Last year, I took a course that was centered around heroes and villains. In our study of heroes, we focussed largely on a text entitled The Hero With a Thousand Faces, by Joseph Campbell. In this highly influential work, Campbell sets forth his idea of the monomyth, the idea that all stories are governed by the same grounding principles. Put in a very simplistic way, all heroes follow a similar trajectory; all stories of heroes have certain conventional paths. Campbell sets out a formula which begins with the hero’s separation from his society, where he is summoned with a call to adventure; second is the hero’s initiation which is essentially the hero’s road of trials and the victories that lead to his status as a hero; lastly, we see the hero’s return, where he reintegrates into his society and brings his newfound knowledge back to heal that society.
This all sounds rather boring at first, but it really is fascinating to take any hero and place his or her experiences within this formula — it nearly almost works. From Prometheus to Batman; from Moses to The Matrix’s Neo; from Achilles to Katniss Everdeen. This theory really is so all-encompassing that I cannot watch a movie now without recognizing certain familiar plot elements, or read our course’s comics without noticing the seemingly uncanny extent to which they follow the formula.
Here is a very well-explained diagram of the Hero’s Journey, according to Campbell (click to enlarge):
Some of the elements of the Hero’s Journey that particularly stick out to me as being especially apparent in superhero comics are:
Separation — Crossing of the First Threshold: essentially what everything has been leading up to; the hero finally steps over the edge and begins his journey . In Batman: Year One, Bruce Wayne experiments fighting criminals by taking on a pimp in the East End. This kind of experimentation is very typical for superheroes to enact before they really begin their acts of “heroism”. Think Spiderman scaling walls and shooting his webs just to get a feel for what he can do.
Initiation — Atonement with the Father: this involves the hero coming to terms with where he came from. Oftentimes in superhero comics we see usually there is some sort of unresolved past issue, and we see a lot of examples where this has to do with the hero’s father. Bruce Wayne has to get past simply avenging the death of his father (and mother); Peter Parker has to do the same with his Uncle Ben, while also learning about his own father’s past. In fact, these characters’ mythologies in particular are based around their past, and a big part of their journey is moving beyond simple vengeance.
Return — Freedom to Live: the idea that when all is said and done, the hero gets a happy ending; he is given the freedom to live because he has done his duty by cleansing his society. I include this one because when I saw the ending of The Dark Knight Rises (spoiler alert, in case you live in a hole) when Alfred sees Bruce alive and happy with Selina at his favorite cafe in Florence, even though I may have cried a little, I recognized it as the prototypical ending for Batman’s journey (at least in Nolan’s reincarnation).
Anyways, those are just a few examples of places where I can recognize the monomyth at work in superhero comics/stories, but there really is endless instances of this not just in comics, but everywhere. Here is a comic that essentially shows the universality of these cliches — which are good cliches in my mind (click to enlarge):
Fun fact: The Star Wars movies were specifically plotted with Campbell’s formula in mind. In fact, George Lucas had Campbell living at Skywalker Ranch after the first trilogy was completed.
Images are linked to their original source.
Campbell, Joseph. The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Novato, CA: New World Library (2008). Print.