I was recently foolish enough to give in to Amazon.co.uk’s blandishments and buy a book with the intriguing title Our Gods Wear Spandex. It promised to show that Lex Luthor is Aleister Crowley, and that Superman, Batman, the lot, have dark origins in magic, esoteric knowledge, the works. Well, you have to admit, it sounds intriguing. So I handed over my fifteen quid and, let me tell you right now, it really wasn’t worth it. The book is incredibly awful: badly written, incoherent, sloppily edited, full of basic factual errors and based on a version of the esoteric derived, it would appear solely, from the works of Graham Hancock. Oh yes and the reason why Lex Luthor is Aleister Crowley is, you see, because they’re both bald.
But it did get me thinking if only to rebut it. The thing is, you see, there is something archetypal about the big superhero (and supervillain) figures. The reason why Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, The Joker, Poison Ivy and Lex Luthor stand so tall, the reason why they have such a massive impact is that they are personifications of archetypes, they acquire, merely by virtue of their existence, huge cultural resonance going back thousands of years, almost certainly before the dawn of history, and so they seem bigger, more powerful, even when we aren’t consciously aware of what those archetypes are.
What I thought I would do in this piece is to take a look some of the archetypes that a number of randomly selected characters inhabit, seeing how they fit in with material from myth: classical, Norse and Arthurian (and, for fun, also the odd reference to the movies, another key source of archetypes). The reason for this selection goes back to my woeful motivation, the author of which was very keen to tell us why Batman is the Golem, and Superman the Messiah, but didn’t seem to notice that they are both heroes. Sometimes being obvious pays.
What is an archetype?
It is often said that Superman was the first superhero. I would disagree. In literature we have the obvious precursor of H Rider Haggard’s amazing hero Allan Quartermain who, though technically speaking human, seems to have been everywhere and battled ever foe in an amazingly long life, until he met his ultimate nemesis in the form of a rather formidable young lady in her early twenties. Going back still further, it’s hard to not see Sir Lancelot, Sir Gawain and the other Arthurian heroes as superheroes, with the Round Table as a precursor to the Justice League.
Going even further back, Beowulf is obviously a superhero and some of the hagiographies of early saints give their principals lives that seem rather superheroic. Back further still, Heracles is (minus the cross-dressing) a perfect type of the superhero, with mysterious origins, mighty deeds and a rather over-active love life. At the same time, the Argonauts are almost certainly the first Superhero team; the make-up of the crew of the Argo, containing as it does pretty well all of the first generation of heroes of Greek Myth, does sound very much like the cast-list of the ultimate crossover. And finally we have what must be the oldest recorded Superhero story in the form of the Epic of Gilgamesh. So in fact superheroes have been with us for nearly as long as there has been writing, if not longer. Superman, Batman et al are just the most recently avatars of a truly ancient tradition.
This tradition is the manifestation of a fundamental archetype, one to be discussed in more detail below, that of the hero. A hero is a person unlike you or me, often of unusual or even divine origin, who commits mighty deeds for the sake of ordinary people, being a saviour, helper and so on and so forth. That describes Heracles or Atalanta just as much as it does Superman or Wonder Woman. It’s a theme that runs right through all of our literature and imaginings: even the tedious hero of a modern romance novel is in some way the bastard offspring of Gilgamesh. What makes comics and myth unique is that the archetypes stand out so very clearly: Superman is not just a hero, he is almost the hero, a distillation of everything there is about the heroic archetype. And it’s fairly easy to see why myth and comics both deal in exceptionally powerful archetypes. In both the whole point of the exercise is to grab the attention immediately and to move people powerfully (whether the purpose is to make them offer sacrifice or buy the next issue is irrelevant), and so powerful, simple ideas are required.
And this is what archetypes are. Archetypes are ideas, what you might call cookie-cutters for the imagination, that are so basic, so deeply ingrained in our cultural inheritance, that they speak to us directly in a very powerful way. They are a perfect tool for conveying information. Which might explain why those who wanted to oversee what people thought and believed feared comics or courted them. And so any fictional work that is driven by archetypes will grab the attention in a way that something more ‘sophisticated’ cannot; it speaks to us at the level of Jung’s collective unconscious: the ideas that we all share but do not know that we share, our most basic human presuppositions. And so, it seems, comics, far from being the ephemera that snobs would make them, are, in fact, part of the foundation of our culture.
