Mythical Heroes Share Characteristics of Comic Superheroes
Perseus and Hercules were both demigods. Their father was Zeus, the king of the Greek gods, while their mothers were mere mortals. While not immortal themselves they possessed the powers of the gods or were gifted by the gods. Hercules (the Roman name for Heracles) possessed super strength. When Zeus’ jealous wife tried to kill him by putting snakes in his crib, the infant Hercules simply strangled them and used their limp bodies as toys.
Perseus won fame by defeating the Medusa, a fearsome beast with snakes for hair that turned anyone who looked at her to stone. He was aided on his quest by gifts from the gods which included a pair of winged sandals that allowed him to fly and a cap of darkness which made him invisible.
Comic Books Turn to Myth and Legend For Inspiration
It is little wonder that comic book scribes have turned to mythology for inspiration and have even adopted the characters for their own stories. Examples of mythical heroes featured in modern comic books include Thor, (the Norse Thundergod) Wonder Woman, (an Amazon princess) and Prince Namor from the legendary city of Atlantis.
A much anticipated movie of 2011 is Marvel Studios’ Thor. Directed by Kenneth Branagh and starring Chris Hemsworth as the Norse Thundergod, the film is scheduled to premiere in Australia in May 2011 according to the Internet Movie Database. In Norse mythology Thor was the son of Odin, the king of the Norse gods. Most schoolchildren know that our weekday, Thursday, comes from his name. Red bearded and with a huge appetite Thor controlled the elements of the weather. Thunder was caused by the sound of his chariot as he rode through the skies while lightning was released when he threw his enchanted hammer, Mjollnir.
Although already the strongest of the Norse gods Thor needed an enchanted belt which doubled his strength and iron gloves to master the hammer. In flight, Mjollnir was like a boomerang, always returning to Thor’s hand after he threw it. It also had the power to bring the dead back to life. This was handy as Thor, whose hunger was legendary, would often eat the goats that pulled his chariot across the sky and then bring them back to life with his magical hammer.
Thundergod Thor: Mythical Hero at Marvel Comics
Thor debuted in Marvel Comics in August 1962 in a volume called Journey into Mystery, which at the time was an anthology of science fiction and fantasy stories. After Thor established his popularity he would take over the comic for himself.
The 2011 movie and the comic book debut of Thor share the same basic premise. Thor must atone for his arrogance and is sent to live among humans. In the comic book version Thor is trapped in the body of a lame medical student known as Donald Blake, without any memory of his previous life as a god. While on vacation in Norway Blake encounters aliens and while seeking refuge in a cave comes upon the enchanted hammer, Mjollnir, disguised as a walking stick. When Blake unwittingly bashes the stick on the ground his alter-ego, the Norse Thundergod, is released.
In the 2011 film Thor’s rash actions rekindle ancient grudges and start a war in Asgard, the home of the Norse gods and he is sent to earth as a punishment. Thor was a regular member of Marvel’s superhero team, The Avengers and Thor, along with Captain
Over at DC Comics their most prized superhero team, The Justice League of America, also includes a mythical hero. Wonder Woman started her life as an Amazon princess and came to America to help the Allies in their fight against the Nazi menace. In Greek mythology the Amazons were a nation of fighting women who allowed no men to live with them. To continue the race they visited a neighbouring tribe once a year for sexual relations and any male children that were the result were either killed or sent back to their fathers.
The Amazons fought on the side of the Trojans in the Trojan War and were said to have removed their right breasts to aid them in battle, either in shooting a bow and arrow or throwing a javelin. According to Hippocrates, “While they are yet babies their mothers make red-hot a bronze instrument ….. and apply it to the right breast and cauterize it, so that its growth is arrested.”
Wonder Woman, the Amazon princess debuted in December 1941 as the United States was about to enter the Second World War, appearing in All Star Comic #8. In this introductory story an agent of U.S. intelligence, Steve Trevor, crashed on an isolated, unknown island inhabited by the Amazons. Now aware of the dire situation in the outside world it was decided that an Amazon would be allowed to return with Trevor to aid him in his fight against the Nazi menace.
As well as heightened physical abilities of strenth and speed, Wonder Woman possessed gadgets such as a magical lasso that made anyone held by it tell the truth, bracelets that could turn aside bullets and an invisible aeroplane.
Another character with mythological origins was Captain Marvel, sometimes kown as Shazam. To find out more about the elements of mythology in modern superheroes go to part two of this article at Myth and Legend in Comic Book Superheros. Part one of this article described the mythological origins of superheroes such as Thor and Wonder Woman. Another mythologically inspired hero adopted by DC although debuting in Fawcett comics was Captain Marvel. He made his first appearance in February 1940.
A boy called Billy Batson changed into an adult superhero whenever he said the magical word, “SHAZAM.” This became the title of a tv series of the 1970s and many followers of Captain Marvel from this era know him simply as Shazam.
