|The Fruit of Knowledge by Deep Hurting|
Of Gods, Men & Overmen, Part 1
DISCLAIMER: This is the beginning of a series of articles intended to present the mythology of today’s popular culture, i.e. superheroes and comic book characters in general. It is not intended as a pro-religion anti-science piece. It’s simply the collected thoughts and observations of a comic book nerd. Enjoy.
Let me go on record by stating that I am religious.
Most of my friends are not aware of this and in fact consider me to be an atheist, or at the very least, apathetic toward the subject of religion. This is because, despite believing, I have chosen early in life to celebrate my faith by myself, instead of shoving my beliefs down other people’s throats and trying to convince them that my own adherence to a certain way of thinking is the one true way.
In the words of renowned atheist comedian George Carlin, you can believe into anything you damn well like, as long as you keep it to your own damn self.
I have found that this disposition has allowed me to enjoy great works by both religious and non-religious artists and it has also allowed me to laugh along with everyone else when a well-said blasphemous joke is thrown around the table.
To this day, Wormwood’s Pope makes me laugh my ass off.
But most importantly, it has allowed me to approach the subject of mythology, religion and its interpretation in the modern mediums (mostly through comic books) as objectively as I could possibly muster.
I don’t think it will come as a shock to anyone to find out that comic books and the superhero genre in general is an adaptation to older mythologies and in some cases, a straight-out reproduction of old belief systems. Each and every superhero has always had his roots set inside the rich soil of religious tradition and has used this basis as a means to build his or her own mythology.
But as I mentioned in my Molecule Man VS Dr. Manhattan article, this is not just about using the old gods as a means to fuel our spandex-clad gods. It’s a matter of devotion, of faith if you will.
|For a complete analysis on the evolution of mythology and mysticism all the way to the modern superhero, this book makes for an excellent primer.|
We live in an age that has incorrectly been dubbed as a time of spiritual indifference and general religious apathy. That is not the case. The fact that a lot of the people in the world choose not to blindly adhere to the established system of beliefs does not mean that they remain idle. If anything, with the advent of the Internet, every single one of us that has even rudimentary access to a computer can immediately share his opinions and seek out a new religion, simple as that.
|Hell, in some cases you can just get baptized and ordained by filling out a simple entry form!|
The fact that we are currently going through hard times only serves to increase our desire for a spiritual anchor, to find some way of thinking or a belief system that can comfort us, gods that we can pray to and pay tribute to.
Superheroes are part of this solution, albeit in a more…fetishized manner.
|You have 5 seconds to identify this character.|
Think about it: we pay tribute to them by sacrificing our income on issues, trade paperbacks, action figures and collectibles. Some of us (mostly the most attractive among the masses), honor them by donning their spandex. We spend huge sums in order to bring them to life on the silver screen. We buy the games where they are featured and we quote or reminisce upon their works or their failings on a daily basis. We even fight over them, spending hours upon hours of arguing each hero’s superiority over the others.
In other words, we deal with the superhero as an alternative to the old world gods. Why?
Because we need something to aspire to. Or, at the very least, to become a symbol of hope or disaster, something that can sum up our way of thinking into one coherent symbol.
|21st century’s symbol for “everything’s gonna be alright”.|
For better or worse, mankind cannot exist in a spiritual vacuum. Even atheists, people who choose not to believe in an external, omnipotent force, place their faith in humanity or scientific advancement. This is mostly attributed to the fact that we, as a species, know that there is so much about our universe that we cannot explain or comprehend…yet.
We know, deep down, that we need something to pass the time until the great gap between the sum of our knowledge and the great Unknown has been bridged and we can finally have the answers to Life, the Universe and Everything at hand.
|It’s probably something just as simple yet much more marvelous than 42.|
The existence of the superhero has also proven something else: that our understanding of religion (and the way gods and men have coexisted for millennia) is experiencing an unparalleled shift.
Gone are the days when gods served either as anthropomorphized functions in Nature, or as distanced agents of higher powers. Gone are the times of blind devotion and unquestionable faith. This is the age when gods coexist with man in his mind and are shaped and molded according to his whims. The age where the collective will of men serves to change gods into whatever they want at the time; to turn them from forces of good to forces of evil, to change them from the side of the angels to the side of the devils, or let them linger in the grey areas of ambiguous morality for a brief period of time.
