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Superhero 101 Foundations in Super Hero History

By Lon Maxwell, Reference Department

Good morning class, and welcome to Superhero 101. With the massive surge of movies, books, and television about and starring spandex clad gladiators from the last century we cannot help but look back to the origins of the archetypal superhero. Most modern comic book enthusiasts think of comics and their associated heroes as falling into the eras of The Gold, Silver, Bronze and Modern ages, with the superhero archetype we all think of (i.e. Superman, Wonder Woman, Captain America) beginning in the Golden age. While I agree with the ages and their application in the history of comics, I believe the heroes go back so much farther. I would go even as far as to say that our older heroes are still as popular now as they were in their nascent era. So let us begin learning how the heroes of humanity’s past are the heroes of today’s children.

Okay, that’s what it would say at the top of the syllabus if there was a university crazy enough to give me carte blanche to design a course of my choosing. I’m not sure what department would end up with a course like that; history, literature, and anthropology all have good claims on the subject matter. (I’d probably choose anthropology.) I started to think about this back in 2005, when another set of books came out claiming to be the next Harry Potter. It was something to do with Mount Olympus in New York and some unfortunately named kid. Percy Jackson brought Greek mythology back to the American consciousness with a vengeance. I remarked to a coworker in the children’s department that it was like someone had mixed Dauliere’s mythology with comic books, and then I realized there was nothing to mix, that the original sequential pictures were drawn on the side of black-figure pottery. The more I thought about it, the further back I could push that genesis moment in drawn super heroes, back past Homer, beyond Gilgamesh, back to the paintings in Chauvet and Lascaux and the Löwenmensch. Those giant figures on cave walls and anthropomorphized animals showed a belief in a being better than an average human, a super man.

Gilgamesh Statue at Sydney University

The real origin we can trace the ideas back is to the stories that have come down to us along with artistic renderings. Gilgamesh is probably the earliest recorded super hero. He was stronger and braver and more cunning than an average person. This was because he was two thirds god (yeah, I can’t make the math on that work either), but he wasn’t a god himself. Even the Old Testament refers to a race of giants like Goliath, that were the children of fallen angels and human women, but they were not very heroic. Yet still that was the de facto origin story for most of the Stone Age and Classical Age heroes, some combination of divine ancestors mixed with human to make for an invulnerable hero (Achilles), a super strong one (Heracles), or some mix of characteristics (Theseus, Perseus, Etc. ). There are even examples of plain guys with nothing but their physical prowess and sharp wits like Batman, oh, sorry , I mean Odysseus. The superhero of today would fit fine in ancient Greece and Rome if he just swapped his tights and alien parents for a toga or chiton and a more deified lineage.

The medieval world and its dominating monotheistic religions brought an end to all this human/deity philandering. Heroes now were men and women who were blessed by God like Robin Hood, Pwyll of Dyfed, and King Arthur or sorcerers of sketchy origin like Merlin. Real life heroes began to be magnified to supernatural proportions. Joan of Arc, El Cid, Roland, Boadicea, and Charlemagne all have fantastic elements woven into their stories. Off in the cold north of Europe the Vikings still had the demigod heroes of the early sagas, but even these saw a Christianization as people adopted the religion but didn’t want to give up their old fireside stories. Hero tales are not the sole property of the west in the middle ages.  Sinbad the mariner was sailing the Arabian Sea while the brothers of the peach orchard, Guan Yu, Liu Pei, and Zhang Fei, were fighting to unite China.

Since the Medieval era, we have been going through our past for inspiration. There have been resurgences in interest over and over in the classical mythos as well as the Arthurian legends. Scholars debate the historicity of Troy and Camelot. Writers like Tennyson and Keats borrowed the themes for new works. It wasn’t until early last century that we began something new. Superman, Captain Marvel, Captain America and Wonder Woman each debuted and added new heroes to our mythology. This coincided with a rise in science fiction stories in the popular publishing world. Now we have science fiction retellings of the Odyssey, movies of Sinbad, video Games of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and graphic novels that tell the 4000 year old story of Gilgamesh and Troy. Children today are learning the same lessons as the kids of millennia past from the same characters.  We have made our own heroes but we have built them on a timeless framework that goes back to the beginning of humanity and we have brought along a best of collection of the heroes of the past.

