The Genesis of the Hero Mythology in a Historical Context

The Genesis of the Hero Mythology in a Historical Context
© Photograph by Babrus khan

For decades, young Americans have looked to the world of comic book superheroes for a sense of justice. Since the 1930s the mythos of comic book superheroes has pervaded adolescents’ sense of crime, justice and order.

Whether it was through the weekly dose of comic book reading or, more contemporarily, through television and movie viewing, youths in America have been fixated on “superheroes” and their battles for justice: good versus evil, right versus wrong.

What do they learn about justice from these superheroes and the worlds they inhabit? What “perspective” are they gaining from such mythologies? These are the questions that this article, through an analysis of the portrayal of crime and justice in the stories of comic book superheroes, attempts to answer.

Through analyses of two of the earliest comic book superheroes, Superman and Batman, and the worlds they inhabit, this article examines the message that superhero mythologies transmit concerning the social phenomena of crime and justice in America. Superman and Batman were selected for analysis for two primary reasons: first, they are two of the most consistently popular and pervasive comic book superheroes ever created, and secondly, despite their similarities, each character offers a unique perspective by which to examine the superhero mythos within American culture.

Dating back to the late 1930s, titles featuring both Superman and Batman have persistently been among the top selling comic books (Wright, 2001). In the early 1940s, Superman reached a circulation of over 1,250,000 per month (Wright, 2001); Batman was not far behind with sales figures that ranked second only to Superman and Action [End page 96] Comics, which featured Superman (Goulart, 2001).

Over a span of more than 60 years, the popularity of Superman and Batman comic books has not waned (Wright, 2001). In fact, an examination of the current top 50 solicited comic book titles for January of 2003 demonstrates the ongoing popularity of both Batman and Superman.

According to Wizard: The Comics Magazine, of the 50 top selling comic books for January 2003, 14% feature Batman and/or Superman (Top 50, 2003). In fact, of the core titles, Batman currently ranks number 1, and ‘The Adventures of Superman’ (formerly, Superman) ranks 48th (Top 50, 2003). Add to this the apparent transition of both superheroes into many other forms of media such as television, film, books, and video games, and there is little question that both Batman and Superman have permeated popular culture in America and that their images pervade the consciousness of many.

In addition to the ubiquity and popularity of these two superheroes and their associated mythologies, we are presented with two similar but in many ways divergent perspectives of the superhero mythos in popular culture. By examining Batman and Superman, we are offered the unique opportunity to analyse two of the first iconic superheroes that were developed within similar historical and social contexts but who represent diverging aspects of American culture and, importantly, two different perspectives on the nature of crime and justice in America.

The article begins with a brief discussion of the historical context in which Superman and Batman and their stories were developed. The genesis and backgrounds of Superman and Batman are then examined — who they are, how they came to be superheroes, and what motivated them to become crime-fighters. This is followed by an assessment of the social context within which each superhero operates — the social structure of their society — specifically focusing on the worlds they inhabit.

Next, the crime and the criminals that are pitted against the superheroes are analysed. Subsequently, the crime-fighting superheroes themselves, and, specifically, their responses to such crime and criminals are examined. Finally, the “perspectives” of crime and justice represented in these superhero mythologies are considered, drawing comparisons with some of the dominant perspectives in the field of criminology and criminal justice. The article concludes with a discussion of what the comic book superhero mythos says about crime and justice in American society.

Any examination of the impact and enduring influence of Superman and Batman must consider the historical context which gave them life. Both products of the 1930s, their origins and subsequent mythologies owe much to the American cultural landscape following the Great Depression (Goulart, 2001).

Movies, serials, and radio programs offered an escape from the memories and lingering effects of the Depression and quickly became popular forms of fantasy entertainment. As a cheap and easily accessible medium, comic books offered an especially attractive form of escapist fantasy for youth.

Furthermore, with the passing of the Depression came a reluctant optimism that the worst was over and America’s best times were yet to come. Public works projects moved mountains, changed the flow of mighty rivers, and raised buildings that tickled the clouds. In many ways, it seemed as if anything was possible for Americans. At the same time, however, the Depression shattered the fantasy of America’s invulnerability, and with this Americans awoke to a new cultural landscape characterised by the realities of urban decay, poverty, and crime.

These two heroes epitomise this apparent cultural paradox in distinct ways that have been constructed through their respective mythologies. With his immigrant beginnings, patriotic red and blue costume, almost unlimited superpowers, and unwavering commitment to “truth, justice, and the American way” Superman represents the hope and idealism of post-Depression America.

Batman, however, offers a much more realistic construction. Born of violence, Batman adopts the mantle of the bat to strike fear into street criminals like the one who murdered his parents. His dark grey and black costume, his reliance on technology, and his willingness to resort to violence to accomplish his ends suggest that the new face of crime in post-Depression America necessitates a more retributive, street-level form of justice.

By adhering to common themes of the hero mythology while offering distinct interpretations of American culture and the nature of crime in the wake of the Great Depression, Superman and Batman, respectively, epitomise both the idealism of justice and the realism of urban crime.

Although both Superman and Batman have evolved along with the American cultural landscape over their more than 60 years of existence, their central characterisations have remained largely intact; and, both have remained rooted firmly in the times in which they were created — post-Depression America.

No two names are more synonymous with comic book crime-fighters than Superman and Batman. Virtually every American can recall some image of these two superheroes, diligently fighting crime and preserving American justice.

Indeed, Superman and Batman were thrust into the popular culture limelight in the late 1930s, almost immediately becoming pop icons. Through stories of Superman and Batman, the world was introduced to larger than life crime-fighters that would be the prototypes for a genre that would grow and thrive in the decades to come — comic book superhero stories.

Since their inception, Superman and Batman have pervaded popular culture (Goulart, 2001; Wright, 2001). Through television and film, these superheroes are as significant today as they have ever been. But who are these crime-fighting superheroes? Where did they come from and how did they become such powerful superheroes?

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