Comic Book Curious

Gods Up For Grabs

July 30, 2021

It is often opined by folks being either pseudo-intellectual or snarky (or both) that the comic book superheroes are our society’s new mythology. Well, A) that’s dumb and B) get over yourselves. While readers around the world have thrilled to the four-color adventures of a heavenly multitude of superpeople for nearly a century now, the line between popular fiction and religious faith (with very few exceptions - and most of those involve emotional or intellectual irregularities) is a clear one. What we refer to as “mythology” is the collective remnant of old faiths; the gods that were worshipped, the stories of their workings, the adventures of the heroes who served and/or ran afoul of them. Though certainly passed down through the ages in forms artistic or entertaining, these “myths” were originally beliefs, scripture explaining the shaping and meaning of the world and the cosmos, lessons for how to properly live under these deities’ demanding rule. That kind of import can’t be ascribed to a kid reading a copy of Teen Titans Go!

If you’re wondering where I’m going with this (like my editor, for instance, who called me after that opening paragraph to ask me if I was “all right”), my thoughts turned to this subject while I was writing my previous column on Loki. The idea that actual gods - figures that were prayed to, sacrificed to, believed in centuries ago - have become fodder for fiction, many even ending up in comic books or a show on Disney+ is kind of amazing. I thought it might be fun to look at how the “old gods” found new work in the pages of our comics.

Greek gods on book cover

Credit: Bulfinch's Mythology, 1855

It could be argued that the “celebrities” of the mythological world, especially in the West, are the Greco-Roman pantheon. Zeus, Apollo, Poseidon, Aphrodite, Mars, Athena, et al - these guys were never hurting for gigs. Maybe their influence is still felt because of how enormous and widespread the Roman Empire once was, or because their stories are ever so slightly more relatable than the sheer craziness of, say, the Egyptian gods, but, whatever the reason, most of us grew up at least passingly familiar with these and that’s a fact that the creators of the superhero comics have counted on from the very beginning.

The Golden Age comics boom meant that those underpaid, largely unacknowledged and legally unrepresented hacks and geniuses alike were cranking out product at a fever pitch. No trope or trend from Superman on was sacred, copycats and blatant rip-offs abounded and no possible super-gimmick was deemed too similar or too silly. It’s only natural then, as the genre was a-borning, that the early creators turned to pulp or even literary sources of inspiration - and, of course, there were the ancient gods of myth. They’re the very definition of “public domain” and, I mean, they were just sitting there! It’s not like anybody else was using them!

Page of Wonder Woman origin comic with Greek goddesses

Credit: DC Comics

The absolute poster child of such mythic inspiration is Wonder Woman whose co-creator (along with his creative and romantic partners Elizabeth Holloway Marston and Olive Byrne) William Moulton Marston was a lifelong student of Greco-Roman history and mythology. Setting out to give young female readers their own distaff Superman, Marston eschewed the “alien Moses” riff of Siegel and Shuster and went full Bulfinch instead. Princess Diana was sculpted out of clay by the immortal but childless queen of the Amazons ,Hippolyta, and gifted life by the Olympian goddesses. This was later made even more explicit by stating that she had received specific gifts from them: beauty from Aphrodite, wisdom from Athena, great strength from Demeter and speed from Hermès (wait, how did he get in here?).

Two panels of Shazam origin story.

Credit: Fawcett Comics/DC Comics

If this kind of divine smorgasbord sounds familiar, then you’re clearly a fan of the original Captain Marvel (not “Shazam,” Shazam is the wizard and the magic word, and this is a hill that I’m prepared to die on, DC legal. Bring it!). The Big Red Cheese debuted in 1939 in the Fawcett Comics title Whiz Comics #2, hot on the heels of Superman - a character he actually outsold for a stretch which made National Periodicals (later renamed DC) worried enough to seek legal action. It was a whole big thing and the fact that Captain Marvel has been a part of the DC Universe since 1972 should give you a pretty good idea how that turned out. But, anyhoo, back on topic, mythology is baked into this classic hero’s DNA. The ancient wizard who gives young Billy Batson the power of Captain Marvel does so through a magic word (his name, natch) that is derived from Greco-Roman gods, titans, and demigods and then, right at the top of the list, a Judeo-Christian prophet-king. Huh? “Shazam,” the word, grants Billy the wisdom of Solomon (I guess Mount Olympus doesn’t have any smart guys with names beginning with “S”?), the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus, the courage of Achilles, and the speed of Mercury. Quite a stew! And, later on in his saga, we discover that the wizard Shazam tried this schtick before, back in ancient Egypt, with a guy named Teth-Adam. That time around, the powers called upon were those of the Egyptian pantheon of gods, so “Shazam” granted Adam the stamina of Shu, the swiftness of Heru, the strength of Amon, the wisdom of Zehuti, the power of Aton, and the courage of Mehen. But Adam used those powers wrongly and became known as Black Adam, villain or anti-hero (depending on the writer) of the Marvel Family and soon, embodied by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, to be gracing film screens near you. Stay tuned, folks who keep hoping Warner Brothers will knock a DC flick out of the park!

