Modern Myth: Spider-Man--Finding Society's Virtues in Our Popular Culture
Jordan Iacobucci, Dominican College
Abstract: In a world of incongruity, there is one thing it seems all can agree: this world is in dire need of heroes. Joseph Campbell, in his discussion the expansive subject of heroes, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949), makes the assertion that all heroes are at their core the same. Decades later, the heroes of today’s society have evolved greatly from Campbell’s day: The gods of societies past have been replaced with the superheroes of our age; but do the heroic principals remain the same? In this study, I would like to examine Campbell’s dissertation on heroes, applying it to one of our modern heroes: Spider-Man. I have selected this hero for three reasons: 1. Studying the superhero genre as a whole would prove too expansive for the purposes of the present project, 2. This character’s continued popularity after several decades in comics and other media makes him an excellent representative of the genre, and 3. His everyman quality has made him an easy character to relate to for average readers. Herein, readers will come to see that fans of Spider-Man as a character adore him partially because they see themselves in him and because of his (and, by extension, all superheroes’) links to the mythological foreground that established heroes in societal tradition. Using Campbell’s work as a through line, I intend to delve into the character of Spider-Man to answer these questions: what draws us to our modern heroes and why do we find them so appealing?
In his seminal work studying the mythologies of various cultures, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell made a wide-ranging proposition: in all of the many, many stories mankind has told himself since the dawn of time, all could be boiled down to the same hero’s journey. This book’s assertion shot Campbell to a level of superstardom in the literary field and caused his future work in mythological stories to be received with great excitement both by academics and the population in general. Rising to predominance after the publishing of this, his first book, Campbell continued his long and productive career in academics as an author and professor at Sarah Lawrence College. Taking notes from various mythologies, and more modern minds, notably psychoanalysts Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, Campbell’s dissertations on myth and society brought him much acclaim in his field. But it was his 6-part TV interview with journalist Bill Moyers that made him a household name, though it aired shortly after his death in 1988 and was only later transcribed in book form under the title The Power of Myth. (Brittanica.com) In the over twenty years after his death, Campbell’s work has remained ever pertinent, teaching his readers the universalities of mythology, but more: the way mythology built the social structure. Bill Moyers described Campbell’s approach to mythology in his introduction to the Power of Myth, written shortly after the professor’s death: “To [Campbell] mythology was ‘the song of the universe,’ ‘the music of the spheres’—the music we dance to even when we cannot name the tune” (xvi). Campbell’s worldview saw mythology as inherently being behind everything we do, driving our innermost selves, both conscious and subconscious. Yet in all this, one might be mistaken to believe that Campbell’s work was solely for the academic mind, for studies in only the purest of educated settings. This could not be farther from the truth. In fact, Campbell’s work proves more pertinent to the everyman than one might initially suspect. On the cover of The Power of Myth, a Newsweek testimonial states: “Campbell has become the rarest of intellectuals in American life: a serious thinker who has been embraced by the popular culture” (Moyers). It is in this vein that the present paper aims to operate: within the bridge of intellectual academics and popular culture. Using his writings as a starting point, this paper seeks to break down one facet of today’s popular culture in the same way that mythology is academically studied, both in how it shapes and is shaped by our culture.
For, if what Campbell says about myth is true, then it only stands to reason that mythology remains alive and active in the modern world. If these stories of gods and heroes are truly “the song of the universe,” then they have by no means passed away into history as so many may think. According to Campbell, myths are stories that “give you perspective on what’s happening to you,” and that help us “to try to come to terms with the world, to harmonize our lives with reality” (Moyers 2). When one begins to see myth less as the strictly archaic stories of civilizations long gone, and more as the outline of societal structure in every age, one will begin to see the world as Campbell does. Any story can become myth, so long as it resonates with the sociological, pedagogical, and functional values of its given society.
