Posts Tagged ‘History’

By David Reynolds

If you’re looking for an introductory history of the superhero, then you’ll be satisfied with the PBS documentary Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle. Hosted by Liev Schreiber, who played Sabertooth in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, the film provides an adequate overview of the history of superheroes, but it may not quite quench the thirst of more advanced comics buffs.

Much like my own dissertation on the subject, Superheroes: An Analysis of Popular Culture’s Modern Myths, this PBS documentary focuses on superheroes as they appear across media, unlike other histories which focus only on comics in general or the superhero’s role in comics. Hearing legends like Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Joe Simon, and Alan Moore share their stories about the industry provides invaluable input about the infancy and growth of the genre. However, while this documentary collects interviews with many legends of the industry, it falls short in scholarly expertise. Trina Robbins‘ input as a comics historian is quite valuable in this respect, but there ought to be further reference to academic expertise throughout the series.

Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle is divided into three episodes, which roughly correspond to the Golden, Silver, and Modern Ages of Comics. Accordingly, the first episode covers the birth of the superhero in 1938 with the emergence of Superman in Action Comics #1. The origins of Batman, Wonder Woman, Captain America, and other superheroes are covered here, as well, acknowledging the inspiration taken from pulp characters, like the Spider or the Shadow. The film also discusses superheroes as American gods, emphasizing their role as modern hero myths, and it even touches on how superhero narratives were used as wartime propaganda. These are perspectives I have considered in my own dissertation. Such accounts in Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle tend to reflect the scholarship, although the treatment of these subjects in the film is brief.

In discussing the sizable slew of superheroes that emerged following the success of Superman and Batman, the film highlights Fawcett ComicsCaptain Marvel. Here is where I have a particular gripe with the documentary’s portrayal of events. The film makes no mention of the despicable copyright lawsuits that resulted in DC Comics (known as National Comics at the time) winning the rights to Fawcett’s Captain Marvel. Basically, DC claimed that Captain Marvel was infringing on Superman’s copyright, claiming the characters were too alike. They are about as alike as any other pair of superheroes, but the courts eventually favoured with DC and Fawcett had run out of money to pursue the fight. This is one of many dark stains on the genre, in my opinion, because it represents the tremendous level of greed inherent to the industry. Don’t forget how the big publishers all too often denied copyright and royalties to creators, most infamously the creators of Superman, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. Well, the comic book copyright wars are overlooked entirely in this documentary. Don’t take this as too damning a critique, however; most are quite satisfied to enjoy the view of the tip of an iceberg.

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The second and third episodes provide accounts of the Silver and Modern Ages. The Silver Age is largely portrayed as defined by Stan Lee’s revolution of telling stories about superheroes with relatable problems, noting the introduction of the Fantastic Four and Spider-Man. Superman, Batman, and other archetypal superheroes had hitherto seemed impervious to the everyday troubles of regular folk, so Stan Lee’s departure from that norm is truly remarkable even if it seems like a no-brainer to fans today. The Modern Age is defined by further narrative complexity, citing Frank Miller‘s Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore’s Watchmen as definitive texts that reflect relevant social tensions. These works challenged the very foundations of superhero narratives, forcing readers to question the motives of all these masked vigilantes. This sort of complexity continues after the destruction of the two towers on September 11, 2001, when superhero narratives again challenge our assumptions about the value of security and civil liberties, such as with Marvel’s Civil War crossover series. The documentary literally juxtaposes the implementation of George W. Bush‘s Patriot Act with the issues addressed in Civil War. That the film engages in this conversation is reassuring, because to dismiss it would be a crucial oversight. However, the film does not go so far as to point out the troubling normalization of mass surveillance in Christopher Nolan‘s film Dark Knight.

