What’s the origin of the superhero myth, as you see it?
DC and Marvel will often publish “origin stories” for their superheroes—how Bruce Wayne became Batman, how Hal Jordan became the Green Lantern. Sometimes the alter ego is forced onto the superhero by a freak accident, a science experiment gone wrong (similar to Michael becoming Dustin, maybe): Spider-Man, the Hulk, the Fantastic Four. Others, they invent their alter ego to undertake some task. Batman, Iron Man, Green Arrow, they choose to become the alter ego (like Justin becoming Jasper).
What about those who are born a superhero? Like Superman?
Or Hellboy, Wonder Woman. Yes, that’s the third type. So they’re either Mohammed types, Buddha types, or Christ types: in their respective religious traditions, Mohammed became a prophet only after being visited by the angel Gabriel, having lived an ordinary and simple life before; Buddha chose to abandon his palace and seek enlightenment after seeing the four signs of age, sickness, death, and monasticism; and Christ was born the “Son of God.”
You could argue that the second type is really just a subset of the first type—that Bruce Wayne becomes Batman because of the murder of his parents, or that Siddharta Guatama became Buddha because of the four signs he saw after escaping the palace. But after the death of Bruce’s parents, Bruce still has a choice: he can deal with the death of his parents like a normal human being and go on to live a normal life, or he can transform himself into something savage and have out his revenge every night on the streets of Gotham. With Siddharta, even after the four signs he could have returned to the palace and spent the rest of his life in luxury and affluence, but he abandoned that and went on to transform himself into something mythical—someone who battled demons, performed miracles, associated with the Indian underworld: murderers, untouchables, cannibals. The Spider-Man and Mohammed types, however, are transformed by an outside event—the spider bite grants Peter Parker his powers, whether or not he wants them, and Gabriel grants Mohammed the teachings of the Qur’an, whether or not he’s interested in becoming a prophet and starting a world religion. These three types extend beyond religious mythologies, even; other systems of mythology, maybe all, contain these three types of myth.
I suppose you see them in literature, too. Dr. Jekyll becomes Mr. Hyde after a science experiment gone wrong, and spends the rest of the story trying to cope with this thing that he’s become; Edmond Dantes chooses to become the Count of Monte Cristo, and through his alter ego wreak havoc upon his enemies; and Frankenstein’s monster is created with his terrible abilities, and spends the rest of the story trying to cope with the thing that he is—trying meanwhile to live among the humans, to find some way to blend in, to become a “Clark Kent.”
Anyway, the “origin story” is a convention of the genre, so it’s interesting to hear you ask about the origins of the myth itself.
Its origins are fairly well established, though. The myth began with the superhero who’s since become the most iconic—Superman. It was probably inevitable that the United States would invent its own gods. We were a nation composed almost entirely out of first- or second- or seventh-generation immigrants—we had no historical mythology of our own to supply a pantheon of ready-made gods. The Germans had already revived the spirit of one from their own pantheon, Wotan, for the coming of World War II. So when Superman appeared in 1938, he created this craze in American comics for superhero stories. By the time America entered the war in 1941, the superhero pantheon had already grown to include a number of its most celebrated gods—Batman, the Flash, the Green Lantern, Captain America.
But those superheroes weren’t yet a pantheon. They each existed in a separate imaginary America. It wasn’t until the 60’s, when Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s Marvel superheroes began referencing each other in their comics—and eventually even making guest appearances in each other’s stories—that the pantheon came into its own.
Why do you think we’ve chosen these gods—the superheroes?
Because it’s our story. We’re not a nation where people live in the same town or village from age zero to ninety—identity here isn’t a static thing. Even our stories that aren’t about superheroes are about superheroes—or at least alter egos. In Russell Banks’ “Sarah Cole: A Type of Love Story,” the narrator alternates between referring to himself in the first-person, as an “I,” and third-person, as a “he.” It’s about this distance the narrator feels from who he was; that “he” feels like a separate self from the self he is now. Or in Jesse Ball’s “Plainface”: when Plainface meets a stranger, he has an ability to assume the identity of one of that stranger’s kith or kin, to actually become them. When you’re looking for it, it’s everywhere in our stories: Infinite Jest, East of Eden, The Great Gatsby, Catch-22. We’re a nation where you can’t be who you are forever.
It’s surprising you haven’t worked with the superhero myth in your own stories, as interested as you are in these questions about identity.
Well, maybe in a certain sense I do work with the myth. Giving my cousin that Neal Bowers costume, for example, so that she could overcome the weakness in her own identity.
And I do have my own alter egos. Paul French, Neal Bowers. Even Michael Martone. I’ve never really felt much like “Michael Martone”—sometimes I think my entire life I’ve been wearing a costume. At some point I put it on to cope with things that Michael Martone was too weak to take on as himself. And after a while I forgot I was even wearing the costume. Now I can’t take it off. I’ve forgotten where the zipper is, and I’m stuck in it.