We have seen a number of cases where the faithful have caused their gods to experience a severe transmogrification. Want an example?
|The multitudes cried for simplicity and by God, they got it!|
Our perception of faith and our relationship with our gods has turned symbiotic. It has also allowed us to bring them down to our level. Marvel has done it for decades, by piling problem after problem on its pantheon, forcing them to deal with their erring human side, even as they soak in our adoration.
This is the first sign that man has, for the first time in his history, actively sought to bring himself to the same level as his gods, in an attempt to emulate them.
Because let’s face it: you can’t emulate faceless beings and you can’t simulate omnipotence or omniscience. But what you can do, is seek to slowly and carefully integrate the idea of becoming something greater by slowly giving yourself cool new powers.
|Omnipotence? Pfft. Regrowing a severed limb in 6 seconds or less? Seems legit.|
Which brings us to our next topic: morality; specifically, the responsibility of our overmen toward their readers and creators.
Once again, mythology and ancient stories can be used as a point of reference to this: each god and each man, in his or her turn, shares a certain burden of responsibility. Even in the case of the Greek Pantheon (which was mostly consisting of super-powered assholes), a certain set of rules was followed. In other words, the gods, despite their powers and abilities, had to pay a price for abusing said privileges.
|Bitch got pregnant, so I got her half a continent. Bitches love continents.|
In the case of superheroes, these rules and responsibilities are presented in the form of ‘codes of honor’, of strict rules that heroes cannot break, first and foremost being their adherence to never taking a human life.
Even the more ruthless of their number (like the Punisher or the Authority), face great repercussions when they kill the wrong person, or when they overextend their reach. Why?
The first reason is hubris. The second is duality.
Hubris is part of our mindset seeking to equalize gods and men. It’s our way of bringing the Overmen to our level, of presenting repercussions for morally ambiguous acts. It’s our way of bringing them down, when they perform an act that we consider to endanger our understanding of societal order.
Why? Well, mostly because we expect our invented gods to be just as vulnerable and worthy of reprisal as we are. Because we want them to be larger-than-life versions of us, the readers (the faithful), but at the same time we want them to share certain characteristics of ours.
|It’s why we chose to argue the morality of a prison existing for superhumans in the civil war, instead of the plausibility of it somehow keeping a bunch of god-like beings locked up inside it.|
Duality, on the other hand, is the need that we have to understand the fundamental workings of the universe.
In the words of Heraclitus: “War is the father of all things”. And the meat and bones of each and every superhero story, origin and in the ancient mythology from which these ideas originated, there is war.
Not so much in the form of an actual, full-scale battle, but more in the shape of opposing forces.
In most cases, it is the war of good versus evil. Of societal norms versus the injustices that we face in our everyday lives. The gods of old fought against demons, malevolent entities and even other gods.
In the case of superheroes, we have archetypal benevolence clashing with archetypal malevolence.
The evolution of the superhero genre has, of course, served to expand on this idea and create characters that aren’t as goody two-shoes or as one-dimensionally evil as they used to be back in the 50’s. But the core idea remains:
The stories that could be called more cerebral (or better presented) are stories where the two sides are obscured by increasingly complex layers of character, but the main idea remains the same:
Good triumphs. Good deeds are rewarded. Evil is defeated. Evil deeds are punished.
It may sound simplistic, but it really isn’t. It’s simply a reflection of our expectations from our fiction. We live in a world where we are casually exposed to numerous examples of injustice and we regularly find ourselves exposed to acts that we consider unfair or that we condemn morally. We find ourselves wondering whether crime does pay or not. We see corrupt, obviously immoral individuals rise to power. There is absolutely no way we will put up with this in our fiction.
So there you have it: from our old gods, to us, to the Overmen we seek to become. It’s a matter of faith, of wanting to believe that we can be more than we can be, that things will get better. And things will get better, as long as we are tenacious enough to achieve it.
Stay tuned for part 2.
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