As with most kids, I loved comic books.
In fact, I still do. Amazing Spider-man, Uncanny X-men, The Dark Knight — from the first panel frame to the last double-page full bleed, I’m hooked. As a child, I spent hours in the comic book section of the mall, disappearing into worlds where super powered aliens in red and blue tights were the social norm. But at a certain age I was expected to view comic book archetypes as “silly” and unrealistic. If I showed any interest in cultivating my love of comic books, I ran the risk of being shunned by the majority of my social group (ah, high school).
Caving to peer pressure, I put away the idea of superheros and mutants, and looked at the comic book as a childish form of entertainment. It was not until I developed a renewed interest in things metaphysical (Taoism, Neo-Shamanism, Thelema, Tantra, etc.) that I resurrected my love for comic books. As I read through descriptions of the archetypal Shaman and Yogi, I began to see strong parallels with my boyhood role models (see: Spiderman, Batman, Superman, The X-men).
When examining the story of Batman through the lens of the medicine-man or woman, we see a modern day neo-shaman using his personal power to exorcise and integrate the imbalances of fear and anger. The story begins when a young Bruce Wayne witnesses the murder of his mother and father. While still in his adolescence, Bruce is initiated by the mysterious power of death. Discovering his animal medicine through an ancestral plea, Bruce finds his name of power and discovers the ability to shape-shift into The Batman. Dropping his artificial persona, the bat medicine takes hold.
The transformation can be seen in his body language and costume, heard in his voice, and felt in his eerie presence. Traveling in his shamanic form only at night (the spirit realm), Batman employs the use of a number of tools to realize his intentions. Similar to the fetishes employed by a shamanic healer, Batman neutralizes the sickness of his city (organism) through the use of bat-a-rangs, hyper-sonics, and physical combat. Flight, considered a unique ability of the shaman, is achieved through a rigid cape and cowl that allows Batman the ability to effortlessly glide through the night sky.
Lastly, his arch-nemesis, The Joker, embodies the prime example of the Contrarian or Trickster archetype. Perhaps one of the most difficult Native American archetypes to truly integrate and learn from, The Trickster provides an alternative and often alien viewpoint in direct contrast with the social norm. Constantly pushing Batman to the edge of sanity, The Joker expands and refines Batman’s capacities through misdirection and surprise. The perfect “Heyoka,” and a very appropriate teacher for a young shaman.
The parallels extend beyond Native American symbolism. The Bhagavad Gita, an ancient Indian text on Yoga, further exemplifies the modern super-myth connection. Take any member of the “JLA” or “Avengers” and you will find a young Arjuna on the battlefield. For the sake of near universal accessibility, let us use Superman as our primary example of the ideal Yogi or Saint.
Comparing the “superhero’s journey” to that of a saint we see a number of immediate parallels. First, the neophyte discovers deep inner reservoirs of (spiritual) power, and through accepting responsibility of that power, the aspirant comes to know their true self, their “Superman.” The aspirant is then tested; will they use their power to improve their condition, or will he or she use their energy solely for egoistic personal gain?
In the case of Superman, this unlimited power is channeled into selfless service, a common “higher calling” of a saint or self-realized individual. Contrary to most superheros, Clark Kent is the costume, and Superman/Kal-El represents his true identity. In the case of a Yogi, the personality (Clark Kent), is likened to a veil that when transcended exposes the True Self or Atman (Superman).
Looking at Superman’s arch-nemesis, Lex Luthor, we are treated to a picture-perfect symbol of the distorted ego. The ego is essential, in that it keeps us alive and provides a strong survival instinct, but in Lex’s case it has become addicted to greed and power. Superman, as a story, provides a clean, self-contained package detailing the inner struggle of embodying higher ideals, while maintaining a healthy “ego balance.”
Perhaps a future reference manual for practicing Chaos Yogis, superheros and comic books extend beyond repackaging spiritual archetypes. The story of the X-Men, for example, acts as a social symbol for the increased cultural awareness of conscious evolution and para-psychological phenomena. The X-Men’s source of power, spontaneous genetic mutation, has proven to be a prophetic metaphor for the recent field of epigenetics. Mutation and the power of differentiation encourages readers to embrace their uniqueness as a strength, instead of a social burden.
The possibility of an individual transforming into superhuman form based solely on what is already inside of them (their genes) provides a strong analogy for self-worth and the acceptance of personal power. Despite the rich symbolism, the comic book is something many of us refuse to look at with a serious eye. Relegated to the area of our consciousness that was once hypnotized by flashy cereal boxes, the power of these stories lies dormant in our collective unconscious, quietly leaking out as we reinvent our classic myths and archetypes through the comic book medium. The bottom line is that the image of the superhero is about personal power. Perhaps that is why so many adults treat the subject matter as “childish.” We’ve become so good at giving our power away that we may only be capable of relating to the concept of the superhero from the perspective of a child: a being of true power.
Instead of pushing our kids into becoming a “Lex Luthor” in the name of a “comfortable life,” why not prescribe a copy of Uncanny X-men and encourage them to live a life less ordinary? Imagine parents encouraging the ways of the shaman or yogi over the Wall Street broker. It may be just what our next generation is unconsciously asking for. As someone who has most likely passed beyond the stereotypical comic-book reading age, how do you relate to the concept of the superhero? Lastly, if going to your local comic book store and grabbing a copy of Batman or The Green Lantern seems too “childish,” may I suggest you take a chance on a very special story titled, “Promethea.” An Eisner award-winning graphic novel, it’s sure to leave you with a few new ideas about your life and the reality you inhabit.
edited by Greg Eckard
Originally from Ottawa, Canada, Sascha Kyssa is fixated on conscious internal change. Obsessed with new experiences, Sascha thrives in a constantly changing environment. You can currently find him working on his pet project, “www.ChronicleandTale.com.”