For the record, although not as represented as their Greco-Roman counterparts, vague, pseudo-mythological power from the Egyptian gods were responsible for the powers of the second iteration of Blue Beetle (in his pre-DC Charlton Comics era), DC’s Metamorpho, and Dr. Fate. Marvel’s Moon Knight owes his lunar awesomeness to the Egyptian god of the moon Khonshu. But if it’s a comics-level deep dive into the Egyptian pantheon you’re looking for, I don’t think you can top the single issue of Alan Moore’s infamous and incomplete 1963 Image Comics miniseries (published in 1993, not to confuse you) devoted to Horus, Lord of Light - an Egypt-centric pastiche of Marvel’s Silver Age Thor comics. Sadly, due to “issues” personal, professional and legal, those books have never been reprinted, so, quick! To the back issue boxes at your LCS*!

Cover of Horus Lord of Light.

Credit: Image Comics

Speaking of Thor (which I did to some degree in my previous column), I have to admire that Jack Kirby pitched the ostensibly more obscure Norse pantheon of gods (and one particular god of thunder) to Stan Lee as a viable subject for a superhero book. As unlikely as that bunch is, with their wintery tales of World Trees, Frost Giants, Norns, valkyries, rainbow bridges and endless flagons of mead - not to mention a crazy downer of an ending built right into their story - Thor and his fellow Asgardians became a huge hit with comics readers. Not to the point of kickstarting the old Norse religion, but definitely boosting the future fortunes of the Hemsworth and Hiddleston families and sales of plastic Mjolnirs.

Marvel has also not been shy about dipping into the Greco-Roman pool that DC has, perhaps, cornered the market on. The House of Ideas actually turned Venus into a sort-of superheroine in the 1950s, but pretty much left the Olympian hierarchy alone. Instead, they doubled down on a very famous demigod. Hercules (the Prince of Power) arrived on the scene in 1965 to face off, naturally, against Thor. But this wasn’t a one-shot appearance as the audacity and arrogance of this character were refreshing and soon he was cast in a more heroic light and decided to stick around in our modern world. Not just stick around but become an Avenger, a founding Champion, and, eventually, even a Guardian of the Galaxy. Given that Hercules’ own myths were based around his unimaginable strength, there could have hardly been a more natural “second career” for Herc than as a superhero.

Without turning this survey into a Wikipedia article or listicle, there have been multiple superheroes and supervillains with ties to various Native American, Chinese, Japanese, African, and Pacific Islander pantheons but not any that have had the same impact as the examples I’ve listed here. Many gods of these less-widely-known pantheons have had walk-ons in big cosmic storylines of the Big Two. For instance, DC had a Wonder Woman focused multi-part crossover in the ‘90s called War of the Gods which featured multiple pantheons coming into conflict (don’t know if that title gave it away) and had appearances by African Yoruba god Shango and Babylonian ocean goddess Tiamat.

Cover of War of the Gods with Wonder Woman fighting Circe

Credit: DC Comics

Strangely, given their comics-ready aesthetic and fascinating stories, there have not been many (to my knowledge) long running heroes (or villains) based on the Hindu pantheon. While many publishers of superhero books with a mythological basis have included “cameos” of Brahma, Shiva, Vishnu and Ganesha, the tales of the Mahabharata have not, so far, been mined for the funny books. (And, no, DC’s Deadman doesn’t count because the Hindu goddess he works for - Rama Kushna - was totes made-up by writer Arnold Drake.)

But who knows what’s coming down the pike? Maybe any old deity is fair game for the superhero set. Comics creators are a ravenous lot, absorbing concepts, archetypes, folklore and fiction from any possible source and using it all, consciously or subconsciously, in the forging of something new and unique but, on a Jungian, Joseph Campbellian level, familiar. Sometimes the gods and heroes and fairytale figures are name-checked and taken at face value (if tweaked), whether in Bill Willingham’s Fables, Mike Mignola’s Hellboy and B.P.R.D. and Neil Gaiman’s everything (but Sandman particularly). And sometimes a creator comes along, inspired by the old gods but not beholden to them, who strips away the centuries of accumulated specifics to get to the core of that divinity’s concept and then reshapes them into brand new, full color gods. You could say that Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster unwittingly did just that back in 1938 and you could definitely say that Jack Kirby quite knowingly did that when he left Thor behind to come to DC in 1971 with a head full of his own pantheon. Their stories would be called The Fourth World Saga, and those characters would collectively be known as the New Gods.

wide group shot of Kirby’s New Gods

Credit: DC Comics

And we come back to that. Our superheroes are sources of entertainment and, perhaps, inspiration - possibly even moral education. But they’re unlikely to be the basis of religious faith anytime soon. For one thing, unlike Zeus or Odin or Ra, they are corporately owned intellectual properties** whose stories have not been handed down by mystically attuned prophets or bards, but tapped-out on laptops by over-caffeinated writers with ever-looming deadlines and dreams of a series pickup from Netflix. But that makes them no less magical in my eyes. It takes true creative inspiration to work the same mythic clay that has formed the same basic shapes of heroes and gods that every culture on Earth has known by one name or another, and, somehow, sculpt a bright, new story. A story that might one day be considered (by folks being either pseudo-intellectual or snarky) a myth.

*That’s “local comic shop,” obvi. Support ‘em and tell ‘em your old friend Jones sent ya!

**That said, if anybody decides to open a First Kryptonian Church of Rao, I will gladly join.

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