The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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July 16, 2012

Meeting our cultural overlords at Comic-Con

SAN DIEGO — I understand the allure of comic books. Stunning artwork. Twisting plots. Serial cliffhangery.

What I've never been clear on is why this visual and narrative approach is so pressed into the service of stories about people who wear capes and fly through the air. How did it come to be that comic books -- and comic-book-inspired movies, and the fans who adore those movies, and the culture at large -- are all deeply obsessed with the notion of the superhero?

Thursday afternoon at Comic-Con, I attended a panel that I hoped might shed some light on the matter. A group of academics had convened in a medium-size conference room to explore the past and the future of superhero studies. What flavor of seminar was this? Let us note that when the projector clicked on, the first slide was a photo of Carl Jung.

University of Oregon professor Ben Saunders ("I was hired to teach Shakespeare, but since I got tenure I've been teaching comic books") walked us through a few of the superhero discipline's major themes. First: The notion that superheroes are merely the latest iteration of an age-old concept. For it was Jung who posited that every culture, in every place and time, will compulsively rehash certain myths and symbols. Among these, and most relevant to our purposes, is the "hero's journey."

As described by the Austrian psychoanalyst Otto Rank, the hero's journey goes something like this: 1) The hero is a child of privilege, born to distinguished parents. 2) Those parents are somehow threatened. The child is abandoned. 3) The child is saved by a surrogate caregiver. 4) The hero, now grown, rediscovers his origins and finds his purpose.

You may recognize this hackneyed plot structure from high-concept, tent-pole properties such as Moses, Oedipus, Gilgamesh, and Hercules. More recently, it has bolstered the biographies of Tarzan and Luke Skywalker. And, yes, Superman and Batman.

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