So, it seems, we don’t need to invoke hermetic mysteries to explain why Batman seems a thing apart while Spiderman is just a whiny teenager. The difference is that Batman forms part of a continuing tradition that goes as far back as the Epic of Gilgamesh that lies at the heart of the stories that helped create our culture. Even if we are not directly aware of those stories, their traces have rubbed off on nearly every aspect of our culture, and the whole idea of the hero who comes from afar and saves the people with their mighty works is part of the set of collective assumptions about how the world works that we absorb without even knowing it. Batman stands apart, and is special, because he is the Hero. While Spiderman is just a whiny teenager.
Some mythological archetypes
The Gods of Greece and Rome need little introduction. We see them almost as a prototypical soap opera, bickering and hopping beds endlessly in their little power games. Admittedly they tend to throw one another out of Olympus rather than show one another the door, and their tendency to kill any human who happens to mildly vex them, usually in an unpleasantly inventive way, may be considered somewhat excessive, but they are something we can recognise. And yet when we move away from the central characters of the soap opera, we see the Gods as something much more powerful and mysterious. Athene and Artemis, two virgin goddesses are figures of enormous power, willing to extend any amount of help to those who follow them truly, such as Odysseus with Athene, and incredibly violent in destruction of those who harm those they protect, as we see when Artemis destroys Hippolytus. Other Gods are almost elemental: Poseidon is the personification of the sea with all its power, and when we move down to the lesser Gods, there are any number of tutelary deities who represent specific places or kinds of thing. And, of course, there is the frightening Hades, God of the dead and shadowy in the extreme.
The same is true in other myth. In the Norse legends, Thor has any number of funny stories about his antics on his outings with Loki, but he is, at heart, elemental power. Likewise Odin is not just the wise old man in a hat, or even the all-father who leads men in battle. At heart he is a dark and mysterious figure who connects our world to that of the dead and who gains power not by fighting but through knowledge. In the Arthurian cycle we see mysterious figures like the Green Knight and the Fisher King who likewise seem to express a mysterious other-worldly something.
Now, how does this relate to superheroes? Well, looking back at what I’ve just said, we see the Gods are rather mysterious and only superficially human, have massive power, are extremely loyal to those they love, and extremely vengeful to those who cross them. Also, in almost all pantheons there is an embodiment of justice – Themis for the Greeks, Maat for the Egyptians – that the Gods themselves must obey. Therefore, though the Gods may be swift to anger, they will always be, essentially just. You could rewrite the preceding with ‘superhero’ in place of ‘God’ and it wouldn’t change much. Oh, and of course, we must remember that the Latinate name for Artemis is Diana; I leave you to draw your own conclusions.
Another characteristic of the Gods is that often they walk among us disguised, revealing their divinity only when they have need to. We see this most clearly in the stories of Zeus‘ many loves, but the idea is widespread: Odin and Loki would go abroad in the disguise of men, so did Zeus, and in Gawain and the Green Knight we have the mysterious Green Knight, who may or may not be a God. In particular it is very common for Gods to test the hospitality of people, rewarding and aiding those who are good to them and destroying those who are not. From this to a secret identity is not a great step.
Now consider the myth of Cupid and Psyche, where Cupid came to Psyche in the darkness and the sight of his true divine form drove her to madness before suitable rites made all well and allowed her to become his consort in heaven. When Gods love mortals they do it in disguise. Zeus had his thing for animals, but he could also pretend to be mortals, or else (like Cupid) join his lovers under cover of dark. When Arthur was conceived, his father took on the likeness of his love’s husband, and so on (unusually, in the case of Galahad, Elaine took on the likeness of Guinevere in order to fool Lancelot into making love with her). It is another small step from this to the relationship of Lois Lane and Superman, or Wonder Woman and Steve Trevor, where the truth about their love is permanently hidden from the ‘human’ partner.
