Modern Day Mythology: Part 1

I was always planning on doing a post related to the idea that superheroes are on the same level as that of the mythical stories and epics that have a powerful presence in literature and culture.  Superman is our modern Achilles-the greatest hero who ever lived-who is near invincible save for one small weakness. We have pantheons of gods like The Living Tribunal or The One Who is Above All just to name a very, very few. Even the heroes whose stories we follow can be placed in annals and archives of feats of previous gods, demigods, and heroes who perform great feats.

Superheroes have had a great influence on pop culture within the last couple decades or so. What was once a certain demographic in isolation has broken open to be widely accepted by various peoples and cultures from all over the world. This has been a thought in my mind ever since I got into art history in college and really attempted to break down the motifs and characteristics within classical and neoclassical artworks. I think if I ever wanted to get my Master’s in Art History, this thought is what my thesis would be on. The cool thing is there is an online class called The Rise of Superheroes and Their Impact on Pop Culture being offered by the Smithsonian Institution by way of EdX (pronounced Ed-ex.) It is a class that they are covering online which is fantastic for some of us who are too busy to go to a physical class. The best thing about it is that it’s free.

We will be hearing from various people such as Stan Lee, Michael Uslan, David Uslan, and Dr. Christopher Robichaud who will cover various origins and reasons as to why comic book characters were created and even compare how they have influenced American culture and have grown as a pop culture force to be reckoned with. So essentially this is a shout out to bring to light if you have the opportunity to take this class, I recommend you go for it. Already, excitement is buzzing within the discussion pages as people from all over the world are gathering together under a common love of comics and the pursuit of knowledge. Once the course is over, I’ll probably post more thoughts on this.

-Will

Art

Gotham…I See What You Did There

I loved art history in college. One of my art history professors mentioned something along the lines of, ” Art is like a secret conversation and art history is the code to unlocking and understanding the conversation that is being spoken.”

“Art is like a secret”

Gradually as I continue to immerse myself in varying forms of visual media, I keep finding instances of how true this statement is. If there is something that references a historical artwork or other established media, those that understand the reference have a deeper and richer understanding of the tone, ideas, and conversation that is being presented to the viewer.

A couple weeks back when I was writing a draft for my post Too Much of A Good Thing, I used the painting Oath of the Horatii by Jacques Louis-David. It so happened that while I was typing this draft, I was watching the second episode of Gotham  as well. It turns out coincidentally, that I caught this painting in the background over the mantle in Wayne Manor. This painting shows up in episode three and sequentially many episodes after as well. It keeps distracting me and so I decided to get this information off of my chest.

The thing that I love about entertainment mediums is the use of visual clues to help enrich the story and elevate it as more than just a tv show. It allows you to take advantage of something that isn’t available in literary narratives but can give a message to the viewer on a subliminal level. Wanna see what I mean? Check this perspective on visual storytelling. Anyways, let’s get a look at this painting again.

Oath of the Horatii by Jacques Louis-David

 

The fact that this painting has been put into the show is a visual but subtle reference to the philosophy and ideology that drives that characters and themes of this movie. The story behind this painting is that Rome and Alba Longa are at war with one another. The Horatii (depicted on the left) are three brothers who inevitably have to fight an opposing family known as the Curaitii. The brothers are shown taking an oath to fight to the death for their country. In true Shakespearean fashion, tragedy must take precedence. The women are mourning because they know that this oath could lead the men to their deaths and bereft the women of whom they love. In the case of one of the women, Sabilla, is the sister to the brothers but is also married to one the men in the Curaitii family. (This is literary gold! It’s like a soap opera) She is torn between both sides and either way she will lose someone she loves.

I could spend a ton of time picking apart this piece with lines and color and architecture, but I won’t. My main focus is on the message and idea of the piece itself. Within Roman art, it reflected their ideology of what was important for a Roman citizen- how they should act and be and what they should strive for. Virtue was one of the things most prized for a patriot of Rome. The greatest honor you could do would be to die for your country. Everything that you did was to be for the betterment of Rome in thought, word, and deed. Looking on the expressions of the brothers, they look resolute in their decision. They lack no fear and are driven by the conviction that what they are doing is the right thing to do. Despite everything that will go wrong (and they know it), they still face the war that will come.

“There’s a war coming. A terrible war.”

– Oswald Cobblepot, Gotham

This is why I love that this painting is included in Gotham. For me, I interpret the Horatii brothers as Jim Gordon, Bruce Wayne, and Alfred Pennyworth. These three men (I use the word loosely) are perfect mirrors to what the Horatii stand for. If you are familiar with these characters and the roles that they play within the comics, you know how much they have fought, won, lost, and suffered in fighting for Gotham City. Though their experiences vary between them, they all have lost. Gordon loses his family in more ways than one. At times he is alone in his fight. Bruce Wayne suffers physical and mental ordeals each time he puts on the suit and trauma forever plagues him when he loses his parents. Alfred suffers with being both guardian and servant wanting to protect and heal the little boy that was destroyed, yet dutifully serve in the crusade against crime. All of these men face war head on yet they do it for the betterment of Gotham City.

While not the most subtle message that they could have taken, it is a prime example of what these three driving forces are as they are integral to what the future of the Batman narrative becomes. If you’ve never noticed this before or taken the time to consider what the meaning of various included background objects, I suggest next time you do. As you can see, suddenly Gotham has a little more weight, a little more meaning, and a little more context that makes it better than what it would have been if it wasn’t included. Gotham…I see what you did there.

-Will

 

Art TV Shows

Too Much of a Good Thing?

