Probably the single most idiotic - and, thankfully, almost totally devalued - idea to have sprung up around comic book superheroes over the past decades was the notion of "modern mythology": the idea that comic books were creating a series of myths that resonated with modern life in a similar fashion to how classical myth related to the classical world. Thankfully this idea isn't given much credence anymore, remaining the sole province of the prototypical Comic Book Geek with Cheeto-stained fingers who studied comparative mythology in college because Heracles and Thor were, y'know, prototypical super-heroes. Whether or not these people actually exist outside The Simpsons is besides the point: whatever value super-heroes and their stories may have has nothing to do with their "mythical" attributes, because the way super-hero stories are created, as commercial entertainment, has no relation to the process of how myths are created.
The idea goes a long way back, to the insecurity at the heart of every American comic book fan over the deep-rooted feelings of inferiority instilled not merely in the singular genre but the format itself, to the point where the pejorative reputation of the former infected the latter to a degree which has only recently been realized. People will always think up reasons to defend what they like from accusations of mediocrity. No one enjoys learning that what they really, really like is actually crap, and so a lot of mental energy is perpetually expended not only to defend the crap but to upend the entire notion of critical standards in such a way that they become perceived as absolutely meaningless. Admittedly, academia and the so-called "intelligensia" have done themselves the greatest disservice by essentially abdicating any meaningful role in cultural discourse. Most people don't have a lot of respect for modern art because the perception has permeated society that most modern art is a fraud, the modern art establishment is composed of phonies, and that anyone involved in either is a condescending boor. It's only a hop, skip and a jump to get from the current state of modern art to the notion that if the emperors have no clothes in regards to one particular subject, then they must be full of it in regards to the entirety of art. Hence, "I don't know art but I know what I like": the triumph of the subjective in the face of the failure of the establishment's objective.
(The worst aspect of this phenomena has to be the insular reaction of the art world to the rampant ignorance in American society. Honestly, the invention of conceptual art really has opened the doors for a lot of really bad, or at least mediocre art, and don't the folks who run those museums and institutions which receive public funding know that things like an elephant-dung Virgin Mary are going to do the cause of modern art as a relevent cultural entity a great disservice? Confrontational exhibits only serve to turn people off to the entire notion of art, and to enrage cultural conservatives like Mary Cheney, who can lead politicians towards questioning the viability of public arts funding based on widespread discontent with the shenanigans of a few arch-cynical conceptualists. Of course, not one person in a thousand actually knows who Jasper Johns or Lee Bontecou are - which is more the shame.)
Of course, it all boils down to money. Art isn't popular because art doesn't sell, and art doesn't sell because it isn't popular.Whichever way you spin it, Art with a capital "A" just can't compete with crap, because crap has a tendency to cater to the worst preconceptions and preoccupations of its audience. Art has to entertain at least the possibility of upsetting the audience, or it can't make any sort of meaningful statement other than reaffirming the values of its audience. (Of course, all entertainment of any sort is technically "art", but it's pretty universally awknowledged, even by those who are ignorant of gradations, that "entertainment" and "fine art" are different in kind, if not in degree.)
Which brings us, by means of a rather elaborate cul-de-sac, to the latest Batman film, and the means by which Batman has gradually surpassed the significant metaphorical underpinnings of his origin to become, essentially, a contextless idea - a mythic shell which can be filled by succeeding generations of creators and audiences to fit their own notions. In his recent review of Batman Begins, Tom Spurgeon says:
The Batman "story" as much as I understand it seems to be about Bruce Wayne getting his shit together enough to start fighting a comic book version of "the good fight." The battles themselves are interesting primarily as spectacle, and verge upon outright dullness because the totality of Bruce Wayne's personality is oriented towards beating up things -- making for few personal places any conflict can safely echo. I could give a shit about what Batman looks like fighting the Joker or under what circumstances he would adopt a child and train it for combat. You keep going, and Batman ends up fighting super killer whale women, like in the last issue of a Batman comic I bought at a quarter bin.
