So why do I claim that “archetypal criticism” should be a principal (if not exclusive) means to understand the connections between mainstream and art comics? Talk of “archetypes” implies the idea of mythology, whether cultural or personal, and the topic “Are comics myths?” does come up once in a while, but what (if anything) does it mean?
Over the years, I’ve identified three colloquial meanings underlying the question. The first and most useless meaning doesn’t really address comics in general, but only superheroes: superheroes are like myths because they ape the feats of archaic deities.
A more inclusive meaning is seen by fans that speak of comics as having the same broad appeal as myths do. In this sense, any character or concept that has maintained some level of popularity would be a myth, whether it dealt with fantastic situations (Superman, Tales from the Crypt) or with relatively ordinary life (Blondie, Strangers in Paradise). A corollary to this would be that when such a fictional myth loses popularity, it dies like a god no longer being worshipped. At best, the dead myth might leave behind a skeletal remnant. For instance, a speaker can use the expression “dragon lady” for a deadly Asian damsel, and yet know nothing of the character “Dragon Lady” from the comic strip Terry and the Pirates.
The most promising meaning, though, is the idea that any fictional narrative generates its own “mythology,” made up of the totality of significant characters and events that come to define the series.
To be sure, it’s not a mythology oriented toward giving human context to the movements of the stars or the origin of sacred rituals. Because fiction does not interpret the world in exactly the same mode that archaic myths do, many people find it inappropriate to speak of any fictional work generating a mythology – or more properly, a mythos – whether it’s a serial character like Batman or a single novel like Moby Dick. However, the same people often have no problem interpreting, say, Batman through some interpretative lens that isn’t strictly literary in origin, be it Marxist economic theory or Sausurrean linguistics. For my part, since archaic myth-stories do require the element of audience-identification even as do purely fictional stories, the two modes have more in common than naysayers claim.
I said that a work’s mythos took in all significant characters or events in the narrative. But significance can be in the eye of the beholder. A reader who can’t abide superheroes may comprehend, on an intellectual level, the significance of the Joker in Batman’s mythos, but the fact won’t hold any meaning for him. Similarly, enthusiasts of Batman may be divided on the best interpretation of the Joker just as artcomics fans can split on whether or not David Boring is overrated.
So while narratives have no purpose without audiences, the dominant audience-response at a given time can’t totally define a narrative’s significance. If it did, then Moby Dick, hugely unpopular with the audience for which it was crafted, would be forever defined by that unpopularity, and no one would ever care about the respective significances of Ahab and Ishmael.
I referenced above the work of Ferdinand de Saussure, founder of semiology. Saussure’s theory includes the distinction between “langue,” the particular set of linguistic and grammatical devices through which a given language is expressed, and “parole,” which connotes all the actual manifestations of the language. Transferring this to genre-expectations, all the given Batman stories at a given time would be “parole,” but the rules of the Batman universe—however pliable they may prove in the hands of different authors — would be “langue.” Saussure’s semiology, though, has limited applicability to the complexities of narrative.
Without subscribing to all the theories of the psychologist Carl Jung, his concept of a “collective unconscious” offers more malleability than that of Saussure’s “langue.” Saussure is aware that language is highly associative, but his system offers no way to assess the dynamics of the symbolic process. Jung, being more concerned with the way in which psychological patients told themselves narratives that embodied their personal mythologies, offers a better insight than Saussure as to how literary processes work, as much in Batman as in Moby Dick.
I, as reader, cannot help but approach either a Batman story or a Herman Melville story without bringing in my preferences, my personal mythology. Nevertheless, in theory, I can look at any story and suss out how its symbols should work to create a given reading-experience, whether I think that particular story succeeded or not. If the author has not succeeded in my eyes, I can imagine how the story could or should have worked. If the author has succeeded in my eyes, I use the same imaginative process to appreciate how well he did so. Either way I am drawing upon the totality of possible permutations of a narrative
For a given critic that a spectacularly unpopular story may possess great significance. One academic began writing on Moby Dick in the 1920s, which small event led to the novel’s enshrinement as a literary classic. In the 1960s, Jules Feiffer celebrated comic books as “trash” that could get away with saying or doing anything, and in doing so, he opened up the question as to whether critics could find diamonds in the garbage. Artcomics evolved by emulating various models of canonical literature, but even in that world Hemingway could be arguably more popular with a given readership than Faulkner. So if Dan Clowes enjoys a greater number of fans compared to, say, the Hernandez Brothers, that does not settle the question of quality any more than a poll that voted Starlin’s Joker the best because he killed one of the Robins.
It isn’t easy, always trying to imagine the totality of potential mythic processes.
But if somebody’s gotta do it, I guess it might as well be me.