I had originally planned to write this article at a later date, but after reading Cody Walker and Julian Darius’s columns this past week, I couldn’t resist the temptation to jump ahead. I’ve been brewing over an article such as this for awhile now, and today is the perfect launch pad. So let’s get to it!
Super-hero comics have a problem. A few problems, in fact. These have been the topic of discussion in recent columns, but simply to reiterate, I’ve listed what appear to be the two chief offenders here:
1. No super-hero experiences any lasting change in their characters. The status quo is supreme.
2. Continuity consistently overrides quality storytelling resulting in a confusing jumble.
So super-hero comics need some help. As Colin Smith mentioned in the roundtable interview, there simply needs to be a higher standard of craft going into them. Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns were highly-discussed topics there, and we all rightfully wondered why we’re still talking about these books that are over 20 years old, as if they are the best we have to offer! Despite ample opportunity, no one has seemed to match them.
But I believe super-heroes going forward should not aim simply to match them but to surpass them. Excellence in a state heretofore unseen should be the goal of the new super-hero story. But this has all been discussed, and we all want excellence in our stories. But immediately comes the inevitable question…
How? How do we do this? Cody’s column and the roundtable spent much time discussing the various issues plaguing the super-hero genre, including nostalgia. When both forward-thinking comics and nostalgia-driven comics have been rejected by the consumers, where is left to go? The answer is not to commit blindly to forward-thinking or backward-thinking and take the hit from either party. The answer is to think deeper. Deeper than ever before.
The One Story
Stepping back for a moment, as an artist, there is one phrase that I find to be one of the most comforting thoughts I know of: “Nothing is original.” There is nothing new under the sun, only reinventions, hybrids, and new looks at the same concept, the same mystery, the same story. And it’s true! Super-heroes certainly aren’t a 20th-century invention, even if spandex is. Have a look at this passage from the first tablet of The Epic of Gilgamesh, translated by Robert O’Connell.
In this wall is hidden a story of Gilgamesh
Gilgamesh who ordered these walls raised by labouring hands
Gilgamesh who walked these walls
Gilgamesh who touched these walls
Gilgamesh who stood on these walls as the cold night wind shied from it
In this story learn what fear taught him, what sorrow taught him,
what friendship taught him
Learn how fame came to him, he who wanted no fame
Learn how wisdom came to him, he who never sought it
Learn how he reached divinity, him humbly born
Child of Lugalbanda’s wife and a divine force
Gilgamesh is a living force of nature
Child of Ninsun, Lady Wild Cow, she who no man touched,
She so pure, so divine, so without sin.
Child who grew to lead the army and protect it’s stragglers.
Child who knew the land all about, from the deepest well to the highest eagle crusted mountain
Child who knew how a smithy worked and how irrigation worked from the daughters of the Great Abyss, Abzu
Child who sailed the seas to the land of the dead near Utnapishtim
Child who came from the dead bringing life to the flooded earth.
Is there anywhere a greater king who can say, as Gilgamesh may?
“I am the greatest king in this world!?”
A child of both the divine world and the mortal world. A ‘living force of nature’, with unmatched strength who never wanted fame, wisdom, or divinity, and yet found them all. Sound like anyone we know? Sounds like a few of them, in fact. Sure enough, along the eleven tablets that encompass his story, he commits a great amount of superhuman deeds, ranging from slaying divine bulls to sailing across the sea of death. And this text is four thousand years old.
It is not as if this kind of tale was limited to one corner of the ancient world. It has re-occurred, over and over, throughout the course of human history, in countless incarnations with countless varied deeds, names, and pretexts, but all pointing to the same truth. Here is a portion of a Buddhist parable, taken from Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces:
When he saw that the club had stuck, he said: “Master ogre, you have never heard of me before. I am Prince Five-Weapons. When I entered this forest infested by you, I took no account of bows and suchlike weapons; when I entered this forest, I took account only of myself. Now I am going to beat you and pound you into powder and dust!” Having thus made known his determination, with a yell he struck the ogre with his right hand. His hand stuck right into the ogre’s hair. He struck him with his left hand. That also stuck. He struck him with his right foot. That also stuck. He struck him with his left foot. That also stuck. Thought he: “I will beat you with my head and pound you into powder an dust!” He struck him with his head. That also stuck right to the ogre’s hair.
Prince Five-Weapons, snared five times, stuck fast in five places, dangled from the ogre’s body. But for all that, he was unafraid, undaunted. As for the ogre, he thought: “This is some lion of a man, some man of noble birth–no mere man! For although he has been caught by an ogre like me, he appears neither to tremble nor to quake! In all the time I have harried this road, I have never seen a single man to match him! Why pray, is he not afraid?” Not daring to eat him, he asked: “Youth, why are you not afraid? Why are you not terrified with the fear of death?”
