As I was reading Lance Parkin’s Magic Words, a biography of Alan Moore, I looked to my right at the nightstand against my wall and came to the realization that it is, in fact, an altar. On it is a deck of Tarot cards (Rider), a copy of The Upanishads, small $1 digest-sized reprints of the first three issues from Fantastic Four and Avengers, my roommate’s copy of Aleister Crowley’s Magick Without Tears, and Essential Spider-Man vol. 2. To the left of these books is a figure of the Alan Moore character Sophie Bangs, and a tiny figurine of Spider-Man. On the right side is a tiny figurine of Batman, as well as Spider-Man and Batman PEZ dispensers and a Promethea action figure (Sophie’s superhero alter ego). Typically the two pez dispensers would be on opposite sides of the books so that the order on the left would be (in descending order of height) Sophie, Batman pez dispenser and Spider-Man figurine, while the order on the right would be Promethea, Spider-Man pez dispenser and Batman figurine. There’s also a jasmine scented candle and a letter from my little brother, which I’d like to keep on the altar, and a few miscellaneous objects, such as chapstick, a Pronto Comics button, a remote control for my laptop and a book about money management, that I think deserve a home elsewhere.
Reading further into Magic Words, I come across a description of Alan Moore’s ABC characters as different incarnations of classic superhero archetypes, with Tom Strong representing Superman and Promethea representing Wonder Woman, and my mind immediately went back to my “altar.” I noticed a pattern. In DC Comics there is a trinity, a sort of Olympus-within-Olympus, of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman. That trinity seems to be what my altar is honoring. Batman is present in the form that he already exists in. Wonder Woman is present in the form of Promethea. My mind then went to the argument that I’ve seen certain comics professionals (I want to say Erik Larsen in a recent tweet and possibly Alex Ross in an old column or letter in Wizard magazine) that Spider-Man is a variation of the Superman archetype. So there you have it. I have an altar to the holy superhero trinity right next to my bed, along with comics and books on magic and mysticism, and I didn’t even realize it. But if that’s the case, what is the significance of these archetypes? What does this trinity stand for? What am I really building an altar to?
Let’s look at each of the trinity’s components individually. Batman’s the easy one. I’ve heard Grant Morrison compare him to Hades, which seems appropriate as he is essentially the highest form of authority in the seedy nighttime underworld of Gotham City. He is the God of that realm, in a sense. He’s cloaked in shadows, he is at home among the city’s lost souls, he stares into the face of horrors that we would be unfit to process. But beyond that, Morrison has also classified him as a being of compassion, almost a Buddhist superhero in a lot of ways. This is also extremely valid. Bruce Wayne was born something of a prince, and then lost it all in a gruesome act of violence. But rather than allow that cycle of violence to continue on through himself, he chose to break the cycle right then and there. He developed the physical and mental discipline necessary to turn something awful into something positive and powerful, and from there he took on the task of reducing the occurrence of violent crimes in his city, both as Bruce Wayne and as Batman. As Morrison noted in a podcast discussion with Kevin Smith, Batman puts on the costume and goes out into the night in order to suffer with us, which is the very definition of compassion. He wears a big yellow circle on his chest as if to say, “aim at me first,” as artist Dean Trippe once so movingly phrased it. He’s re-living that pain every night for the rest of his life so that we won’t have to. It’s also worth noting that, like Promethea, I believe that Batman has a bit of a ritualistic element to his persona. In recent months it has occurred to me that Batman is not one person, or any person, it is more like an element or force that people can invoke into themselves when the time is right. Bruce Wayne descends into the batcave, puts on a mask and a cape, says “I am Batman,” and from that moment on all fear has left him. In his own way, Bruce Wayne has his own Magic phrase, the way Billy Batson has the magic word “Shazam!”
Batman is a figure of both compassion and strength. The Dark Knight of the soul. What does that make Promethea? Promethea is an extension of Wonder Woman, essentially Wonder Woman by way of Hermes. Like Wonder Woman, she is both warrior and princess, being one of the four princesses of the Thoth tarot deck, which inhabit the sphere of Malkuth, or the material world. In her case, she is the princess of wands, the magical weapon of will. Her belonging to the wands as well as her usage of magic words, such as poetry, in order to transform from Sophie Bangs into Promethea, also makes her an inhabitant of the eighth magical sphere, Hod, the orange sphere of communication and splendour, and kin to all the gods that live there. Just as Wonder Woman was tasked with entering man’s world and saving it from itself in the midst of the greatest war that the world had ever seen, leading her to be called by some creators a “warrior of peace,” Sophie discovered the Promethea entity and used it to ascend the Tree of Life, experiencing all the peaks and valleys of the human soul before returning to the material realm and guiding the world through an apocalypse in the post-911 era. This apocalypse, however, was not the same as the nuclear annihilation that threatened the world during the Cold War. It was the dawning of a new Aeon, a great revelation that was brought about by all the realms of the Tree of Life collapsing onto the material world. For Moore, this event will occur as a result of the exponential doubling of information in modern society. For Morrison, this event might have already begun with the symbolic destruction of the World Trade Center on 9/11, which brought to mind the the twin towers of the Moon tarot card collapsing, thus destroying the 29th path on the Tree of Life and causing the realm of imagination to collide with the realm of day-to-day existence. Either way, Promethea is there to guide us through it, to lead us across the abyss and into enlightenment. In this way, she’s not only Wonder Woman, but Lady Liberty, enlightening the world.
Batman for compassion and courage, Promethea for swiftness and enlightenment. What does Spider-Man represent? Well, let’s first start by clarifying my earlier supposition that I might be using Spider-Man as a stand-in for Superman. First, there are the obvious similarities. Both Spider-Man and Superman are red-and-blue-clad superheroes who spend their days as nerdy journalists. Neither have any luck with women in their civilian identities, and both are often seen being doted upon by kindly couples. Both are orphans. Spider-Man’s uncle was taken from him in a murder that he could’ve prevented. Superman’s adoptive father was taken from him by natural causes, essentially taken from him by time, the one thing Superman can’t save people from. Both have arch-enemies within the scientific community, and both have lived out what Joseph Campbell might call the “father quest” hundreds of times over in a variety of different media. Most of these qualities also run parallel to events that have played out in my own life as well, so it’s not hard to see why I identify so closely with both of them. But why Spider-Man over Superman? How are the two different? Well, for starters, Superman wasn’t born a human. Spider-Man can’t fly or shoot laser beams from his eyes. Superman represents, according to Grant Morrison, the sun god archetype. Which makes sense, as he uses the sun for energy and has died and been reborn just as many solar deities have. He comes from a more enlightened place to inspire us to become more enlightened as a people. On the Tree of Life, the sphere of the sun and the sun gods represents the point of overlap between the earthly and the divine, between man and god. In the world of Promethea’s Tree of Life, Superman would exist in the heart sphere, the sphere of compassion and gold. It’s where we are when we hope to do our best. And even though Spider-Man isn’t powered by sun, only by radioactive blood, and even though he was conceived by creators who were more interested in exploring the flaws and foibles of misfits superheroes who could only ever aspire to be like DC’s pantheon of supergods, he still represents that same theme. Like Clark Kent, Peter Parker is an everyman. But rather than turning into a lantern-jawed Greek statue when he takes on his superheroic form, he takes on a disguise that covers the entire surface of his body. He goes from being an everyman to being completely anonymous. And it’s because of that readers are able to project themselves onto him, regardless of their race or gender or sexuality or body type. Anybody can be Spider-Man, right? So even though Spider-Man isn’t as powerful as Superman, or isn’t as on-the-nose in his representation of the sun god archetype, the wall-crawler beats him at his own game by allowing for any of his readers to become him, to see themselves being the best that they can be.
Batman, Promethea and Spider-Man. Courage, Enlightenment and Hope. With a heavy dose of altruism and compassion from all three. I suppose this explains as well as anything else what the logic and symbolism behind the superhero holy trinity is. These three elements comprise the foundation of superhero comics, and each individual element takes on a multitude of aspects within the superhero pantheon. Heroes like Supreme, Marvelman and Sentry are clearly working off the Superman archetype while characters like Storm, Wolverine, Red Sonja, Daredevil and Iron Man all seem to be tapping into the same energies that Batman and Wonder Woman are derived from. It’s through giving these energies a symbol and a myth, and through paying homage to them and keeping statuettes of them next to our beds, that we are giving them a place to reside in our everyday consciousness and asking them to play a part in our day-to-day lives. Whether we know it or not, apparently.