Sunday, 20 May 2012

Revising the Origin Story

Every superhero, masked avenger, costumed adventurer and cosmic crusader has an origin story explaining how he acquired his powers and/or what motivated him to fight crime. The Lone Ranger's origin story is a classic. A band of Texas Rangers is ambushed, shot and left to die. One, nursed back to health by an Indian, survives, recovers and dons a mask to avenge the others. He could have been any of them: the Lone Ranger. The World War II Blackhawk Squadron comprised aviators of different nationalities each of whom had lost a family member to the Nazis. At least, I think each of them had lost a family member - unless I am now elaborating the myth. The Phantom is like a combination of Tarzan and the Batman with the extra dimension of many generations of Phantoms. Alan Moore's V wages a vendetta against those who imprisoned him in Room V of a concentration camp.

Origin stories can be revised or even completely changed when characters are revamped. Superman always comes from Krypton, grows up in Smallville and lives in Metropolis but all the details can change. Like everything else in comics, revamps have been done well, then overdone badly. DC Comics did it well to celebrate their fiftieth anniversary in the mid-'80's. Many major characters were renewed and their stories needed to be told for another fifty years, not changed again, yet again and even again as I write in September 2011. When a character is changed, the previous version should be satisfactorily concluded, not terminated mid-narrative.

The origin story, and I do mean "story," for Christian civilization was the New Testament. Hebrew prophets and Classical heroes were two series of prequels. In the Classical tradition:

Titans preceded Olympians;
the Titan Prometheus gave humanity civilizing arts;
the Argonauts saw Prometheus, bound by Olympians;
the Argonauts' sons fought at Troy;
Aeneas escaped from Troy;
his descendant, Romulus, founded the new Troy, Rome;
Caesar inspired the Roman Empire;
Constantine Christianized the Empire and moved its capital to Byzantium, renamed Constantinople.

Christ, identified with the Logos or "Word" (ret-conned from Greek philosophy to the Biblical creation), had fulfilled:

the promise to Abraham;
the priesthood of Melchizedek;
the Law of Moses;
the prophetic tradition as represented by Elijah;
the kingship of David;
the role of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah;
the role of the Son of Man in Daniel;
the roles of both purified priest and perfect victim in the sacrifice of atonement  -

- and had exercised divine power over the elements by calming a storm while walking on the waters that had been separated (we now realize by himself) at the creation. This comprehensively powerful being was able to cross-over from the Abrahamic tradition to the Promethean tradition and specifically to the Roman state religion, there to displace the Olympians who had bound Prometheus for civilizing mankind. The Homeric epics about the Trojan War and its Greek aftermath and the Virgilian epic about its Italian aftermath remained secular literary parallels to the Bible and Geoffrey of Monmouth presented the Kings of Britain, including the heroic Arthur, as descendants of Aeneas. To continue the comparison with comics, the epics resemble Golden Age back issues. (An alternative mythical history was presented by the Anglo-Israel theory that traced British monarchy back to the Lost Tribes.) 

Thus, Promethean and Abrahamic traditions converged in John, who identified Christ with Logos, and in Constantine, who Christianized the Empire. Coincidentally or otherwise, Alan Moore named a powerful fictitious magician John Constantine. If names have any power, then combining the names of the Fourth Evangelist and the first Christian Emperor, thus uniting spiritual and imperial power, must be powerful indeed. Moore's other contributions to these traditions were:

a personification of the original darkness that was before the creation;
an angel who remained neutral during the War in Heaven;
a feminization of Prometheus as "Promethea."

(Christian apologists ask: what was special about Jesus that made the earliest Christians apply every possible religious title to him? Marxists ask: what was special about social conditions that required a new ideology comprising a synthesis of all previously existing religious concepts? Christians claim that Jesus changed the world. Marxists argue that Gentile Christianity, mainly formulated by Paul, provided a unifying ideology for an already existing world empire. Paul supported slavery and a strong state.)

Narratives converge when comics publishers merge or when one company buys characters from another. Kal-El had come from Krypton in one fictitious universe. Shazam had empowered Billy Batson in an unrelated fictitious universe. Neither character existed in relation to the other despite competing for sales. Then the Superman publisher bought Captain Marvel. Now the two universes co-existed in one multiverse where interversal travel was possible so that the characters could meet. Almost anything can happen in fantastic fiction, as in religious belief. However, later changes to the multiverse strained plausibility beyond reason.

Superman's creators likened him to the Biblical strong man, Samson, and to the Classical strong man, Hercules. His Kryptonian name incorporates a Biblical word for a god, "El." The Mosaic divine name is incorporated in the names of Kal-El's Kryptonian father, Jor-El, and of his terrestrial foster father, Jonathan. Shazam combines the wisdom of the Biblical Solomon with the powers of several Classical gods and heroes, including Hercules. The Greeks had a wise man called not Solomon but Solon but this name would not have been known to Captain Marvel's readers or, probably, his creators.
To re-interpret Christian origins is to revise the origin story. We tell new stories in a familiar setting: 

Jesus did not die on the cross and revived in the tomb
the tomb was found empty because the body, buried hastily before the Sabbath, had already been moved elsewhere, perhaps back home to Galilee,
, like other crucifixion victims, he was buried in a mass grave and the tomb burial story originated in the oral tradition.
The man on the road to Emmaus was not Jesus...etc. 

But these are side-bar stories for post-Christian secular society whose prequels, starting with Thales, include Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Darwin etc. Our world-view is part story, part knowledge, and the proportion that is knowledge has increased.


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