The other day I had this (otherwise) perfectly sane person ask me why I was so interested in comics. It wasn’t the first time I’ve been posed the question. Normally I take on my most pompous posture and say something about being a kid at heart. Once in a while I even say something provacative about a group of people wearing spandex. But the fact is a mythology creates a foundation for society’s basic thinking and that is why I study it. Perfect examples, Pandora and Eve. The former released all of the world’s evils because she let her curiosity blind her. The latter was gullible enough to allow herself to eat the Fruit of Knowledge, ending paradise. For the bulk of our civilization’s existence our myths have been the underlying rationale for treating women like second-class citizens. It’s only been in comparatively recent years that both myths have been rethought, that the equal gullibility of their male counterparts has been examined. That has been a reaction to our changing perceptions; we have as a society accepted the fact that women should have equality which means that our myths have needed to change to accommodate that.
America has its own distinctive mythology in addition to that which it inherited, and this too has been a reaction to our own perceptions. George Washington, Andrew Jackson, Daniel Boone, and U.S. Grant were all icons of how we saw and in certain contexts continue to see ourselves. We are rebels, fighters for justice, and rough people who can stand up to hard odds and win. At the end of the nineteenth century our active mythology became based around Indian fighters, gunfighters, and lawmen. We had the same perceptions of ourselves, but the vehicles of that perception changed.
During the Depression, our mythology was forced to change again in the light of our own helplessneness. Two characters in particular seemed to transcend their medium quickly – Batman and Superman. Superman has always been the favorite; the perfect American specimen. He has godlike powers and is never anything but a perfect boyscout. In a time when a man might not be able to feed his family, Superman could do anything. When the easiest way to survive was to bein the mafia or find some way to cheat the system, Superman was a boyscout.
And Batman? In a way he is the alter ego of Superman. He has intellect to make up for his lesser physical skills, but the difference is really in his approach. He never takes the easy way, but he doesn’t bother trying to be the golden boy either. He gets in and does what he thinks needs to be done. He takes occasional direction from the police but he is very much his own man. They have survived because we hold to those ideals, and because the characters have not changed.
In the seventies, anti-heroes emerged – Wolverine, Black Adam, Blade, representatives of the culture. In the eighties, the X-Men arrived. They are the nerds, the geeks, the people who don’t fit in and are rejected by society. Two different sects are present in the stories, those led by Xavier and the mutants who follow Magneto. They are the group that struggles to fit in and those that want to eliminate all the normal people. That is where the drama and action come from. But one theme permeates all the X-Men comics, that the two leaders respect and admire each other. That Magneto is so willing to let Xavier die in the original trilogy of movies is one of several reasons I’ve never liked them. That they have individuals attacking them (Stryker, a lone Congressman, etc.) and not society as a whole is another. They have taken away from what makes the X-Men so special. In doing so, they have diminished the significance of the X-Men as a social statement and as the iconic comic heroes for an entire culture group in the country.
Our mythology represents our self-image, and as such it defines us. Over the last century, comics have developed from luck, a change in the country’s views, a change in technology. Comic heroes have also developed because the writers saw the need for them, saw the need for a hero to fit a group, a philosophy, a situation. The comic universes are our modern mythology. As such they must be respected and safeguarded even as they develop with the needs of our culture.