The present paper will examine a character of modern mythology by using Campbell’s ideas to read into something new, something dear to our popular culture: The Amazing Spider-Man. This character is a superhero also known by the name of Peter Parker, who first appeared in Marvel’s Amazing Fantasy #15 in August of 1962 (Dziak 1). After receiving a bite from a radioactive spider, Peter Parker began to exhibit that spider’s incredible abilities, becoming a super-powered crime fighter on the streets of New York City. Since his inception nearly 60 years ago, the character has appeared continuously and abundantly in modern pop culture. It is clear that Spiderman’s popularity has at the very least transcended medium and time. Is Spiderman an example of Campbell’s hero with a thousand faces?
The purpose of this paper is not to draw a straight line connecting the character of Spider-Man to a specific mythological hero or god. Rather, it is to first prove that he, and modern characters like him, do indeed fall into the category of mythological hero; secondly, with the knowledge that Spider-Man is indeed mythologized according to Campbellian principals, this paper aims to analyze certain aspects and themes of Spider-Man’s history to find the social mores and norms that are reflected therein.
Campbell and Finding Your Myth
The first responsibility of this paper is to define our social landscape in relation to myth. To do so, special attention must be given to Campbell’s lifelong study of the myths of ancient civilizations, which act as a guideway for what myth should be and how it should be translated. What purposes did myths serve from Campbell’s perspective? Who were the mythological heroes, according to Joseph Campbell: simply characters from stories dating back to millennia ago? or something more complicated than that? Definitively the best sources concerning what makes a myth in Campbell’s educated view are his seminal work, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, and his popular interview conducted by Bill Moyers entitled The Power of Myth. When one studies these sources, they will find that Campbell’s definition of a mythological hero exceeds mere existence within a mythological story—indeed, there is more to the equation.
To Campbell, the hero was an intense symbol of the deepest desires of humanity, whether recognized or unrecognized. He saw the myths through which they first appeared as extremely important to the discovery of oneself. “This is the final secret of myth,” Campbell tells Moyers, “to teach you how to penetrate the labyrinth of life in such a way that its spiritual values come through” (Moyers 143). Mythology, and every hero that emerges from it, is meant to decipher life’s meaning and put it into spiritual terms—terms that can be used to better oneself and one’s society. In the ancient societies, certain benchmarks in a youth’s development were often met with a corresponding myth meant to make the transition easier and more meaningful. Mythological stories may involve “the story of a child becoming a youth, or the awakening to a new world that opens at adolescence,” which would “help provide a model for handling this development” (Moyers 167). These stories contribute to the development of children into men and women. Campbell summarized this notion best: “there are proper myths for proper times of life. As you grow older, you need sturdier mythology” (168).
While the personal purposes for mythology are indeed important, they also serve as important sociological manifestos, often providing the social norms and mores that a given civilization was built upon. “The myths that link you to your social group, the tribal myths, affirm that you are an organ of a larger organism” (Moyers 90). These “tribal myths,” as Campbell refers to them, often delegate how one thinks, acts, and behaves in a given society. The myths were just stories, most did not occur in actuality, yet they represented the values of their civilization—what was taboo and what was acceptable.
Campbell believed strongly, and demonstrates in his research, that alhough stories of mythology and heroism have taken on many different forms across time and space, they remain the same at their core. His book The Hero with a Thousand Faces is built upon the notion that each mythological hero follows essentially the same journey from start to finish. Therefore, if myth remains generally consistent throughout time and geography, it stands to reason that the same remains true today, in our modern culture. Campbell supports this assertion in The Power of Myth, explaining that “the main motifs of the myths are the same, and they have always been the same” (28). He even goes so far as to wonder if going to movies to see stories played out has become modern society’s version of hearing heroic stories retold orally (102). If society’s reliance on myth to outline social values and personal growth remains ever the same as that of the ancients, then it simply becomes a matter of finding that modern myth in its various forms.
For the purposes of this paper then, a two-fold question must be asked: what is modern mythology and, based on the answer, who are that mythology’s heroes?
