Many people view the superheroes of comic book fame as little more than pop culture phenomena born of the dreams and frustrations of young people. But in reality, superheroes have a long and storied past dating back to the times of the ancient Greeks. If you look for them, superheroes are all around us – in poems, in books, in legend, and in movies – and most of them don’t wear capes or spandex.
Most of the heroes that we know of have a set of common traits. In fact, these traits combine to form the hero archetype, a sort of formula for a literary or mythological hero. These traits were outlined by Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, a study that compared myths from around the world. In comparing seemingly unrelated myths, Campbell concluded that all heroic myths rely on a “monomyth” – the mother of all myths.
According to the hero archetype, heroic traits include:
- Unusual circumstances of birth
- Leaves family or land to live with others
- Experiences an event that leads to an adventure or quest
- Has a special weapon
- Has supernatural help
- Must prove himself many times
- Experiences a “low point” or an unhealable wound
- Often has some sort of father issue – either the hero must avenge his father or atone for his father’s evil
Although it may not seem like it, these heroes are everywhere:
- Hercules – was born to a god, was raised among mortals, had to prove his strength again and again, was unusually strong, had help from the gods
- Luke Skywalker – was born in unusual circumstances, was raised by his aunt and uncle, started a quest following his aunt and uncle’s deaths, had “the force”, had help from Yoda, had to prove himself a lot, lost his hand to Darth Vader, had to atone for his father’s evil
- King Arthur – born to a king under unusual circumstances, sent to live with a foster family, raised by the wizard Merlin, had a magical sword called Excalibur
- Harry Potter – born into danger, raised by an aunt and uncle, called to adventure by letters from Hogwarts, has a mysterious protection against the villain, is trained by witches and wizards, must defeat evil several times, is nearly killed, wants to avenge his father
Superheroes are often the most obvious archetypal heroes. In fact, many superhero creators purposefully model their superheroes on the traditional hero archetype. The most classic example of this is Superman:
- Superman certainly has unusual circumstances of birth – he is born on the planet Krypton just as the planet is about to be destroyed
- He is sent away by his parents in order to avoid being blown up along with the rest of the planet; he lands on Earth and is raised by the Kents, who call him Clark
- In time, Clark and his parents discover that Clark possesses supernatural powers; they teach him to use his powers to help mankind
- When his parents pass away, Clark becomes Superman and goes off to the city to save mankind
- Superman, of course, proves himself to be a hero many times over
So the next time a literary snob says that comic books aren’t literature, feel free to correct him. Comic book superheroes are in fact excellent representations of the literary hero, with roots in classic Greek mythology, Arthurian legend, and human psychology.
And if you want to try your hand at creating your own hero, enter C2 Education’s Be Smarter Creative Writing Contest! The 1st place prize is a new Kindle Fire and the top five entrants will win a $50 Amazon gift card!