I don’t remember a lot of the books that I read as a kid. One that I do remember was Strega Nona by Tomie dePaola. The story focuses on this woman who does a lot to help people within her town. (or was it city?) She gets an assistant one day and he ends up spying on her as she cooks pasta from a magic pot. However he doesn’t notice that she blows three kisses to turn the pot off. The woman goes away for a bit and the assistant ends up using the pot to make pasta. Since he didn’t know how to stop the magic pot, it kept making more and more pasta until the town overflowed. The old woman comes back and stops the pot and then punishes the assistant by making him eat all of the pasta to clean up the town. By the end of the book he is stuffed. I know if I ate that much pasta, I’d be sick of it.

The reason I mention this story is because when I was trying to remember what this book was, the pasta flooding the town was most clear in my brain. In a similar sense, within the past several years, there has been an explosion and growth of comic related media flooding pop culture mostly in part because of the Marvel movies that have been so successful. DC Comics is no pushover themselves what with the constant stream of animated movies (check them out they are actually pretty good) and domination of the silver screen with shows like Gotham, The Flash, Arrow, and Constantine making waves of anticipation/excitement and recent mentions of Supergirl and Titans as well. Now I am extremely excited to really see how these shows will play out and I hope that they will connect with their viewing audience, but I can’t help but wonder…

Are there too many superhero shows/movies being released?

Before I get into modern examples, let me present what I’m getting at. I’ll present a blanket overview to art history. Within the art world, there are various movements and styles of art that arise due to an over saturation or an overflow of a style and the resulting response is a pushback and a counter to the resulting over saturation. For an example let’s look at Neo Classicism. This movement focused on presenting the idealized form commonly depicted within Greek and Roman art. The artwork expressed ideas like virtue, honor, and values while mirroring these themes with its clean lines, noble figures and calm demeanor.

Eventually though, there was so much of it going around, that it became tired and overused. Out of that rose Romanticism. This movement was it’s complete antithesis. No longer were figures stoic and graceful in situations, rather emotion was the very epitome of the movement. Brush strokes remained unblended and emotion spoke plain as day on the faces of the subjects. Essentially you could feel emotion and angst oozing from the tones of the paintings. A common theme within Romantic art was the emphasis on the greatness of nature especially that above the fragility of humanity. This rise and fall, ebb and flow happens in so many different areas of our lives that it is not hard to predict that it will happen. Clothing trends (I’m looking at you high waisted shorts), dime-a-dozen novels (remember when vampires were all the rage?), celebrities, so on and so forth. It is inevitable and this is  just a natural part of human thought and progress.

 

For me, I’m waiting for a pushback against this culture that has risen so quickly through the ranks. However, I can see subtle instances of this happening now. In 2008, we had the release of Iron Man. (I know, I know we’ve had various comic book/ superhero movies made before then, but at this moment was the first in this modern generation of superhero movies that we have.) Anyways, as we follow the timeline, all the other superhero movies have pretty much followed the same styles and tropes all the way up until 2014.

Enter, Guardians of the Galaxy. This movie has it all the music, the action, the storytelling, the comedic timing, the perfect cast.  All of these things had a strong hand in it’s success. However, I feel that on a subliminal level, the reason why it was so successful was that because in all the superhero movies that we have seen, this movie is different. It is the beginning of a  “pushback” against the traditional superhero movie in that these characters are not the tried-and-true nor the do-gooders. The group is a bunch of rag tag misfits, rejects, and losers. (Firefly anyone?) But we get excited to see them in action and to root for these characters despite their weaknesses and flaws and social ineptitude.

Consider this, generally at some point, the hero is outmatched and outgunned and it seems as if all hope is lost. For most traditional movies the solitary hero would let the villain monologue and when the opportunity presents itself, the bad guy beat down would ensue. Instead, one of my favorite scenes was when Peter Quill (Star Lord) distracts Ronan. He starts singing and dancing and I was just as shocked as Ronan was. Who dances and sings their way to victory? Apparently Peter Quill does.

Now I have slightly digressed. What I mean to say is that these characters do not fit the traditional mode for our A-list heroes. But we have seen so much of that already that with the established tone of Guardians of the Galaxy, it is refreshing to break from the machine that has been established. This led me to ponder a couple of questions.

Will the world tire of superhero movies?

Will the world ever get tired of superheroes?

In answering the first question. I think yes eventually the world will tire of superhero movies even just for a little bit. Everything has its place in time and everything has a rise and fall, an ebb and flow.  I don’t know when or how soon it will happen, but eventually there will be such an over saturation within pop culture that there will be too much of it. Could I be wrong? I sure hope so. But just like those high waisted shorts, trends always come back. There may be a decline sooner or later, but will the world ever get tired of superheroes? I say never. The thing that I love about superheroes (and comics in general). The characters will ALWAYS be relevant as they are being updated to reflect the time and culture of the era. We’ve seen many changes occurring within the comic world as the stories are not just simply for stories, but a commentary on humanity as a whole. The condition of our minds and how we live. We see steps being taken to increase diversity and equality within comics by including characters of various backgrounds, gender, and nationality just to name a few. Thought they may be small steps, they are gradual steps nonetheless.

In conclusion, though we may have a large influx of various comic book movies and TV shows, superheroes bring what we love to see in comics as an art form, as a story, as a great literary work. For now, I think that superheroes are here to stay. They have great adaptability and staying power and can be multigenerational when applied in the right context. For now I say we enjoy the ride and appreciate the fact that geeks and nerds pretty much rule the world right now.

-Will

Art Comics Food For Thought