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Greg Garrett

Since 1938, when we were first asked to believe a (Super)man could fly, comics and comic book heroes and heroines have consistently offered us a powerful mythical interpretation of the story we find ourselves in. Tied —as superhero narratives are —to some of our central questions about human existence (good and evil, the use and abuse of power, justice and mercy, and the nobility of sacrifice, to name just a few), they have reflected and perhaps even shaped our understanding of the world around us, doing so by interpreting and reinterpreting some of our oldest and most powerful myths, including, as we will see, central biblical narratives.

When I say that comics and other forms of popular culture deal in myth, I do not mean that they speak of something that is untrue, but instead of something that is absolutely and resolutely true; I am speaking of a non-scientific but absolutely necessary way of understanding who and what we are. In her book The Battle for God: A History of Fundamentalism, Karen Armstrong reminds us that myth, once regarded as our primary way of understanding the world, was "concerned with what was thought to be timeless and constant in our existence . . . . [It] looked back to the origins of life, to the foundations of culture, and to the deepest levels of the human mind. Myth was not concerned with practical matters, but with meaning."[1] Recent books about the physics of superheroes notwithstanding, what matters about comics, graphic novels, and their omnipresent adaptations is not a scientific or rational presentation of information, but how they present us with a mythic understanding of the world —an understanding that admittedly changes with time, but a way of understanding and even critiquing the meta-narratives that we use to order our lives.

Much of their narrative power comes from the way comics have always appropriated and reworked archetypal myths from the biblical record. As Burton L. Mack points out, our secular mythologies tend to "draw their power from their uncanny similarity to features of the biblical epic," such as the way heroes in American popular culture conform to the model of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark, "coming into a world unable to solve its problems" and serving as a sort of itinerant wonder-worker.[2] Some of those reworkings, like this use of the Gospel myth, have long been apparent. Superman, for example, was created by two Jewish teenagers at a time when Jews desperately needed a heroic figure, and he has almost always been seen as a messiah or redeemer. Kal-El, Superman's true name, calls to mind Emmanu-El, "God with us," and it translates in Hebrew to something like "All that is God."

Subsequent tellings of the Superman story have anchored it more closely to the Christian understanding of Messiah, as almost anyone who saw Superman Returns in 2006 could testify. With that film, the Christian metanarrative was actually used as a marketing device: in the trailer for the film, the booming voice of Jor-El (played by the late Marlon Brando) tells his son Kal-El, "Even though you have been raised as a human being, you are not one of them." Coronation horns and a pipe organ build on the soundtrack behind images of Superman performing marvels of strength and flight, as Jor-El, continues: "They can be a great people, Kal-El. They wish to be." When Superman flies upward into the sky with the blinding sun suddenly directly behind him —a moment of Transfiguration such as the Gospel of Matthew describes when Jesus "was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white" (or perhaps like the heavens opening, as at the baptism in the Jordan) —Jor-El says, "They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all —their capacity for good —I have sent them you: my only son" (Matt 17:2). This short trailer contains an accretion of images and story snippets that make apparent what the movie is attempting: a popular culture retelling of the Gospel narrative, Superman explicitly as Jesus.

We could also make a strong case for comics drawing on the metanarrative of the judges of Israel. The Deuteronomistic Historian structures the Book of Judges using this pattern: after Israel turns away from God and God gives the nation into the hands of their enemies, God hears their cries and raises up a hero or deliverer to redeem them. This hero arises from nowhere, does his (or her) work of deliverance, and recedes into the background. Of course, eventually Israel will turn again, will be overrun and oppressed, and a hero will again be required. Note how similar are the Judges monomyth and the "American monomyth" described by John Shelton Lewis and Robert Jewett in their book The Myth of the American Superhero : "A community in a 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."[3] When we omit the divine elevation of the hero, the two monomyths are virtually identical, and it is this American Monomyth that serves as the patterns for decades of comic narratives. Mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent discovers an emergency, becomes Superman, defeats a menace. After saving the day, Superman goes back to being Clark Kent, until the next time when conditions warrant the emergence of a hero.

Comics have long employed both of these biblical narratives as structural touchstones, and many more examples could illustrate this, but the biblical monomyth used by comics that I want to deal with at some length is the Akedah, the Binding of Isaac. That story, related in Genesis, begins in this fashion:

After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, "Abraham!" And he said, "Here I am."

He said, "Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you."

So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him.

On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away.

Then Abraham said to his young men, "Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you."

Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together.

Isaac said to his father Abraham, "Father!" And he said, "Here I am, my son." He said, "The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?"

Abraham said, "God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son." So the two of them walked on together.

When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood.

Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son. (Gen 22:1-10).

The Akedah is a central text for Jews, Christians, and Muslims (Musliims believe that the story refers to Ishmael, who at the time of his birth, would have been the only son of Abraham). The Binding story records the faithfulness of Abraham, and for some Christian interpreters prefigures God's offering of Jesus. Although this central narrative is ignored elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, centuries of later Jewish interpretation and midrash uncover another powerful layer of mythic meaning. Although artistic interpretations have often depicted Isaac as a child, the narrative suggests at least a robust youth, since it is Isaac who carries the wood for his sacrifice; interpreters from Josephus to the Talmud propose that Isaac is in his twenties or thirties. In any case, Isaac's father Abraham is a man well over one hundred, and Isaac is either a youth or a strong man who could, if he wished, prevent his ancient father from binding him and from raising a knife to slay him. The Akedah is, in these interpretations, as much about the faith of Isaac as it is the faith of Abraham. Whether this faith is in God or in his father, Isaac trusts that someone in a position of authority, someone other than himself, knows better than he does what should transpire, and so he willingly acquiesces, even to the point of his sacrificial death. Bruce Feiler has noted that one of the ideas enthroned in the Akedah is "our willingness to trust our fathers."[4] For this reason, the Binding of Isaac represents a supremely conservative myth suggesting how father always knows best and that the young must wait their turn and bide their time, doing the bidding of their fathers even if perhaps they do not understand it. The Akedah remains a central monomyth explaining the workings of American society, albeit one that comics have reinterpreted as time has passed and circumstances have changed.

