Issue #3 of 35   INDEX

Joel Grineau
by: Joel V. Grineau
Comic Books and the Mythic Pattern


Joseph Campbell's "The Hero With a Thousand Faces" (1949) is considered by most a standard work on the subject of mythology. However, like any other work, it has its detractors: I myself agree that in places the book is unwieldy and indigestible. Nonetheless, after almost fifty years, there are still many good things to be mined from it.

Specifically, Campbell proposed that there is a monomythic pattern. Imagine a simple circle with a common starting and finishing point: Along its rim are a series of events, which when taken together, form the foundation of all myths. These events, to quote loosely, are:

  • the call to adventure
  • the threshold and the threshold guardian
  • tests
  • helpers
  • the supreme ordeal and commensurate reward
  • the return journey
  • re-emergence and
  • restoration.

According to Campbell, all myths, in all cultures on earth, fit into this diagram. Some people (myself included) contend that on some level comic books are about the creation of new myths for the modern age. So let's put this hypothesis to the test: As the monomyth is supposed to define any myth, any typical comic book story will do.

An event happens which calls the hero to action - "my super hearing detects a call for help". This leads to the threshold and threshold guardian, i.e., where the adventure truly begins- "okay, who are you working for?" These lead to tests- "riddle me this Batman, what is ...", and helpers- "thanks for the help, (insert character)". Next comes the supreme ordeal- "I must run faster than I've ever run before", and commensurate reward- "the antidote!" The return journey: "everybody in the quinjet!" Re-emergence, the character's return to normal - "my boosted powers have faded". And finally, the world restored- "everything is back to normal, time to go home and sleep."

So in a broad sense, many proto-typical comic book elements (or to be precise, comic book storylines) seem to follow the monomyth pattern. To be fair, it is conducted in countless variations and on many themes. . .yet you can see how the elements of the monomyth pattern remain in each.

But does the monomyth pattern apply to the comic book character on a larger level, throughout the career of the character, perhaps over the entire run of the comic book? Possibly - The call to action is the origin- "I was deemed most suited to be the protector of sector 2814". There is the threshold event and guardian- "I was almost killed the night I first donned the costume". Tests- "Hello everyone, my name is Tony Stark, and I'm an alcoholic" and helpers- "Tim, this is Dick, he was Robin before you were around. "

This is where the adherence to the monomythic pattern seems to end. Few heroes face the one supreme ordeal and final commensurate reward. Similarly, there is rarely that last return home, the final loss of powers, and restoration of the world to its former, better condition. Why? The first axiom in comics is that characters rarely stay dead or retired.

Yes, exceptions do happen. DC's "Watchmen" (1987) series comes to mind. The heroes of that world died or retired, and their world was restored. The end. And sometimes, we get 'a day in the life' stories, which are about the heroes' personal lives. But these are rare, and only a few writers (such as James Robinson of DC's "Starman" fame) seem to be able to sustain this sort of characterization on a long term basis.

So why does the "final end" so rarely happen? Well, who wants to read endlessly about 'Retired Man'? The sense of adventure is gone. There is no drama, no risk, no story. Even characters who should stay dead or retired (like Marvel's Moon Knight) don't. Yes, Marvel is now launching its 5th(?) Moon Knight series. Yet again, someone attempts to rejuvenate interest (re: sales!) in the character.

So, yes, the monomyth pattern definitely appears to be present in comic books. But this statement belies another question: Is the monomyth (a readily identifiable foundation for storytelling) part of the reason why so many people don't read comic books? This question will be answered another day.

Joel Grineau is a former Writer/Contributing Editor for "Chaos" Magazine. "Iron Man" 146 (purchased in the spring of 1981) was his first comic book, and time has not worn down his enjoyment of them. Joel holds a BA from the University of Guelph and an MA from the University of Saskatchewan. He is currently an officer with the Canadian Forces.

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Text © Joel V. Grineau, 1997,1998.
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