Finally note the key concept of hubris – for people to think they are the Gods. This was, for the Greeks, the ultimate crime, and more likely than anything else to cause a sudden thunderbolt to the skull. You can argue that the key characteristic of the biggest supervillains is that they see themselves as more than men, and as such are committing hubris. It is inevitable that divine vengeance, in the form of the Man of Steel or the Caped Crusader, should bring them down. I’ll come back to this below when I discuss the archetype of the tragic hero.
The hero appears in a well-defined body of myth and most hero narratives are very similar. This seems to apply whether the hero is Heracles, Theseus, Jason, Perseus, Arthur, Perceval or Galahad. The following points seem to be common to the hero myth. (1) The hero is born under mysterious circumstances; very often a god or equivalent is involved and their parentage is quite obscure. (2) Quite often they are abandoned or somehow left behind and need to undertake a dangerous journey to reach their home. (3) When they get there, they prove their birthright by carrying out some great labour, as a result of which they are recognised. However, they generally don’t then relax, but carry on striving mightily for the benefit of all.
So, Heracles, Theseus and Perseus are the children of Gods and mortal women and Arthur and Galahad are the product of irregular unions in which magic was used to confuse one party. All of these except Perceval were either abandoned (Perseus, Arthur) or left to find their own way home (Heracles, Theseus, Jason, Galahad). They all did mighty works (rescuing Andromeda, the twelve labours, killing the Minotaur, the Golden Fleece, uniting Britain, the quest of the Holy Grail) which proved them.
Looking at this from a superheroic perspective, it is very clear that both Superman and Batman fit this model precisely. Both were abandoned, by their planet blowing up or by their parents being murdered, both undertook a great work and both work mightily on behalf of their people. Wonder Woman fits reasonably well: certainly she has to journey far in order to play her heroic role. All three have the fundamental characteristic of being foreigners in their own land, literally so for Superman, being an alien, and Wonder Woman, being an Amazon, but also for Batman because of the psychological distance from ordinary people created by his self-imposed isolation and discipline.
One of the most important mythic archetypes is one of the least understood: the figure of the trickster. The trickster is generally a divine figure who is clever and has an uneasy relation with the other Gods, often making them look foolish or siding with people against them. So tricksters include Prometheus and Odysseus in Greek myth, Seth in Egyptian myth, Loki in Norse myth and Merlin in the Arthurian cycle. So Prometheus sided with humans and was punished, Loki annoyed the Aesir and was punished, Odysseus suffered horribly but came through. Merlin is highly ambiguous, and is apparently the son of a demon, but is on the whole benevolent. Seth has a curious dual role in that though he is the lord of chaos, he is also a powerful and important God who has a critical role in the nightly passage of the Sun through the underworld.
This list shows a key point about tricksters; they are not by any stretch of the imagination uniformly good. In fact there are clear light trickster and dark trickster roles. Loki and Seth are both, with an emphasis on the dark aspect. Merlin is both with an emphasis on the light aspect. Prometheus and Odysseus are, on the whole, light, but Odysseus is always considered suspect. It is clear from some sources that he was viewed as being somehow too clever and not heroic enough. Clearly anti-intellectualism runs deep!
Looking at this from a superheroic perspective, two characters stand out as being tricksters: one obvious and the other not so. The obvious one is the Joker as a dark trickster: extremely clever, occasionally playful and quite, quite mad. He is very similar to Loki in that he will play with the targets of his tricks, deliberately stretching out the unpleasantness for the sheer joy of it. And in a very trickster-like way, he clearly sees many of his acts as games he is playing with Batman, with those affected merely as gaming-pieces.
The not so obvious light trickster is Batman himself. Consider, he has no superpowers. All he has is immense wealth, an ingenious brain, and the willingness to put himself through whatever it takes to achieve his goal. Which is not all that dissimilar from the mortal Odysseus, faced with angry Gods, insane monsters, natural disasters and lustful Goddesses, and yet still pushing himself to return to Ithaca and Penelope, with nothing but his wits to get him there. Other superheroes can beat their enemies by being stronger or having some magical new power; Batman has to out-think them. And that is what makes him a light trickster who, like Prometheus, is willing to suffer horribly for the benefit of humanity. And indeed, part of the draw of Batman, what makes him so endlessly fascinating lies in seeing the extraordinary situations he is put into and then waiting to see how he gets out of that; he is a crime-fighting Houdini.
