When Folktales Meets Contemporary Comic Books

When Folktales Meets Contemporary Comic Book
Copyright © Illustration by Brian Soriano

In attempting to explain the inexplicable, in striving to control phenomena over which there is no control, in the search for means of expression, humankind has sublimated the mysteries of the world by turning them into metaphors. Art is a metaphor for life: to create art is a way to apply “one kind of thing, quality or action […] to another, in the form of an identity instead of comparison1.” In all forms of art, the receptive party is expected to ignore that one is looking at canvas, figured movement, or coloured light thrown on a screen without “purpose,” and to temporarily believe that what one appreciates is real, that it is life. Moreover, what is a more common trope for describing this than to say that “art reflects life?”

An art form, literature obviously reflects life, making use of the store of human experiences and beliefs through all our millennia of living. The use of folklore, cultural motifs and vocabulary is a popular and immediate way in which this is accomplished. The study of the use of traditional folklore and contemporary or popular motifs in literature is not only an exercise in the cultural study, but it is also a means by which to isolate and identify the crucial elements and telling ways in which society takes and makes use of these millennia of human experiences.

As Alan Dundes pointed out in 1965, there is, however, commonly a dichotomy between folklorists dealing with literature and those dealing with culture2. Because the study of folklore in literature is essentially the study of folklore in culture, we cannot be content with merely identifying elements of the folkloric in texts, isolating the familiar and not-so-familiar motifs and themes, and inquiring into the role they play beyond enriching narrative and providing local colour. We must move beyond and question; why these particular patterns, why these clinging beliefs, why this fascination, and what does it all mean?

The comic book, that uniquely twentieth-century manifestation of popular literature that is swiftly becoming a legitimate and independent form of both literary and pictorial art, is an exciting and useful literary form that lends itself well to such a study. As a uniquely twentieth-century manifestation, it also reveals a uniquely twentieth-century version of the blending and melding of human experience and tradition in a literary form3. The use of folklore in comic books can range from wholesale reproductions to imaginative variations and alterations of well-known folk narratives, from the subtle inclusion of motifs, references, and particularly, folk beliefs, in story-lines and characterizations, to the blatant reintroduction of stock folkloric characters4. While comic book writers create their own histories, heroes, villains, and legends, in doing so they borrow themes and ideas current in traditional and contemporary folklore and folk religion. They depend upon folklore and folklore theory for the development of their narratives.

Previous academic works about comic books have failed to acknowledge the importance and meaning of their pervasive use of folklore. As P. G. Brewster stated in 1950, “Whether the artists who draw our comic strips have turned to folklore research or whether they are merely adopting and adapting folk materials that have long been and still are in oral circulation are questions which need not concern us5.” This is, however, exactly what does concern us. The extent to which writers and illustrators of popular comics draw upon and consciously research this material is not only paramount to our understanding of both this contemporary literary genre but, most significantly, what the popularity of certain folkloric elements in comics reveals about the readers of this genre and about our society in general.

An analysis of three series published by DC Comics in the early 1990s (Swamp Thing, Sandman and Hellblazer) reveals a heavy dependence on traditional folk beliefs in the central story-lines and characterization, as well as in illustration and incidental dialogue. The writers of these series do more than merely borrow ideas from culture or from one another, or employ stock motifs and themes in their narratives; they often incorporate themes from folklore and tradition wholesale and unaltered6. By examining the use of traditional and contemporary folklore in these serials it is possible to see not only the extent and manner to which folklore is utilized but also how widespread certain folk vocabulary and beliefs are in the contemporary period.

The contemporary writers of comic books are successful in their use of folklore and in the commercial sense because they are not alone as they draw upon their vast reservoir of tradition. The use of folklore in popular literature provides an arena where reader connects with the writer. Here they can experience together with a sense of community through shared beliefs and history, thereby creating a community of the comic world. Familiarity with this community creates a particularly strong feeling of membership in a culturally specific reference group and feelings of shared knowledge and empowerment as participants in a moving and continuous history. The writers are themselves part of the “comic” literature community. They respond and intertwine their works with those of other writers, expecting their readers to “keep up” and follow the pattern of the larger community and narrative. This assumes, and rightly so that their readers are fairly well informed about current events and the comic world, as well as mythical and legendary history.

The most fascinating of these traditional inclusions and incorporation is the presence and use of various folk beliefs with related themes and characterisations. The repetition and inevitability of these elements, often with heroic and supernatural resonance, adds the unusual, the magical, and a sense of the otherworldly to an existence that is often otherwise mundane. In Swamp Thing, Sandman, and Hellblazer, traditional lore and belief are critical to the development and continuation of the narrative and are the basis of character development and presentation. All three series are considered “horror” stories and are marketed under DC Comics “Vertigo” line that is “Suggested for Mature Readers”; each serial has as its protagonist a character who is introspective, concerned with exploring his identity or atoning for past mistakes. In this, these less “popular” serials closely resemble the Batman of the 1980s, who was at the time far more concerned with putting to rest personal ghosts than were other mainstream “superheroes7.” This characterisation has become common in action comic series, perhaps an indication that members of the general population are also questioning their own identities and roles8.

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1.
Meyer Howard Abrams, ‘A Glossary of Literary Terms, ‘4th ed. (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1981), 63.
2.
Alan Dundes, ‘The Study of Folklore in Literature and Culture: Identification and Interpretation,’ The Journal of American Folklore 78(307): 136-142, 1965, 136.
3.
The artwork in these “mature suspense” comics is worthy of study alone. The illustrations frequently convey meaning and narrative independent of the text or in unspoken conjunction with it.
4.
The appearance of Thomas the Rhymer and Baba Yaga (‘Books of Magic 3’), Loki (‘Sandman 28’), the legend of the parliament of rooks (‘Sandman 40’) or Solomon Grundy and the creation of a Golem (‘The Swamp Thing’ 11 and 12, first series) are examples. For a brief discussion of motifs in comic books see R. L. Baker, ‘Folklore Motifs in Comic Books of Superheroes,’ Bulletin of the Tennessee Folklore Society 41(1975): 170-174.
5.
P. G. Brewster, ’Folklore Invades the Comic Strips,’ Southern Folklore Quarterly 14 (1950): 97-102, 102. In contrast see, W. Leipziger, ‘Die Comics und die Marchen,’ Freundliches Begegnen 6 (1956): 7-10.
6.
For example, see Sandman Special 1 and the “retelling” of the Orpheus narrative; in Camelot 3000 the Arthurian court moves to the year 3,000 C.E.; the market scene in ‘The Books of Magic 2’ features cameo appearances of famous folkloric, literary, and historical figures. See also Sally K. Slocum and H. Alan Stewart, ‘Heroes in Four Colors: The Arthurian Legend in Comic Strips and Books,’ in ‘King Arthur Through the Ages II,’ edited by Valerie M. Lagorio and Mildred Leake Day (New York: Garland Publications, 1990).
7.
See Frank Miller’s work in the DC Comics series, ‘The Dark Knight Returns.’
8.
See Pamela Robin Brandt, ‘Infiltrating the Comics,’ Ms. (July/August 1991): 90-92; see also Peter Prescott with Ray Sawmill, ‘The Comic Book (Gulp!) Grows Up,’ Newsweek (18 January 1988): 70-71.
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