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Superheroes and the Hero Monomyth: Part I

A comparative and historical framework explains why the theater seats are full.

Heroes and villains arising from mythological tales have existed for centuries. From the Trojan War expressions of Greek tragedies and Roman poetry, to film and book series such as Star Wars, Tarzan, Harry Potter, and Lord of the Rings, western civilization has experienced a storied love affair with mythological creatures and characters who have, in turn, provided us with critical insight into the workings of our minds and bodies. Since the inception of such tales, they have been further synthesized into our human exploits by spiritual leaders, historians, theologians, philosophers, psychologists, writers, and artists. We now have a comprehensive and comparative catalog of literary, auditory, and visual outlets that offer many opportunities to understand how we interact and negotiate with matters of faith, spirituality, social and personal responsibility, ethics, justice, and a myriad of other human concerns.

Can one consider such pop cultural icons as viable counterparts to this much larger, well-established and purposeful existence of classical mythology and folklore as we know it? The answer is yes! Like other artistic venues of culture such as music or painting, pop culture superheroes are every bit an institution for a close and personal look at our mirror image. In his book, Hero With A Thousand Faces, cultural anthropologist Joseph Campbell wrote, “Myth is the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into human cultural manifestation.”

Expressed in recent decades through radio, newspaper strips, comic books, television, and now cinema, theatre, computer games, and the Internet, superheroes have rarely been taken seriously or given much scholarly attention as an important translation for treating our human condition. Only since the late 1990s have we considered this archetype more than just artful expressions and interpretations of adventure, excitement, horror, and suspense. As a result, we now have dozens of studies that carefully identify and examine these icons and their human themes that are central in not only understanding our own place in the larger universe but our collective and individual duties that we have been called to perform.

Mythology is not something of which we all share the same understanding of. Not all of us have had the same education or interests and, despite its existence and availability, we may not have all been exposed to classical mythology or other literary works of fantasy, folklore and religion that help to define morality, virtues, heroes, and villains. Sometimes we fail to realize that our beliefs are, in actuality, a mythological interaction system and that we are at civil and world war only by virtue of my mythology vs. your mythology (or my beliefs vs. your beliefs).

Despite various and warring mythologies such as Roman vs. Greek, Indo-European vs. Hindu or the symbolic and dichotomous interpretations of Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, or Islam, one mythology that the larger world has experienced in a somewhat relative and communal capacity is that of the pop culture superhero. The Oxford English Dictionary defines pop culture as a “commercial culture based upon popular taste.” These tastes have been shared among us all since the early 20th century and we have grown up immersed in them—similar beliefs or not.

Each one of us can reflect on a noble trait that has been demonstrated or portrayed in a comic book, television show, film, or newscast. Those traits are relevant to our human services corps in particular: medicine, ministry, human services, and education. Especially given the focus now on heroism in our post-9/11 world, the idea of giving selflessly, every day, in both emergency and non-emergency circumstances gives new credence to the terminology. We know our “everyday heroes” to epitomize a functionality of heroism in a manner that gives breadth and depth to those iconic superheroes we are most familiar with.

Those of us who remember The Incredible Hulk TV series of the 1970s watched a similar tale of fatalism each week as David Banner would walk down that “lonely road,” hitchhiking for a ride to the next town that could help him find a cure. The Hulk (as our costume) was a hero but hunted as a monster that forced Banner into unwanted isolation. Yet the man inside the creature, despite its perceived malevolence, was a kind and gentle soul who exhibited a degree of humanity that made us care about the character, restored our hope, and allowed us to reflect on our own trials and tribulations in the same way. That exhibition of a “mild-mannered scientist” is what we need to carry us through the tough times and not let cynicism, frustration, anger, and fear dominate our thoughts, lives, and work because of what we experience on the “outside.”

By the same token, the Batman was our watchful protector. Justice followed his shadow at night yet he was forced back into the very darkness he used to fight evil—always criticized, feared, and perceived as a wretched vigilante. He would return, then, to Wayne Manor, take off his uniform, and tend to the newest wound that would soon become another scar. Yet when the bat signal was flipped on, once again, and the night sky was filled with radiant light, the caped crusader climbed “back” into his uniform—without question—without fail.

Like our comic book favorites, we have experienced our own trials by fire and these heroes withstand the test of time with a quiet strength that exceeds human boundaries, humbling us in the process. Part II of this article will celebrate the history of pop culture superheroes as we contemplate their heroic roles in our social and moral fabric.

In the end, it could be said that the ancient myths and legends that have created our modern day, pop culture superheroes have, in turn, created our modern day heroes--those who live and work in our own communities. In essence, an evolutionary tale that transcends the matters of their existence with all that have always mattered.

Copyright © by Brian A. Kinnaird

Brian A. Kinnaird, Ph.D. is a former law enforcement officer and current criminal justice professor. He is active as an author, trainer, speaker, and consultant and can be contacted at brian.kinnaird@gmail.com.

References and Recommended Reading:

Campbell, J. (1968). The hero with a thousand faces, 2ed. Princeton University Press: Princeton, NJ.

The New Oxford Dictionary of English (1998). (J. Pearsall, Ed.). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

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