By Jorge Hernán Valencia
«Whenever righteousness declines and injustice increases I will manifest Myself; for the protection of the good and destruction of the evildoers, for the sake of establishing righteousness, I am born in every age » Krishna en el Bhagavad-gītā, capítulo IV, versos 7-8.
Most experts in comic history agree that the golden age of comics began with the publication of Superman on April 18, 1938, a moment of popularity and growth in sales. However, like all phenomena, this was influenced by historical and cultural factors that preceded it.
The crisis of modernity presents, as one of its symptoms, the use of imagination to “recreate” ancient myths through comic books in newspapers and comic books.
In this monograph we will know the main historical and cultural factors of the time, the influence that comics had and the parallel with gods, heroes and myths of other cultures and religions, to end how that influence is presented to this day.
About the myth and the hero
The human being, as a symbolic animal Defined as Homo Simbolicus by the neo-kantian philosopher Ernst Cassirer., connects with the transcendent by means of the symbol, the rite and the myth; This gives us access to universal ideas and values to find inner strength and overcome their daily difficulties. According to Campbell Campbell, J., Moyers, B. D., & Aira, C. (2015).THe Power of the Mith with Bill Moyers., in different cultures and civilizations, myths have had several functions as:
- Mystical function: the one that makes us announce how wonderful the universe is, how wonderful the human being is, and make us experience a reverential dread before these mysteries.
- Cosmological function: related to science, reveals the forms of the universe and the mystery of its structure.
- Sociological function: foundation and validation of a certain social order through moral values that support the laws of life.
- Pedagogical function: the teaching of how to live a human life under any circumstance.
The relationship of myth and hero is mentioned by Fernando Schwarz Schwarz, Fernando. El Ocultamiento De Lo Sagrado: La Crisis Simbólica Del Mundo Actual. NA, 2017 in The concealment of the sacred: “These myths help us free ourselves from life forms that are not authentic and actually carry out actions to overcome our limitations. In all cultures, these acts are done by the heroes that appear in mythological stories”.
Demystification and mythologization
However, modern man in that quest to free himself from superstition loses his spiritual values to a high degree. By rejecting transcendence, he creates the possibility of basing his vision on “everything goes” and an existence that makes no sense.
“The atmosphere that has characterized our modernity, with the roots that have been pointed out, is a dramatic conception of the world. This atmosphere permeated education and society throughout the nineteenth century, and this is ending. This scheme has led to what jurist sociologist Max Weber will name the disenchantment of the world … “ ibídem, p. 48.
But being the symbolic representation an inherent capacity of the human being; this one, in moments of crisis, looks for ways to channel this need and escape from everyday life. For example, from the books and the society of the spectacle (cinema and television), the characters or actors “recreate” the mythical models and their symbols. A recent medium that mixes literature and visual language would be the comic.
The comic during the Great Depression
During the twenties, comics were characterized by being published in newspapers, having shorter stories and children’s themes or comedy, but this would change after the Great Depression.
The stock market crash in New York’s Wall Street in 1929, caused by a credit-financed speculative bubble, was the most noticeable symptom of a global economic crisis that lasted for almost the entire 30s. Other countries also suffered of the crisis, especially Germany, what would be a breeding ground for Nazism to take power and then the Second World War.
This crisis had a great impact in the United States, not only in the decreasing of trust in the banking system, but also generated an increase in unemployment, panic, mass suicides and agricultural crisis. At this time there was also a thematic and stylistic revolution in the comics, characterized by having more continuous (non-episodic) stories and a more realistic drawing style. Not only were the stories published in the newspapers, but the comic book is created as a way of giving it more continuity, becoming independent from the newspapers and reflecting the psychological needs of the moment, for example, Dick Tracy (1931), a policeman fighting crime and Apple Mary (1932), a more dramatic and familiar comic.
After the intervention of the state to rescue the economic system and the arrival of many European political refugees (intellectuals and artists), New York City became an artistic and cinematographic center where the mass media industry develop with newspapers and radio. This allowed the comic became a product of mass consumption.
The year 1934 was special in the history of the comic, because the publishing house “National Allied Publications” is created, which would later become “DC Comics” and in addition comic books with more diverse themes such as “Secret Agent X-9” (police) will appear, “Mandrake the Magician” (Fantastic), “Jungle Jim” (Adventures) and “Flash Gordon” (science fiction), which have a great impact on subsequent comics.
