Comics & Canonizing Public Figures

While I was reading one of the optional readings for this week, Ritu Khanduri’s “Comicology: Comic books as culture in India” I was intrigued by an incident he describes that occurred in Indian popular culture. The episode in question was the tragic explosion of the space shuttle Columbia in 2003. Among the crew members to lose their lives was Indian-American astronaut Kalpana Chawla. Two years after the accident, the long-running Indian comic publisher ACK released an issue detailing Chawla’s life and achievements. Khanduri puts forward the idea that this comic had a direct impact on Chawla’s canonization as an Indian national icon.

What interests me about this story is the direct cultural impact that the comic seemed to have in solidifying Chawla’s status as a national hero. Comics in the United States haven’t had that effect, at least not for a real person. Sure, there are dozens of American national icons that come from the world of comic books, but that’s exactly the point; all of these characters are fictitious. When was the last time that an American comic book caused a real-life activist or some other figure to shoot to the center of public attention? American comics are simply too much of a fiction-oriented industry for comics about real people to gain enough readership to become a cultural icon through comics alone. America seems to lean more toward film or TV dramatizations for building awareness of national heroes. In America, comics are too often skewed toward fantasy for a biographical comic to have the kind of effect the Chawla comic did in India.

Superheroes as the New Mythology

First of all, I’d like to lay out that this is not an original thought of mine. I had read an article some time ago (the author and article title escape me) that pitched this idea, and it’s one that I find myself thinking about quite a bit and want to elaborate on.

The idea in question is that the adventures of comic book superheroes are more or less a modern version of the hero myths from ancient societies. It makes sense in a lot of ways. Many cultural myths followed the exploits of many larger than life characters like Gilgamesh or Hercules just to name a few. In that same vein, superhero comics tell us the tales of characters who could be considered gods as well. People love to read about the adventures of superheroes like Superman, The Flash, and Captain America in probably the same way that ancient Greeks loved listening to The Odyssey.

It’s also worth noting that the comic book industry is certainly aware of the superheroic aspect of mythology and using that as a resource. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby took the initiative to directly adapt existing mythology with their use of Thor as a superhero. Lee and Kirby were definitely onto something with their idea of adapting Thor, because Norse mythology was already a superhero comic. There were ready-made heroes and villains to use and a whole host of worlds to explore. By looking at the minimal changes that had to be made to turn Thor from Scandinavian myth to comic book superhero, we can see how similar superheroes already are to mythological figures.

I think that the popularity of superheroes is due to the same phenomenon that has kept people interested in the mythology of bygone eras. There’s some innate cultural desire to see someone greater than ourselves; someone who can serve as an example of what people should strive to be. It’s because of this that I believe that many of the superheroes we know today will continue on for generations to come