Phone Booth Friday: Telling Super Stories

This week Warner Brothers announced a slew of upcoming films based on characters from the DC Comics universe, which will take us through 2020; Marvel Comics have already announced their future lineup.  The offerings from DC include stand-alone superhero movies based on Wonder Woman, The Flash, Aquaman, Shazam, Green Lantern, and Cyborg, as well as ensemble films such as the in-production “Batman v. Superman”, and the interesting sounding “Suicide Squad”, which will be something like “The Dirty Dozen”, only with supervillains.  The really BIG event will be the first-ever “Justice League” film, split into two parts, which should bring together all of the major characters from the DC universe.  Anyone who watched “Super Friends” on Saturday morning cartoons when they were little will probably be looking forward to that one.

If this seems like a lot of spandex to deal with on the big screen, not to mention the host of superhero-themed television shows now appearing on the small screen, it may be worth stopping to consider how repeated storytelling about heroes and their adventures is a common practice within Western culture.

There is no one, single definitive version of the stories of the ancient gods and goddesses, heroes and monsters from Greek and Roman mythology.  Over many centuries, the same stories were told in different ways, sometimes adding or taking away elements, depending on the times or the tastes of the audience. The basic legends surrounding Heracles/Hercules for example, were pretty much the same in both Greece and Rome, but when the Romans adopted the Greek hero as their own, they changed his story in places to make him a more Roman figure, even transferring some of his famous “Labors” to a Roman setting.

We can see the same adaptation of well-known characters over time in the legends surrounding King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. King Arthur lived – if he did at all – in what is now Northern England during the 5th or 6th century, and legends about him fluttered about in popular storytelling until a Welsh writer wrote a chronicle of these tales in the 1100’s with many of the now-familiar aspects of the Arthurian legend.  However, a century later a French writer expanded upon these stories, adding both the quest for the Holy Grail and the character of Sir Lancelot.  As a result, today a modern audience could not imagine telling the story of King Arthur without the adultery of Lancelot and Queen Guinevere, even though at one time this plot device would not have been considered canonical.

Both Hercules and King Arthur have had their stories told by many different storytellers.  While certain details may change, depending on who is doing the telling, as subjects for sharing ideas and ideals, they have never ceased to fire the imaginations of writers, artists, and performers.  So rather than be surprised that the characters from comic books continue to be revisited and reshaped, both for existing audiences and for new audiences coming to learn the stories of these heroes, we can see them as part of a continuum in Western literature.

Because they are more recent in time, having appeared in the 20th century, superheroes are more easily adaptable to the present age than figures from the very distant past, like Hercules and King Arthur.  Sure, we still create entertainment around these earlier figures as we tell their stories, but there is always going to be some level of distance between us and them.  Hercules is not going to be taking creatine and whey powder while powerlifting boulders, and King Arthur is not going to be receiving suggestive snapchats on his iPhone from Morgana la Fay.  Superman, however, can have a meeting with Batman on a space station orbiting the Earth, and we think nothing of it.

Our appetite for mythology, tales of adventure, and acts of heroism seems to be fairly insatiable in Western culture.  With the release of so much superhero material, perhaps the studios and publishers are over-estimating the public’s appetite for market saturation when it comes to this particular genre, as some have argued.  Yet in seizing the zeitgeist of this moment, these storytellers are not only being very smart from a financial standpoint, they are also tapping into a long history of storytelling, one which laid the building blocks of the culture which we enjoy today.


Was St. Martha a Cat Person?

I’ve always found St. Martha to be one of the most interesting figures from the Bible.  Last night I was out in the slightly overgrown back garden after dinner, and I reflected on her impending Feast Day today.  She would probably click her tongue disapprovingly at the state of the weeds, but as I watched The Cat picking her way along one of the raised beds, the thought suddenly occurred that St. Martha was probably a cat person herself.

Cats are fairly self-sufficient, but as cat owners know, they also like affection, albeit in measured doses.  The trick with cats, unlike with dogs, is to let them indicate when they want you to give affection, and when they want you to stop.  One could reasonably see how a fastidious hostess like St. Martha would be more likely to keep a cat about the house in Bethany.

We don’t actually know that much about St. Martha of course, or what happened to her after the Resurrection.  Popular medieval legends maintained that St. Martha and her siblings St. Mary Magdalen and St. Lazarus were eventually banished from Judea for preaching Christianity, landing in southern Gaul in the region now known as Provence. Among the more fantastic of the tales associated with St. Martha’s arrival in France is her supposed encounter with a dragon-like creature called the tarasque, which I have written about previously.

As is often the case with strange stories, there may be a slight element of truth to this one. One of the more popular entertainments in Ancient Rome was going to the local arena to see gladiators fight wild animals to the death.  Towns who could afford them would import exotic animals from all over the empire for these contests.  While Rome naturally had the most exotic beasts of all, large amphitheatres existed in many provincial Roman cities around the Mediterranean, such as the 20,000 seat stadium at Arles, just downriver from Tarascon, where the tarasque took up residence, as well as that in the nearby city of Nimes, whose arena could host over 16,000 people.

