Since time immemorial, humankind has turned to gods, deities, and mythology to help us understand the world we live in. In today’s world, comic book characters can be seen as the modern-day mythic gods that capture our imagination and inspire us with their superhuman feats. They are the embodiment of hope, resilience, and courage in the face of adversity – on top of providing endless hours of entertainment for generations of fans.
Here’s a look at some of the ways our favourite comic book heroes (or even villains or anti-heroes) recreate or subvert traditional narratives and myths.
Superman: An Invulnerable Messiah
Featured Toy: Superman Hand Puppet
Year of Make: 1960s
Country of Origin: Argentina
DC’s Kal-El, also known as Superman, is one of the most iconic superheroes in pop culture today. His in-universe tragic origins as an alien from the doomed planet Krypton combine with his powerful, invulnerable, and near-invincible powers to create the ultimate ‘success story’ to inspire readers worldwide. Some critics have even described him as Christ-like figure, pointing to the messiah-like trope of his arrival on earth.
Yet despite his invulnerability, Superman along with his Justice League allies have faced harrowing cosmic-level threats more than once – and he’s even sacrificed his life in order to save the world (although he was eventually brought back to life). Some would argue this strengthens the comparisons to Christian mythology specifically, while others simply see it as a secular symbol of hope and the triumph of good over evil. Either way, Superman subverts traditional mythic narratives of an omnipotent god, with his struggles and victories reflect humanity’s ponderings on what it really means to be human, and what it means to have a human spirit.
Catwoman: A Modern Take on Ancient Myth
Cats have been linked to femininity and feminine energy for centuries, from the half-cat half-human Ancient Egyptian goddesses Bastet and Sekhmet, to the Chinese goddess Li Shou. The Ancient Greek goddess Artemis and Norse mythology’s Freyja have also been associated with cats, and from more modern narratives we learn of cats as the familiars and companions of witches. So DC’s Catwoman (also known as Selina Kyle) can be seen in this light as yet another modern-day reimagining of this persistent association between women and cats.
As one of Batman’s most famous rivals (and occasional lover), Catwoman treads the line between good and evil. Recent storylines have even developed her role as a vigilante anti-hero, moving away from her origins as a decidedly ‘bad’ cat burglar. Her mythos blurs the line between black-and-white narratives of good and evil, and is no doubt a big reason she’s one of the most popular anti-heroes in the DC universe today.
Flash Gordon: The Everyman’s Odysseus
Featured Toy: Flash Gordon Air Ray Gun
Maker: The Budson Co.
Year of Make: 1948
Country of Origin: United States of America
Flash Gordon, the original superhero, predates the rise and dominance of both Marvel and DC, and was even an inspiration to the artists at these two major comic book publishers. It was through his comic strips that we see the first version of the superhero as a modern-day escapist myth: just a normal guy thrown into fantastical circumstances, who ends up saving the world. Comparable to a modern-day Odysseus who encounters multiple adventures while traveling throughout the stars, Flash Gordon represents the idea that anyone can become a hero if they are brave and determined enough.
Tracing Changing Social Mores through Modern-Day Heroes
While ancient mythology is typically more one-sided in its conceptions of good versus evil, modern-day myths via our favourite superheroes and characters allow us to dive deeper into questions surrounding morality, ethics, and humanity. Our favourite characters not only inspire us to become the best versions of ourselves, but provide a way in which we can grapple with changing social mores and question what’s happening around us – whether that’s through seeing Superman as the ultimate saviour, or secretly applauding the ambiguity behind Catwoman’s shady means.
Here at the MINT Museum of Toys, we believe in the power of toys as visual representations of changing social mores, norms, and values. So why not visit our Level 3 Childhood Favourites and Level 5 Outerspace collections and see even more valuable vintage toys and memorabilia of your favourites from the 80’s, 70’s, or even earlier! Whether you’re a fan of DC, Marvel, or classic superheroes, you can definitely appreciate the complexity that modern superheroes bring to the table. Comparing the changes in characters over the decades is also a great way to engage kids in family bonding activities, especially when paired with our UNBOX: Featuring Toy Figurines currently showing at Level 3.