To find a modern mythology, Campbell gives a brief yet meaningful suggestion: “If you want to find your own mythology, the key is with what society do you associate? Every mythology has grown up in a certain society in a bounded field. Then they come into a collision and relationship, and they amalgamate, and you get a more complex mythology” (Moyers 28). The search process, then, is actually quite simple: to find one’s mythology, they must first look to their own society. For the purposes of the present paper, the sole society that will be focused on is that of the United States of America, though the revelations that can be made may prove universal.
The second step, then, is to find what archetypes persist in this given mythology of the modern United States. While there is no shortage of options, one must also delineate between momentary fads and actual staples of storytelling. As such, characters and stories from the recent film and book series The Hunger Games, for example, while popular for a period of years, are more representative of the modern fascination with dystopia than myth of and by itself. Instead, good myths, the best myths, are stories that seem to transcend mediums and times, remaining in the public interest for extended periods of time.
One such story that seems to have transcended all the noise of the busied storytelling world in recent days is that of the Superhero. First popularized in serials and later comic books dating back to the 40’s and 50’s, the genre was initially thought to be rather niche, and yet, seventy to eighty years later, the popularity of these heroes is at an all-time high. One need only to look at the box office numbers for worldwide releases of superhero movies over the last twenty years to see this effect. According to Box Office Mojo.com, 24 of the top 100 highest grossing films of all time are based on comic book superheroes, and every single one of those 24 was released since the turn-of-the-century. Two of these films, the last two Avengers installments, pulled in over $2 billion each, a feat that only five movies have ever accomplished in the history of cinema. Not only this, but the genre has strong presence in television as well as in literature, indeed originating from the latter.
Clearly, there is something that audiences have been drawn to in the modern superhero. With the recent films mentioned above, superheroes have become staples of public consciousness. Yet, focusing on the genre as a whole would prove, while enlightening, rather tedious. This genre is unique, however, in that, while it has become a type of modern myth itself, its individual characters have been mythologized themselves. For this reason, the current paper will focus on a single superhero, the Marvel Comics hero known as Spider-Man.
Spider-Man, also known as Peter Parker, is chosen for three essential reasons: 1. His long and storied history, which stretches back to 1962, provides the necessary examples needed to connect him to the mythological figures of the past; 2. over his nearly 60-year history, his popularity has been steadfast throughout various forms of media, elevating him to the possible status of a modern Hercules or Gilgamesh; and 3. though the superhero genre is very densely populated, Spider-Man appears to be one that people connect to personally and strive to emulate in one form or another, even if they cannot physically be a superpowered individual as he is.
A Hero of His Time
While having parallels to mythology is almost an inevitability with any given character, such comparisons alone cannot inherently make any hero mythological in nature. In order to truly stand the test of time and be remembered as an important facet in any given society, he must be a “hero of his time.” “Nevertheless,” Campbell writes, “in the multitude of myths and legends that have been preserved to us, or collected from the ends of the earth, we may yet see delineated something of our still human course” (Campbell 96). Essentially, one is meant to be shown something about their own human condition, about the world’s condition, when interacting with myth or similar stories.
Though the hero’s journey never truly changes, the times surely do. The myths of the modern-day must change as the times do. While different papers could potentially argue that the mythology of 16th and 17th century England was Shakespeare, or that the music of the Beatles became the myth of the 20th, it is no secret that different cultural phenomena define what its myth may look like, and vice versa. There is an essential give-and-take between the hero and their respective society throughout years and decades and, in some cases, centuries. A mythological hero is one that is able to ride the constant ebbs and flows of the societal layout without betraying what is most essential to his or her inmost character. This goes for superheroes just the same: “So somehow, the superhero—more than even the ordinary fictional hero—has to represent the values of the society that produces him. That means that what, say, Superman symbolizes changes over time” (Fingeroth 17).
