September 5, 2016 The Superhero Monomyth?
When Hollywood executive Christopher Vogler summarized Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces as a guide for screenwriters in 1985, he called it “one of the most influential books of the 20th century,” noting that “The myth can be used to tell the simplest comic book story or the most sophisticated drama.” Campbell’s book introduced his concept of the monomyth, an 18-step narrative formula he applied across societies and time periods world-wide. His examples include Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Indian, Norse, and Inuit sources. Campbell did not, however, relate his analysis to the hero type most popular while he was developing his formula in the 40s: the American comic book superhero.
Campbell published his study shortly after DC terminated Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, ending their ten-year contract on Action Comics. Superman, meanwhile, had expanded to newspapers, radio, film, and TV, producing a legion of similarly superhuman imitations. While Campbell’s approach to comparative mythology is flawed by inattention to differences between disparate tales and cultures, it shares its mid-century, American context with the superhero genre and so suggests one culturally-specific explanation for the character type’s popularity. What appealed to Campbell appealed to other 20th century U.S. readers too.
Campbell summarized his monomyth’s essential elements:
“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”
The description encapsulates superhero origin stories. Will Eisner condensed the same elements into the first panel of Wonder Comics #1 (May 1939), when a blond-haired American vacationing in Asia receives supernatural powers from a turbaned Tibetan:
“So, Fred Carson, wear this ring as a symbol of the Herculean powers with which you are endowed—as long as you wear it, you will be the strongest human on Earth—you will be impervious—and now in the name of humanity and justice, go forth into the world!”
Wonderman premiered the same month as Action Comics #12 and Detective Comics #27, which introduced Bob Kane and Bill Finger’s “Bat-Man.” Both characters were the first direct imitations of Siegel and Shuster’s industry-transforming Superman. While Superman was influenced by decades of pulp, film, and penny dreadful predecessors, the medium-specific tradition of the comic book superhero begins in 1939 with the expansion of a single character into a repeated character type.
Like Wonderman’s, Batman’s origin story, retroactively inserted six months later in Detective Comics #33, is a monomyth variant—though a darker one. Bruce and his parents are “walking home from a movie” when they encounter the dark forces of the criminal underworld. After the “terror and shock” of the murders, a “curious and strange scene takes place,” in which Bruce vows to his parents’ spirits to avenge their deaths and so becomes “a creature of the night” himself. Finger places the formative event in an inexact past, “some twelve years ago,” suggesting the ahistoricity of many myths and folktales, while also grounding the ongoing consequences in a contemporary moment. The formula suggests comparative religion scholar Mircea Eliade’s analysis of a past mythic time and the ability of followers to return to it through ritual imitation. Superheroes pass between Campbell’s “two worlds, the divine and the human” regularly.
The relation of an origin to contemporary adventures is also central to the monomyth as embodied by superheroes. While Krypton is the original comic book region of supernatural wonder, giving Superman the power to bestow boons on humanity, Clark Kent is the ongoing embodiment of the world of the common day. Structurally the Krypton past is only preamble, establishing one of the most significant elements of Campbell’s heroic journey: personal transformation.
Myths and folktales are complete stories that end in closure, but superhero comics are typically episodic and endlessly incomplete. The monomyth as applied to comics form then is not limited to a character’s origin nor necessarily expandable to an accumulative series. The superhero monomyth is a single adventure—and, in fact, each and every adventure. The early twelve-page Action Comics episodes begin with Clark, who abandons his common day persona to encounter some fabulous force which he decisively defeats, before returning to live among humans as Clark again, his boon-bestowing powers at the ready.
If Campbell is correct, and the appeal of the myths he studied is grounded in the cyclic pattern of common heroes transforming through a descent into the fantastical, superhero comics enacted that script monthly. Every time Bill Parker and C.C. Beck’s little Billy Baston accepts a call to action and shouts “Shazam!” he receives the aid of his wizard mentor and crosses a supernatural threshold, causing Billy to vanishes and be reborn as Captain Marvel. Campbell writes:
“The hero, instead of conquering or conciliating the power of the threshold, is swallowed into the unknown and would appear to have died. … This popular motif gives emphasis to the lesson that the passage of the threshold is a form of self-annihilation … instead of passing outward, beyond the confines of the visible world, the hero goes inward, to be born again.”
After the trials of physical combat end in victory, Captain Marvel returns to the mundane world by transforming back into Billy Baston. Campbell describes the act as a trial itself:
“The first problem of the returning hero is to accept as real, after an experience of the soul-satisfying vision of fulfillment, the passing joys and sorrows, banalities and noisy obscenities of life. Why re-enter such a world? Why attempt to make plausible, or even interesting, to men and women consumed with passion, the experience of transcendental bliss? As dreams that were momentous by night may seem simply silly in the light of day, so the poet and the prophet can discover themselves playing the idiot before a jury of sober eyes.”
Siegel and Shuster solved Campbell’s dilemma by presenting Clark Kent as the hero’s banal disguise, allowing him to play an idiot to Lois Lane and the mundane temptations she represents. As Jules Feiffer concludes, Clark “is Superman’s opinion of the rest of us, a pointed caricature of what we … were really like.” Superman’s adoption of the caricature also reflects Campbell’s final monomythic stages, allowing him to remain in the never-ending moment by mastering both of his worlds:
“Freedom to pass back and forth across the world division, from the perspective of the apparitions of time to that of the causal deep and back—not contaminating the principles of the one with those of the other, yet permitting the mind to know the one by virtue of the other—is the talent of the master.”
Viewed within the monomythic scope of each episode, the Clark of the opening scene is fundamentally different from the Clark of the ending scene. If a reader had never heard of Superman, she would see a human transform into super-being and then relinquish that soul-satisfying fulfilment in order to appear human again. Other superheroes enact the same cyclic transformations every time they don a costume. Though Campbell’s monomyth can be applied only tentatively to the diverse array of world mythologies, it may find its most defining embodiment in the comics produced at its same cultural moment.