The origins of the word “hero” lie in the Greek term hērōs, and yet that is not where the Greek influence behind the concept of heroes and superheroes reaches its end. The influence of Greek mythology is evident in the culture and content of comic books and the superheroes they portray. Clear relations are in both visual and textual representations, including the pictorial depictions of heroes in comics, the evidence for a cross-culture monomyth, and the hero archetypes and characteristics created by the Greeks that continue in modern American superhero stories. It is necessary to view each of these aspects separately in order to understand the Greeks’ encompassing influence, leading to the similarities between how the ancients viewed their mythology, how superheroes in American culture are viewed today, and how their narratives are testament to the idea that storytelling is a significant, intrinsically human characteristic.
The first widely known “superheroes” of the Western world came from the Greeks. In The Clay-Footed Superheroes, Rose Williams describes Greek mythological heroes as “[falling] a few furlongs short of the standard of perfection. Yet they were handsome and resourceful, they faced death without flinching, and they overcame almost insurmountable odds” (vii). Such a description could also easily describe almost any modern American superhero. This is a broad, simple comparison, yet it is the foundation for the comparisons made herein. At their base, both Greek heroes and modern superheroes are often known merely as individuals who live up to their lofty titles in various ways. However, the depth of these cultural icons can only be understood by observing and comparing their details, unearthing concepts and archetypes that span across millennia and the important reasons why they continue to endure.
First, the artwork of comics must be examined because the comic is an intensely visual medium in addition to being a narrative. There are artistic similarities between classical sculptures’ portrayals of mythological heroes and the renderings of superheroes in comics. Sculptures of Greek mythological figures and the artwork of modern American comic books portray heroes and superheroes, respectively, in a similar style. These figures are designed to show the pinnacle of aesthetic perfection of the human body. In his unpublished MA thesis “Heroic Painting and its Contemporary Interpretation,” Jacob Johnson described this aesthetic in sculpture as “ . . . idealized . . . emanated power with a strong physique cut from pure white marble, while the sculpture’s surface shone from the looming figure. . . It seems that this idea was set in Greek tradition when portraying the heroes of Greek mythology” (10). In male figures of both sculpture and comic artwork, musculature is emphasized, and the figures have physiques that radiate the sense of heroic accomplishment, strength, and power that defines them.
In his Master’s thesis Comic Books vs. Greek Mythology: The Ultimate Crossover for the Classical Scholar, Andrew Latham more specifically illustrates this influence of the ancient on the recent. Latham compares Perseus’ appearance in Perseus and Medusa, the 14th century sculpture by Benvenuto Cellini that was created in the classical style of Ancient Greece, to Jim Lee’s depiction of Superman in 2004’s Superman #201. Although Cellini’s sculpture is from the Renaissance, it is an accurate depiction of classical aesthetics of beauty and how mythological heroes were rendered in ancient sculpture. Perseus is shown victorious, poised over the fallen form of Medusa—a hero who has “vanquished his foe and conquered his surroundings” (Latham 9). As mentioned above, to show his status as a hero, Perseus’ muscles are clearly defined and his stance is confident to emphasize his triumph as he looks down on his conquest. Similarly, Lee’s artwork of Superman shows the costumed superhero “territorially [guarding] the streets of Metropolis,” surveying the area from high above (Latham 9). His sense of accomplishment is accentuated by his body’s aesthetic perfection. As Latham states, “This drive both heroes demonstrate to protect and dominate what is perceived to be their territory creates a connection . . . that not only transcends artistic mediums, but also centuries in time.” Both heroes are depicted as having the territorial desire to defend, shown as dominating and powerful with their perfect human forms. This is an overarching visual theme heavily used in both classical sculpture and comic book artwork, showing the aesthetic influence Greek mythology has had on portrayals of modern superheroes.
