Dr. Toon: Mouse, Marvel and Mythos
Before we explore this theme, allow me to state that this buyout occupies no moral domain. It cannot be said that it is good, bad, benign or evil. The con-geeks of this world may rejoice and the enemies of capitalism may groan, but at bottom, both sense the truth: Myths have always been with humankind, and they will continue to be generated as long as Homo sapiens possess an imagination. Whether it is the ancient Greeks eventually turning religious polytheism into a soap opera filled with lusty and capricious gods or American film studios spending millions of dollars in order to put the stories of Batman, Spider-Man and Superman into theaters, the song remains the same: Humans are a myth-producing species.
Wolverine (despite the existence of a flesh-and-blood Hugh Jackman) is a mythical construct. So, in fact, is Mickey Mouse, who has an origin story, a chronological history and figurative temples and houses of worship dedicated in his name. Donald Duck has much the same, plus an extended family in the bargain. Disney, truth be told, has had more success integrating their own characters into American mythos than they have in animating actual American mythology (which we tend to call "folktales"). It is very likely that even most college students are more familiar with Goofy and Scrooge McDuck than they are with Paul Bunyan, Johnny Appleseed, Pecos Bill and even John Henry, despite Diz' reworking of this tale in 2000. Needless to say, they also are more likely to identify Iron Man than Ichabod Crane. America is a late entry in world civilization, with a history spanning about 400 years if one counts the earliest attempts at habitation by European cultures. It was also a nation conceived in monotheism, a religious conviction that pretty much ruled out the creation of new myths.
However, as we have noted, we must create myths. Since these myths were devoid of any other gods besides the god of Abraham, they had no religious content and were thus heavily tied to entertainment. It is no surprise that Westerns (as a genre) were among the first films to be produced, and that this genre continued to amass mythical power over the years.
Buoyed by dozens of film celebrities and later by television, the Western became the prime vehicle for the transmission of myths about this country. In 1959, 26 westerns were airing in prime time during a period when only three networks were broadcasting. Eight of the top 10 rated shows were Westerns. Add to this the fact that an extensive film library of westerns were also being shown to TV audiences during that time. But 1959 proved to be the peak year. Clearly, new myths were in order. They were to come from an unlikely source.
Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and several other talented artists and storytellers sensed that a new era was at hand. They were the caretakers of a largely moribund comic book company that, by 1960, seemed to facing extinction. Lee and company created America's next great myths by coming up with mighty, yet emotionally skewed characters who could just as easily be antiheroes. Spider-Man's original motivation, for example, was a paycheck. Lee was a Wagnerian at heart, and he infused his tales with mythic overtones. Bearing titles such as "If I Must Die…Let it be with Honor!," his stories packed enough drama to hook any adult reader. At his side was Jack Kirby, perhaps the most imaginative science-fiction illustrator ever to masquerade as a comic book artist. His specialty was the dramatic pose, and possibly no one ever did it better. Together they created superheroes that were freaks both to the public and to themselves.