Finally in this section, note that in some stories there is even acknowledgement that Batman and the Joker are the light and dark sides of a single coin, almost that they are two halves of a single personality. For example, in The Killing Joke, Alan Moore ends not with the usual punch-up and trip to Arkham Asylum, but with a muted conversation between the two men, neither of whom can see a real future for himself, who admit that they are more alike than they would usually care to acknowledge. This is simply a recognition by one of the medium’s most mythically aware writers that here we have two representations of the same archetype, either of whom could abruptly switch over into being the other without really changing their character.
Rather appropriately, as I have just been discussing The Killing Joke, we now come to the group of archetypes around wisdom figures. Most mythologies have them: oracles with direct connections to all knowledge pas and future, Gods of wisdom and mysterious and menacing figures who controlled fate. Indeed, for the Greeks and Romans this is a place where myth meets reality, for Greeks really could consult the Delphic Oracle to learn what Apollo had to tell them, and Rome’s leaders regularly consulted the Sibylline Books in times of crisis. Even more so that for most myth, this was proof that the evidential world was only part of a numinous larger something.
So, looking at oracles, we have the various Sibyls who were usually women who had been granted the power of knowing all by the Gods (more often than not Apollo), and their latter day incarnations who entered into prophetic trances when the right ritual machinery was applied to make the God enter them. The most famous Oracle, though, was Tiresias, the blind seer who gave Oedipus such bad news. Also, after Orpheus‘ death by being torn apart by Maenads, his disembodied head delivered prophecies until Apollo grew jealous and destroyed it with a thunder-bolt. In the North, we have the deeply mysterious Mimir, who was decapitated, but that didn’t stop his head giving useful advice to Odin (interestingly paralleling Orpheus). And in the Arthurian Cycle we have Merlin who was noted as a great prophet (books of his prophecies circulated well into the late Medieval period).
Now discussing oracles in terms of comic books seems rather otiose, as the parallel is there, staring you in the face, in the form of Barbara Gordon, former Batgirl, now Oracle. As the first information-age superhero, she mines the Internet, showing that you can do as much if not more via total immersive knowledge than you can via traditional derring do. In her alliances with various more traditional superheroes (Black Canary, Huntress, Batgirl) she acts as an immeasurable force-multiplier, and is a worthy modern-day successor to Merlin or Tiresias, especially as her control of all things computer-based does give her apparently magical powers (like the power to switch areas of the city off at will).
The other class of mythological wisdom figures is the often rather frightening entities that have control of fate. It is constantly made clear that these beings are answerable to no-one, not even the Gods, and that what they ordain must happen, and even the Gods cannot escape their clutches. So we’re talking about beings more powerful than Gods here. In Greece they’re the Moirae – Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos – and in the North they’re the Norns – Urd, Verdandi and Skuld. The Norns in particular are immensely powerful, as it is they who keep the World Ash Tree Yggdrasill alive. So, in other words, they keep the Universe functioning properly. Again, the comic book analogy is obvious: we are talking about the Guardians of the Universe from the Green Lantern mythos. Their purpose is to combat evil and make the Universe behave. The Norns didn’t care about good or evil, but they would definitely have agreed with the last bit.
The FÉmme FATALE
The fémme fatale is, of course, a common archetype in literature and film, but I’d like to take a quick look at the mythic archetype of the dangerous woman. The simplest type is the woman who takes revenge: Clytaemnestra and then Electra. However there are two more interesting archetypes. First, Medusa: she is literally fatal, in that looking upon her is death, and she started life as a normal, beautiful woman, who became monstrous by virtue of an unfortunate encounter with a horny god. It is hard not to see a direct parallel with Poison Ivy, the one-time botanist who underwent a huge change of world-view which simultaneously resulted in her body changing so that, though still beautiful, she was now deadly.