In his decades-long history, Spider-Man has seen many different social movements and attitudes. The sixties, for example, are known to be a time for racial reform, with prominent figures like Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X fighting for equality. In the wake of this, issues of the character’s main title, The Amazing Spider-Man, and subsequent spinoff series, often included city-wide protests for racial equality within its stories, as well as putting a black man, Joe “Robbie” Robertson, in a prominent role at the newspaper The Daily Bugle. “Robbie Robertson clearly fits in with what seems to have been a genuine, conscious effort on the part of [Stan] Lee and his creative collaborators in the Sixties to increase the visibility of black characters in Marvel’s books — whether that be as costumed superheroes (e.g., the Black Panther), unnamed faces in crowd scenes, or non-powered supporting characters like Robbie” (Stewart 1). Small but meaningful inclusions such as this demonstrated the then-growing era of representation of black men and women in popular media. In these years, black characters were few and far between, and their inclusions may have seemed odd or even politically charged, but, when viewed from a modern lens, these Amazing Spider-Man stories can be seen as an early step in racial inclusion.
However, perhaps the most poignant example of Spider-Man’s connection to current events comes in the wake of one of the nation’s most significant tragedies. The terrorist attacks on September 11th, 2001 shook the United States, and the rest of the world, to the core. New York City, one of the busiest and most renowned symbols of the free world, as well as the iconic hometown of Spider-Man himself, had been stricken by foreign agents for the first time in history. And, in the horrors of that day, people found themselves looking for someone to turn to. Some may point to 2001 World Series, featuring New York’s own Yankees, as their source of light. Other may look to one of their favorite superheroes.
The December 2001 issue of The Amazing Spider-Man (volume 2) featured an interruption of the title’s ongoing storyline to comment on the events of the destruction of the World Trade Center. Written by J. Michael Straczynski, the issue reads in the form of a dramatic monologue in Spider-Man’s mind as he ponders the cruelty and horror he sees before him. As the hero helps people from the rubble, he assures them that he is there, that all the heroes of the world are there, with them: “We could not see it coming. We could not be here before it happened. We could not stop it. But we are here now. You cannot see us for the dust, but we are here. You cannot hear us for the cries, but we are here” (6-7). The issue goes on to condemn extremist views on either side of the spectrum, to encourage love and graciousness in the face of adversity.
In an interview with SYFY WIRE, the artists for this issue, John Romita Jr. and Scott Hanna, explained the emotions and motivations behind creating this story. They express that many, including themselves, worried they would be perceived as capitalizing on a tragedy, but that it was something they “had to address” (qtd. in Avila). Hanna also describes in detail receiving a request for copies of the issue to be sent to the counseling services that had been dedicated to helping those who searched the rubble for survivors in hopes that themes of personal heroism and strength in adversity would help them with their distressing jobs. (Avila)
These are the moments that make a heroic character into myth: when they interact and change in accordance with the events occurring in the society around them. Myths grow to suit the times in which they appear, and Spider-Man’s response to world events and attitudes reflect exactly that. In this way, Spider-Man too fits into Campbell’s view of what the hero should do: “The great deed of the supreme hero is to come to the knowledge of this unity in multiplicity and then to make it known” (Campbell 37). The spirit in this phrase suggests that, when mankind cannot achieve something himself, whether it be racial equality, safety from international terrorism, or some other existential threat, it is the hero’s job to journey where the normal man cannot to bestow these things upon him. They search out the difficult matters, as Spider-Man’s writers were unafraid to deal with race, or they help us face the difficult truths, as Spider-Man’s 9/11 issue did so eloquently, to help bring mankind to a type of catharsis that may have remained unachieved otherwise. Though the times may change, the need for help in adapting to these new experiences never does. As Campbell so brilliantly puts it: “The world is different today from what it was fifty years ago. But the inward life of man is exactly the same” (Moyers 170).