American comics and graphic novels reflect a movement typical of American popular culture forms from the establishment and endorsement of metanarratives to a Post-Modern questioning of their validity. In the Golden Age of comics, with many of the mythically-resonant characters like Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and Captain America who have entered American culture, we initially find simplistic and often extremely conservative applications of the Binding. As the American Monomyth suggests, the traditional comics narrative is essentially conservative; the hero or heroine typically emerges to deal only with symptoms, not with root causes of crime, hatred, or injustice. Batman, for example, is forever dealing with escapees from the revolving door that is Arkham Asylum, the pathetically inadequate institution used to lock up his foes. And so Batman beats up the Joker/the Riddler/the Penguin, et. al. by the end of the comic, and they are led away in chains or we see them ensconced behind prison bars. But Batman doesn't ever even ask why Arkham Asylum is so porous, let alone why there are so many criminals on the streets of Gotham City. Such systemic questions would not even have occurred to the character, his creators, or his readers until the 1960s or later.

This conservative pattern began to be altered in the 1960s and 1970s as Marvel and DC Comics told increasingly relevant stories about social issues (one remembers the famous query from a poor African-American to DC characters Green Lantern and Green Arrow about why they helped multi-colored aliens but not people of color here at home), and the 1980s brought a sharp break with heroic tradition. Although this change is often described as the development of more nuanced heroes or even of antiheroes, it is more accurately a sharp alteration in the understanding of the Binding. The major 1980s works questioning the fitness of the Akedah are Watchmen (the title is drawn from Juvenal's "Who watches the watchmen?") and Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns. The moral complexity and ambiguity often noted in these comics, which went on to change the industry (without them there would be no Wolverine, no Punisher, no Batman Begins), actually result from a rejection of the Akedah as an appropriate myth with which to order American life. This rejection had been played out elsewhere in American popular culture (films of the late 1960s such as The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde had already begun to reach this conclusion; freed as they were from a ratings code such as comics continued to labor under, they could perhaps more easily question authority), but nowhere is it more clearly stated than in the conflicts between the characters of Superman and Batman in Dark Knight Returns.

Superman has always been identified as an essentially conservative hero, often depicted with an American flag and represented as a defender of traditional values. The scene at the end of Superman II where Superman replaces the flag on top of the White House is an iconic example of his conformity to the status quo; although Superman has the power to change the world, he is content to let the occupant of the Oval Office make the important decisions while he cleans up the occasional mess. Superman and Batman meet early in Dark Knight Returns, after Batman in late middle age has decided to resume his career in a way that addresses what is wrong with society, not just what is wrong with its criminal element. In this meeting, Clark Kent/Superman tells Bruce Wayne/Batman, "Sooner or later, somebody's going to order me to bring you in. Somebody with authority."[5] And although Bruce has pointed out earlier that no one can make Superman do anything he doesn't choose to do, Superman is willing to defer to the paternal "authority." Batman sums it up later, during his epic battle with Superman in the streets of Gotham City:

You've always known just what to say.

"Yes" —you always say yes —to anyone with a badge —or a flag.[6]

This rejection of the Akedah as a binding metanarrative —this refusal to "put the flag back on top of the White House" —flavors many of the most significant comics to emerge in the twenty years since. The characters in the revisionist 1990s superhero title The Authority rejected outright the notion that those with strength and vitality should simply do the bidding of their elders; they themselves became the authorities making ethical and political decisions. The Ultimates, a contemporary retelling (a midrash, one might even say) of The Avengers, uses the backdrop of superhero conflict to question the Iraq War and America's role as moral policeman, again presenting a story where the wisdom of the elders is questioned. And most recently, Marvel Comics "Civil War" storyline has shown their iconic conservative character, Captain America, becoming an outlaw rather than obey a registration law he believes will stifle freedom. When Captain America begins to rebel against the government, then clearly we are seeing the revision of this myth achieve widespread validity.

If Burton Mack is correct that our popular culture narratives gain much of their power by appropriating mythic sacred narratives, it should be no surprise to discover the wide range of mythic territory a medium like comics traverses. What may be surprising, as we have seen, is just how much they owe to their telling and retelling of the myths that underpin our existence.

Greg Garrett, Baylor Univeristy


[1] Karen Armstrong, The Battle for God: A History of Fundamentalism (New York: Ballantine, 2001) xv.

[2] Burton L. Mack, Who Wrote the New Testament? The Making of the Christian Myth (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1995) 304.

[3] Robert Jewett and John Shelton Lawrence, The Myth of the American Superhero (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002) 6.

[4] Bruce Feiler, Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths (New York: Perennial, 2004) 99.

[5] Frank Miller, The Dark Knight Returns (New York: DC Comics, 1986) 119.

[6] Miller, Dark Knight, 190.


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