The other interesting example is Medea. In the course of her story, starting out in the quest for the Golden Fleece, then moving on to her later adventures with Jason and her involvement with the young Theseus, she has two very notable characteristics. First, she loves strongly and can be loving and charming, but if her love is abused she will turn psychotic, horribly so: when Jason dumps her for a younger woman she first murders the younger woman in a gruesomely horrible way, then, just when Jason is feeling a little upset, she slaughters her own children by him. Second, she is prepared to do anything, up to and including dicing her younger brother, if it will help her achieve her ends. This is an interestingly close fit for Harley Quinn. Now, Harley could be thought of as a lesser trickster, as one would expect of the Joker’s consort, but her tendency to alternate between loving, even girlish, behaviour and wild psychotic violence does put her very much in the same space as Medea. So such an apparently minor character turns out to be the avatar of one of the great tragic heroines.
The Tragic Hero
There is a very important sub-type of hero that I haven’t yet touched on: the tragic hero. These are basically characters, like Oedipus, that the Gods do not smile on, and so everything they do, every attempt they make at extracting themselves from their predicament only makes things worse, leading to the eventual catastrophe. I spoke before of hubris; it is key to the tragic hero. A tragic hero is someone who could have been a hero but who committed hubris by believing that they could attain the level of the Gods, or were better than the Gods. And then the Gods, rather than simply slaying out of hand as the did most of the time when faced with such presumption, decide it would be more fun to draw their destruction out, so they could watch the torture every step of the way. Nobody ever said the Gods were nice.
So, Oedipus is a tragic hero. So are Ajax and Gilgamesh. So, arguably, is King Arthur, as his end is dismal and we are meant to believe that it stems from his crime of sleeping with his cousin Morgause. So, I think it is fair to say, is Lex Luthor. His ambition is very simple: he wants to be in charge and, as such, as noted above, he commits hubris. Superman, the God / hero is his enemy precisely because tragic heroes are the enemies of the Gods and heroes: this enmity is fore-ordained by the archetypes that Luthor and Superman play out. And, it has to be said, Luthor certainly does strive mightily to overcome the shackles the Gods have placed on him in the form of Superman, constantly over-reaching himself yet further in his quest to free himself and become at last the man-God.
Unsurprisingly, most villains have something of the tragic hero in them. But another very interesting tragic hero figure is in fact not a villain, but Batman. Let me explain. Batman, in the form of Bruce Wayne, was dealt a terrible hand in life, and things have just proceeded to get worse and worse for him. And yet he refuses to accept this fate or to bow under it, and instead strives to make himself fit to bear any burden that the Gods might place upon him. His tragedy is that for him there is no reward, there can be no end; there is only the unending struggle. And yet much good can come of it – for others. But none for him.
Some other archetypes
Historical and Philosophical Resonances
Something I cannot resist is an interesting parallel between Batman and Mithridates the legendary King of Pontus, who deliberately dosed himself regularly with every poison known to man, as a result of which he developed resistance to all of them. It was part of his somewhat brutal package of insurance measures against assassination, but it clearly worked, because he died old.
Now the parallel is, of course, with the way that one of the key characteristics emerging in more recent versions of Batman is that he has systematically sought out every weakness within himself and overcome it, lest it be used against him. The analogy is rather obvious. And just as Mithridates was forced to put up with considerable unpleasantness in return for his security, Batman has had to put up with psychic pressures that render him very far from being mentally normal, to the extent that it is questionable just how much of Bruce Wayne actually exists any more. One feels that poison would seem quite tame by comparison.
Oh, and this gives another link back to my Batman as light Joker assertion earlier. One can argue that Batman and the Joker have both left behind sanity under the pressure of their compulsions and what we see in them is the two possible end-states for this immense self deformation: the Joker Rousseau’s ‘natural man‘, almost a Nietzschian übermensch who knows no external law, while Batman has become a Platonic ‘just man’ who has by an act of will bound himself with constraint and restraint until he can do no ill. Thus we see in Batman’s eternal struggle with the Joker an image of the fundamental debate in philosophy between the optimistic and pessimistic views of human nature.
Returning to the topic of the fémme fatale, that great staple of film noir, the archetype is that of the woman who is sexy, mysterious, and generally bad and dangerous to know. Among the heroes, the Huntress is a classic noir heroine in that she is sexy, dangerous and morally ambiguous. However, it is to the villains we must look for the real noir characters. Gotham Girls, with its nearly-all-female cast, managed the amazing feat of creating a piece many of whose characters were noir stereotypes: detective Montoya is the ‘good cop’ character, Catwoman and Poison Ivy are the fémmes fatales and Harley Quinn is (what else?) the dumb but dangerous blonde.