“That’s Who I’d Be”
Akin to his appeal as the everyman who happens to have great powers, one of the defining traits of Spider-Man’s character is the audience’s ability to project themselves onto him; they can look at him and say, “That’s who I’d be if I had superpowers.” Perhaps this stems from the fact that he is not an extreme case, like many other superheroes. In his analysis of the superhero genre, Superman on the Couch, former comics writer and editor Danny Fingeroth explains the appeal of this truth: “Significantly, everything we ever learn about Spider-Man reinforces this key element about the character: we know that, if we got superpowers, we would probably act like Peter Parker. How he feels is how we would feel. Not eternally chipper like Superman, not obsessed to the point of having no enjoyment of life like Batman, but human in the truest sense of the word” (146-147). While these other extreme cases certainly may tell other stories about our social landscape that would be worth pursuing in other research projects, there is something comforting about seeing oneself represented in an honest yet empowered way.
This idea is nothing new: people long to feel empowered in their own lives. This concept is represented in the life’s work of Dr. Alfred Adler. A medical doctor from Austria, Adler is known as the founder of individual psychology, which has as its central notion the idea that “what drives essentially all human behavior is the need to feel competent in daily life—that is, to overcome infantile feelings of weakness and helplessness” (Hoffman 2). The bulk of Adler’s scientific endeavors came long before Campbell’s own works, and dealt less in the realm of literature and storytelling than Campbell. Even so, they clearly demonstrate some of the notions previously discussed regarding Campbell and his views on mythology, even in regarding superheroes. In an article aptly titled “Alfred Adler: The Man Who Understood Superheroes,” Edward Hoffman remarks that, should Adler have lived to see the superhero golden age, he would not have been surprised at all by their surging popularity (3). After all, his ideas of Individual Psychology stressed all the same things that superhero stories seem to, especially “a yearn[ing] for wonderful powers” that could help erase any “feelings of inadequacy and even failure” (2). Hoffman draws special attention to Spider-Man’s character himself, stating that the lesson surrounding the character’s origin fulfills in us our “desire to make the world a better place” (3). Though no one in the real world can swing from webs or has super strength, seeing someone else to these things—someone we can relate to—appeases our inmost desires, almost as if it is us performing these actions. Campbell addresses this notion himself, declaring that each person seeks to find in their mythologies mirrors of themselves overcoming the problems that plague them in their own lives:
When the story is in your mind, then you see its relevance to something happening in your own life. It gives you perspective on what’s happening to you. These bits of information from ancient times, which have to do with the themes that have supported human life, built civilizations, and informed religions over the millennia, have to do with deep inner problems, inner mysteries, inner thresholds of passage, and if you don’t know what the guide-signs are along the way, you have to work it out yourself. But once this subject catches you, there is such a feeling, from one or another of these traditions, of information of a deep, rich, life-vivifying sort that you don’t want to give it up (Moyers 2).
Spider-Man fulfills these fantasies quite well, for he represents a kind of eternal youthfulness that has become so central to his character. “For, what is the ‘hero’s journey,’ if not growing into adulthood from childhood, stopping off in adolescence? And who among us has not been tempted by the desire to stay adolescent, to keep the journey incomplete?” (Fingeroth 152). Not only this, but he is not some paragon that is impossible to live up to. He is no god among men like Superman or Thor. He is not on some crusade that will never truly be completed like Batman or the Punisher. Writer Christopher Knowles notes in his book Our Gods Wear Spandex that the secret to Spider-Man’s success is that “he was pitched as an underdog—‘the hero that could be you,’ as Stan Lee so cannily put it” (140). How, then, could the character not have appeal, first to comic book enthusiasts on the fringes of their social circles, and now to a society hierarchy that seems ever harder for underdogs to climb?
Perhaps Peter Suderman puts it best, writing that “Spider-Man isn’t a person. Spider-Man is an ideal—a set of values, principals, and struggles […] Being Spider-Man means accepting that responsibility, something anyone can do” (62). Spider-Man represents a set of ideals that anyone can aspire to, no matter who they are or where they come from. He is not perfect—indeed far from it, but he tries his best every day to do better. Is that not something we all do? And, if we had the power to do “whatever a spider can”, would we not do exactly what Spider-Man does? Perhaps this is one of the greatest draws the character has, and one of the reasons that he remains so popular to this day.
