The Superhero with a Thousand Faces


I always had the greatest admiration, not to mention affection, for Robert W. Funk, co-founder, with John Dominic Crossan, of the Jesus Seminar. A great man who had a vision and possessed the energy to realize it. I didn’t agree with him on everything, naturally. No one agrees on everything with anyone, much less everyone. But I guess my most important point of difference was a theoretical one, or maybe I mean a moot one. In some editorial or lecture somewhere, Bob Funk developed the idea that in the new millennium it would be necessary to get rid of the idea of the Hero. I think he feared it was an excuse for elitism, for some to think others better than themselves, as well as to use those they admired as an excuse not to be heroes themselves: “How could I ever measure up?” But it was plain to all of us associated with the Jesus Seminar that Bob Funk himself was a hero. He had faced many obstacles over the years and overcome them all, and he had managed to achieve his dream: creating a vehicle to promote genuine, critical religious literacy for America.

What I think he missed, because he was too close to it, was that heroes have the function of running a battle standard up the flagpole and rallying the courage of those who see it. The hero attracts heroes to himself, like Superman and the Justice League. The hero begets more heroes by revealing hitherto-unguessed possibilities. Sure, some may look at the efforts of a Schweitzer, a Dr. King, and say, “I could never do that!” But it seems just as likely that someone will look at those heroes and say, “Wow! I wouldn’t have thought a single human being could make such a difference! I guess it is possible, after all! Now where should I get started?”

That, in fact, is the philosophy of the superhero in DC comics: the powered “metahumans” have the effect of living parables for everyone else in Gotham City or Metropolis. Superman, for instance. Here is a man who is virtually a god, virtually omnipotent. Schleiermacher would have protested that there is not enough commonality between Superman and us for us to be inspired by him. But there is, as long as you remember your Aristotle. He said that the Unmoved Mover acts as a magnet drawing all finite beings to emulate its perfection so far as they can. They will never reach absolute perfection, but neither is there any point in their trying to do so (or despairing when they fail). No, their job is to attain their best possible fulfillment. For an acorn that would mean becoming the stoutest, strongest oak it can be. The housecat need not worry about not becoming a Bengal tiger. Why should he? And I need not worry about not being able to leap tall buildings with a single bound. But I can see that the world is better for the efforts of Superman (even if his exploits are fictional), and I can resolve to do what I can in my own little world.

A perfect illustration of this principle, that the superhero draws forth from us the best hero we can be, which is superheroism compared to our typical condition of indolent apathy, is the story in which Superman sees John Henry Irons, a construction worker, falling from a girder. The Man of Steel rescues him, sets him down, and says to him something like, “Now that you’ve got your life back, make something of it!” And he flies away. Irons becomes an inventor, an engineer. One day he hears the awful news that Superman is dead, killed by the monster Doomsday. He decides to take up the mantle of his hero. He has no super-powers. But he has his wits. He designs a suit of techno-armor (much like Iron Man from Marvel Comics) and dons a red cape and a metal chest-shield with an “S” inside it. He has become a new “Man of Steel.” He’s nothing compared to Superman, sure, but he can carry on the good fight in his own way. Nor is he the only one. Bibbo, a retired merchant marine, now a bar owner down at the docks, has been a great admirer of Superman, and now he puts on a Superman sweat shirt and rescues a kitten from a tree. It’s something. Maybe everybody together can equal Superman. And whether everyone or anyone else does, you can.

Heroes have limits, even if they are omniscient. One Superman tale pictures Superman/Clark Kent with his wife Lois about to turn in for the night. But Superman is easily disturbed, you see. Remember, he has super-hearing which apparently he cannot just turn off. Suddenly he picks up the sound of bickering, then beating, in the apartment next door. In an instant, he is suited up, flies out his window, and bursts through the neighbor’s wall. Grabbing the abusive husband by the collar he flies up into the sky and tells the guy, “If I ever hear you doing that again, I’ll be back, and then you can find your own way down!” Something to that effect. Well, he swoops back down to deposit the shook-up wife-abuser back in his apartment, only to find that the wife has summoned the police. The surprise is that they are after, not the husband, but Superman! You can’t help someone who will not help herself. Not even if you’re omnipotent.

Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell regard the hero myth as an archetype that sets the individual’s unconscious (if not conscious) agenda. Paul Tillich maintained that everyone, just about, has some ultimate concern, whether or not it is really worth such devotion, and that means everyone has some version of “faith,” since at bottom faith is not belief but concern. In the same way, everyone is living for something, to attain or to become something, and the determination to do so makes one a hero. To live out that agenda is to embrace the hero within. Vladimir Propp suggested that the origin of the hero myth is the story of the man winning the maiden. The suitor must prove his worth to her and, more important, to her father. If he is stubbornly opposed, the hero must defeat the father or at least his opposition to the marriage. From there the basic plot line got more and more elaborate and meaningful, with many possible grails and goals. Even the death of the hero is a triumph, so long as it is a heroic death. It must be seen as a Sartrean “final experience” that imparts an indelible essence of meaning. Such a death is the final word spoken of the life it concludes, whether or not the objective for which the hero died be gained.

Even what seems a life of quiet desperation may be heroic as long as the one condemned to the salt mine retains an inner freedom of triumph, as Sisyphus did. Thus there is always the opportunity to be a hero.

I am at least as captivated by comic books and superheroes as I am with the study of the Bible and religion, and that is quite a bit. So potent is the idea of the superhero that there seemingly cannot be too many iterations of it. As soon as Superman appeared on the scene in 1938, he called forth a vast legion of competitors, colleagues, imitators, etc., by both the same publisher and many others. There were hundreds overnight. Some did not last beyond one or two issues crammed as filler into the back pages. It is amazing to page through reference works listing these. Still more amazing to count the number of companies and superheroes that continue to debut on the comic racks today! There is no end to the hero myths, and no end to the need for them. Why? You will not be surprised to learn that Nietzsche explained it:


You still feel noble, and the others, too, feel your nobility, though they bear you a grudge and send you evil glances. Know that the noble man stands in everybody’s way. The noble man stands in the way of the good, too; and, even if they call him one of the good, they thus want to do away with him. The noble man wants to create something new, and a new virtue. The good want the old, and that the old be preserved. But this is not the danger of the noble man, that he might become one of the good, but a churl, a mocker, a destroyer.

Alas, I knew noble men who lost their highest hope. Then they slandered all high hopes. Then they lived impudently in brief pleasures and barely cast their goals beyond the day. Spirit, too, is lust, so they said. Then the wings of their spirit broke: and now their spirit crawls about and soils what it gnaws. Once they thought of becoming heroes: now they are voluptuaries. The hero is for them an offense and a fright.

But by my love and hope I beseech you: do not throw away the hero in your soul! Hold holy your highest hope!”

So says Zarathustra.

Robert M. Price
August 2008


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