Super hero comics have sometimes been described as "modern mythology". I am not certain who first spoke of them in those terms but it seems that I first read these references in the mid-60s when Marvel Comics first became a media phenomenon. The surface similarities between our modern day super heroes and the gods and heroes of ancient myth are undeniable: both contain larger-than-life characters in fantastic situations. Indeed, my own interest in mythology undoubtedly sprang from the same basic impulses as my interest in super heroic fiction in general. However, super hero comics are not modern mythology, and here's why:
The manner of creation is different. Myths are the product of many minds reworking the same basic material orally through successive generations until they are finally written down. Super hero comics are the product of only a few minds working directly for the print medium.
The purposes of myth and super hero comics are different. Myths were created to explain nature, rationalize the metaphysical mysteries of existence, and instruct and enlighten their audience about life and human nature through the use of allegory and symbolism. Super hero comics are created to entertain their audience and, once in a blue moon, get is to think while it's being entertained. Myths are not without entertainment value (to those they were created for as well as today's audience) but comics are strictly for their entertainment valu.
The cultural bases of a body of myths and a body of super hero comics are different. Virtually everyone in a given culture had a basic knowledge of its culture's myths. In our culture, the majority of the population only has a passing familiarity with a handful of the beter known characters (Superman, Spider-Man, Wonder Woman, etc.). Mythology was common knowledge, super hero comics are an esoteric interest.
At the core of each myth are its culture's universal truths, whether the myths are believed to be literally true or but symbolically true. In super hero comics, only the very young or naive believe the stories to have literally (or even figuratively) happened or the heroes to be real people. Myths were meant to be believed on some level; comics are meant to entertain on some level.
Last month in this space I ran a letter from an Irate Reader who disagreed with my assertion in a previous column that certain characters deserved to die. Due to the length of the letter, I did not have room to reply, and was almost going to forego any reply at all, letting you readers respond instead. But as I sat down to think of what to write about this outing, I realized I had a few more words to say on the subject of comic book deaths.
My Irate Reader asserted that most comic creators love killing off characters, to judge by how often it is done and how it is often hyped. Well, death and the threat of same is at the core of heroic fiction (how heroic would any act be if there was no danger or threat to life in it?) and sometimes in the interest of drama, heroism, villainy, or realism, we have a character die. The MARVEL UNIVERSE BOOK OF THE DEAD filled five volumes with characters considered to be dead this year. The fact of the matter is that in comics, it is very rare for a character to stay dead. Try to think of characters who died spectacular significant deaths who haven't been brought back. Let's see...there's Bucky Barnes, 'though a lot of people have worn his uniform and been called Bucky. Still, not a month goes by that CAPTAIN AMERICA doesn't receive a Bring Back the Real Bucky letter. And while he'll never be brought back as long as I have any say in the matter, who knows what my successors will decide some day? I doubt many people thought Jean Grey would be revived-- but she was.
The rule of thumb used to be never believe a character is dead unless you see it happen on panel and see the corpse lying there afterwards examined by someone who ought to be able to determine if the heart's beating. But Jean Grey came back from that situation. Another good indication that someone was gone for good is if his/her super-name was recycled (ala Spider-Woman, Captain Marvel, Phoenix, Warlock, Black Knight, etc.), but even that doesn't prevent the originals from coming back under new names.
My point is for the most part, readers don't believe in comic book deaths anymore. They don't believe there's any character who won't be brought back at some point. I would truly like to see more deaths in comics "stick" so the phenomenon retains some dramatic significance. Every reader has favorite characters, ones who s/he doesn't feel deserved to have died (I was very sorry to see Iron Fist go, for instance). But unless we lose some of the good ones as well as some of the bad ones now and then, our fictional world will be infinitely shallower, less dramatic, and less realistic. (That being said, wait till you see who comes back from the dead next issue!)
It all began with my controversial assertion that "Marvel doesn't revamp its legends-- we got them right the first time." I got a lot of mail about that Mark's Remark-- mostly negative-- and thought that if I distinguished between a character's legend (origin, motivations, and standard mode of operation) and his/her current status quo (his/her present circumstances, and whatever deviations from his/her long-term status quo), the controversy would subside since every series character (Marvel and elsewhere) undergoes status quo changes from tiem to time to keep things fresh. But no, I'm not off the hook yet. Some readers pointed to recent revelations in Hawkeye's orgin (see SOLO #2) as evidence of sneaky revamping. I replied that enhancement and expansion of murky areas of a character's origin (e.g., how did an expert swordsman with no skills in archery train the kid who'd become the world's greatest archer?) did not a revamp make since it did not substantially negate any element of what was established before. Then I brought up the problematic question of Captain America's origin.
Cap was created in 1940, and his basic origin was chronicled then. When he was revived in 1965 and the origin was retold, a few details were at variance from the original account (e.g., was the scientist who created the Super Soldier formula named Reinstein or Erskine? Where'd these vita-rays come from?). Otherwise, the story was essentially the same. (Later stories accounted for these apparent discrepancies.) But the background of the boy who became Cap was pretty much a blank slate, and fertile ground for exploration. A subsequent CAP writer (not me) filled in a few details-- gave his parents names and occupations and gave him a brother who did at Pearl Harbor. Oops-- a problem there. Not that Steve Rogers had an older brother we'd not yet heard about, but having his brother dying on December 7, 1941 played hob with prior accounts of when Steve underwent the Super-Soldier treatment. What to do? A still subsequent CAP writer (not me) "explained away" this background story ingeniously as a false set of memories given Cap by the War Department in the event he was captured and interrogated. Do we have revisionist history here? Yes and no. Certain "facts" previously presented as true were indeed falsified in an effort to restore a semblance of consistency to Cap's legend. This process, undertaken for the reasons it was, does not constitute a revamp. To me, it would have been a revamp if essential details were altered with no attempt to account for the alteration. In other words, if it were passed off as the way it was all along. Marvel gums up the details sometimes and has to backtrack to make things jibe, but we don't wave our magic editorial wands and say "This new version of the origin was the way it was all along, and if you have any comics that say otherwise, throw them away because they don't really exist." I trust I've now beaten this subject into the ground.