ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON REPUBLIBOT ON 10/20/09
The great question in pop-culture studies is “Why?” Why Star Wars and why baseball? Why The Matrix and why Madonna? Why Sponge Bob and why Big Macs? Why do these things capture our cultural imagination.? The “Why?” of comic books was addressed in M. Night Shyamalan’s 2000 film, Unbreakable. There he sees language as originating in pictures. Says the Samuel Jackson character:
I believe comics are a last link to an ancient way of passing on history. The Egyptians drew on walls. Countries all over the world still pass on knowledge through pictorial forms. I believe comics are a form of history that someone, somewhere, felt or experienced.
In Unbreakable, Shyamalan offers a theory of myth as a concrete picture language that precedes modern language forms. These images, surviving in a kind of collective human unconscious, intrudes into contemporary culture through comic art. What it reveals is an archetypal or universal pattern of the hero, what the great Myth theorist Joseph Campbell called the Monomyth: a single story being told over and over again in all the stories of heroes from all throughout time.
Think of atoms—those tiny high school chemistry building blocks from which all the physical objects in the universe are made. Certain stories are like that. They’re made up of a series of unchanging elements (like atoms), producing patterns (like molecules) that repeat over and over again. There are atoms of human experience which, when put together, create patterns which C. G. Jung called archetypal. These archetypal patterns are blueprints to the hidden nature of reality itself, blueprints that are revealed in the stories we tell. Call them archetypal or mythic, certain kinds of stories appear all over the world, all throughout history—these are the stories that take hold of the foundations of the world.
It’s a theory that also appeared in the 1920s in the work of Owen Barfield, whose book Poetic Diction had a profound influence on the thought and writing of his friends J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis. What Owen Barfield found in studying the history of language was that a strong distinction between a sign (like the word “cow”) and its signified (the actual cow) is new to human thinking. For people before the Modern era (even up through the Medieval period), to name a thing was to invoke it. Speech had physical consequences in the world; words were what they signified. According to Barfield, language was much more like concrete reality for the majority of human history than it is today, which is to say that language had the same kind of power over us that pictures (and music) often have now.
In other words, for most of human history, language has been, like any picture, as much an object as the things it refers to. It should be no wonder to us, then, that we constantly push language to adopt more concrete forms—combining words with music or with pictures in comic books, movies and computer programs (computers, for instance, only became a widespread cultural phenomenon when they became less about abstract symbols and more about pictures, their program structures altered from the confusion of DOS to the clarity of Windows). Comics about superheroes may be less than a hundred years old, but stories of superior heroes are not, and neither are pictures of their exploits. We’ve simply translated them using modern technology, converting our oldest myths into comics and movies. Comics are a product of our mythic mind, a way of thinking older than science or philosophy, and thus more primal in what they reveal.
But if one “Why?” has been answered, we are nevertheless left with many more. My question is, “Why Wolverine?” Superman, Batman and Spider-Man have entered the American psyche—moving past the sub-culture of comic readers into mainstream awareness. At the fringe of that awareness lies the hero who has replaced Spider-Man as the popular “top dog” of the Marvel universe among that comic reading sub-culture. But like a creature roaming the edge—that place where civilization and wilderness meet— Wolverine waits to claw his way into our mass cultural vision. Or perhaps, as his presence and popularity in the X-Men films suggests, he is already there, but the creature that he is forces us to exile him to that edge, to the place in our collective, civilizing consciousness where we can safely coexist with what the Wolverine is. This then is the quest: