“This is the way the world ends…” William Blake.
Ever since the moment humanity began to ask about its origins, we also began to wonder about our ultimate end, and what, if anything, comes after. Questions and speculations regarding the beginnings and endings of humanity are dealt with through mythology. Hilda Davidson says of mythology that: “[t]he mythology of a people…is the comment of the men of one particular age or civilization on the mysteries of human existence and the human mind, their model for social behaviour, and their attempt to define in stories of gods and demons their perceptions of inner realities” (9). Mythology is the opposite of “the straight line” (as in the shortest distance between two points). Answers are given through symbols, metaphors, characters and story. In mythology, nothing “is.” Humanity uses mythology as a means of providing answers to the three great questions of existence: “where did we come from?” “what are we doing here?” and “how will it all end?”
From cave paintings to IMAX 3D, the creation and propagation of mythologies has been and will continue to be an important aspect of humanity. Yet, for many people in the 21st century who are surrounded by technology, accustomed to seeing images of places outside our own galaxy, and living in a world where travel times are calculated in hours rather than months or years, it is all too easy to look back on the cultures of our ancestors with a kind of patronizing sympathy or even disdain. They could not possibly understand the mechanics of our universe as clearly as we do today, could they?
The same patronizing sympathy and disdain accorded to our ancestors is also often given to the most common form of modern mythological storytelling known today, which is comic books. As a medium that combines elements of both literature and visual art, comic books are a near-perfect way to tell stories, but for many years comic books have been marginalized as either “kid’s stuff,” or at best, disposable entertainment. While this attitude has been gradually disappearing, comics are still looked upon by many with a certain amount of disdain or even mistrust. Don LoCicero, in his book Superheros and Gods says that:
modern representatives of the superhero genre are no less impressive than their predecessors in that illustrious fraternity. However, while in antiquity the orally transmitted epic poem was the medium in which tales of heroic exploits were circulated to a limited audience, today the superhero’s prowess is readily available worldwide by means of mass produced books, countless moving pictures and television productions and through internet search engines. (5)
The marginalization of modern mythology in the form of superhero comics and the perceived lack of relevance of classical mythology are ongoing problems that often hamper or trivialize the study of mythology. Norse mythology is often thought of as little more than armor-clad gods or demigods fighting monsters and each other. Likewise, the same can be said of superhero comic books, with the armor of the gods being replaced by brightly colored spandex. However, both Norse mythology and superhero comics share similarities beyond their action-oriented surfaces. Residing within both, is a notable complexity involving portrayals of both the physical and metaphysical world, and humanity’s place within them.
Mythology, whether derived from ancient oral tradition stories or in comic books, can tell us a great deal about how cultures perceive their universe as well as their place in it—regardless of whether the universe is depicted as a giant tree or as a complex mechanism or “orrery” within which resides a multiverse. We can see that while the symbols may have changed over time with the advent of technology or an increased understanding of the laws of nature, the meanings are relatively unchanged. The same holds true for depictions of the end and (possible) rebirth of humanity as seen in mythologies both past and present.
The study of mythology is in a way the study of evolution, but evolution of the mind and not the body. The mental rather than the physical. As such, it is in its own way just as important as the sciences: “[m]yths also suggest an ontological reality: that of an objective, transcendent reality to which all creation is inherently bound” (Oziewicz 118). Through careful examination of symbols, characters, and stories in myths both past and present in the contexts of psychology, science, and philosophy, it is possible not only to gauge our progress as a species, but also to see that our ancestors operated at a high level of sophistication, for which they are not often credited.
Of the three great questions of existence mentioned above, this research concerns itself primarily with the last question, “how will it all end?” For everything there is a beginning and also an ending. These two points are the only constants, with everything in-between being subjective. By examining the way endings and rebirths are perceived by two cultures separated by a millennium, as well as the way the two cultures perceive the universe and their place within it, it is possible to gauge not only our progress as a species but also to gain a greater respect and understanding for civilizations from long ago.
This research will examine the myth of Ragnarök as well as the recent story by Grant Morrison, Final Crisis. Ragnarök is the story of the last great battle of the Norse gods and how this great war ultimately destroyed the earth, only for the earth to be reborn. Final Crisis is the story of “the day that evil won,” it begins after the deaths of a group of characters known collectively as “The New Gods,” and tells the story about how their deaths at the hands of one of their own threatens the very existence of the universe, or rather, in the case of DC Comics, the multiverse.
The questions proposed by this research involve examinations of both symbolic objects and character archetypes within the myth of Ragnarök and DC Comics’ Final Crisis, as well as the stories themselves to see what the similarities and differences say about the way the universe is perceived by two cultures. Specifically, it will focus on symbolic representations of the universe in both stories, significance of deaths, and the promise of a rebirth. Further, the questions will examine current philosophical and scientific representations of the universe as well as psychological and literary interpretations of the myths to show that, although separated by over a millennium, both myths have a remarkably similar cosmology.
Ragnarök: Twilight of the Gods.
The primary sources of the myth of Ragnarök are stanzas 32 to 66 of the Poetic Edda from around the middle of the twelfth century, (Bellows, xvii) and Snorri Sturluson’s The Prose Edda, from the 13th century, around 1220 (Sturluson, Byok iv). The story of Ragnarök begins with the death of Baldr at the hands of the trickster God Loki, for which Loki is captured by the gods, among whom Baldr was a beloved comrade, and he imprisoned and tortured. Soon after, a series of natural disasters and occurrences befall the earth—three years of extreme winters and great wars and destruction:
Brothers shall fight, and fell each other,
And sisters’ sons, shall kinship strain;
Hard is it on earth, with mighty whoredom;
Axe-time, sword-time, shields are sundered
Wind-time, Wolf-time, ere the world falls;
Nor ever shall man, each other spare. (Bellows 20 stanza 45)
Next comes the darkness, “[t]he wolf will swallow the sun and mankind will think it has suffered a terrible disaster. Then the other wolf will catch the moon, and he too will cause much ruin. The stars will disappear from the heavens (Sturluson 70). Following this great darkness, the gods then go to war with the giants and the great beasts the Fenriswolf, a monstrous wolf sired by Loki and the Midgard Serpent, a snake so large it encircles the earth, also sired by Loki. Seeing this, the god Heimdall awakens the other gods with Gjallarhorn, a mighty horn. Yggdrasil, the world-tree shakes. The Gods then go to war with the giants and the beasts. Odin fights the Fenriswolf, but is swallowed up. Vidar avenges Odin’s death by slaying the Fenriswolf. Thor kills the Midgard Serpent, but is poisoned by it and dies soon after. Loki, having escaped his imprisonment fights with Heimdall and both gods die. After all men, gods, and monsters have slain each other, the world is then consumed in a cleansing fire. Once the fire has been extinguished, the earth and its inhabitants are reborn into a new age.
Final Crisis: The New Gods and the Day Evil Won.
The story of Final Crisis actually began in 1970, when influential comic artist/writer Jack Kirby left Marvel Comics for its chief rival DC Comics. Incidentally, one of the titles Kirby created for Marvel during his tenure involved revamped versions of the Norse gods, starring Thor. When Kirby came to DC, it was for the opportunity to develop his own projects, upon which he would have creative control. Evanier says “Having escaped Marvel, Jack also wanted to get away from cranking out comics of conventional size and subject. He thought he had more to say than he could in superhero comics” (Evanier 165). Kirby’s vision was massive, indeed. The story that would become known as The Fourth World Saga comprised four ongoing series, all written and drawn by himself:
He imagined up a new order of gods. A second generation to the kind he’d left behind in the Thor comic. In this new mythology, they dwelled on a planet that had split asunder. Thereafter, the good ones lived (or left for earth from) a world called New Genesis. The bad ones inhabited the dank and foreboding Apokolips, the domain of an intergalactic Hitler known as Darkseid. (Evanier 172)
“There Came a time when the old gods died!” (Kirby 106). These are the words with which Kirby opened The New Gods #1 from 1971. Kirby continues: “The brave died with the cunning. The noble perished, locked in battle with unleashed evil! It was the last day for them! An Ancient era was passing in a fiery holocaust!” (Kirby 106). Kirby Begins his saga of The Fourth World with an an apocalyptic ending very reminiscent of Ragnarök. And like Ragnarök, with its story of eventual rebirth, Kirby’s Fourth World Saga takes place after the rebirth, when “[t]he final moment came with the fatal release of indescribable power—which tore the home of the Old Gods asunder—split in great halves…in the end, there were two giant molten bodies…silence closed upon what had happened…It was this way for an age. Then—there was new light” (Kirby 107). As Evanier mentions above, the two worlds become New Genesis, home of Highfather and the good gods and Apokolips, home of Darkseid and the evil gods. Kirby’s Fourth World saga centers around Orion, a god of war and resident of New Genesis, who fights against Darkseid, the tyrannical ruler of Apokolips and his attempts to use Earth as a pawn in his secret war with New Genesis. Unbeknownst to Orion, he is in fact the offspring of Darkseid. Darkseid had given Orion to Highfather when he was born as a treaty between the two worlds. Highfather in turn gave over his son to be raised on Apokolips. The story of Highfather’s son is told in the Mister Miracle series. These conflicts between fathers and sons, particularly the conflict between Orion and Darkseid are common elements of hero mythologies as noted by Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces. However, as we will see later in Final Crisis, this conflict does not lead to atonement, as Campbell describes (105-126), but to death and destruction. Unfortunately, Kirby was unable to complete his Fourth World Saga. “In 1972, New Gods and Forever People, were ‘suspended’ (read: canceled) and Mister Miracle soon followed. Jack was crushed. ‘One of the worst days of my life,’ was how he described the day of the call axing the first two. At least for the time being, his Fourth World would be an unfinished symphony, a novel without its final chapters” (Evanier 181). And Kirby’s epic saga would remain largely unfinished, barring the occasional revival, for 36 years, and he died in 1994. Enter: Grant Morrison.