 


Sources and Suggested Reading:

  • The History of Art by H. W. Janson (709 JAN)
  • Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman by  Marc Tyler Nobleman (J 741.5 NOB)
  • D’aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths by Ingri D’Aulaire (J 292 DAU)
  • The Epic of Gilgamesh by Kent H. Dixon (892.1 DIX)
  • The Hero With a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell (201.3 CAM)
  • Romance of the Three Kingdoms by Luo Guangzhong (895.13 LUO)
  • The Song of Roland by Anonymous (YA 841.1 CHA)

 

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Saved by the Librarian

By Rebecca Tischler, Reference Department

A few days ago, I was having a relaxing night watching the Fellowship of the Rings and eating dinner, when I had a sudden revelation about the beginning of the movie. When (spoiler alert!) Gandalf realizes that the Ring left to Frodo might be a dangerous and evil object, what’s the first thing he does? He rides through the night, straight to the LIBRARY! Gandalf went to the library to save the world and fight evil. I know, technically, he went to an archive where they preserve all of the important historical documents, but it’s still a library.

In all these wonderful fictional stories, I know that information from a library has saved the world, but that made me start wondering, what about the librarians who saved the world (because we all know that real librarians are awesome every day, right?).  So in honor of National Library Week, here are six librarians who saved the world, and just so you know, past this point are a lot of spoilers.  BEWARE!

6. ZOE HERIOT

zoe-heriot-wendy-padbury-1For those of you who are familiar with one of the longest running sci-fi series, Doctor Who, Zoe was one of the companions to the Second Doctor from 1968-1969. She is first introduced to the Doctor while working as a librarian on a 21st century space station. She had a photographic memory and was incredibly smart, especially in mathematics, so basically she’s a complex human calculator. On her most intense adventure with the Doctor, her skills and intellect are instrumental in calculating an explosive chain reaction to destroy enemy ships to stop the Cybermen invasion.

5. REX LIBRIS14050780737_470443cb9b_o

Rex is the main character in a science fiction/humor comic book. Everyone knows him as the head Librarian at the Middleton Public Library, but what they don’t know is that he is actually over a thousand years old and was the original librarian at the Library of Alexandria. As a member of the Ordo Biblioteca (a secret international society of librarians), and with the ancient Egyptian god Thoth, Rex travels to the farthest reaches to fight the powers of darkness and ignorance, as well as to collect late book fees.

4. EVELYN (Evie) CARNAHAN

Evelyn-in-The-Mummy-evelyn-carnahan-26627779-467-309Evie could read and write Ancient Egyptian, decipher hieroglyphics and hieratic, and was the only person within a thousand miles who could properly code and catalog the library where she worked.  Although she was surrounded by more action inclined individuals (an adventurer mother, an explorer father, a treasure-hunting brother, married to a gunslinger and close friends with a Medjai warrior), she was proud to be a librarian.  And rightly so, because the first time she encountered a resurrected mummy, it was her knowledge and research ability that allowed her to strip the cursed mummy of his supernatural abilities.

3. RUPERT (Ripper) GILESgiles

Buffy the vampire slayer’s long-suffering mentor may have seemed like a mild mannered librarian when first introduced. However, as the series continued, it was revealed that he was a wild and dangerous teenager who ended up knee-deep in dark magic, and that magical dabbling ended up costing a friend’s life. While he helped save the world many times with his reference and research skills, he would show that his dark past left him capable of making difficult and morally-questionably decisions to protect not only the world, but those that he loves.

2. BARBARA GORDON

Batgirl_by_NowlanBarbara Gordon was a librarian at the Gotham Public Library, and you might also know her as BATGIRL, or ORACLE.  As  a crime fighter  information was her true weapon, along with her ability to kick butt.  She had a near flawless memory and was a computer expert, and after her spine was broken, she continued to  fight crime by acting as a information broker for superheroes (and later operates as the leader of a full team of female crimefighters).  She had no superpowers, like Batman himself, and yet she was able to protect from and defeat villains who did.

1. FLYNN CARSEN

The main reason I gave Flynn the top spot is because his title is The Librarian. Flynn is the guardian of a secret collection of magical artifacts at  the Metropolitan Public Library.  Originally he was a somewhat lost but insanely intelligent individual (by the time he was 31 he had 22 academic degrees) and it wasn’t until one of his professors kicked him out of college that he stumbled on his librarian career.  Unlike most librarians, however, he travels the world searching for dangerous artifacts and defeating those who would use those artifacts to harm others.  He saved the world with his intellect, knowledge, and the fencing skills he learned from the sword Excalibur from artifacts like the Judas Chalice, the Spear of Destiny, and King Solomon’s Mines.  Also, he now has apprentice librarians who have their own TV series and save the world on a weekly basis.Flynn-Carsen-noah-wyle-33582052-449-330

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