May 7, 2008

Comic Books, Myth and Cultural Policy


I've been thinking about what may seem a curious intersection in recent days. Namely the creation of modern myth and the connection between comic books and antiquities. I'll first argue that comic books are nothing more than today's modern myths, and then show how this relates to the summer Met exhibition, as well as dispute the claim that we are "losing" our connection to ancient mythology.

If you're paying attention, comic books have a lot to teach us. Sure, they're fun, and they for kids in many cases, but they also reveal deeper truths. As David Edelstein pointed out in his review of Iron Man, every age gets the super hero which will assuage its fears. Superman was a midwest farmboy, which was a product of major migration from "heartland to city"; similarly, Batman gained popularity in the 70's with the "surge in urban crime".

In Iron Man, Edelstein worries we might be glossing over the unpleasantness of our Military-Industrial complex, and its actions in Afghanistan. Iron man first appeared, in 1968, when the US was in the midst of the Vietnam War. He says "But at a time when America is viewed around the world as arrogant, will the picture be seen as another in that long line of Hollywood superhero movies aimed at making Americans feel better about themselves?" That's a pointed question, as America is in fact the weapons maker to the world. But we don't get to that deeper question if we can't at least see the value in these myths, which are slick, and certainly very accessible.

There are other examples of course. Godzilla is a product of Japanese unease in the 1950's following the dropping of the atomic bomb. Spider Man is the first superhero whose skin we can't see in his costume, because in the 1960s Stan Lee wanted to create a superhero for all races. It's hard not to see the struggle of World War II in Tolkien's work. Now, perhaps I'm just an aging fanboy whose read too much Joseph Campbell, but is the story of the Odyssey really that different from a comic book? The point, I think, is not to choose ancient myths over modern pop culture, but to see how the two inform each other. David Simon has openly acknowledged that the Wire is nothing more than Greek tragedy, save instead of gods and goddesses he substitutes in their place modern institutions like police departments, the media, and the school system. If you're paying attention, I think this nexus between Simon's depiction of the Baltimore drug trade with ancient tragedy can inform both our understanding of urban cities, and realize that many similar struggles existed thousands of years ago.


Through September, the Met will be showing Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy.

C-MONSTER has photos, and Lee Rosenbaum is not a fan. Though she admits some of her complaints may be sour grapes, she expresses frustration at the fact that Philippe de Montebello, the "dean of American art museum directors" has tarnished his reputation by writing a Forward for the Met's catalogue. Now, I'm out of my league if I attempt to unpack Rosenbaum's argument from a scholarly curatorial perspective. However, she seems to strongly insinuate that comic books are for the uneducated, and beneath the lofty de Montebello. I couldn't disagree more. I haven't seen the the exhibition, and can't speak to it's merit, but the idea on its face strikes me as a good one. Why can't we take comic books and superheroes seriously? The pop artists played with comic book forms and style to great effect didn't they? Granted, the Met is trying to please its audience, perhaps blatantly so, but that doesn't mean we can't take this stuff seriously right?

This brings us to the comments of Charles K. Williams II in the recent The Acquisition and Exhibition of Classical Antiquities, edited by Robin F. Rhodes. Williams argues "Note that modern mythology is being manufactured at such a rate and in such quantity in the United States and norther Europe that it appears, at least to me, to be wiping out the need or desire to know, even less to understand, ancient epics, myths, and fables." I don't think the creation of modern myth is necessarily a bad thing. Williams, an esteemed field archaeologist argues we should ensure people can continue to view these objects around the world to maintain our connection with ancient myth. He argues we need more responsible international loans and a responsible international movement of objects. I agree.

To the unreasonable skeptic, both the labors of Hercules and the efforts of Tony Stark may seem childish, but if we are paying attention, putting the two side by side can teach us a lot about the darker side of powerful civilizations, the US and ancient Greece (and later the Roman empire).

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