Another example can be seen when one compares the attic red figure Theseus & the Minotauros, painted on kylix pottery and attributed to the Kleophrades Painter of 5th century BC, to Jack Kirby’s cover for 1941’s Captain America Comics #1. Theseus was the great hero of the Athenians, a people’s champion known for many adventures, including his slaying of the Minotaur in the labyrinth. In Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes, Edith Hamilton notes that the Minotaur was a half-bull, half-human monster used by Minos, ruler of Crete and invader of Athens, to terrorize the Athenians(151). The image of Theseus slaying the Minotaur was depicted frequently in all manners of Ancient Greek art. In the piece mentioned above, Theseus is shown to be overpowering the falling Minotaur, grasping his arm as he prepares to slay him with his sword. Although pottery images are less detailed than sculpture, Theseus and the Minotaur are painted realistically and in the classical aesthetic, with defined musculature and emphasis on the nude figures’ iliac crests, pectorals, and legs.
Likewise, in Jack Kirby’s comic book cover, Captain America lunges forward to punch Adolf Hitler in the jaw—every bit the symbolic people’s champion during World War II, just as Theseus was the champion of the ancients in their time of need. Kirby draws the Captain as being a specimen of human perfection even as he exerts himself, using dramatic shading techniques to emphasize the musculature under his patriotic suit. Both Theseus and Captain America successfully fought to defeat enemies that were oppressing their people in their respective stories; thus, both are rendered in images that illustrate parts of the narratives that define them. In his Ancient History Encyclopedia entry, Mark Cartwright postulates that Greek pottery painting was the first medium used by the ancients to tell narratives, showing a range of scenes and characters from their mythology (“Greek Pottery”). This is not unlike the visual techniques used in comic book narratives today, evidence that Greek art influences not only the aesthetics we use to portray our superheroes, but also the medium artists and writers use to tell their stories.
However, the similarities do not exist solely in the visuals; Greek mythology contributes heavily to the creation of superhero story archetypes with which the American culture is intimately familiar. To further examine the connections between the two, a preliminary exploration can begin with the thoughts of Joseph Campbell. In his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell proposes the notion of the “monomyth,” which is succinctly described as “a myth occurring cross-culturally” by Jeffrey Lang and Patrick Trimble in “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? An Examination of the American Monomyth and the Comic Book Superhero” (158). The monomyth can also be considered the main “archetype for heroic action found in traditional world mythologies,” as noted by Anthony Mills in his dissertation “From Rugged to Real: Stan Lee and the Subversion of the American Monomyth in Theological Anthropology and Marvel Superhero Comics and Films” (5). It is the idea that “stories and mythologies of civilizations, from ancient times to modern depictions, have an overarching structure and inherently resemble one another” (Latham 1). Campbell himself summarized the monomyth as the following:
The standard path of the mythological adventure of the hero is a magnification of the formula represented in the rites of passage: separation–initiation–return: . . . A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man. (30)
Throughout The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell explains the monomyth’s elements—also known as “The Hero’s Journey”—in the three larger categories of departure, initiation, and return, under which subcategories reside. As Pekka Paalanen states in his baccalaureate thesis “Batman—A Hero of the American Monomyth,” “All these concepts are presented with clear examples, and though these events can take place in any order, they are still thematic events that all seem to be prevalent in stories of myth” (9). This monomythic framework asserts itself throughout history, and it is particularly evident as the basis for heroic stories in Greek mythology. Using the monomyth as a guide, one can notice the same key elements and traditional “themes” in modern-day stories, highlighting how the myths of the ancients influenced tales of modern heroism. However, curiously enough, Joseph Campbell would not agree with such observations.