“Ogre, why should I be afraid? For in one life one death is absolutely certain. What’s more, I have in my belly a thunderbolt for weapon. If you eat me, you will not be able to digest that weapon. It will tear your insides into tatters and fragments and kill you. In that case we’ll both perish. That’s why I’m not afraid!”
Prince Five-Weapons, the reader must know, was referring to the Weapon of Knowledge that was within him. Indeed, this young hero was none other than the Future Buddha, in an earlier incarnation.
Here in the tales of the Buddha, we see clearly put forth the hidden power in every hero myth ever conceived, from Gilgamesh to Superman — that the real power of the super-hero is not in his might, but in the “Weapon of Knowledge” — his soul. This is why Batman is a super-hero. It’s not because he wears spandex and fights crime, and it’s not because he has giant muscles, a sharp mind, and lots of money. It is because he has the indomitable will of a super-hero, and that is what brings victory.
Related to this, there is one last secret that the ancient myths can teach us about super-heroes, and it is the most important. The most important part about all these tales of divine might and supernatural powers is that they are inherently not supernatural. Everyone has this power within them, and it only takes an awareness of the thunderbolt in your belly to become charged with the indomitable will of all humanity. This is very clearly proclaimed in the passages of the most widely read book in the world:
It happened as he was on his way to Jerusalem, that he was passing along the borders of Samaria and Galilee. As he entered into a certain village, ten men who were lepers met him, who stood at a distance. They lifted up their voices, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” It happened that as they went, they were cleansed.
One of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, glorifying God with a loud voice. He fell on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving him thanks; and he was a Samaritan. Jesus answered, “Weren’t the ten cleansed? But where are the nine? Were there none found who returned to give glory to God, except this stranger?” Then he said to him, “Get up, and go your way. Your faith has healed you.”
Being asked by the Pharisees when the Kingdom of God would come, he answered them, “The Kingdom of God doesn’t come with observation; neither will they say, ‘Look, here!’ or, ‘Look, there!’ for behold, the Kingdom of God is within you.”
Once again, in Luke Chapter 17, the hero performs superhuman acts, this time healing the sick despite only one of the ten returning in thanks. The passage ends with Jesus directly stating the final secret of myth – that this power is not reserved for “the gods” – it is within each man. It comes not from looking without, but within.
So super-heroes are ultimately a metaphor — a physical manifestation of the power of the human spirit. Despite all corporeal evidence to the contrary, the wonder of a super-hero is not that he does what you cannot, but that he is you. Not in the obvious manner, for just as the message of the Bible is not that we should all become traveling preachers, it is not at all the message of a super-hero story that we should don underwear outside our pants and fight crime. That is only the surface. The real message of all these stories, or rather the story, is that you have the power to reach new levels of awareness, maturity, and heroism if you will only accept the call to adventure — whether it be busting criminals or crunching next year’s financial readouts. Life has meaning, and it’s worth fighting for – that’s the power of a super-hero.
Unlike the myths from which it derives, the modern super-hero tale is by and large utterly oblivious to this deceptively simple idea, or if the creators are aware of it, it is not coming through in any meaningful manner. Much stock has been placed in ‘realism’ and ‘What would they really do?’ and while those questions can concoct interesting scenarios, ultimately without an awareness of the core of being, it comes off as vacuous, silly, and contrived.
But despite its rather clumsy application of the great mythological power on which it draws, super-hero comics still manage to reach people – just not as many. Why are comics fans so often characterized as rabid fanboys / girls that follow their content religiously? Because despite the flaws apparent in the super-hero comic, they still draw on the tradition of the power of the hero, and that is a power without peer. It has driven wars, incited nations, toppled empires, and continues to shape the world around us today.
It is why comic book fans are so attached to “nostalgia,” yet are eager to lambast empty re-skins of the same content — what they really want is not the exact same story, but another piece of the one story in all stories — in a new light that has not been shown to them before. Such is the beauty of myth — it can take literally an infinite number of forms, because the power at its base is infinite. Despite the fact that there is only one story, there is also a boundless amount of individual stories within that whole.
The trick going forward is not to give to the world nostalgic reboots or radical new changes simply for the sake of change, as both extremes miss the point. The super-hero comic must delve deep into the one story in all stories, and return from the void with a renewed understanding that surpasses all before it. Super-heroes have hung their six hours on the Cross at Golgotha, they have been pinned nine days upside-down on Yggdrassil, and they have sat for seven days beneath the Gautama. It is time for rebirth.
It is worth noting that I did not come up with these ideas. They have existed long before me and will continue to exist many years after I am gone. My primary source and inspiration is Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, but writers from Aristotle to William Shakespeare have either commented or heavily employed the subjects discussed. If you know of any other texts on the matter, I’d love to hear about them!