In fact, much of the sensibility of Batman’s world is taken from noir, both books, but especially film. Batman does indeed walk the mean streets, and the dames who beguile and bemuse him draw on that archetype too. Poison Ivy may be deadly (literally so) but she’s utterly beguiling and can (again, literally so) bend any man to her will. And yet, just like Brigid O’Shaughnessy, the ‘heroine’ of The Maltese Falcon, she may claim to return the feelings she creates, but at heart she is cold and selfish and all her wiles are calculated. In fact, going one stage further than Brigid, she genuinely does think her lovers are worthless, because animals and not plants. However, also unlike Brigid, she has one saving feature: she does seem genuinely fond of Harley Quinn.
Speaking of Harley Quinn, she embodies a number of nice movie archetypes, both on her own and in her relations to others. It is very hard not to see some aspect of her in Susan Vance, Katharine Hepburn‘s character in Bringing up Baby, a young woman who, though capable of great charm and of great loving attachment is also disturbingly volatile and apparently lacking in any form of moral compass. It is clear the the only reason she doesn’t strike anyone with a mallet is that she didn’t happen to have a mallet with her rather than because it might have occurred to her that it was a bad thing.
And one more thing about Susan Vance. The movie is, after all, called Bringing up Baby, and Baby is, it turns out a leopard that more or less everyone but Susan treats with fear and horror, and she treats as if it’s an overgrown pussy-cat. In fact, bringing the story into real life, Katharine Hepburn, a woman who appeared to know not the meaning of fear, cheerfully mixed in with the leopard while Cary Grant and others were petrified and kept as far from it as possible. So does this mean that perhaps Harley Quinn is perhaps a less aristocratic version of Katharine Hepburn? Maybe, only it’s hard to imagine Hepburn letting the Joker wear the trousers. That was her job. But setting that fascinating avenue of enquiry to one side, what we do know is that Harley too has a baby, or rather two: her pet hyenas. Coincidence?
Moving on, the relationship between Harley and the Joker is modelled on one of the great classic double-act gags, with one partner only too eager to please and the other constantly squelching them. Laurel and Hardy raised the idea to levels of genius as an amazing running gag, with Stan always pleasant and ready to help, only to be squelched by Ollie’s self-obsession, but we see it everywhere, from cartoons (Penfold and Dangermouse) to high comedy (Taggart and Hedley Lamarr in Blazing Saddles) to classic literature (Sancho Panza and Don Quixote). In a sense, this is simply a comic rendition of the basic structure of an abusive relationship, being part of that school of comedy that makes us laugh at something painful in the same way that a bared skull laughs at death. Which is very appropriate as an image for anything relating to the Joker, and very appropriate to this relationship too, as it cannot be denied that though Harley seems to revel in the abuse that the Joker metes out to her, abuse it is.
And now we can pass on to the other great relationship in Harley’s life, her liaison with Poison Ivy. Here the relationship seems rather similar, though it is to be said not so much because Poison Ivy is abusive as because Harley has no idea how to relate to anyone in a normal way. However, there are some unique features. First, a quick look at Poison Ivy; she is the classic self-appointed goddess heroine, who thinks herself better than everyone else. Going back to the Katharine Hepburn theme, where Harley is the lovable if frightening Susan Vance, Poison Ivy is the rather obnoxious Tracy Lord of The Philadelphia Story, who seriously does seem to think she is somehow supra-human, and to despise mere humanity.
There’s also a nice movie analogy for their relationship: in My Man Godfrey, we meet the Bullock Sisters. Irene is lovable but frighteningly lacking in any form of self-control or inhibition and, as soon as she has fallen in love with Godfrey, astonishingly direct in her attempts to snare him. Oh yes, and she is known to recourse to violence when all else fails. Cornelia is reserved and severe and clearly looks down on nearly everyone, including her sister, and is utterly unscrupulous. They appear to hate one another, and yet that doesn’t stop them coexisting. Does that remind you of someone?