Ultimately, Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle is well worth watching for any fan of superheroes. If you’re new to reading comics, you might find some classic titles to check out for yourself. If you’re a long-time fan, then you’ll find a great deal to be nostalgic about across all three episodes. There are some unusual moments unique to this documentary, as well; nowhere else have I heard Adam West (of campy ’60s Batman fame) read lines from Miller’s dark and brooding Dark Knight Returns. So, if you haven’t seen this one yet, you might find it on Netflix.

And, if you’re interested in reading a more advanced take on how superhero narratives function in popular culture, then you should check out my book, Superheroes: An Analysis of Popular Culture’s Modern Myths. Please, read and enjoy!

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It seems apparent that the average person, if asked, would uphold history as true and myth as simply false. This, however, is an unfortunate oversimplification of the matter at hand. For instance, when one questions the truth in history and myth, what is in doubt – the facts concerning the event or the motivations of those involved which cause the event? Perhaps, what really comes into question is the significance of the values at play in a particular event. Here, I briefly examine how truth operates in both history and myth with recourse to both Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Nietzsche. Through this examination it is apparent that factual truth is of minor significance in understanding a culture’s values and, furthermore, that the mythic narrative offers a stronger expression of a culture’s values than the historical narrative.

In order to interrogate the value of truth in history and myth, first one must establish the context within which these terms are employed. History is traditionally taken either as the accumulation of past events or the study of past events. Here, a distinction is helpful, and throughout this essay, history shall denote the study of past events, while the actual reality of the past will be simply termed the past or past events. On the other hand, myth is commonly taken to mean simply falsehood. Such is the case in countless medical awareness pamphlets denouncing the myths of birth control, sexually transmitted diseases, and narcotics. However, myth also refers to narrative tales which “function to express social values, norms of behaviour, and/or the consequences of deviating from them” (Harris & Platzner 13). Although many ancient myths are set in an even more remote past, this is not necessary for a narrative to function as a significant myth, hence the tales of the Christian New Testament are myths and so superhero tales of the past hundred years could be seen as myths, as well. The most significant difference between historical narratives relating past events and mythical narratives is that history is held to a high standard of factual truth, while myth requires little to no foundation in facts.

Having established the context in which history and myth will be employed, truth must now come into question. In interrogating the meaning of truth, belief is inexorably caught up in the issue. I propose that there are varying contexts in which truth is used, and, typically, this is the source of much confusion concerning truth. Firstly, assuming that there is a mind-independent, external world which constitutes reality, truth can denote what is actual in the world. The accumulation of all facts of truth in this context would only be accessible to an omniscient being. For the purpose of this essay, this form of truth shall be termed absolute truth. One could argue that any other set of beliefs are true if and only if they correspond to the absolute truth. However, verifying one’s beliefs against the absolute truth is a task which is inaccessible to human perception. Secondly, truth can be taken from the perspective of the individual. In this sense, truth and belief tend to blend together. Schopenhauer argues that truth is only guaranteed in a form of solipsism. He holds that “only the events of our inner life, in so far as they concern the will, have true reality and are actual occurrences, since the will alone is the thing in-itself” (Schopenhauer 143). However, this position comes across as too extreme to have any practicality at all. Instead, I argue that what appears to a person through experience holds truth insofar as those experiential beliefs intersect and correspond to the absolute truth. In other words, a person’s beliefs about their experiences are true when those beliefs correspond to reality, or absolute truth. Here, truth takes on a personal role and it is bound up with belief. Thirdly, this personal form of truth can be expanded from an individual level to reflect a social dynamic. In this case, the common belief of the group is taken to be true on the basis of consensus, authority, or sheer power. This is the meaning of truth which is assumed when people speak of facts. Since people cannot access the absolute truth, we are forced to defer knowledge of facts to authorities on the subject. This is the attitude that Schopenhauer expresses when he claims that “what history relates is… the long, heavy, and confused dream of mankind” (Schopenhauer 143). When Nietzsche shares his strong sense of cynicism towards truth (Nietzsche 150-151), it appears that it must be this public form of truth that he condemns, as well. Hence, public belief determines truth in a similar manner as personal belief, except that public belief has a greater force since it is believed by many to be true, regardless of its corresponding to any fact in absolute truth.