Born and raised in Glasgow, Scotland, Grant Morrison first began writing comics around 1987 when his serialized story Zenith (an apocalyptic tale in its own right) was published in the UK in the 2000AD magazine. In 1989 he began writing comics for DC Comics in America first by revamping a long forgotten superhero in the Animal Man series and then moving on to other titles like Doom Patrol, Justice League of America and working with characters of his own creation in books like The Invisibles and We3. Morrison also considers himself a practicing Chaos magician—a school of ceremonial magical practice devised by Peter Carroll in the late 1970s—and has written and lectured about magical practice and theories. Over the years Morrison has also disseminated his theories about magic and the mind into his comic book writing. In an interview with Publisher’s Weekly from August 12, 2008, Morrison talks about the the use and appearance of mystical themes in his comics writing:
PW Comics week: You are a practicing magician, with your comics works sometimes taken as your spells. For you, what relationship do magic and mysticism and religion and spirituality have?
Grant Morrison: Big question. But I guess it is intrinsic to my life. They obviously are all important to me, and it all defines how I see the world. It’s a big deal for me, which is why it turns up in all the stories that I do., because I’m constantly thinking about that stuff. As a human being on earth, as someone with a brain, you have to start asking these questions, you know? We live and we die, and there’s some interesting questions to be asked about all that.
PWCW: Is there a particular relationship you see between all of that and comics as a medium:
GM: Comics specifically seem quite magical to me—in the sense that they are directly drawn onto paper. They relate back to the very first drawings that people did on cave walls, and people believe now that those things were meant to be magical, that by drawing and creating a model of the bison, you could affect what happened to the real bison. Your hunt would be more successful the next day. So the idea of drawing and creating representations is the very first notion that we had of magic, that you could make an image of something and affect the image and, in turn, affect the reality of the thing…So that idea of representation, I think, is the first magical idea and comics is very close to that. (Morrison, Publishers Weekly)
In 2008, DC Comics began publishing Grant Morrison’s Final Crisis, with art by J.G. Jones and Doug Mahnke. The story of Final Crisis is epic in scale and includes just about every character in the DC Comics universe, yet it focuses largely on the characters and concepts developed by Jack Kirby for his Fourth World stories that he was never able to finish. In an interview with Newsarama, an online comics information site, Morrison says:
I wanted to be faithful to the spirit of the King [Kirby]. This had to be a story of gods, of God in fact, hence the ‘cosmic’ style, the elevated language, the total and deliberate disregard for the rules of the ‘screenwriting’ approach that has become the house style for a great many comic writers these days. The emphasis on spectacle and wonder at the expense of ‘realism’, the allegorical approach…it’s all my take on Kirby. (Morrison Newsarama)
Final Crisis begins with the death of the New God Orion, shot by has father Darkseid with a “bullet fired backwards in time” (Chapter 2). With his dying breath, Orion tells the police detective who found him, Dan Turpin, that “[t]hey did not die! He is in you all!” (Chapter 1). Orion is the last survivor of a great war in the heavens, but we learn later that some of the New Gods, in particular Darkseid and a few of the others from Apokalipse descended to Earth and hide in human bodies. Darkseid, masquerading as a crime boss, tells Turpin “I was hurt in a fall, you might say…There was a war in Heaven, and I won” (Chapter 1). Darkseid’s ultimate plan is to infect everyone on earth with “the Anti-Life Equation,” a mathematical formula that works like a meme—a viral idea—which basically proves that existence is futile. When people hear the Anti-Life Equation they become mindless drones who act as an extension of Darkseid. Eventually, the Anti-Life Equation is unleashed upon the earth, enslaving billions. Meanwhile, Superman sets out to stop an ultimate doom that was unleashed from the distortions in time/space that resulted from Darkseid’s fall to earth. This ultimate doom comes in the form of a creature known as Mandrakk and he seeks to wipe out all of existence. In the end of course, the heroes prevail, but not without sacrifice. Batman, who had been captured earlier by the forces of Darkseid finally confronts and shoots Darkseid with the same bullet that he (Darkseid) used to kill his son, Orion. Batman,who swore an oath never to use a gun, is forced by the situation to go against everything he believes and take the life of another being. However, before Darkseid is killed he fires his “Omega Beams” at Batman, who appears to die. Because of Batman’s sacrifice, the heroes are able to stop both Darkseid and Mandrakk and in an instant, the multiverse is destroyed and reborn, and thus is saved from enslavement and eventual obliteration.