Superman never made any money for saving the world from Solomon Grundy

Friday, November 5, 2010

The World's First Superheroes

Sometime ago, I ran across this title in a stack of 39-cent comics at the Goodwill:

Even though the shininess of the foil-embossing doesn't show well in the scan, you can almost feel the waves of pure nineties-ness radiating from this cover, drowning the poor, staid Scholastic logo under crashing waves of total awesomeness. The book does not disappoint.

Published in 1996, Hercules: The Strong Man is the first issue in a series of tales under the title Myth-Men: Guardians of the Legend, which presented stories of heroes and heroines of Greco-Roman myth. This inaugural edition gives a one-paragraph introduction to Hercules, takes four pages to summarize three of the twelve labors, and then spends the rest of the book telling of the theft of the three golden apples of the Hesperides. (SPOILER ALERT) The tale ends with the moral that Hercules was smart as well as strong.

All of this is told in lavish full-painted pages in a format somewhere between illustrated story (an awful lot of narrative weight is carried by text) and comics (there are word balloons that convey essential information).

While the form is pretty typical for "educational" comics, is the sensibility that is most striking: the ancient world of myth is depicted in that mishmash faux-medieval/quasi-classical/fantasy mode that was popularized by Xena: Warrior Princess, Dungeons and Dragons, and most versions of Lord of the Rings. Myth-Men is part Classics Illustrated comic and part Arnold Schwarzenegger movie, wrapped up in pretty paper that's only slightly homoerotic.

I'll leave it another time to deconstruct the whole story; what's more interesting to me right now is that there was a whole series of these. Although I haven't been able to track down any more issues, the back of the book promises even more mythic badassery and shiny, shiny outfits:

Now let's zoom in a little bit for a quiz - or perhaps more properly a survey, since I'm not 100% sure of the answers myself.

Can you recognize these heroic men and women after their makeovers? We know the big blond guy is Hercules, and numbers 2 and 3 look pretty much of the period, if not terribly distinctive. But who's number 1, the dark-skinned woman warrior on the left? Is silver-carapaced number 4 wielding a Klingon bat'leth? And is that Scarlett from GI Joe at position 5?

Tell me what you think. No Google-cheating - just think back to your Bullfinch's Mythology, put on The Macarena, and take your best shot. Just list 1 through 5 and the names.

(Here's a hint: Issue #2 was subtitled The Soldier King.)


Richard Bensam said...

Unfortunately I gave into temptation and looked up the answers. But I can tell you the only one I guessed correctly was number 5.

Also, at risk of stating the thuddingly obvious, the proximate inspiration and reference point for this series looks to be Kevin Sorbo's Hercules rather than its spinoff Xena. The distinction here being that the predecessor at least started out trying to ground itself in authentic mythological references, even if the titular hero owed more to the Lee-Kirby Thor than to any historical source. It was highly popular at that moment, and the designs here suggest the editors were hoping to lure some viewers their way...

Walaka said...

The Xena series followed the Hercules series by less than a year, so I have always treated that Raimiverse as much of a muchness, and in my crowd at least, Xena was much more popular.

But yeah, I should have mentioned that series, at a minimum. We'll fix that up before the book goes to press.