Shazam: Abilities of Six Legendary Figures
The magical word is an acronym of the names of six characters from mythology. From Solomon Billy Batson was imbued with the power of wisdom, from Hercules came strength, from Atlas stamina, from Zeus power, from Achilles courage and from Mercury, the messenger of the gods came speed.
Other superhero characters also adopt characteristics of mythological figures. Examples are DC’s Flash, with the speed of Mercury or Marvel’s Hulk with the strength and uncontrollable fury of Hercules.
Hercules and the Incredible Hulk
The Hulk was unveiled as a superhero in Incredible Hulk #1 which went on sale in May 1962. He started off as Bruce Banner, a brilliant physicist but the delayed effects of an accidental exposure to a gamma ray explosion turned him into a raging green skinned monster.
Tom De Falco in Hulk: The Incredible Guide quotes Stan Lee, the creator of the Hulk as saying, “I combined Jeckyll and Hyde with Frankenstein … and I got myself the monster I wanted, who was really good, but nobody knew it.”
While this is true the Hulk shares a number of traits of the mythological Hercules. The Hulk was immensely powerful, the angrier he got, the more powerful he became; while Hercules was described as the earth’s strongest man.
The Hulk’s primary characteristic was rage. Hercules also suffered from abrupt fits of rage. Without realising the harm he was doing, innocent bystanders were often harmed as a result of his rage. When he was still a youth and before he was fully aware of his strength, Hercules bashed his music tutor, Linus, over the head with a lyre, killing him.
Later, when he was married to Megara, he killed his wife and children. While anger was a central feature of Hercules’ character, this act was contributed to by an enchantment placed upon him by Hera, continuing her campaign of vengeance against Zeus’ illegitimate children.
When his anger had subsided Hercules was always repentant and prepared to accept being punished for his misdeeds. To make up for the deaths of his family Hercules agreed to attempt the tasks set by King Eurystheus which became the Twelve Labours of Hercules.
The Hulk alternated between his persona as the withdrawn Bruce Banner and his monster guise which was brought on by strong emotions such as rage and fear. A profile on Marvel.com gives details on Banner’s childhood which has some bearing on his transformation as an adult. According to this profile, Banner was physically abused by an alcoholic father who murdered his mother when she stepped in to prevent the abuse.
This led to his withdrawn personality and it is suggested he may have developed a split personality to subconsciously cope with his hopeless feelings of rage. When affected by gamma radiation this split personality became massively magnified.
The Submariner, Aquaman and King Neptune
Prince Namor (the Submariner) at Marvel takes on many of the attributes of Poseidon, the Greek god of the sea. DC Comics have a similar character called Aquaman. Both were linked to the lost civilization of Atlantis and both first appeared in the Golden Age of Comics. The Submariner debuted in comic form in October 1939 (Marvel Comics #1) while Aquaman debuted in More Fun Comics #73 which went on sale in November 1941.
According to the Submariner’s origin story he was the mutant result of a union between a human sea captain and a princess from the mythical undersea kingdom of Atlantis. At various times the Submariner went into battle against the people who lived on the land for the wrongs they had done against those who lived under the sea. When he did this he was able to command a multitude of sea creatures like a god of the sea or a modern day King Neptune.
Aquaman’s father was an undersea explorer who discovered the lost city of Atlantis. In his earliest stories Aquaman had the ability to talk to the creatures of the sea in their own language like an underwater Dr. Doolittle. In later stories he was depicted with the ability to communicate telepathically with the creatures of the sea.
Achilles Heel: Feature of Modern Superheroes
Many heroes of ancient mythology possessed a weakness, sometimes a fatal weakness. Achilles is the most famous example leading to the modern term, Achilles heel. Dipped in a magical river by his mother he was made invulnerable to all weapons. Arrows and spears simply bounced off him apart from a small part of his heel where he was held by his mother when dipped in the water.
Achilles was the greatest warrior on the Greek side in the Trojan War but was finally killed when struck on his heel. Other mythological heroes with weaknesses include Samson, who lost his strength when his hair was cut and Hercules with his uncontrollable temper.
Comic book creators have drawn on this element of mythology to create dramatic tension. Realising that a hero who wins too easily is not as interesting as a hero who battles against the odds, the creators of Superman left him vulnerable to kryptonite, a rock from his destroyed home planet. In the movie Superman Returns he is beaten to a pulp while weakened by kryptonite while in most episodes of Smallville the young Clark Kent seems to have an encounter with the green ore.
Even Wonder Woman was made helpless under the influence of chloroform. Aquaman had a logical Achilles heel. If he went for more than an hour without touching water in some way he would die. Other weaknesses of superheroes appear to have no logic; for instance Green Lantern’s weakness was the colour yellow.
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Author: Stuart McCulloch