Literary Origins of the Supermen

SupermanHerculesHere is the first installment of “Comics Mythos”, a semi-regular column about the literary and mythological roots of comic book characters (mostly superheroes). This article will look at the powerhouses of comics, or the “supermen”. (After the Big Blue Boy Scout, not Friedrich Nietzsche’s “Ubermensch”.)

In the world of superheroes, it seems that feats of physical strength and acrobatic prowess are possibly the most prevalent demonstration of super powers. One must wonder if such physical powers are a product of the time in which these comics were originally produced – the 1930s for DC’s iconic Superman and 1941 for Marvel’s super soldier, Captain America – or does this sort of hero have roots that extend deeper into literary history. Obviously, mythology is full of heroes who have superhuman strength, stamina, and agility with Thor and Hercules being the most famous in the world of comics for their huge roles in the Marvel Universe (and smaller ones in DC). However, there is a bridge, figuratively speaking, between the heroes of myth and their newer incarnations in the comic book world, and that bridge is found in the works of classical, medieval, and Renaissance literature.

One of the earliest works of literature featuring supermen is the epic poem taking place against the backdrop of the Trojan War, The Iliad, by the Greek poet Homer. Not only do Greek gods such as Apollo, Ares, and Athena take to the battlefield, but so do superhumans such as Achilles, Telamonian Ajax, and Hector. Each of these ancient heroes could easily match Superman or Captain America in feats of physical strength. Take for example, Telamonian Ajax, who was known as Ajax the Great, because of his massive stature and physical abilities. While defending the Greek ship landing from an onslaught of Trojan infantry, Telamonian Ajax went “Up and down the deck of the ships … with his great plunging strides, swinging in hand his enormous polished pike for fights at sea, clamped with clinchers, twenty-two forearms long … leaping from deck to deck on the fast trim ships, ranging with huge strides” until eventually he met the Trojans in combat where he “would stab each man with his long, rugged pike – twelve he impaled point-blank, struggling up the hulls” (from the excellent Robert Fagles translation by Penguin Books, pages 409 to 411).

Triumph_of_Achilles_in_Corfu_Achilleion

A few books later, Achilles, in attempting to reach and duel with Hector, literally fights the flooded and raging Xanthus River, surging on “with high hurdling strides, charging against the river, on breakneck on and the river could not stop him, not for all its reach and tide race” (p. 529-530). Only a man with superhuman strength and agility could impale twelve men on a pike twenty-two forearms long or wade across a raging river such as the Xanthus. One can easily envision such deeds being performed by comic book superheroes like Hulk, Captain America, or even Spider Man, but Achilles and Ajax did it first.

Another epic poem that features a particularly charismatic superman is the English classic, Beowulf. The tale of Beowulf involves the titular hero’s quest to rid the world of the likes of Grendel, Grendel’s hag-like mother, and other hideous monsters of similar ilk. At one point, before the onset of the monster battles, Beowulf regales the mead-hall BeowulfBookwith a story about how he lost a swimming match against a man named Breca. He says, “Each of us swam holding a sword … for protection against the whale-beasts. But Breca could never move out farther or faster from me than I could manage to move from him. Shoulder to shoulder we struggled on for five nights, until the long flow and pitch of the waves … drove us apart” (from the Norton Critical Edition translated by Seamus Heaney, page 16). The two supermen swam for five nights before being set upon by a school of nine sea monsters, and “however it occurred, my sword had killed nine sea-monsters. Such night dangers and hard ordeals I have never heard of nor of a man more desolate in surging waves” (p. 16). Again, one can easily imagine Thor or Superman relating a story like this one, so there really is not much of leap between the feats detailed in these literary classics and those featured in the pages of Marvel and DC comics, among others.

Another example of superhuman strength appears in the pages of the Welsh book of legends, The Mabinogi. “Culhwch and Olwen” details the story of how King Arthur helped Culhwch marry Olwen, the daughter of Ysbaddaden, the chief of giants. Ysbaddaden sends Culhwch and Arthur on a series of quests each requiring a great deal of strength and cunning. At one point, Arthur and his men must take the comb of Twrch Trwyth, a giant boar, and his brood of piglets. Arthur leads an army of Irishmen, “and the Irish battled him the whole day until evening; despite that a fifth of Ireland was destroyed by him. The next day, Arthur’s retinue fought with him; they won no advantage of him, only misery. On the third day Arthur himself battled the boar; nine nights and nine days they fought, and he killed but a single piglet of that brood” (from Patrick Ford’s translation, page 153). Arthur and his men fought the boar and his brood from Ireland, back to Wales, and into Cornwall before finally defeating the great beast. Many men were slain and most of the countryside was in ruin, and “this ends virtually in a draw between Arthur and the boar,” but the King manages to take the comb even though the monstrous pig was driven into the sea never to be seen again (p. 156). And you thought the Avengers had it tough against Loki. The comic book tradition of having two super powered beings fighting each other to a standstill is nothing new, it seems.

The superhuman strength and agility of our modern superheroes is nothing new to the Western Tradition. The Iliad was recorded from the oral tradition around 725 BCE, while Beowulf was written in approximately 1000 CE, and The Mabinogi about 300 years later. And these are only a few examples of literary superheroes – there are many more stories out there about the Greek heroes (The Odyssey), Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table (Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, La Morte de Arthur, The Lais of Marie de France), as well as non-Western stories like the Indian epic poem, The Ramayana, which features a hero, Rama, who rivals Achilles, Hercules, and Thor for feats of derring-do, and his best friend, Hanuman, a shape-shifting monkey demi-god. So, in short, at some point during your reading of the next issue of Avengers or Action Comics, pour out a libation to the heroes of myth and literature because it is to them you owe the thanks for our comic book supermen.

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