In the last chapter of his book, Campbell postulates “that the monomythic hero [is] a relic of mythical times,” and that we now live in a “postmythical society . . . no longer in need of such heroes” (Paalanen 10). At the end of his book, Campbell states, “The spell of the past, the bondage of tradition, was shattered with sure and mighty strokes . . . and modern man emerged from ancient ignorance . . . Today all of these mysteries have lost their force; their symbols no longer interest our psyche” (387, 390). Many proponents of scientific rationalism agree with Campbell’s conclusion, claiming that myth has no place in our modern world of science, history, and logic (Paalanen 11). However, in The Myth of the American Superhero, John Shelton Lawrence and Robert Jewett argue that this is hardly the case; instead, they insist that we continuously encounter a variety of stories, characters, and narratives in present-day pop culture– including Star Wars, The Matrix, and many others– that contain a multitude of the elements Campbell laid out in his monomythic framework. As Lawrence and Jewett point out,
Reputable scholars such as J.H. Plumb have repeatedly announced the death of the mythic heroes with magical powers to redeem the world. This reveals a particular analytic lag, because it was written in the heyday of superheroic dramas in popular culture. Thousands of images of heroes and heroines larger than life, with powers every bit as magical as those exercised in classical mythology, were floating about in the American entertainment system, yet they appear to have been unrecognizable to sophisticated minds . . . One thing is certain, in our view: mythology’s death notices were greatly exaggerated, to use the phrase of Mark Twain. (21-22)
Contemporary authors appear to agree with Lawrence and Jewett, evidenced by the existence of popular books such as The Myth of the American Superhero and Our Gods Wear Spandex: The Secret History of Comic Book Heroes (Paalanen 12).
In addition to arguing that the general idea of the monomyth is alive and well in modern times, Lawrence and Jewett propose that Campbell’s framework also survives in a variation they titled the “American monomyth,” based on “contemporary modern culture, rather than on ancient tales” (Paalenen 17). They define the American monomyth as the following: “A community in harmonious paradise is threatened by evil; normal institutions fail to contend with this threat: a selfless superhero emerges to renounce temptations and carry out the redemptive task: aided by fate, his decisive victory restores the community to its paradisiacal condition: the superhero then recedes into obscurity” (Lawrence and Jewett 6). Campbell’s monomyth focuses on finding oneself through rites of passage and initiation while fighting an enemy from without, and it includes religious overtones; the American monomyth is one of personal or societal redemption for a selfless hero who defends society from an internal threat, and the hero’s superhuman abilities are often explained with “science, technology, or simple human ingenuity” (Paalenen 17). The latter is clearly influenced by the former, showing that, contrary to Campbell’s postulation, elements of the monomythic structure continue to exist and evolve. The enduring influence of the ancient on modern narratives becomes more apparent when one looks at distinct elements in further detail.
Specific motifs and archetypes cross between Greek mythology and the textual aspects of superhero stories. Most who are familiar with male superheroes in any capacity know of the “traditional” themes that run rampant in these stories: supernatural powers, rescuing damsels in distress, the superhero’s “ultimate weakness,” and more. However, what many do not know is that all of these motifs, in addition to others, trace their existence back to the influence of Greek heroes and their stories’ inherent monomythic structure. These patterns in storytelling are revealed when one compares specific well-known figures in Greek myth to those of the modern comic book.
Previously, the visual similarities between the images of Perseus and Superman were shown to depict their territorial desire to protect and defend their surroundings. The written aspects of mythology and superheroes expand on this desire, creating one of the most known archetypes: the damsel in distress. In monomythic terms, this archetype relates to the “meeting with a goddess” element of Campbell’s framework, in which the hero encounters a person or situation representing ultimate human happiness and adventure (109). This literary device is an expression of the heroes’ and superheroes’ innate territorial desire to defend, and it is also a tool to develop their personalities outside of their statuses as protectors.
Perhaps the earliest example of the damsel in distress motif comes from Perseus’ tale, which helped to lay the groundwork for the concept. In Book IV of the Metamorphoses, Perseus sets his sights on the lovely maiden Andromeda, who is held hostage by a monster. Perseus is described as feeling an “unconscious desire” to rescue Andromeda; as a result, after her parents promise him her hand in marriage, Perseus slays the beast and rescues her (Latham 21). Similarly, in Superman’s story, Lois Lane is often his damsel in distress. She is repeatedly targeted by villains, requiring Superman to go to great lengths to rescue her. Superman and the oft-kidnapped Lois Lane pay homage to Perseus and Andromeda’s story over and over again, in a way that may not exist at all were it not for the original Greek myth (Latham 20). Additionally, it is important to acknowledge that the “damsel in distress” archetype is not always defined by a female romantic interest. As modern female characters and heroines gain more main protagonist roles, the archetype has expanded to include various individuals important to the heroes and heroines who must sometimes be rescued.