Which is, unsurprisingly for Spurgeon, very much to the point: the most interesting things about Batman are not the extravagant adventures he experiences or the endless soap-opera shenanigans which continually rock the Caped Crusader's world, but the way in which the very basic metaphorical substance of his creation is refabricated and refitted over time - that is, there is nothing intrinsically interesting about Batman, and it's actually quite easy to make boring and pointless Batman comics, but occasionally the ideas can be made to resonate. Which brings us back to the notion of super heroes as myths. The idea is actually not as far-fetched as it may seem at first glance, but it requires something of a reorientation of perspective to see the value. The original conception of super heroes as myth - in terms that it has been reiterated throughout the theory's history - is ultimately self-serving, drawing a correlative value between the cultural weight of classical myth and the (deserved) dearth of respect accorded to super hero stories based simply on superficial similarities.
But myths were not created from a whole cloth as belief systems. Myths evolve and grow gradually out of a mixture of history, rumor, gossip, politics and propaganda. Similarly, the very concept of gods for the ancients was far more elastic and supple than anything which correlates in modern society. The problem with super hero comics is similar to the problem with conservative Christianity: literalism which refuses to accept the metaphorical underpinnings underneath basic concepts. I apologize if you read the Bible and believe every word as being absolute Truth: this is probably not the essay or blog for you. But then again, I wouldn't read too much history either, or you'd learn about how many books in the Bible were organized for political purposes, and some of them [like Revelations] were chosen on the basis of their metaphorical significance. The Left Behind books testify pretty convincingly that many Christians don't understand the meaning of "metaphor" (or the ravings of the mentally ill, but that's the topic of another, far more contentious essay).
By a similar token, by refusing to interpret Batman as anything other than a very literal translation of the accrued 65+ years of stories, the people in charge of DC Comics and the makers of Batman Begins are ultimately showing as little imagination as the most hide-bound Fundamentalist. Batman, like Superman and Spider-Man and many other iconic superheroes, is mythic not because the character carries any grand stature or inherent significance, but because, like the stories of ancient Greece and Rome, they reveal as much about their creators and audience as they do about the actual stories themselves. Batman is only as interesting as the last story he's in, which makes him a pretty boring character most of the time. This isn't a popular interpretation of super hero canon because it essentially negates the entire notion of continuity. Continuity, as the accrual of literal detail to create extended narrative structure, is the antithesis of depth. By building an ediface of complicated circumstance on top of a simple idea, the original meaning is eventually obscured to the point where, as Spurgeon says, Batman is fighting maniac shark women. Of course, I'm sure it makes sense in the context of the comic itself: there's a reason why things happen which proceed from previous stories. But then you're getting away from the very basic notion of why and who Batman is and most importantly, what he represents, and getting into weird sci-fi stuff like the difference between the Batmen of Earths 1 and 2, and who the Earth 2 Batman married and why the Huntress is no longer Batman's daughter after Crisis and yadda yadda yadda. It interests people in the same way that sports statistics do, and both kinds of data have essentially the same significance. Building your comics around continuity is like building your baseball coverage around statistics: it may be of prime interest the sabermetricans in the audience, but if stats are presenmted as anything more than a footnote people get bored waiting for, you know, someone to hit the damn ball and have some fun.
Which explains the overwhelming popularity of the Spider-Man films. True, I and other comics fans may not have responded to them because they upset specific notions about what I understood the character to be, but they obviously struck a big chord with the general public, in a lasting way that even the best action movies don't acheive. There is an idea at the heart of Spider-Man - it may be a simple idea, an occasionally misunderstood and diluted idea, but it is still there. What remains fascinating about the original Spider-Man comics by Lee & Ditko is how that idea is elaborated and commented upon - how Ditko's uniquely spooky art accentuated the amoral ambiguity asserted by Peter Parker's world and (conversely) the absolute utility of Peter's self-sacrificing. Once they start to deviate from that idea - which is the point at which the series becomes more about the adventures of Spider-Man than the idea behind being Spider-Man - the returns diminish at a rapid rate, until you have Spider-Man fighting the cloned children of a girlfriend whose been dead for thirty years and the maniacal offspring of an alien costume he picked up on an alien planet twenty years ago fighting in a super hero war. I used to look with disdain on the kind of cultural criticism that sought to put popular entertainment like, say, the Lord of the Rings movies or Star Wars or Spider-Man into proper context - and indeed, many of these approaches to the subject of pop cultural relevance are badly written or, if on the cover of Time or Rolling Stone, self-serving and ultimately apologetic to the economic media complex that spawned them. But most of the super heroes which have survived through the long decades have done so because - in addition to the fact that coprorations have perpetual trademarks to exploit - the ideas themselves have some sort of resonance. If that resonance is to be properly exploited, it cannot be obscured.
Perhaps this explains why Captain Marvel, despite his one-time enormous populairty, is no more than a footnote in modern continuity. The wish-fulfilment concept behind the character is so basic, so universal that really the only way you could screw it up would be to over-complicate the stories with exteraneous baggage - which is basically the only way they know how to make super hero comics anymore. The Ultimate books, especially the Spider-Man series, were successes because they recontextualized potent ideas in an effective way. But if they had really wanted to make an effective go of it, they would have needed to cancel every "normal" Marvel Universe Spider-Man title in order to make a clean break. And then they'd have to cancel Ultimate in a few years as well. Sure, it's essentially retelling the same stories over and over again, but that's how Batman evolved as well. And that's how the classical myths of old were created, through iterations of fact and history which became fantasy when they impacted with belief systems and then-contemporary modes of conduct.
It may not always be very flattering to realize that potent cultural objects are a reflection of our own best and worst impulses. Look at the Punisher: one of the most potent super heroes of the last thirty years. Is he a pleasant, or even tolerable character? No, he's a monster, a murderer and a sociopath. But look at the early Punisher stories, the first stories written in the mid-80s after the character had been brought back from limbo and made into a commercially-viable property. They're absolutely fascinating. Here's the 80s that we all carry in our racial memory from pop culture and exploitive news stories: random street crime on every corner, drug gangs tearing apart the fabric of society, terrorist threats at every turn. Everyone is either a target or a civilian, there is no gray area. We're out to get ours, and there are no moral or ethical restraints to concern ourselves with, its just raw will and violent expression of force that carries the day in a world gone mad. The ends always justify the means. Because of his primal nature (and because the character has a habit of, well, killing everyone), the Punisher resisted the accumulation of continuity for the longest time, but eventually it caught up with him, and the stories (and sales) went so deeply downhill that the character was persona non grata on comics racks for almost a decade. And then Garth Ennis very cannily brought him back, but whereas before he had been an unconscious reflection of the 80s ethos, now he was a purposeful satire of that very same mentality.
The Dark Knight Returns is without a doubt the most influential Batman story of the last 20 years. Why did it succeed so well? Because it was a compelling reinterpretation of the character which actually updated the ideological underpinnings in an interesting way. Look at 80s movies like Commando or Red Dawn and tell me that the Batman in Dark Knight, with its street-gangs and ineffectual liberals and communist paranoia, doesn't make for a compelling snapshot of the decade.
All the crap that accumulates around super heroes - the baggage, the continuity, the crossovers and the soap-operas - are good for perpetuating current trademarks but bad in terms of creating any lasting value - any extrinsic meaning - for the audience or franchise. Entertainment makes money because it refuses to challenge its audience, but by that same token, popular entertainment can be read backwards in order to glean just why and how the audience responds. Considering the degraded state of popular art in America and the world, it is probably (and ironically) the best and perhaps the only way to engage an audience on a mass scale. Super heroes are mythical creations, but their significance comes not from an appeal to the legitimate insight of past generations but their ability to resonate in a denuded public imagination. This resonance is built not on any specific application but the manipulation of a studied inspecificity.