In the first decades of the twentieth century, American philosophy was characterized by the positivist idea of progress, which were lags of modernism that had influenced much of the nineteenth century. This is how were the most influential ideas or trends at the time:
- American pragmatism (William James)Störig, H. J., & Ramos, A. G. (2015). Historia universal de la filosofía. Tecnos.: they did not ask about the essence of things or their purpose, but instead focused on the criteria of truth characterized by having a utility, value or success. A typical question would be: what is the “cash value” of a representation? Therefore, what is credited for its practical consequences is true. The main features of this current of thought are:
○ Dynamism: the world is not something finished, but an incessant memory.
○ Pluralism: the world cannot be explained from the beginning. The reality consists of many independent devices. It is not a uni-verse, but a multiverse (concept that will be taken later by science fiction and the comics of the 50s and 60s).
○ Skepticism open to all possibilities: human experience is not the highest form of experience to debate in the universe. The relationship of the human being with the universe is similar to that of the human being with dogs and cats.
- The concept of matter changes: from the quantum theories of Max Planck (1900), Einstein’s theory of relativity (1905 and 1916), wave mechanics (De Broglie, Schrödinger, Dirac) and quantum mechanics (Heisenberg), science becomes much more relevant, especially physics that generated a strong interest in science fiction stories. Among the ideas that arise due to the new theories are:
○ The concept of matter must be explained from non-intuitive formulas.
○ Matter appears as a manifestation of energy.
○ Subatomic components are no longer conceived only as part of the body.
○ In microphysics the observer affects the observed.
○ Causality is replaced by probability.
- The psychoanalysis created by Freud is reworked by many disciples and schools, causing it to be reinterpreted from psychology, the realm of the unconscious as a predominant power in the life of the human being.
Many of the comics that appear at this time reflect these ideas, as heroes tend to protect the economy from the “American way of life,” by fighting criminals who rob people and banks, corrupt officials or subsequently the threat of the axis powers in the WWII. Additionally some characters acquire superhuman abilities that are explained with extraterrestrial phenomena (arrival of another planet, meteorites), experiments and magical and divine phenomena without a detailed explanation more as a quick and simple resource in the American pragmatic way.
The origin of superhero comics and re-mythologization
There is a character in the comics that is declared as the predecessor of superheroes, this is The Ghost (1936) by Lee Falk.
Although he still does not manifest all the characteristics of a superhero, he is among the first to show superhuman abilities such as super strength, endurance and immortality (although false), an amazing disguise where the musculature is shown and where there is a kind of alterego.
Characteristics of superheroes:
Later it is Superman (1938), who generates the typical characteristics of a superhero:
- An origin or moment in which he becomes superhero, where he acquires special abilities: human, non-human origin, experiments, technology, tragedy
- One or several special abilities: super powers, technology, mystical powers, martial arts knowledge or intelligence.
- Fight in defense of the innocent outside the law, but without significantly modifying life on earth, devoting itself to matters of little importance (war does not end, nor hunger) and eliminating the sea society which solves the problems big
- Anatomical perfection of Greco-Roman canons.
- A secret identity or alter ego.
- A very tight and colorful uniform that recognizes as superheroes.
During World War II the superheroes became patriots who went to fight: as superman, batman, wonder woman and Captain America. Even these superheroes went to war before the United States officially joined. The heroes appear with characteristic symbols of the United States such as the colors of the flag, the stars or the eagle. Although some believe that this was government-funded propaganda, many artists say they did it because they felt it was the right thing and some of them later enlisted to fight in the Allied ranks. In this way the sales of comics skyrocketed when finding a new market in the soldiers who received the comics sent by their relatives. The most characteristic of these types of comics is that they never explained the cause of the war, but they channeled people’s desire to resolve the situation quickly, flying and hitting Hitler in 1 or 2 pages.