Perseus and Superman’s roles are that of heroes from above that are inherently gifted with supernatural powers, which they use to protect those around them and rescue loved ones. Heroics are their main purpose and part of their nature. However, they only exemplify one of the main superhero archetypes. In contrast, a second character archetype is that of the tragic hero. Tragic heroes are often motivated to assume their roles as heroes in a quest for personal redemption. In addition, as Latham describes, a tragic hero is “one [who] is drafted into fighting through forces outside of his control” (33). These heroes often have origin stories, a motif used in both mythology and comic books to depict the motivation for characters’ heroics. Origin stories are particularly important for the unlikely heroes of this archetype because they provide the necessary explanation for the forces that drive them. The origin of the tragic hero archetype itself traces back to Greek mythological figures.
One of the well known tragic heroes of Greek mythology is Herakles, better known to the Romans and Westerners as “Hercules,” as B.J. Oropeza notes in The Gospel According to Superheroes: Religion and Popular Culture (68). Hercules’ story can be compared to that of the modern hero known as Batman. In the case of Hercules, his “driving force”—or, in monomythic terms, his “call to adventure” (Campbell 49)—comes in the form of Hera’s hatred for him. Hera is Zeus’ wife, and she despises Hercules because he is the living evidence of Zeus’ affair with another woman. As a result, Hera creates an on-going feud with Hercules, and her hatred drives her to place Hercules under a “fit of madness” that causes him to kill his wife and children (Oropeza 68). Though this tragedy is arguably not Hercules’ fault, he cannot allow himself to escape the blame, so he undertakes twelve labors to attempt to repent for his sins. Oropeza points out that “[Hercules’] heroic victories during the labors were made possible only by virtue of the tragic death of his family, and he was driven by his necessity to redeem himself from guilt” (69). Were it not for the tragedies Hera’s hatred caused, Hercules may have never become a notable hero at all; he does not have the territorial motivation of Perseus, but he instead finds motivation in “his own salvation”—hence the term “tragic” used in the naming of this archetype (Latham 32).
In modern comic books, Batman’s backstory is also one of tragedy, similar to but not quite the same as Hercules’. Canonically, Batman’s civilian identity is Bruce Wayne, a billionaire who, as a young boy, bore witness to his parents’ murders at gunpoint during a robbery. The death of Bruce’s parents acts as his “call to adventure,” compelling him to seek justice above all else. The tragedy of Batman’s story is doubled by the fact that, in many variations of canon, young Bruce himself is responsible for his parents’ presence in the alley where they were killed (Latham 33). Yet, in the same way that Hercules is not responsible for his family members’ deaths, neither is Bruce. However, just as Hercules feels compelled to seek redemption whether or not he could be directly blamed, Bruce too seeks redemption, leading him to become Batman and declare war on crime in Gotham City.
A third example of a modern superhero archetype that follows the precedence of Greek mythology is the reluctant hero, which can be demonstrated through a comparison between Odysseus and Spider-Man. Both Odysseus and Spider-Man “express reluctance to understand the will of fate” at the beginning of their stories (Latham 25). This is the hero’s “refusal of the call” (Campbell 59). Odysseus has no desire to leave his home for the Trojan War, wanting instead to stay with his son; it was only under duress that he finds the will to leave. Similarly, Peter Parker originally does not want to be a hero, and he only truly becomes Spider-Man after his uncle’s death. Both are so-called reluctant heroes because they are initially averse to the concept of heroism, eventually “setting aside their personal desires for the greater good” (Latham 25-26). These hero types can overlap and are not mutually exclusive, as Spider-Man is also sometimes referred to as a tragic hero because his heroism begins after his uncle’s death; however, his journey as a superhero is born more from the responsibility his great power gives him rather than a quest for redemption, making reluctant hero a slightly more apt description to some.