Some speculate that a ship importing animals for one of these gladiator battles from elsewhere in the Mediterranean might have wrecked in the Rhône, an accident which would have proved fatal to many of the caged animals on board, but not to an aquatic carnivore such as a crocodile.  Freed from captivity and making a home for itself in the fertile marshlands around nearby Tarascon, it would naturally terrify the local people, who had never seen anything like it before.  It’s conceivable that over time, such an animal would have become a part of the popular imagination in the area.

Whatever the truth of the matter, it is a great story that goes to my point about St. Martha being a cat person.  Dogs are often so very easy to like, that it takes someone with very special qualities indeed to appreciate a good cat – or in this case, a tamed river monster.  For all of her supposed hauteur, the fastidious St. Martha reached out to a creature which everyone else had dismissed as unlovable, showed it compassion, and civilized it.  The creature’s downfall came at the hands of those too ignorant to appreciate the value of life, and indeed the possibility of conversion.

In retrospect, perhaps our contemporary society could take a valuable lesson from this legend, after all.

Detail of "St. Martha" by Unknown Artist (18th Century) Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilization, Paris

Detail of “St. Martha and the Tarasque” by Unknown Artist (18th Century)
Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilization, Paris




Playing the Online Hero, Offline


An interesting study was issued recently by psychologists at the University of Illinois, suggesting that the profile pictures or “avatars” that people choose to use in online gaming may subconsciously influence how they see themselves, and how they treat other people.  Researchers found that when subjects thought of themselves as Superman, they were less likely to harm someone else when given an opportunity to do so (in a minor way) in real life.  Conversely, when the subjects identified with the evil Lord Voldemort from “Harry Potter”, they were far more likely to take advantage of a real-life opportunity to harm someone else – again, even if only in a minor way.

Obviously there are potential implications from this study with respect to violent video games, and these results will be pored over by experts in developmental psychology. However rather than focusing on the negative conclusions one might reasonably draw from such findings, it might be more useful to look at them as another example of science proving a human trait which, instinctively, we all share.  Humans want to know about other humans to look up to, and to model themselves after, even if realistically they only are able to achieve that mirroring in the smallest of ways.

We should first clarify what this study is NOT. These findings are not some sort of justification to go out on a make-believe crusade and behave like an idiot, thereby running the risk of injuring oneself or others.  Sadly, in this day and age, such a caveat is in fact necessary.  Yet putting aside those with some sort of street vigilante death wish, there is something anciently, fundamentally human about the practice of talking about heroes, real or imagined, and then looking to those heroes as examples.

In ancient cultures, stories were of course told about the exploits of the gods, but legends were also told about humans who did extraordinary things.  The touchstones of Western literature, The Iliad and The Odyssey, are accounts of the deeds and exploits of such men and women, designed to make those who heard them appreciate the differences between good and evil, right and wrong.  In the process, authors such as Homer hoped that the audience would be inspired by the pursuit of good, and shun the embrace of evil.  Perhaps the average Greek would never get to slay ferocious beasts like Hercules in these kinds of stories or in the art they inspired, but they could discern the better aspects of his character and behaviour, and try to imitate his example in their own lives, while simultaneously avoiding the excesses of his personal pitfalls.

Fast-forward to Ancient Rome, and we have the real-life cult of the gladiators.  In ancient graffiti in the Coliseum and throughout the Roman Empire, we see evidence of people arguing heatedly over which of the arena performers was the greatest.  Although they were not gods or demi-gods themselves, these men who fought one another in public garnered huge followings as people projected themselves onto both their actual exploits on the sands, as well as the legends being told about them, which circulated like court gossip.  It allowed the average Roman citizen to imagine that he could fight a wild beast or a savage enemy himself, if put to the test, even if he led a reasonably uninteresting life in some provincial capital.

Today, to those who think they are too sophisticated to fall into such practices, one would suggest they look about the next time they go out in public – or for that matter, cast an accusing eye into the mirror.  See that fellow wearing the jersey with Alexander Ovechkin or Peyton Manning’s name and number emblazoned on it?  Is he really any different from that ancestor inspired by tales of adventure and heroism to go out and try to do more than he thought himself capable of?

Even those staying up late to watch this year’s Winter Olympics from Russia on television are, at least sociologically, the descendants of those who engaged in such celebrations of other people’s achievements at the original games back in Ancient Greece.  Most of those watching the Olympics have absolutely no hope whatsoever of competing at an elite level in any of the sports on screen.  Yet as human beings they still feel inspired, at least on a subconscious level, by these athletes.  They continue watching and cheering, whether for reasons of health, patriotism, or in admiration of human ability and determination.  And perhaps for some of them, the positive examples of these men and women take hold, even if only in a small way.

The conclusions to be drawn from this research study are too many to treat in a single blog post, and I am certainly not qualified to even attempt to make them all.  Yet these results clearly do speak to a fundamental human need for heroism.  We want – need – to feel that we can achieve much more than others or perhaps we ourselves think we are capable of.  The Greeks learned this about themselves from Odysseus’ experiences, as that character came to understand himself, just as we also can do from Bilbo and Frodo Baggins, Clark Kent, Peter Parker, and Harry Potter, lo these thousands of years later.