When history and myth are compared under the light of these three interpretations of truth, it is apparent that determining factual histories is much more a pipedream than analyzing values. With regards to determining the value of truth in history and myth, only the third of these interpretations of truth is significant. Firstly, any attempt to depict an exhaustive account of absolute history would be futile. No historian is omniscient nor devoid of bias; thus, an exhaustive and objective account of the past is not forthcoming. Secondly, an individual’s personal experience cannot lend itself to provide an account of history outside of that individual’s experience. Thus, personal truth is limited greatly by the experiences of the individual. Furthermore, a person’s testimony of past events need not be sincere nor need it be taken as true by a larger social group. Hence, it is the third interpretation of truth which concerns both history and myth. Nietzsche phrases it as follows, “Truths are illusions which we have forgotten are illusions” (Nietzsche 151). Hugh Rayment-Pickard explains in Philosophies of History that Nietzsche is primarily concerned with the values expressed through histories and myths because he takes facts to be value judgements (Rayment-Pickard 139). Since it is the group’s collective beliefs which determine what is taken to be true in a culture, then both history and myth share a strong similarity in that they are both propagated by a culture’s values.

Considering Nietzsche’s arguments, determining the factual truth in history and myth is less important than understanding the cultural values that they express. Rayment-Pickard claims that Nietzsche recognized three distinct styles of historical writing: Monumental, which celebrates great persons and achievements; Antiquarian, which focuses on uncovering facts and artefacts of the past; and Critical, which provides analyses of past events (Rayment-Pickard 137). However, Rayment-Pickard notes that, for Nietzsche, the most important aspect for each of these historians is that they write histories that must serve life (Rayment-Pickard 137). As such, Nietzsche asserts that the analysis of values is what is most significant in history. Accordingly, it comes as no surprise then that Nietzsche would uphold myth as more important than history or the description of factual past events, since myths are narratives tailored to express social values. Furthermore, Nietzsche holds myth as the “concentrated image of the world” or as “an abbreviation for phenomena” (Nietzsche 150). He also writes that “the state itself has no unwritten laws more powerful than the mythical foundation that guarantees… its growth out of mythical representations” (Nietzsche 150). Nietzsche places the most significance in studying the past and myth with analyzing the values represented in those narratives. As such, in an interrogation of a culture’s values, mythic narratives are a greater resource to study than historical narratives.

Following from this examination of the values and truth in history and myth, it would seem that the common assumption is misguided in asserting that since history is more factual than myth and, therefore, it is more worthwhile. Discerning factual truth in history is no easy task if one hopes to assert that truth is more than popular, public belief. In light of this issue, Nietzsche proposes that scholars focus their attention towards the values expressed in history and, also, myth. As such, scholarly analysis should aim to provide insight on a culture’s values, rather than disputing or attempting to uncover facts.

Works Cited

Harris, Stephen L. & Platzner, Gloria. Classical Mythology: Images & Insights 4th Ed.
Toronto: McGraw-Hill, 2004.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. “Myth is Higher than History.” Philosophies of History: From
Enlightenment to Postmodernity. Eds. Robert M. Burns & Hugh Rayment-
Pickard. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2004. 150.

—–. “On Truth.” Philosophies of History: From Enlightenment to Postmodernity. Eds.
Robert M. Burns & Hugh Rayment-Pickard. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2004.
150-151.

Rayment-Pickard, Hugh. “Suprahistory.” Philosophies of History: From Enlightenment
to Postmodernity. Eds. Robert M. Burns & Hugh Rayment-Pickard. Oxford:
Blackwell Publishing, 2004. 131-140.

Schopenhauer, Arthur. “The Long, Heavy and Confused Dream of Mankind.”
Philosophies of History: From Enlightenment to Postmodernity. Eds. Robert M.
Burns & Hugh Rayment-Pickard. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2004. 142-143.