Mythologies, one may argue, are both timeless and era-dependent. While inspecting more eternal issues of the human condition, they also reflect those times in which they are crafted, much like artifacts from a bygone people.
Again, while I’m not yet prepared to declare the superhero tradition a formal mythology, the history of these characters undoubtedly function as a timeline of social ideologies and anxieties. One of the more salient eras in American history that showed itself in superhero comics was the “nuclear” era.
The Joker’s words to Batman in 2008’s The Dark Knight very much apply to the US after the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki: “[T]here’s no going back. You've changed things. Forever.” Indeed, the world would forever be a different place after man weaponized the atom, and during the Cold War, that newly-discovered ability would produce an unprecedented atmosphere of tension and paranoia. Epitomizing perhaps during the Cuban Missile crisis, the tension that resulted from the two superpowers (pun not intended) attempting to outdo one another for nuclear superiority found itself characterized in the superhero comics of the 60’s.
As historian Jeffery K. Johnson, author of Super-History: Comic Book Superheroes and American Society, stated, the still-popular Marvel Comics characters that emerged during those years reflected well the broad spectrum of contemporary societal concerns related to the atomic age. The Fantastic Four, the Hulk, Daredevil, and, yes, the iconic Spider-Man not only received their powers from the very-real and even believable nuclear science of that day, but, more importantly, their stories also expressed American society’s concerns about such science.
The Incredible Hulk is perhaps the most interesting of these characters in terms of the character’s commentaries on nuclear science. First depicted in Incredible Hulk #1, published on May 10, 1962, the Hulk was the product of scientist Bruce Banner’s failed attempt to harness nuclear energy in the form of gamma radiation. While usually discussed as an exploration into warring components of the human psyche, the resulting Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde monster characterized the ambivalence of nuclear energy. Indeed, the question posed on the cover of issue #1 encapsulated this dichotomy: “Is he man or monster or…is he both?”
While the Hulk occasionally functions as a hero, showcasing the potential benefits of nuclear science, the narrative adds a very important question: “at what cost?” When Dr. Banner becomes angry, the ever-present variable of control becomes an issue. Without control, the Hulk fulfills his “monster” label, often destroying any walls or military units foolish enough to get in his way. In later stories, such as Mark Millar’s first volume of The Ultimates, Dr. Banner’s angry alter ego lays waist to New York City on a 9-11 scale. This character has always forced readers to question the precarious balance of risk and reward when it comes to nuclear science and attempting to control the monsters that result. Bruce Banner’s simple warning to General Ross prior to the initial Gamma Bomb test rings a warning even now: “We are tampering with powerful forces!”
But Banner’s inner struggle to control the Hulk is not the only component of his story that addresses the tension of the 1960’s. General “Thunderbolt” Ross’ mad quest to kill or control the Hulk could be read as the military’s constant desire to harness nuclear powers for military purposes. Surely this would have been an apparent theme to those experiencing the tit-for-tat military escalation of nuclear weapons between the US and the Soviet Union.
Like it or not, nuclear power had arrived, with its positives and Hulk-like negatives, and as another 60’s superhero from Marvel Comics would learn, great power comes with great responsibility. This famous motto of Spider-Man yields, in my opinion, more payoffs when examined on a personal level, but Jeffery K. Johnson argues that Spider-Man’s efforts to save the city despite his many personal problems mirrors the US’s struggle against the U.S.S.R. After positing that many Americans saw the US as a superhero of sorts and the U.S.S.R. as the supervillain, Johnson claims that the US’s efforts to contain communism and the influence of the U.S.S.R. resulted from a sense responsibility to do so.
“[T]he U.S. . . . was willing to take on this burden for the planet’s good. Much like spider-Man’s personal torment, the U.S. suffered many domestic nuclear problems. The nation had little choice though, because to not use nuclear weapons as a deterrent against the U.S.S.R. would mean letting the supervillian win. . . . The U.S. had the power to protect the world and thus had to accept the responsibility and the consequences” (Johnson 63).
While this is only one possible reading of these stories and characters, it does, I think, evince the proposition that superheroes act as mythology due to their ability to reflect and record societal concerns and changes. These marvel heroes of the 60’s not only originated from the now-plausible and ever-dangerous realm of nuclear science, but their stories encapsulated the societal anxieties and thoughts concerning this nuclear power.
Of course, this position begs a follow-up question: if superheroes are functioning as a modern mythology, what are current superhero stories reflecting about our cultural anxieties or social problems? If I may, the answer may rest in this new-found focus on realism and the need to be plausible (thanks, science). There currently exists an undeniable phenomenon is comics that I have deemed the Nolan Effect, a focus on making characters and their appearances realistic. Superheroes once known for their spandex are now clad in armor—why? Because plausible-realism is in demand, but more on this at another time.
Johnson, Jeffrey K. Super-History: Comic Book Superheroes and American Society, 1938 to the Present. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2012. Print.
The Dark Knight. Dir. Christopher Nolan. Warner Home Video, 2008. DVD.