Conclusion: Why We Love Superheroes/The Hero in Us All
When discussing superheroes, one can have trouble relegating their stories to that of the real world. The feats performed in comic books and cinematic blockbusters are indeed great, but they can often seem too distant to apply to the everyday lives of regular people. If this is so, why does society seem so enamored with these heroes? If humans really do have an inner admiration of those they perceive as heroic figures, then perhaps these heroes achieve a psychosocial goal. With models to look to from early ages, like Spider-Man, or like any one of his compatriots in mask and costume, each and every person can create for themselves the image of the perfect man or woman. On the whole, superheroes not only provide escape, but they assure those who look up to them of the great possibility of their lives. But this empathic connection runs deeper than mere hope— “It’s no longer enough for us simply to root for these heroes. Deep down, we want to become them” (Knowles 218). Heroes are to be modeled; everyday individuals should become them. This fact was true of the civilizations of old, just as it is true today. Simply because one group’s stories were told orally and another’s through comic books and movies does not change the deepest sociological function they serve: to become the best role models for their respective society—not perfect people, but perfect examples. “A hero embodies what we believe is best in ourselves,” writes Danny Fingeroth, “A hero is a standard to aspire to as well as an individual to be admired. This is true for those we deem heroes in the world around us… and it is true, but in different ways, for the fictional heroes we encounter in prose, theater, and on screens of various types and sizes” (14).
Moreover, heroes like Spider-Man, who are powerful, yet not surreal—those who are regular people rather than caricatures of power—inspire the regular man and woman going about their ordinary lives. To them, his stories validate their own issues in life—the 9-5 job, the busy family, the hard days, and the long days. They are not fighting off supervillains in the streets of New York City, but they are each going through battles of their own, no matter how small. “Indeed, do we not all, at one time or another, as the alarm clock rings and we steel ourselves to face another day in the struggle that life can be, regard ourselves—even as we laugh at the assessment—as heroes of our own lives?” (Fingeroth 14). Therein lies the universal appeal of superheroes, of heroes in general: if they can fight battles so much bigger than themselves, does it not stand to reason that any one person can do the same in their own lives?
It is in this realization that Campbell’s assertion—that there is but one single heroic monomyth—becomes truer than ever before: “There is a certain typical hero sequence of actions which can be detected in stories from all over the world and from many periods of history. Essentially, it might even be said there is but one archetypal mythic hero whose life has been replicated in many lands by many, many people” (Moyers 166). One could open up their own copy of The Hero with a Thousand Faces and look at Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey” blow-by-blow to draw parallels between his model story and Spider-Man’s, indeed they would find much similarity there. However, the more important lesson is how this character fits into the overall heroic archetype: this archetypal hero who never goes away because he is always necessary. The myths of our world lead us to understand who we are, who we would choose to be, and who we could become. To quote Campbell: “Myths inspire the realization of the possibility of your perfection, the fullness of your strength, and bringing of solar light into the world. Slaying monsters is slaying the dark things. Myths grab you somewhere down inside […] Myths are infinite in their revelation” (Moyers 183, emphasis added). Therefore, it matters not the medium in which one finds their hero of choice, nor does it matter whether they live on from stories of ancient days or if they found their birth in more recent centuries. What makes a lasting fictional hero? The never-ending commentary on the state of man. A steadfast fervor to do what is socially upright and acceptable. A connection to the everyman—a model not too high for anyone to reach. Perhaps Spider-Man specifically will be laid to rest at some distant point in the future (though likely not, if his current success is anything to measure by), but the things he stands for now never will: the importance behind his mask, the everyday person within it, the commonality of his nature, his power, and his responsibility. These things have existed long before him, in many heroes of his kind. They exist today, with his character acting as a willing conduit of their meaning. They will exist long after him, too, should he ever fade, in every true and lasting hero to come. The myth carries on.
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