and the Batman, to name a few, have still managed to find their way into the American culture and the American psyche. The only difference being the lack of religious connotations surrounding the superhero. No one worships Superman as a god like the Greeks worshiped Zeus or the Hebrews worship God. However, who’s to say that won’t change? The Hebrew idea of God existed for centuries before turning into an actual religion. Why can’t there be a church of the superhero a hundred years from now?
Obviously, it is simply to know. No one alive now will survive the centuries needed to see if the superhero will survive the tides of time and maintain its status within American culture. Maybe they’re just a long term fad that, after the saturation of the market in the 90’s of comic books and the current saturation of superheroes in film, will die out and only the biggest fans will keep talking about Batman and the latest story involving him and the Joker or Superman and Lex Luthor.
Given, however, that these characters have survived and beaten homicidal maniacs and invaders from other planets and other dimensions, it seems unlikely that the apathy of the general populace will be enough to kill them off.