Superheroes and their parallel with gods and heroes
Among the superheroes of the golden age of comics (1038-1945), there is a clear influence of Greek and Roman mythology and biblical myths, partly because the phenomenon of migration in the United States was mostly European.
|Below I present some of the most popular heroes of the time, mostly from the DC Comics publishing house that was the one that had the greatest initial success, and over time the faculties and stories of these heroes evolved. Superhero||Superman «man of steel», «The man of tomorrow» y «The last son of Krypton»|
|Author||Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster|
|Role||leader/ Savior / Protector|
|Symbols||“S” in his chest and cape|
|Powers||His powers are granted by the yellow sun. Initially: superhuman strength, speed, jumps. Subsequently: flight, powers of vision (x-rays, heat, telescopic, infrared, and microscopic), invulnerability and super-ear, and super-breath.|
|Mythological origin or parallel||Archetype of the Solar hero. Apollo Helios, Heracles, Krishna, Mithras, Moses, Zeus.|
|Superman is removed from a place of origin in a ship that reaches the earth, similar to the basket for Moses. And then he is raised by humble people of moral strength, giving them values and teachings that will serve him in the future. In his adolescence, learning of his supernatural abilities occurs, knowing his Kryptonian heritage and facing a danger tailored to his needs, he transforms and assumes his role as hero and savior of the world. In later moments, a superman is associated with Zeus, not only because he is the most powerful of all, but because he camouflages himself to live among humans.
Batman / The dark knight
|Author||Bob Kane and Bill Finger|
|Role||Strategist / Vigilant / Punisher|
|Powers||It has no super powers. His training, money and intelligence take him to the maximum human potential. Its tools allow him to stay in the dark and move quickly at night.|
|Mythological origin or parallel||Hades|
Batman is the victim of a family tragedy that makes him embark on a path of physical and mental improvement to do justice on his own. In the depths of his batcave (or underworld), he watches and controls the security of the city and then goes out and punishes the criminals, inspiring fear. His dark hood allows him to hide his identity and be imperceptible, similar to Hades’s invisibility helmet. His friendship with Lucius Fox allows him access to high-tech tools and weapons, similar to how heroes were provided with tools and weapons created by Hephaestus.
|Author||William Moulton Marston|
|Role||Diplomat / Protectore of justice, love and peace|
|Symbols||golden lasso of truth, indestructible magic bracelets, Tiara|
|Powers||Initially: super strength, super jump, extrasensory perception, astral projection and telepathy. Subsequently his powers were granted by the gods: beauty, wisdom, strength and speed, in addition to immortality.|
|Mythological origin or parallel||Amazon, Athena and Artemis|
Their relationship with the mythological gods is direct, but later their powers are explained as gifts given by determined gods.
- Strength and healing (Demeter)
- Wisdom, intelligence and military skill (Pallas Athena)
- Telescopic vision and super ear (Diana / Artemis)
- Fire resistance, fire of truth (Hestia)
- Superhuman speed and the ability to fly (Hermes)
- Beauty, as well as nobility and a compassionate heart (Aphrodite)
Since its creation, Wonder Woman was intentionally designed to inspire women to another hero archetype. She fosters peace instead of war and uses her persuasion instead of her super force to subdue the evildoers.
It was a creation of a psychologist and his wife seeking to inspire women with an old female archetype, this made her a symbol of feminism, as it reflected the equality and freedoms that women longed to achieve. His weakness reflects precisely this, since his strength would be weakened in accordance with the “Law of Aphrodite” if he allowed her to be forced to take off her bracelets or be chained or bound by a man.
The origin of the wonder woman was not initially explained, later it was given two origins: bornfrom the clay created by Queen Hippolyta as many primitive myths of the creation of the human race (Babylon, Sumerian, China, Egypt, Greece) then Its origin is established as the daughter of Zeus and Hippolyta.
Author Bill Finger and Martín Nodell
Role Inventor / Protector
Symbols Lantern and ring
Powers Fly, create constructions from imagination and will.
Mythological origin or parallel Hephaestus-Zeus, Amon-Ra, Jupiter, Aglaia
Initially the first green lantern was granted magical powers from a metal that produced a green light. Later he became part of a space police force called the Green Lantern Corps responsible for protecting peace and ensuring that law is enforced in the galaxy, in this sense you can associate Zeus in his role as a watchman from the heavens.
The main power is originated by the will and imagination of the user of the ring, to create constructs that can be used as weapons, shields or tools. This faculty is very similar to Hephaestus and his forge, which with fire, was the builder of the weapons of the gods and the goddess Aglaya symbolizing creative power. This character has a prayer to invoke the power of his ring, presenting not only the myth but also the rite:
“On the brightest day, on the darkest night,
No evil will escape my sight.
