New mythologies for comic books: an introduction

Today I’d like to start off a small blog series about mythology in comics.  Let me be clear, I’m not here to talk about the mythology of comics, this won’t be a series where I dissect the stories of heroes like Superman and Batman

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Instead this is going to be a series about the myths and stories that tie comic books to the ancient past and heroes like Thor and Wonder Woman.

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It’s no small secret that ancient mythology is a favorite source of inspiration for characters and material in comics and it works so well because these ancient stories were meant for a comic book.  Sure the rage of a godlike personification of warfare and bloodlust like Achilles may seem a bit over the top and overly dramatic to a modern day reader

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But it’s downright subtle when compared to that modern day personification of rage of violence: The Hulk.

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And having a near immortal trickster god filled with spite and jealousy attempting to wage war on his former family and suffering for it by tying him down and having snake venom poured onto his eyes?

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That’s Loki, a character so over the top that he fits right into our modern day myths.

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So it’s pretty clear that ancient mythology and modern comics have a pretty well established relationship but which ones are the most popular?  Let’s take a look.

Greek/Roman mythology

This one is probably the most blatant and well established set of myths and stories in comics today.  DC Comics is probably the most famous company to utilize it as source material and they’ve done so with tremendous success.

The most blatant example is Wonder Woman.  Shaped from clay and given life by the Gods (you could write an entire PhD thesis on the symbolism of that) the gods and monsters of ancient Greece and Rome factor heavily into her story and character.

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While characters in the DC universe come into contact with Greek mythology in obvious ways like battling Ares the god of war

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and claiming classical heroines like Hippolyta as family (Fun fact: Hippolyta was killed by Hercules during his 9th labor while her Amazons made a name for themselves fighting in the Trojan War of Iliad fame) Greek mythology dominated the DC comics mythos in more subtle ways as well.  Take for example the three biggest and most powerful gods in the Greek pantheon.

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They are Zeus, king of the gods and ruler of the skies, Posieden, ruler of the seas, and Hades, lord of the underworld.  You have the powerful king, the ruler of the seas, and the dark brooding one who spends most of his time underground.  Sound familiar?

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There’s also the name of the hero SHAZAM!

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which is an acronym for a series of classical heroes standing for the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus, the courage of Achilles, and the speed of Mercury.  With the exception of Solomon all of them are Greek/Roman and all incredibly powerful.

Norse mythology

Norse mythology is a bit newer to the comic book scene and is utilized a bit differently.  Thor was brought into comics by the legendary writer/artist team Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.

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While Lee wanted to bring Norse mythology into comics Kirby (who you could argue was responsible for more of the creative grunt work than Lee) was a big fan of something called the Ancient Astronaut theory.  Basically it states that what our ancestors called gods were actually aliens who landed on Earth possessing technology far beyond comprehension.  This led to Kirby combining Norse mythology with sci fi elements and using it to display some of Marvel’s more…interesting space related adventures and inter dimensional tomfoolery.

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That being said, while the setting was different from the ancient stories the characters and names remained pretty much the same.  From the gate keeper of Asgard, Heimdall

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To the nine realms of the World Tree

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Norse mythology has played a huge part in the Marvel comic book and cinematic universe.

Japanese mythology

This one’s a bit tricky.  The most popular religion in Japan is Shinto, a polytheistic religion centered around the worship of spirits and nature.

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There really isn’t a unifying mythos within Japanese comic culture like you would find at DC or Marvel and many creators don’t bother with it at all but spirits have been a major part of several important works.  Death Note, which has a Japanese death spirit called a shimigami, is one

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while aspects of respect towards nature and nature spirits feature heavily in the works of creators like Miyazaki.

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Judeo-Christian mythology

Angels, demons, Heaven and Hell, the eternal war for the soul of mankind, you know the drill.  This is more of an idea than a cast of characters, although Jesus himself has appeared in several comics.

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and you’ve also seen it in comics like Spawn

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and Ghost Rider

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Basically if you’ve read any comic that thinks it’s edgy by putting angels, demons, or a Christ like figure that works towards saving humanity (Superman comes to mind) then you’ve come into contact with Judeo-Christian mythology in a comic book.

So these are the four mythologies that have dominated the comic book industry since the beginning.  But here’s the thing, the world is a big place and is filled with other stories and legends than these.  Countries and places like India, Africa, pre Colombian America, and the Pacific islands all have their own stories and mythologies that have shaped their world view for generations.  Each culture has their own Superman that stands for what they believe in and don’t you think we owe it to ourselves as global citizens and comic book fans to branch out a bit and explore?

Here’s how this is going to work.  Every week I’m going to pick a place, region, or time period that isn’t necessarily very well known to popular culture and talk about it.  Each article will give a brief description of that place’s history in the comic book industry (like if there were any heroes or villains to took inspiration from this period in a previous time), a general idea of the mythology of that place, and what a hypothetical comic book character based around that mythology could look like or say.  So strap in, sit back, and get ready to learn about gods, heroes, and villains that you had no idea existed.

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