The Quantification of Mythology
How comics devolved into hero versus hero battles…
I love comics. I am not ashamed to admit it. Ever since I was a little kid, stories, particularly mythology, was one of those things I could never get enough of. My first introduction to mythology was the legends of Perseus.
What I remembered most importantly from that myth as a kid was Perseus killed the Gorgon and put her head in a bag.
The part that was interesting to me was all the things he did along the way. All the great people, and gods and magical items he would end up gathering and using. The great adventures he would partake of and how he would almost die but then didn’t.
And at the end of his journey, he returns home and exacts his revenge by using the very head of the Gorgon he could not look directly at, to turn everyone at his dinner table who had betrayed him to stone.
Perseus was the hero of this story. He killed monsters whether they be inhuman or inhumane. He was the son of a god, but was very mortal; he had feet of clay, he made mistakes, he learned lessons, and people who believed in him, they often died along the way.
This was the path of legendary heroes. They took up a cause, an idea, something they believed in, or they were driven to a cause through their own failings, their uncontrolled rage, the machinations of the gods they worshiped; whatever the reason, they ventured out into a world larger than they were and they tamed it or died in the attempt.
From the Greeks, I traveled to the North and discovered the Norse Gods. This was only after I realized the Roman gods were just recycled Greek gods. The Norse were not like the Greeks, they didn’t sit about plotting and scheming, they battled a variety of enemies, the magical Vanir, the giants of Jotenheim and one day, in the distant future, they would battle for their very existence at the end of days in an epic struggle called Ragnorak.
The Greek gods partied their immortal lives away. The Norse waged war until the end of time, surrounded by their enemies on all sides. I was hooked on gods and their travails.
I traveled around the world from my bedroom. Every trip to the library revealed to me another mythology, another series of societies, legends, lifestyles, dreams, spirit realms, and afterlives. I knew more about the dead of most societies than I did about their living. (I would rectify this as an adult, joining the military and traveling to all the places I read about in legends.)
After spending nearly five years reading about mythologies from all over the world, I was suddenly faced with a dilemma. Mythology, in the forms I was studying it in was limited to poems, eddas, and stories, told, retold and re-translated by different authors. But the stories never changed; more importantly, I soon discovered there were only more interpretations. No one was making new myths.
This was when I discovered comics. Yes, comic books. They had all the trappings of mythology, powerful heroes, terrible gods, villains of all shapes and sizes, some beautiful, others monstrous. Indeed, some of them were even wearing the guises of gods I thought I knew. Men with the powers of gods. Gods who dressed like men.
Unlike mythology, comics came out monthly. I would never have to worry about running out of myths again. And for at least thirty years, this was the truth. Comics had become in their own way a religion to their readers. They were a new mythology unlike anything ever seen before.
Thousands of storytellers, over decades, artists, writers, editors all weaving old ideas together in new ways with their new gods, creating the greatest panoply of mythological lore ever assembled.
And it was good.
Until the era of big data and computers came along.
The Number of the Beast
I can’t tell you exactly when comics changed from their lighter fare to a darker more adult tone. Wait, yes, I can.
In 1986, the DC Universe came to an end. DC Comics erased their previous histories of lighthearted but quantitatively challenged stories where heroes did almost anything from issue to issue without concern for canon continuity, historical accuracy or even reasonable thought. No, I am not making this up. Look at this particularly strange arc:
Yes, you saw those panels correctly. Superman drawn by the iconic Curt Swan is seen launching tiny Supermen from his hands when he lost his powers in Superman #125’s “Superman’s New Power!” from 1958. A story which like so many tales from that era, told a weird story, had a tidy ending, in this case, little Superman died and big Superman got all his powers back, the end.
The Silver Age (both DC and Marvel’s) were filled with stories whose underlying premises were let us say ridiculous to say the least. But comics were not taken as seriously then as they are now so this wasn’t technically a problem as long as people were happy and buying them.
But DC and later Marvel decided the burden of history was too much for their readers to bear (as well as the challenge of telling new stories whose structures were book-ended by tales such as this one or powers such as superventriloquism… Don’t ask.)
There was only one thing to do. Reboot the Universe. Pretend all of that stuff which happened during the Silver Age, good and bad, were apocryphal. They may have happened but have no bearing on the modern storytelling of the new comic era.
Yeah, that’s the ticket.
DC’s reboot tidied up their continuity, got rid of multiple versions of characters, deleted parallel timelines, sent famed versions of characters such as Kal-L, the original Golden Age Superman to the dustbin of history. Such a grand scheme, there was no chance it could fail. DC would be rid of the excess baggage of parallel universes, all of its stories could be reapplied to a single timeline, its heroes could share a single planet and there would be no further issues.
Fast forward thirty years and discover: DC has rebuilt their parallel universe, limiting it to fifty two parallel realms, populating different characters and different versions of characters on different Earths. So much for the great experiment in reducing complexity.
