“If you could have any super power in the whole world, what would it be?”
Children toss this hypothetical around a lot. As we get older, the answers seem to be tied to more than just personal interest. Responses are more and more creative as the person in the hot seat tries to solve as many daily struggles with one simple power. Of course, that power would be linked to many other related functions, but the core strength – what would that look like and why? It’s a pretty stressful task, committing to one power for all eternity in a make-believe world of hypotheticals.
Thanks to my Norwegian heritage, I’ve always been fascinated with mythology. Odin, Freyr, Loki – these are my mind-friends, and their plights and parables have raised the bar for powerful storytelling in my life. Once you’ve heard a few of these fables, you find that a story just isn’t a story unless the punishments are as impressive as being tied to a rock while a snake drips poison into your eye, and battles are sub-par unless the ramifications for losing include being sent to another world (note: there are nine in total). But the thing that has always struck me about these stories is that these super impressive gods and goddesses all lack super powers. Sure, there are gods of love and war and drinking and death – but each have multiple functions at their disposal. Just like regular life, some of the characters are strong, some are crafty and some are blindingly-beautiful. The abilities and intricate relationships among these gods and goddesses are really quite human; and yet the notable thing that distinguishes the deities from the common man isn’t in their ability to climb up buildings or fly or breathe under water. It’s their ability to be (and believe in) the extraordinary.
They aren’t arbiters of good and evil. They have vendettas, and they drink and have sport-sex and form alliances and wage wars just like humans. They live their life seeing only their perspective (barring a trip to their local oracle) and react to treachery or blessings or change as they see fit. And, often, their reactions are very telling of the society upholding the myth that sustains them. Familial quarrels, decade-long wars and torrid love affairs are all painted with colours contingent on the culture selecting them. Some of these differences are slight (i.e. the transition of mythological gods from Greek to Roman culture), and some are significant, but they all deal with issues facing that particular society – and the lessons are far from limiting.
But if those stories said so much about the societies of the time, I worry about what stories like Batman and Spiderman are saying about us. As someone who loves comic books, it pains me to say this, but the heroes we seem to embrace are pretty weak. It’s something about the way that we cling to good and evil as if it’s the only thing that matters – a dichotomous view of the world that seems to comfort people but is really pretty myopic. In the North American tradition of comic books (which have now been embraced by hollywood), it’s almost as if good and evil is made clearer through the eyes of a mask – a mask that we mold to suit our own goals and opinions. We’ve become so uncomfortable with the indeterminate nature of life, that we’ve created these extreme versions of humans and given them the ability to determine right from wrong. Even Superman – the comic book figure which has arguably embraced classic mythology the most – doesn’t have enough struggle to him. The reader is never conflicted about whether or not Superman will do the right thing. He might fall from grace for a bit, but at the end of the day we find comfort in the fact that he’s still Superman.
But comfort is not always compelling, and this right/wrong model is not something you’ll find in every modern culture. If you read Dragon Ball Z, for example, Goku and his friends (and even his foes) wrestle with evil in a way that is more about sentimental attachment than what is actually good or bad. Characters die, have battles on other metaphysical planes, return to earth, visit and re-visit enemies, and all the while the reader is encouraged to ask questions and therefore compelled to turn the page. The comic book’s ability to embrace mythology in such a unique way demonstrates that North America’s limited perspective says more about our culture than the medium. It also makes me all the more thankful for magical minds like that of Neil Gaiman.
Again, I’m passionate about this subject and will probably revisit it again, so I’ll wrap this up with one last thought. I’m reading Kafka on the Shore by Murakami right now, and one of the things he references early on in the book is Plato’s Symposium. The characters discuss the myth that, in the beginning, there were three different kinds of people – men/men, women/men and women/women – but then god got angry, and took a knife and cut everyone in half. This is offered as an explanation for why people spend their whole lives looking for their other half – why we’re all looking for different people, and why we all get lonely sometimes.
I’ll take this explanation for love over being rescued by a masked-man any day. The former is charming; the latter is limiting. At the end of the day, there’s just something constricting about capes…