Two other motifs of superhero stories that were influenced by Greek mythology are also worthy of notice: the roles of mentors in hero stories and the literary tool of superheroes having a weakness. In mythology, there are multiple examples of mentors training or giving advice to heroes—the monomythic “supernatural aid” (Campbell 69). The character of Chiron is one of the most famous. He advises several heroes of Greek mythology, including Hercules (Latham 42). The goddess Athena also gives guidance to Hercules during his twelve labors (Oropeza 68). Comparatively, a mentor in modern American comics is Alfred Pennyworth, who acts as both a mentor and a father figure for Bruce Wayne/Batman (Latham 42). Captain Marvel also consistently receives wisdom and advice from “the ancients” before entering a conflict, similar to the way Athena counsels Hercules during his trying journey (Oropeza 79).
Lastly, it is common for both heroes and superheroes to have one weakness that can threaten their formidable abilities. For Achilles, this weakness is his heel; for Hercules, this weakness is the blood of Nessus the Centaur. In the world of comic book superheroes, Superman is helpless against kryptonite, and the Green Lantern is vulnerable when faced with the color yellow (Oropeza 69). These motifs are literary tools in both mythology and comics, spanning across mediums and centuries to ensure necessary growth and conflict in the stories of both heroes and superheroes alike.
Through the above examples and more, it is clear that the mythology of Greece influences modern American superheroes of comics in a variety of ways. Both the art of comics as well as the range of archetypes and motifs in superhero stories are influenced by Greek mythological heroes in explicit and underlying aspects. Whether or not it can be considered a direct result of their aesthetic and textual likenesses, there is one other quality both Greek and modern heroes share: they are similarly perceived and venerated by their respective ancient and modern societies.
Frank Miller, creator of the Batman graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns, states, “Every great civilization has its superheroes . . . You couldn’t find a better version, in America, of the Pantheon of ancient Greece [than superheroes]” (qtd. in Sancton). According to Zack Snyder, director of the film 300, superheroes “are our gods and goddesses” (qtd. in Sancton). Modern comic heroes are viewed this way because superhero stories are akin to modern day myths—though they are not quite the same. In ancient Greece, “myth supports models for human behavior and gives meaning and value to life” (Winterbach 116). Harvard Classics Professor Gregory Nagy explains it by saying, “It’s not that they were ‘believed’ . . . Rather, myths about heroes were accepted as valid narratives about moral truths” (qtd. in Sancton). Although Greek mythology had the added aspect of ritual while superheroes in comic books do not, both types of stories are meant to impart moral truths to the readers or viewers, teaching lessons through the struggles these characters face and encouraging us to partake in our own personal heroics. As Charles Freeman explains in The Greek Achievement: The Foundation of the Western World, “The Greek concept of the hero is important, above all because the human attributes of the hero are never lost. This fostered the idea that every Greek . . . could be heroic, achieve arête, excellence, in his own life” (56-57). American superheroes foster this concept of being flawed but heroic, influencing and inspiring the lives and aspirations of modern individuals.
Unfortunately, although superheroes are increasingly being seen as pop culture icons due to Hollywood’s film adaptions of comics, a cultural perception persists that comic books should only be viewed as frivolous fun for younger audiences. In actuality, comics have a unique form of literary worth, occupying a singularly artistic space in the world of fiction. The medium is incredibly diverse, not only because of its artistic elements but also because of the opportunities for innovative storytelling methods it offers. For example, in terms of narrative, a comic’s plot must be extremely well structured because it is released monthly. Its creators also use a combination of writing and visual techniques to create pace and drama, and believable characters are brought to life through both dialogue and visual cues (tbarklay). Tom and Matt Morris explain it in Superheroes and Philosophy: Truth, Justice, and the Socratic Way by saying, “Like movies and television shows, they make powerful use of visual imagery. But like novels and short stories, they allow us to pace our own experience of their presentations” (iii).
