Dr. Toon: Mouse, Marvel and Mythos
As they expanded their stable of heroes and villains, the scope of their stories grew. Every issue of every magazine seemed to hold a particle of the Apocalypse in its fervid pages, and to make things more interesting, the storylines twined across multiple issues, at times crossing over to another character's magazine. For a buck and a half, you could buy all of them every month and fill your dreams with heady adventure and peerless artwork. Sure, Superman, Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, and Batman were around, but they quickly lost ground against Marvel's new gods (as Jack Kirby might have it). Best of all, Marvel was able to reinvent itself several times through the decades, until it became an entertainment empire in its own right, with consumer products, TV productions and ancillary items galore.
Disney, as mentioned, was already in the myth business. It was becoming difficult for children to realize that many of Disney's films were taken from other sources. Disney managed to take control of a cultural phenomenon known as "standardization of interpretation." In simple terms, this means that one version of an artifact becomes definitive over all others within a given culture. This can sometimes be seen with consumer products, as in the case where all adhesive wound coverings are called "Band-Aids" despite the fact that there are rival versions. When an entire generation thinks of Pinocchio or Peter Pan, what instantly appears is a mental depiction of the Disney version. No one conjures up the illustrations that Enrico Mazzanti did for Carlo Collodi's book, nor do they consider the original stage version as conceived by J.M. Barrie. As Disney produced more films and characters, the company soon "owned" the myths that America's children (and later, their children) came to accept as a standard telling.
Disney has been assailed for doing so, in some cases not unfairly. The animated version of Peter Pan violated all but one rule set forth by Barrie for his stage productions of the story. Had Disney not done so, the world would not have a definitive image of Tinkerbelle, much less all of her BFFs that made their first appearance this year. Like Marvel, Disney also created original mythic tales; The Lion King is perhaps the best adaptation of Joseph Campbell's formulations than any other animated film ever done. At any rate, the bottom line is clear: two of the greatest mythmakers in history are now as one.
There are some near-precedents for this in history, but they haven't gone well. After Rome subjugated Greece, the Italian culture adopted the mythical Greek gods and changed their names as well as some of their properties. The conquerors infused some of their cultural sensibilities into the tales in the process. The new deities were duly worshipped amongst the Romans for awhile, eventually degenerating into what amounted to folk tales and then displaced by emperor worship. Emperor worship eventually crumbled under civil unrest, barbarian attacks, and a messianic religious sect that later came to be known as Christianity. Along all of these steps, the Romans forced these religious myths on every indigenous population they conquered, notably the Jews, who usually staged a bloody rebellion in response.
But that was then, and this is 2009. Myth is now recognized for what it is, and new visual components have been added to verbal tradition. Stir in a sophisticated, highly technological population and wired culture, and myths have a different meaning in the age of memes. If, say, a reviewer of some future project deemed Disney's use of a Marvel character as "heretical," no blood would be shed today. In truth, nothing but good can come of this merger, and I for one am excited by the possibilities. The technological tools of animation have never been sharper, and a series of live-action film franchises have Marvel's heroes riding a high tide, indeed. Let those who consider both Disney's animated cartoons and Marvel's comic books as lowbrow entertainment take heed; between the two storytelling giants may come a creative, artistic synergy that elevates mythology to Olympian heights. Now, Mr. Wolverine, from the top with PIZZAZZ!
Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.