Issue #4 of 35   INDEX

Joel Grineau
by: Joel V. Grineau
Comic Books: Myths And Mysteries

Okay, let's continue our look at Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949). In his conclusions, Campbell wrote that it was the subconscious which caused primitive man to psychologically create mythological totem ancestors. But since that time, this had changed so that, "Today all of the mysteries have lost their force; their symbols no longer interest our psyche. . . . Not the animal world, not the plant world, not the miracle of the spheres, but man himself is now the crucial mystery."

What exactly does this mean to comic books?

Are all of the mysteries solved in today's comicbooks? Strange places such as Wakanda, the Savage Land, Bialya and Gorilla City are all relatively unknown areas on Earth, and dangerous to the unwary. Dr. Strange and Dr. Fate wield arcane powers, and visit unknowable planes of existence. Superman and the Silver Surfer have been to countless strange planets.

Is the mysterious ignored? Well, to look at it from the other end, is the examination of the mysterious a fundamental plot in modern comic books? And more importantly, does the solving of the mysterious entail a parallel examination of the character?

Tangentially, does the continuous examination of the mysterious make them mundane? Just how many other dimensional dangers can Dr. Strange reasonably stop this week? Reader's quickly tired of the 70's and 80's Green Lantern investigating 'another' uncharted planet in pursuit of 'another' anomaly.

What of Campbell's contention that the plant, animal and sphere kingdoms are already conquered and no longer important? Look at the hero's whose powers primarily fit them into these categories.

  • Animal:
  • Animal Man
  • Aquaman
  • Plant:
  • Black Orchid
  • Swamp Thing
  • Man Thing
  • Spheres:
  • the aforementioned Drs. Strange and Fate
  • Ghost Rider
  • Dreadstar
  • the Fourth World creations.

In general, these are heroes who no longer have their own comic books, or, have gone through multiple incarnations, revisions or retooling over the decades. Many of them have been relegated to 'second stringer' status, or are in danger of becoming so.

Let's look at the second element of Campbell's statement. To follow Campbell's reasoning, since the great 'mysteries' have been solved, this leaves only man to be studied. Think about this: Many comic books deal with the study of the hero's or villain's 'being' in some way. A list of descriptive buzz terms comes to mind: repressed, manic, psychotic, asocial, pariah, sadistic, narcissistic, etc. These words come principally from 20th century psychology.

What drives the Punisher to fight even though he is already 'dead' inside? Is the Martian Manhunter a second rate Superman, or is he different in his outlook on life? How does Dr. Doom's vision of world domination differ from Ra's al Ghul's? Again, this is psychology, is it not?

Another tangent to consider: Why is Freud so prevalent in this psychology? Make a list of heros and villains who were 'created' because of childhood developments and/or events. It's a long list. Of course, nobody tops Batman, and his patented "Criminal's killed my parents" line.

I would argue that this need to study the individual is reflected by two trends. First, the rise of a certain sub-genre in comic books in the 1970's, the so called 'gritty real life' stories. These were stories which featured a more realistic atmosphere, guns could kill, social issues were tackled, and visits from Dr. Fate or saving the world every other issue didn't happen; in short, these stories could almost happen in the real world. Denny O'Neil pioneered this sub-genre in "Batman". Since then "Daredevil", "The Watchmen", and to some extent "Wolverine" have also been written in this style.

Secondly, a new narrative structure. Although the number of golden and silver age comics I've read is slim, I will bet that few if any contained first person narratives. Yet look at today's comics: Many, have the hero or villain as narrator, telling the story, and not just in their own word and thought balloons. The best example is the current Flash comic books, which routinely start out with something like ... "My name's Wally West. I'm the Flash. I'm the fastest man alive"(Flash, vol.2 #131).

To conclude, let's list at some of the biggest comic books heroes out there. Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, Wolverine, Wonder Woman, Spawn, Punisher. Many of these are about psychologically charged characters, or are about an outsider constantly interacting with and learning the human condition.

It seems that once again, Joseph Campbell was onto something.

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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