From Mav: One of my favorite comic book characters when I was a kid was The Mighty Thor. One of the reasons Thor fascinated me was because he was entrenched in mythology outside of the comics. To me, it was cool being able to read a story by Walt Simonson and then later pull out my copy of Bulfinch’s Mythology and see where the references that he was using came from in the classic story. I was also a big Dungeons and Dragons fan back then, and I loved comparing the characters in the AD&D Deities & Demigods sourcebook and looking to see where those characters came from as well. I was just fascinated by the idea that the character could be reinterpreted over and over again. In fact, the idea of multiple interpretation of a mythic hero is foundational to my dissertation… so I guess in a way I started working on my Ph.D when I was like seven (and I swear, if I do enough research, one day I am gonna find an ancient source for Beta Ray Bill).
Anyway, of course, Thor isn’t the only character from mythology to ever be adapted. Hercules has portrayed by Arnold Schwarzenegger, Lou Ferrigno, Kevin Sorbo, the Rock, and was a Disney cartoon. There are tons of other comics. There’s the Percy Jackson series of books and films. The original Clash of the Titans is like the best movie ever because it taught me that ancient Greeks wore 1970s gym shorts under their togas. The list of adaptations goes on and on. If we count fairytales, folk tales, Arthurian legend and Judeo-Christianity, then Hollywood and popular fiction reboots of mythology are effectively endless.
So why do we do it?
There’s something timeless about the idea of myth. I mean, in a sense, that’s sort of the point of myth. That’s how they become mythic. They are stories that can bee reconnected with and retain their idyllic qualities despite being mapped into new ideas and interpretations. A brand new story, even one that uses a basic and familiar template like Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, still requires the author to introduce the character to the reader/viewer. As consumers, we must buy in to the character. We have to come to appreciate their wants and desires. We must learn their motivations and personalities. We must be presented with their origins. We must learn to care about them. In the mythic reboot, this is entirely short circuited.
Certainly, in a good story much of this work still occurs, but whatever is left out can be presumed to be filled in by whatever general familiarity the reader likely has with the source material. If I am to tell a story of Hercules, I don’t have to justify his strength. I can just assume that the reader will take for granted that he is. Thus, my story can become more about how I differentiate my vision of the gods from the classic tales. That is, my interpretation is part of the art… in much the same way as a specific musician displays his own individuality and artistic vision when covering a standard that has been performed by countless others. Adapting a myth that has a base that is already a part of the public consciousness means that my story can be about how I as the artist want to challenge common conventions about the themes that the characters represent. I can use the familiarity of the characters and tropes to investigate the specifics of deeper less familiar themes. Or, I can just make The Rock wear a funny hat.
On this episode Wayne and I are going to be joined by Natalie Sheppard, who works specifically with the reinterpretation of the classic myth in pop culture. Nat has suggested that we specifically look at comics like ODY-C (a gender-bent retelling of Homer’s classic epic, The Odyssey, that uses the framework and its deviation from it to speak to questions of gender and queerness) and The Wicked + The Divine (a story which looks at modern incarnations of perpetually reincarnated gods to speak to themes of spirituality, life, death, ethnicity, sexuality and music) as well as the novel and adapted television series American Gods which does similar work.
The Wicked + The Divine in particular is one of Wayne’s favorite books, so he was ready to jump on this when I suggested it.
From Wayne: Mav and I have talked about the idea of comics being a modern mythology a lot. We’ll probably address the broader meaning of that in a future episode. For this one we want to focus more specifically on actual mythology being used as a basis for graphic storytelling.
The Wicked + The Divine, as Mav said, is a current favorite that does that. While the main characters are all modern incarnations of mythic beings they are also completely contemporary personalities. There are certain traits they share with the gods they embody, creating expectations on the part of the reader, but they are not bound by the classic stories we know. They are informed by the mythology but these are not strict adaptations. Another of my long time favorite comics, Mage, by Matt Wagner, does much the same thing with Arthurian legend, using the expectations and the tropes of the myth but then bending them to create a modern superhero tale.
I guess what I’m interested in here is that when most people hear the term mythology they immediately think of it as something old, a relic of a bygone time, stories of a different culture or a different people. I think we are still a mythmaking culture and that takes place in a variety of ways, comics being only one of them. I want to talk about specific incidences of this in comics like the ones we’ve mentioned here (and I’m sure others will come up as we talk), but I also want to explore how we create myth in our modern, predominately secular culture.
From Natalie: Hercules was my favorite Disney movie and Xena was my favorite after-school TV show (actually a channel-I forget which-used to alternate Buffy and Xena every other day so I guess we know where my formative media experiences come from!). Naturally, I developed an affinity for the Greeks. I loved the Homer, Euripides, Sappho, and, of course, the mythology. I was always a fan of Edith Hamilton, but Bulfinch had his moments.
It should surprise no one that Greek literature has weaseled its way into our pop culture. Beyond Hercules and Xena, we have Percy Jackson, O Brother Where Art Thou, 300, Ulysses, Madeline Miller’s Circe, Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad, Hadestown, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, ODY-C, even DUNE. But what interests me is not that these works are adapted, but how we adapt them; how we change them. Why do we gender-bend the Odyssey? What’s the point of making Persephone a black teenager or a speakeasy owner? Why make Iphigenia into a weird Yorgos Lanthimos movie?
Mythology in particular is an odd form to adapt, mostly because it was largely told through oral tradition. Homer may reference Athena, but we don’t really have the Ancient Greek equivalent of the Bible. Our pop culture is wildly different from that tradition. No one believes that The Wicked + The Divine is the absolute truth of the universe, no one takes ODY-C as historical fact. But we often use these myths to speak to a truth of our own generation, whether it’s the glorification of celebrity or gender equality, we are using these ancient truths to speak to contemporary issues.
From Mav: So as always, we want to know your thoughts before the show. What questions do you have about how myth adaptations work? Why do you think we reboot them so often? Are there specific things that you think work particularly well (or poorly) when something like this is done? What are your favorites that we should be considering and why? Let us know what you’re thinking so we can address it on the show and if you have a particularly interesting take, we might even ask you to be a part of the conversation.