In the first two parts of this series I discussed the parallels between comics and classical mythology, and how both forms share a habit of reinterpreting and retelling stories. But there is one huge factor linking the two that no discussion on the topic would be complete without. In both myth and comics, the heroes act as symbols for ideals. They represent the ideas and values that humanity strives towards, embodying the best of us. Often both deliver a moral message to their audience through the actions of their characters, adding deeper meaning beyond the surface level.
As a child, Bruce Wayne represents grief, consumed by the death of his parents. As Batman, he represents justice in his quest to vanquish crime in Gotham City. We’re even explicitly reminded of the idea that Batman is a symbol throughout Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy: anyone could be the Batman if they embody the same values as him, anyone could be that same symbol.
Superman, the first superhero, most often symbolized hope and optimism. Despite not being human, he always sees the best of humanity. For Superman, there is always a way out of dark times, and he will always be there to help and defend the beloved people of his adopted world.
Despite the popular conception of her as a hardened warrior woman, Wonder Woman is a symbol of love and protection. She leaves her homeland of Themyscira to fight the forces of evil in man’s world, a place she barely knows yet vows to defend with all her strength. Princess Diana never begins a fight without first extending a helping hand to her opponents, always demonstrating her love and compassion for every living thing.
Barry Allen, the Flash, often represents hope (one character on the CW TV series The Flash even saying Barry’s hope is his true superpower), as well as selflessness and dedication. Barry constantly goes the extra mile in helping the citizens of his hometown Central City. On more than one occasion he has rescued tenants of burning apartment buildings, using his super-speed to repair damage to the building and check on each member of the crowd to make sure everyone is alright. With rare exceptions, Barry puts everyone else before himself, ensuring the needs of others are met before his own.
The Green Lantern, who gains his powers through an alien ring that channels pure willpower, stands for perseverance. Hal Jordan’s indomitable will is his greatest strength, his ability to weather almost any catastrophe often serving as an inspiration to other heroes around him.
Aquaman, the half-human king of Atlantis, is often portrayed as an outcast and weighed heavily with the burden of responsibility. Born to a human father and Atlantean mother, Arthur Curry is scorned by both populations, feeling as if he never truly belongs. As not only a member of the Justice League, but also the king of Atlantis, Aquaman has immense responsibility to both the people of the surface and the people of the seas. And even with his pariah status, he still does all that he can for the citizens of both worlds.
Victor Stone, who as Cyborg is a mix of biology and technology, shows us what it means to be human. Cyborg has become more machine than man, yet at times is one of the most human characters of the DC universe.
As symbols of the ideals and values of humanity, these characters and others gain their most enduring qualities. Their ability to stand for truth, justice, and as counters to forces of evil and oppression, is what has truly enabled them to become so popular within modern culture, just as the heroes of myth have endured in the public consciousness since antiquity.
– Levi Raab