That those who worship the power of evil,
Fear my power … the Green Lantern light! ”
Flash, The Scarlet Speedster
Author Gardner Fox and Harry Lampert,
Role Circulation and mobility / The one that passes between worlds
Symbols Metal helmet with wings on the sides, lightning
Powers Superhuman speed. Possibility to travel through time and move between parallel realities (multiverse)
Mythological origin or parallel Hermes, Mercury
This superhero is directly related to the god Hermes / Mercury, because it is precisely he who communicates the messages of the gods quickly and initially is presented with a winged helmet
that would later be abandoned by a hood with wings. It is the first superhero that only has one faculty: super speed and then evolves into the connection with the “speed force” that allows it to cross planes, dimensions and travel between various “parallel earths” of the multiverse, in the same way that Hermes can travel between the worlds.
Author Paul Norris and Mort Weisinger
Role Ruler of the seas / Protector
Powers Superhuman strength, breathe underwater, communicate with marine life, ocean control, telepathy, invulnerability.
Mythological origin or parallel Poseidon and Atlantis
From the beginning Aquaman is associated with Atlantis is given a human-Atlantean mestizo origin and becomes king of Atlantis. His wife Mera has similarities with the goddess Anfitrite. Its main weapon is the trident, making it notoriously similar to the Poseidon god.
Captain Marvel / Shazam
Author Bill Parker and Clarence Charles Beck
Role Protector / Guardian of Power
Powers Wisdom, Strength, Resistance, Power, Courage, Speed
Mythological origin or parallel Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles and Mercury
His great success was because his protagonist is a boy who becomes invulnerable since he is conferred the powers of an old Egyptian priest, making him an adult and with powers similar to Superman. He obtains power by pronouncing the magic word SHAZAM, which is an acronym that gives him the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the resistance of Atlas, the power of Zeus, the courage of Achilles and the speed of Mercury.
His enemy, Black Adam, possesses SHAZAM’s powers but associated with Egyptian gods with the resistance of Shu, the speed of Heru (Horus), the strength of Amun, the wisdom of Zehuti (Thoth), the power of Aton, and courage from Mehen.
Author Jack Kirby and Joe Simon
Role Strategic leader / Protector of freedom and democracy
Symbols Shield, stars, american flag
Powers Strength and superhuman agility.
Mythological origin or parallel Perseus, Achilles, Odysseus
He was represented as a soldier who enlisted in the army but was rejected by his weak body. but he undergoes an experiment that confers superhuman powers on him, making him a super soldier. It is very similar to Perseus and Achilles, with the difference that their powers are granted by science.
Unlike his predecessors, this character was created specifically to fight threats from the United States. At the beginning against the Japanese and Germans in World War II, but later against the Russians in the cold war. In order to explain its appearance in later times, it is explained that his body is frozen and subsequently returned to life to combat the new dangers, but he faces the challenge of living in an era that is not his own, feeling like a similar foreigner to the journeys of Odysseus who leaves his home for 20 years. The captain cannot return to the past but must make the effort to make the present his new home. In the words of Jack Kirby: “Captain America was created at a time that needed noble figures. We weren’t at war yet, but everyone knew we were going to be. This is why Captain America was born; America needed a super patriot”  Jack Kirby, cited “Del tebeo al manga: una historia de los cómics”Antoni Guiral.
Later influence after the WWII
At the end of the war the popularity of superheroes falls and stories are replaced by dramas and stories from the wild west. However, some superheroes managed to maintain their continuity as in the case of the trinity of DC. The particularity of this trinity is what they represent: superman and batman as will and protection of the law, but each one representing day and night, wonder woman as the embodiment of peace, love and wisdom.
The DC Justice League represented as Greek gods in the Flash television serie. From left to right: Hefaistos (Green Lantern), Hermes (Flash), Hera (Wonder Woman), Zeus (Superman), Hades (Batman), Apollo (Green Ar-row) and Poseidon (Aquamán)
|↑1||Krishna en el Bhagavad-gītā, capítulo IV, versos 7-8|
|↑2||Defined as Homo Simbolicus by the neo-kantian philosopher Ernst Cassirer.|
|↑3||Campbell, J., Moyers, B. D., & Aira, C. (2015).THe Power of the Mith with Bill Moyers.|
|↑4||Schwarz, Fernando. El Ocultamiento De Lo Sagrado: La Crisis Simbólica Del Mundo Actual. NA, 2017|
|↑5||ibídem, p. 48|
|↑6||Störig, H. J., & Ramos, A. G. (2015). Historia universal de la filosofía. Tecnos.|
|↑7||Jack Kirby, cited “Del tebeo al manga: una historia de los cómics”Antoni Guiral|