It is almost a truism nowadays that comic books have taken over mass culture. Most of the highest-grossing films of the past few years have either been directly adapted from comic books, or inspired by their style of headlong action. Even a title as obscure as Guardians of the Galaxy became a billion-dollar "media property."
Graphic novels like Watchmen or The Dark Knight Returns gave comics some literary street cred in the 1990s, but now in 2015 comicdom is as all-pervasive as the Western was in 1950. You can have lighthearted adventure superheroes in film and TV, grim and gritty superheroes, highbrow deconstructed superheroes, self-referential parody superheroes . . . it's all superheroes, all the time.
One result is that comic-book storytelling techniques have seeped into other media. The old structure of the A-, B-, and C-plot in each issue has transferred very successfully to episodic television. There's the big Monster/Conflict/Mystery of the Month, the simmering secondary storyline which will become next issue's big showdown, and the first glimpses of a third-tier plot which will gradually work its way to the fore.
But others have described the influence and effect of comics on present-day media and fiction. I'd like to look back and see how a lot of the storytelling methods which have flourished in comics began much earlier — often before the spread of literacy. The three elements I'm going to focus on are: Crossovers and Team-Ups, All-Star Teams, and Retcons.
Crossovers and Team-Ups
The first superhero comics centered only on the adventures of their title heroes, and usually took place in a setting unique to that hero. Superman adventured in Metropolis, Batman fought crime in Gotham City, and that's where they stayed. But it wasn't long before publishers realized they could leverage the popularity of one hero to boost another title's sales (or give a new title a big introduction) by having one hero "cross over" into another character's comic book.
What modern readers may not know is that crossovers have been going on for a very long time indeed. L. Frank Baum had crossovers between the Oz books and some of his other children's fantasy novels, with exactly the same cross-promotion motive as comics publishers. H. Rider Haggard mashed up his popular Allan Quatermain books and his mystical stories of She (Who Must Be Obeyed), in the inevitable She and Allan crossover story.
But it goes back well before commercial fiction, too. Theseus and Heracles went on adventures together in Greek myths, which to my eye looks like a clear case of some itinerant Hellenic bard adding the local Athenian big-deal hero Theseus to his pre-existing cycle of Heracles stories in order to boost his appeal to listeners in Attica. Theseus also crossed over with the Thessalian hero Pirithous, for the battle against the Centaurs and the hunt for the Calydonian Boar.
However, if you really want to see the first superhero team-up issue, I think you have to look far, far back, to the first piece of written fiction we know about: the Epic of Gilgamesh. After various heroic feats, Gilgamesh encounters the wild man Enkidu. They battle, become friends, and henceforth tackle other menaces as staunch comrades. I have no way to prove it (unless someone reading this has a time machine and a working knowledge of ancient Sumerian) but I'm willing to bet that there was a story-cycle about Enkidu (lost some time in the past millennia) which originally was separate from the Gilgamesh epic. At some point a Sumerian storyteller got the bright idea to have Enkidu show up in a Gilgamesh tale, and the crossover story was born. It even follows the pattern of modern comic-book team-ups exactly: heroes meet and fight one another (typically due to mistaken identity or manipulation by the villain). However their sterling qualities soon become apparent and they put aside their conflict, finally tackling the real villain of the story.
An All-Star Team is the next obvious step after you've done a crossover. Instead of having just one of your heroes meet another one, why not have a story with ALL the popular heroes in it? And if that proves successful, you can keep them together and tell more super-epics!
If you're a troubador in medieval England, for instance, you might decide to combine all the tales of knightly romances and folk tales into one unstoppable superteam, the Knights of the Round Table! Gawain and Percival and Tristan and Arthur, all together at their secret headquarters in Camelot, fighting evil! Best of all, when some foreign character like Lancelot gains popularity, you can plug him right into the team (and ignore the grumbles from the old-school fans who think Lancelot's crowding out classic heroes like Pellinore or Loholt).
I suspect the same is true of Robin Hood's Merry Men. Friar Tuck is apparently well-attested as a separate character in his own stories, who got combined into the Robin Hood cycle. I'd bet Will Scarlet and Alan-a-Dale may also have started in their own comic books, so to speak, as they both seem suspiciously distinct and well-developed despite not showing up much in the stories — as if the audience could be expected to know who they were from other tales.
Again, one can go back to the Greeks for the original All-Star Team: the Argonauts. Modern readers may recognize some of the big names — Heracles, Orpheus, Atalanta — but all of the Argonauts were pre-existing heroes. Since each of them hailed from a different region of Hellas, a wandering singer of epics could perform the same piece in every town, possibly throwing in a few bonus lines or switching characters around to give the local hero a more prominent role.
But there's an even earlier version of the All-Star Team: the pantheons of ancient polytheistic religions. Consider the ancient Egyptian gods: who's the creator of the world? Well, if you lived in Memphis, it was Ptah. But if you were from up the road in Thebes, the creator was obviously Amun. Or possibly Atum. Or Khepri, or maybe Neith. It depended on who you talked to. Apparently "the" Egyptian religion was a combination of lots of local beliefs, combining gods from various cities into one team. Of powerful beings, each with a very distinctive iconography. Devoted to justice. Battling monstrous threats. Hmm . . .
A "Retcon" is comic fan jargon for "retroactive continuity" — the process whereby a character's history gets edited, either because the writers thought of something better or to explain away an inconsistency. So (for example) in Marvel's Avengers comic, the heroic android Vision was created by the villainous Ultron but turned against his creator and joined the heroes. Then it was revealed that Ultron had patterned Vision's mind on that of another Avengers member, Wonder-man, making them "brothers" in an odd sort of way (and paving the way for a romantic triangle when both of them were in love with the Scarlet Witch). Then it was revealed that Vision's android body was actually that of the original Human Torch of the 1940s. But then it was revealed that a cosmic entity had duplicated the original Human Torch so that one copy became the Vision while the other remained the Human Torch . . .
I'm about to get into some dangerous theological waters here, but it occurred to me a while back that the story of Moses can be seen as a nested series of retcons, just like the Vision.
When Moses was picked by the Lord to lead the Israelites out of Egypt, he was a shepherd, married into the tribe of Midian. But having a shepherd from a tribe you're not very fond of as your leader isn't very satisfying, so at some point chroniclers decided that Moses must have actually been an Egyptian prince, who had fled to Midian after accidentally killing a man. An aristocrat of the most powerful kingdom around — that's a fitting founder for a people trying to carve out a place for themselves.
But once the Hebrews did establish their own kingdom, and Egyptian prestige began its long slide, someone must have objected again: why would the Lord send an Egyptian to deliver the Israelites from Egypt? Wouldn't the God of Israel have chosen an Israelite? So then it turns out that Moses was really an Israelite foundling, raised as an Egyptian prince, who then became a Midianite shepherd, before leading the Israelites out of Egypt.
Can I prove this is a series of retcons? Not without that time machine I mentioned. Let's just say it's suggestive.
How did ancient myths and folktales wind up using the same storytelling devices as modern-day comic books? Well, oral tales (whether spoken or sung) have a lot in common with comics: they're serial narratives, and they have to appeal to a wide audience. Homer and Hesiod invoked the Muses when they composed, but of course they were hard-working professional story-crafters who knew what would sell and what wouldn't. The forms may be different, but the underlying skill is the same.
Until next time, True Believers: Excelsior! 'Nuff said!