Superheroes: An Origin Story
by Robert Leichsenring
by Robert Leichsenring
Welcome back folks, the few that are still educated in the high art of reading. For those who are not: there will be pictures!
It´s time for another round. And today´s topic is ... can you guess it? Of course you can. SUPERHEROES! ... seriously, what else am I talking about?
Let me take a closer look for you on the attraction of the superhero, the myth behind it, and maybe, if we have time, a glimpse for the future.
Where did they come from? How is it that we now have a near infinite range of superheroes? Are they just a product of the times they were created in? See, the superhero is not an invention of the 30s and 40s of the 20th century. Their history goes far back to the dawn of mankind.
As we know today, the comic medium as part of the sequential art is very old. As old as our first paintings, depicting cave men on the hunt, found in caves all over the world.
This is the beginning.
It is assumed that as these paintings are partly instructional and a way to communicate over times longer than a normal life span (which would have been around 35 years for Mr. Flintstone). Also that these pictures are used to summon luck, to picture the future and make it happen. Sounds a bit like sci-fi, doesn't it? Also possible is the picturing of a very successful hunt or event to catching it for those who could not witness (which is kind of like news).
You can already see that this sequential art could and possibly did fullfil a lot of roles which will over the thousands of years to come be developing in all the other forms of media we know. But I'm sidestepping here, just a bit. (Duy here. I'd love to see Robert expound on this point in a future Screaming column.)
So, we see the birth of legends, which we all know is the home of the hero. This carries on for quite some time as we find the epic stories told by the Babylonian, the Greek, the Egyptian, and Hindu. Gilgamesh, for example, is perfect for our view of the superhero. A godlike creature (I will not refer to any of them as gods as we are talking serious here ... wait. What? We're not? Okay.), a demi-god, 2 parts god and 1 part human. King of the Sumerian city of Uruk and the builder of the city's walls. Builder in this case means he did it alone, okay — no help. Just one guy, or god, and some bricks.
We see characters like this appear over all the periods of human history. Some gods, some half gods, some puny humans. But all are shown as different kinds of powered. May it be Odysseus, who is a Reed Richards–like genius who prefers his mind over the sword (or maybe he is more like Batman). Or Archilleus (Duy here. That's the same as Achilles. Archilleus is the Old Greek spelling), the demigod warrior with invincible skin (Luke Cage, anyone?). Ra, the sun god of Egypt with his archenemy Apophis and equally powered beings like Set to help him on his journeys. We have the divine twins Castor and Pollux, of whom one shall live forever and one shall die. Beowulf, the warrior, so strong and fearless that he wrestled with monsters in the middle of the ocean while swimming through a storm, and freed King Hroðgar's court from Grendel. Any bells ringing? How about Siegfried from the Ring of the Nibelung? An invincible warrior whose only weakness is a leaf-formed spot on his shoulder (did anyone notice that I'm already running out fresh material? And this stuff is between 3,000 to 1,000 years old.)
I think you all get the picture. Superheroes are old, damn old. In all societies and epochs of mankind, you will find stories of gods, demi-gods, metahumans, and their feats to the world. May it be the 12 feats of Heracles, the killing of Grendel, or the tribe warrior with heightened senses. It is everywhere. From the Philippines to South Africa, from Germany to Mexico, search and you will find those stories.
So what is the idea behind those tales? For me it's fairly simple. Since mankind found self-consciousness, we have struggled to break conventions, climb higher, achieve more, be remembered, live forever. So where we fail as an individual being, we create those who can. We create these beings, larger than life, with powers we want for ourselves and a fate that leads to immortality. We struggle for order and security. And in our helplessness to overcome our own flawed human nature, we, as a race, give birth to beings that are more like the Freudian uber-ego, the super-I, characters so strongly guided by a code or believe. We are afraid, and so create our ultimate protectors. The people who would fight for us when no one else does.
Now don't think that the dark and gritty and realism you see in comics today is a product of the post-WATCHMEN era. The protagonists of early times were also flawed persons (or gods) with a gritty approach Mark Millar would shy away from. See, Heracles once killed his wife and his children in a berserker rage inflicted on him by his stepmother Hera. Archilleus was an arrogant bastard who dressed in women’s clothes and on the Trojan battle field abandoned his companions because he was upset on how the best slave woman was taken by Agamemnon. He only returned because his best friend (and probably lover) Patroklos dies at the hands of Hector, who was misled in thinking he faced Archilleus himself. Patroklos took Archilleus' armor to raise the spirits of the Greek by pretending to be the greatest warrior the world had known. Beowulf, an old king at the end of his epic, fell how he lived, fighting a dragon, but never caring if those monsters he slays are the real monstrosities, beautifully depicted in the slaying of Grendel's mother in her own home. King Arthur, betrayed by his most trusted, Sir Lancelot, and himself the bastard of a foolish King, and not learning the lesson, spawned his own end the same way. This is the light stuff. The Greek mythology alone is full of serving your children to the gods, letting your liver be eaten once a day by a hawk while chained to a rock, or the annihilation of whole cities and peoples.
In the same need mankind feels to create the superman to save us all, we created them as flawed and miserable as ourselves. To identify with them, to hope, that one day, we could be the superman. That we could actually become the stuff of legend, the hero, facing evil against all odds. Against our own flawed nature, our own mortality. And to become immortal.
For me, the one thing you can boil down a superhero, a hero, a god, is this one single thing, this one word, that haunts every one of us on every day of our lives.
Immortality. We fear to die. So we created these characters out of thin air and rumors from distant places to protect us and to become us, so that we can become the myth.
There are more similarities when you look closer into the world of mythology, and I very much intend to do so right now. As you may have noticed, I am focusing on the Greek mythology as I'm very familiar with it and I hate to trust the internet when telling you these things. So I will keep on going and use the Greek until your eyes can't see straight.
One of the similarities we can find is the "legacy character," in which a character dies or retires but a new character emerges, carrying the torch. When Heracles died by the treachery of Hera and the jealousy of his wife (A centaur was also involved. You can't have a proper Greek death scene without at least one creature happening to be around. Today I find it exciting when I see a squirrel, but the Greek seem to have walked into strange creatures every other minute), he passed on the skin of the Nemean Lion as well as the arrows tipped in the blood of the Lernaean Hydra. The arrows even gained further importance long after his death in the Trojan War, as Philoktetes, the best marksman to ever enter a battlefield, wounds Paris, the one who stole Helena, mortally with one of them. You can argue that it was not him but the god Apollon (Duy here. That's the same as Apollo.) that was guiding his hand.
And with this we already touched the other thing I wanted to add: the shared universe.
Mythology is like the comic book industry, with ethnic groups as the publisher. The characters of mythology interact with each other, there are "spin-offs," the abovementioned legacies, and so on. You wanted to see a who's who of the Greek heroes? Let's do an event, shall we? There are two of those "big summer events" in Greek mythology: The Iliad (also known as The Trojan War) and the Journey of the Argonauts. Think of them as the first of many. You even get crossovers to other "publishers". Or how do you explain the old Semitic deity Ba'al (meaning The lord or owner) ending up to be nothing more than a demon of hell?
And re-invention is nothing new either. The Roman mythology could be referred to as a soft reboot, keeping most of the continuity but revamping the characters to fit the "modern" times. Ultimate Greek, you could call it. Or GMnU.
Okay, we're now at a point where I just throw this stuff at you. But I think I made my point.
I don't know if this is a help for anybody, but for me, to understand the myth and its origin is to see where it is headed. To understand the motivation, the driving force behind it, is to value it. To say: I know you and I understand.
Robert "Nemo" Leichsenring