Saturday, November 24, 2007


It's a truism that superheroes are nothing new. Pulp superheroes like John Carter, the Shadow, Doc Savage and Tarzan predate Action #1, just as comic books like Ally Sloper's Half-Holiday long predate Famous Funnies. But the heroes of the pulps were arrogant toffs- leftover symbols of the Victorian Era. They traveled the world at will, gained their mystical powers from gurus in far-off colonial outposts, and slugged it out with the ethnic gangsters of the 20's and 30's. There was a distancing, aristocratic air about them, and they didn't speak to the feelings of alienation that all kids who read for pleasure have always felt, especially in America.

The superheroes we know now are something different. And in many important ways they are the inseparable byproduct of Depression-era Manhattan. Again, you had this synergy- almost a cosmic conspiracy of events that made the superheroes inevitable. You had the waves of immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe, including a lot of Jews fleeing the rise of fascism. You had the starving masses walking the streets cheek-by-jowl with the super-rich. You had corruption and crime everywhere, and gangsters ruled the streets. You had overcrowded tenements overshadowed by awe-inspiring skyscrapers that were just begging to be leapt over. And everywhere you looked you saw gods- the lingering effects of the Neoclassical movement.

Even today, you can't go anywhere in the moneyed environs of midtown Manhattan- Park Avenue, Murray Hill, Rockefeller Center- without being confronted by the images of Greco-Roman and Egyptian religion. Murals, reliefs, friezes, statues, and mosaics all feature the same pantheons of gods from pre-Christian times. How could a young, wide-eyed kid from the Lower East Side or Hell's Kitchen not be awestruck by this combination of wealth, power and pagan revanchism? I walked those very same streets for many years while working in Manhattan- it's amazing to me that most people are unconscious of this symbolism that they see everywhere.

That is why Hercules' lion-skin cloak became Superman's cape. That is why Captain America's costume borrows motifs from the Greco-Roman warrior-heroes. That is why Mercury leapt off the facade of Grand Central Station and into the pages of Flash Comics. That is why Horus flew from King Tut's tomb and reincarnated himself as Hawkman. That is why Captain Marvel called upon gods like Zeus and Atlas to gain his powers. Kids like Joe Siegel, Bob Kane, Joe Simon, Jack Kirby, Bill Parker and C.C. Beck may not have realized it, but they were giving birth to a new and powerful mythology. A mythology that worked a lot like the old ones, underneath all the face-masks and long underwear. And few people realize that this new mythology was mid-wifed by a host of Victorian occult groups like the Rosicrucians and the Golden Dawn, moneyed eccentrics who called up these old gods from their long slumber to face the challenges of the Industrial Age. And they probably didn't realize that the first comic superheroes- Mandrake and the Phantom Magician - both emerged from a hand-me-down version of the strange admixture of ceremonial and stage magic that these groups traded in.

I didn't consider all of this back in 1999. I wouldn't fully realize it until I set out to write Our Gods Wear Spandex: The Secret History of Comic Book Heroes. But now I know what I only intuited back then- that fans and creators of superheroes are the custodians of a deep and profound tradition. Of course, it was tough to imagine anything profound about superheroes or comics in 1994, but since then we've had a host of creators like Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, J. Michael Straczynski, and Mike Mignola digging beneath the surface and uncovering the true magical and mythological roots of this genre. Alex Ross almost single-handedly destroyed the Chromium Age and all of its excesses with Kingdom Come, in its own strange way a deeply religious work of art. Now superheroes rule the box office and plain-clothes superheroes have made a huge splash on TV with shows like Heroes and Smallville.

I don't think a society can function without its mythology. It's not exactly like its religion- it's something more nebulous, but at the same time more pragmatic. Modern religions are about seeing God as a father figure who loves us unconditionally. Our myths are a bit more unforgiving- they deal with the reality of functioning in a world that doesn't give a damn about us- a cold world where only the strong survive. Our myths are parables, fables with specific object lessons featuring archetypal characters that reflect our own nature. The great monotheistic religions rose in power to counter the unrelenting realities of the world, where bad things happen to good people and bad people flourish, by offering a better deal in the next world. Superheroes, action films, video games are more concerned with developing coping strategies in this one.

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