In addition, comics have consistently acted as social commentary through the decades, adapting and evolving to mirror the history of the world around them. George Gene Gustines discusses this concept in his New York Times article “The Superhero as Society’s Mirror, from World War II to Iraq.” From 1938 to 1945, superheroes went to war against the Axis powers, including in Captain America Comics #1; in the 1950s, heroes addressed threats of Communism and nuclear war, and dabbled in outer space; the grittier 1960s and 70s tackled elements of “questioning authority” and issues like racism, drug abuse, and political corruption; and so on and so forth, to present day, in which superheroes increasingly step forward to help with tasks in authorities’ incapable stead (Gustines). In much the same way, Greek myths reflected the ancient culture of the ones who created them. Aside from being intricately connected to religion, myths were used “to explain the environment in which humankind lived . . . [and] to re-tell historical events so that people could maintain contact with their ancestors, the wars they fought, and the places they explored” (Cartwright, “Greek Mythology”). Lastly, the many themes of humanity explored in the narratives of comics are universal ones (tbarklay). The comic book is literature that adapts to reflect society, yet also retains its relevance to reflect humanity. Tom and Matt Morris detail these themes of humanity, stating,
The best superhero comics, in addition to being tremendously entertaining, introduce and treat in vivid ways some of the most interesting and important questions facing all human beings–questions regarding ethics, personal and social responsibility, justice, crime and punishment, the mind and human emotions, personal identity, the soul, the notion of destiny, the meaning of our lives, how we think about science and nature, the role of faith in the rough and tumble of this world, the importance of friendship, what love really means, the nature of a family, the classic virtues like courage, and many other important issues. It’s about time that, in particular, the best comic books got their due and were more widely recognized for their innovative and intriguing ways of raising and wrestling with these pressing human concerns. (ii)
These so-called “pressing human concerns” are a testament to comics’ relevance as literature, and—considering these themes are all found in ancient Greek myths—they also act as another significant connection between the humanity of modern and ancient heroes.
The myths of the Greeks are thousands of years old, yet modern individuals can still relate to the lessons, positive traits, and flaws experienced and demonstrated by the ancient characters. Whether consciously or unconsciously, we imitate the same or similar elements in our comic books, enough so that the parallels are starkly apparent. It is often remarked that history repeats itself; it is now evident that the stories entwined throughout history do the same. Of the stories and characters previously discussed, their motifs and archetypes—including possessing both strengths and weaknesses, having the desire to protect loved ones, and more—are all traits of humankind. So too is the inclination to tell stories a human trait, one that exists and will continue in a variety of forms for decades to come. Because of stories’ unerring ability to endure, as demonstrated through Greek myths and American comics, the desire to share and experience narrative is shown to be a powerfully human quality. From this we learn that both ancient and modern stories are an inherent part of humanity, and some of the strongest and most persistent tales are those that tell of heroics.
Across the ages, what has historically drawn people to stories of heroes holds true: “Sometimes we need someone who is a little more human, someone with whom we can identify, someone who is made like us, but with powers greater than ours” (Oropeza 35). For the modern individual, we do not worship these characters in a religious context, but instead we learn from and relate to their victories and struggles: be it those of Perseus or Superman, Hercules or Batman, or any other hero or superhero. As Katherine Seastrom-Probandt states in “The Comic Book Superhero: His Amazing Journey to Connect and Communicate with Society,” “superheroes became a form of modern mythology, imparting the wisdom of a generation through brightly colored panels and playing out the dreams and fears of the decades,” including those depicted in Greek mythology many millennia ago (48). It is with this that the associations between Greek mythology and modern American comic books come full circle: they create connections between heroes and superheroes through visual aesthetics, archetypes, and motifs that span history, and they continue to remain relevant in their relations with human beings as people—a genuine testament to the longevity of storytelling, as well as the ultimate and true resilience of heroes.
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Susan Dorta wrote this essay for Dr. Andrea Greenbaum’s Graphic Novels as Literature class during her junior year at Barry University. She recently graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree with a specialization in Graphic Design, and she hopes to pursue magazine design. Because of her passion for the written word – particularly stories – Susan may also pursue an English degree in the future. She is grateful to Dr. Greenbaum for encouraging her to submit this paper and to Meg for all of her patience and help. Lastly, Susan would like to thank her mom, her sister Bailey, and her best friends Katie and Jenn for their constant support for everything she chooses to do. Their love is not taken for granted.