Crisis on Infinite Earths begat Infinite Crisis, which begat Flashpoint, which begat the New 52. DC’s attempts to reboot and retool its universe has led to an overall boredom with their heroes and products as they constantly revamp them hoping for the perfect combination of storytelling, artwork and editorial legerdemain which will lead to INCREASING popularity instead of increasing ennui with their product lines.
And while Marvel is riding high on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, their attempts at diversity on the written page ring hollow along their comic products with the Big Two taking in less and less on their gateway drug: comic books.
What can we attribute this to?
War of the Heroes
A need for quantification. A desire of fans to pit heroes against other heroes and the companies who pander to this lust.
While comics continue to have villains, the big money making stories appear to be the stories where heroes go rogue or are forced into fighting other heroes. Superman vs Spider-man, DC vs Marvel, the Amalgam Universe, Injustice: Gods Among Us, the early months of the New 52, Secret Wars, Secret Wars 2015, Civil War, Thunderbolts, etcetera, etc.
These dark stories of hero vs hero has become a staple of the event-driven, cross-over-addled comic writing universe.
Are companies wrong for indulging in this? Probably not from their perspective. You need to give the fans what they pay for and what they pay for is THIS:
Favored heroes, who rarely square off against each other, engage in pitched battles with high stakes and the fans eat it up, collecting the feats and comparing them in forums on ComicVine and Reddit, saving feats like baseball cards for the day when they hope to make and defend their own versus struggle forum post of Hero X vs Hero Y.
Fans (and by fans I mean fanatics in the most pejorative sense of the word) forget the origins of comics, as social metaphors, flights of fancy, and often allegorical tales. Comics were meant to provide an outlet from a world far darker and more challenging than the one comics depicted. Good and evil, right and wrong were easily distinguished and able to be vanquished in whatever the number of pages a story allowed in that day. Simple stories for a complex world.
Our more complex world today has not helped comics to tell better stories. Now fans want to know exactly how much weight a superhero can move, how fast he can run, how his physiology works, where in the galaxy a particular alien race lives. This is partially due to an increasing scientific awareness among fans (in some cases) promoted by the very comics affected by this growing trend of quantification of superheroic ability.
Fans have decided since the Internet exists and we can now track, scan and catalog feats (singular story events unrelated to any other event except by the name of the character in question) they have decided to create feat libraries, essentially databases of capabilities which can be compared to determine which heroes are subjectively better than other heroes, since heroes almost never fight each other full out with their capabilities set to maximum.
The failure of this ‘feat database’ is the underlying premise of such a mechanism. The stories told are NOT qualified, quantified, comparatively standardized to ensure every writer’s story has been made to share a definitive baseline. Editors rarely keep track of such things and fans have been known to be more aware of character histories than the people who publish them.
In some Thor stories, he is capable of taking on (and even occasionally) besting characters who should be OUTSIDE of even his prodigious weight class. But that is due more to the writing tone of the author and artist in question. In some stories, Thor is told as if he were indeed a mythic being. In other stories and eras, he is just as mortal and capable of failure as other Humans. In those worlds, he has trouble with characters such as Mongoose, who given that Thor HAS been shown to give the Silver Surfer pause, should have no problem with what amounts to a highly agile, speedster fighter.
Fans have to remember quantifying mythology does not make the quantifications equal because each writer tells his or her story based in the lore they are most interested in exploring, which could alter the baseline for the character, accepted by editors for the duration of the run and then often reset when a new writing team comes on board the title.
Walt Simonson’s Thor was an EPIC run but it made Thor so different from his other appearances in Avengers, you wonder if they are even the same character. Quantifying feats is a side-effect of a data-driven society which believes everything can be and should be quantified for increased believability.
The Quantification of Mythology isn’t likely to stop any time soon but I believe it has undermined the comic industry like a cancer when fans lose the ability to enjoy the stories for the entertainment value they provide rather than for their feat based comparisons which proliferate sites like ComicVine and Reddit where posters create long diatribes about why a particular feat is viable or not.
Unfortunately, with the underlying premise of the comic genre being based in mythology, such work usually fails to deliver because you are comparing different writers INTERPRETATIONS OF THOSE CHARACTERS, and thus the best you can come up with is a subjective viewpoint on whether a particular hero can defeat another. Writers and storytellers decide who wins a fight, not the statistics. When a writer wants a particular hero or villain to win, they do, statistics be damned.
Personally, I miss the days where comic stories were about good vs evil, law vs chaos, weal vs woe. When it became heroes vs heroes, there was a moment of fangasm and then the inexorable slide toward death.
I am happy to see the younger comic companies are figuring out a way to avoid this descent and telling stories less dependent on recombinant gimmicks and fanboy pandering. Comics have enough challenges. A lack of vision shouldn’t be one of them.
Thaddeus Howze is an award-winning essayist, author and journalist for websites having discriminating tastes in speculative fiction, non-fiction journalism and critical thinking.
Today he is still missing his cat.
If you like his work, consider donating to his Patreon. Skip one or two cups of coffee Starbuck’s overpriced coffee a month and send that to him via this Patreon link