The third and fourth stories from DC Comics’ The World’s Greatest Super-Heroes have the most mythological themes. This week, we’ll take a look at Shazam! Power of Hope by Alex Ross and Paul Dini. This features a mistreated boy named Billy Batson who can transform to an adult superhero by pronouncing the name of a wizard.
You want mythology? This story has it. The wizard’s name is Shazam, an acronym derived from the names of Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles, and Mercury. Billy becomes Captain Marvel, “earth’s mightiest mortal”, whenever he says this name. Since he exists alternately as a boy and a supernatural man, he has the characteristics of both. Even as an adult, Captain Marvel shows childlike sensitivity.
There are plenty of action sequences, but what affected me the most was the theme of Captain Marvel interacting with children in a hospital. The captain is advised by Shazam, the wizard, before embarking on this mission.
After he has been at the hospital for a while, there is a charming sequence showing the response given by the soul of a boy in the body of a man when he finds himself in a more adult situation: that of being affectionately thanked by the pediatric doctor of the children’s ward. It is innocently nuanced.
Well, I might as well admit it. The following sequence made me tear up (that’s masculine for “cry a little”). My wife is a school nurse, and this reminded me of a story she told me about one of her students.
The theme that I found the most powerful is that sometimes Captain Marvel isn’t enough, and it takes an ordinary boy like Billy to solve a serious problem.
It takes a human being to reach other human beings. In this sense, the incarnation in Christian doctrine makes sense to me. One of our greatest superpowers is that of being a friend.
There is a recurring theme in multiple mythologies. It is that of a man endowed with incredible strength. I’m sorry, ladies, but this concept emerged from male-dominated societies. I’m not talking about what should be – just what was. The nature of the strong man is varied. To explain this, let us examine some examples (sorry for the bizarre alliteration…).
This is his name in Greek mythology (Hercules in Roman mythology; you may have gathered by now that the Romans were borrowers). He is a demigod, the son of Zeus and a mortal woman named Alcmene. His prowess is therefore in between that of a god and a man. Below, he is shown as a child strangling a serpent that was sent to kill him.
But he got bigger…
and did stuff…
… sometimes very bad stuff, sometimes heroic stuff, sometimes a bit of both. He has been shamelessly ripped off by Marvel Comics…
and by DC Comics.
Just when I thought I was researching a fairly safe topic, I found out that things turned ugly in the DC Universe in the 1980s when he was portrayed as subduing and raping Queen Hippolyta of the Amazons, the mother of Wonder Woman. In this story, the Amazons in general were drugged and sexually assaulted by his men during a banquet of friendship (an attempt at peacemaking) hosted by the gracious Amazons after they had foiled a first attempt at conquest.
I found this out when I was looking for images to include in this post. I stumbled across a rather offensive and salacious illustration which I decided not to use. Why not? Because it’s my site, and I don’t want to. It was glossed-over, sugar-coated violence against women. Such subject matter began to be covered for purposes of realism, but the imagery and plot are unrealistic treatments. The ugly simply isn’t ugly enough. I have issued this warning before about comics and animation being used in this way. This example underscores the concerns I raised in my post, Graphic Mythology: A False Feminism.
Anyway, I read a synopsis or two of the story and looked into its historical background. It was released during an allegedly feminist period in the development of the Wonder Woman series – ironically, a time when artist and writer George Perez was consulting with Gloria Steinem. The extended story line involves revenge, punishment imposed by the gods, repentance, and forgiveness. That’s supposed to be a good turn of events, right? And then there was this…
Hippolyta has a brief romance with her reformed rapist. DC also did this in their critically acclaimed Watchmen in the sequence when Sally Jupiter willingly had a child by the Comedian some time after his unsuccessful attempt at assaulting her. My concern is that the above imagery and plot device (intentionally or not) reinforce the destructive falsehood that women actually like being sexually mistreated by men. Despite their sensationalism and controversy, these are examples of what has become a tired convention. Better stories are out there, waiting to be discovered/imagined.
The DC story I have been picking on from the Wonder Woman series is a very distorted version of the original myth concerning the ninth labor of Heracles in which he was told to take the belt of Hippolyte, which had been given to her by Ares, the god of war. Perhaps this is how the comic version got away with it. If you’ve read much about him, then you also know that Heracles was no Boy Scout.
Though western civilization is derived primarily from a combination of Judeo-Christian and Greco-Roman influences, the ancient Greeks clearly did not have politically correct morals and ethics when it came to the treatment of women. But I want to emphasize that we are not the ancient Greeks and that we should aspire to something better.