Monday, January 7, 2008

The Stuff Heroes Are Made Of

"I based Superman on Samson and Hercules and every other strong man I ever heard of." ~ Jerry Seigel

"Not even girls want to be girls so long as our feminine archetype lacks force, strength, and power... The obvious remedy is to create a feminine character with all the strength of Superman plus all the allure of a good and beautiful woman." ~Dr William Moulton Marsten

“As far as I am concerned, the first episode of Buffy was the beginning of my career. It was the first time I told a story from start to finish the way I wanted.” ~ Joss Whedon

Last time we discussed how stories affect people's lives. The modern mythmakers' lives affect their stories, too, in telling ways.

Superman was created by two young men in high school, Jerry Seigel and Joe Shuster. Seigel was a glasses-wearing mild mannered reporter on the school newspaper. Shuster was a muscular body builder. Seigel had a crush on a girl reporter for the same paper, and her name was Lois.

There were more personal factors that shaped the Man of Steel. Both young men were sons of immigrants, so Superman was the ultimate immigrant - from another planet. His survival of dying Krypton relected the life-out-of-death motif of ancient myths. The drawings of his tiny ship issuing from the exploding planet and plunging into the round Earth where he is nutured to manhood are symbolic of seed fertilizing womb. At the same time they reflected the reality of a European homeland dying in the toils of war.

Krypton was a perfect world, a heaven in the skies. The family suffix of Superman's father Jor-el and his own Kryptonian name Kal-el sound almost angelic, like Gabriel. "El" means "of God." As mentioned in my earlier blogs, Superman's origin echoes that of Moses. Cast adrift in a basket to save his life, Moses lived a "secret identity" among the Egyptians, keeping his god-given powers secret.

The Nazis who were ravaging Europe called themselves supermen. Seigel and Shuster's hero may have been a way of thumbing their nose at that conceit, like saying, "You're no better than us! We're all supermen under our hats and glasses."

Seigel's father was fatally shot in a robbery, so the idea of a bulletproof man must have been a powerful one to him. It may also have inspired Superman's crime fighting career.

Other powers such as flying, super-speed, and x-ray vision were added later. The original Superman was simply a super-powerful man who could "only" outrun a train and leap tall buildings in a single bound. A bomb could penetrate his skin. Flying was added in the cartoons and radio series for dramatic effect, and his powers were upgraded over the years until he could survive at the sun's core and demolish whole solar systems.

Superman's opposite, Batman, was literally created by committee. Writers and artists like Bob Kane, Bill Finger and more threw in ideas from earlier iconic characters: Zorro, Robin Hood, The Bat, The Shadow, Sherlock Holmes, Craig Kennedy and Jack Armstrong (1). But they serendipitously created something more than the sum of its parts. Batman was a powerful symbol of Jungian psychology.

Bruce Wayne, living in a respectable mansion and donor to deserving charities, represented the Conscious mind, the face we all present to the world. The Batman lived in the subconscious, the Bat Cave literally underneath that facade. He was the darker, aggresive Id.

The third in comics' archetypal triumverate, Wonder Woman, was created by a psychologist. Dr William Moulton Marsten(2) wanted a hero who used love and understanding instead of violence. His wife Elizabeth said, "Fine. But make her a woman."

Where Superman and Batman were based on harder, colder science and reason, Wonder Woman was magic. The Man of Steel and the Bat relied on strength and weapons. Wonder Woman used "loving submission" to bring peace to "Man's World." She was strong enough, granted at birth the power of Hercules, wisdom of Athena, speed of Mercury and beauty of Aphrodite by those selfsame gods. She was not immune to bullets, but skillful enough to bounce them off her bracelets; she didn't fly but she was graceful enough to ride the air currents.

Wonder Woman's Amazon culture was, of course, taken from Greek mythology, but it reflected Marsten's home life as well. He lived in a polyamorous relationship with two strong women, Elizabeth and Olive. It was Olive's silver bracelets that inspired the heroine's magic ones.

Marsten said, "Give them an alluring woman stronger than themselves to submit to, and they'll be proud to become her willing slaves!" and his characters, mostly her boy friend Steve Trevor, got tied up a lot, but his "loving submission" meant that he felt the key to peace was submission of the self to a wiser, loving authority for the good of society.

Other writers told stories of how they created their heroes, some of them doubtful. Gardner Fox saw a bird fly by and snatch a twig and turned it into Hawkman swooping down to catch criminals. Bill Everett fell overboard as a Merchant Marine and was pushed back up by a wave that felt like a hand lifting him: he created Sub-mariner, prince of the deep. Carl Burgos on a hot day felt like he was burning up and came up with the Human Torch. And some of our greatest modern myths were less nobly inspired, like Tarzan whose creator realized, " ...if people were paid for writing rot such as I read in some of those magazines that I could write stories just as rotten."

The movie "The Thing from Another World" was based on the sf story "Who Goes There?" by John W Campbell. Campbell was raised by his mother who loved him and her twin sister who despised him. He literally grew up not knowing if the person he was looking at was real or an evil alien shapeshifter that looked like her.

Mary Shelley attended medical demonstrations of electricity stimulating muscle movement in corpses, and wrote FRANKENSTEIN. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle based Sherlock Holmes on his deductive abilities of early forensics specialist Dr Joseph Bell. Doyle worked as Bell's clerk, transcribing his affairs as Dr Watson did Holmes'.

Joss Whedon didn't like the way women were portrayed as victims in slasher and horror movies, so he took a simple cliche and reversed it. "Blonde girl walks into alley and gets killed by monster" became "blonde girl walks into alley and kills monster." From there he unfolded a whole mythology of Slayers, Watchers, demons, vampires with souls, Powers That Be and hell dimensions. Buffy the Vampire Slayer has become the iconic role model for young women that Wonder Woman was. Whedon has said about one of Buffy's inspirations, Kitty Pryde of X-MEN, "She was an adolescent girl finding out she has great power and dealing with it," which pretty much sums up BUFFY. Last week's blog has an example of how that has inspired one person.

(1) Craig Kennedy solved crimes with science and inventions in fiction, and Jack Armstrong was a sports hero and adventurer, "The All American Boy" on radio.
(2) Marsten also invented the lie detector. It would be tempting to tie that in with Wonder Woman's magic lasso that made people tell the truth, but that was a revision for the tv series. Originally her lasso just made people obey her.

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