The (Super)Hero With a Thousand Faces

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):

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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. 

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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.

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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).

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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):

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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.

Citations

Images are linked to their original source.

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Novato, CA: New World Library (2008). Print.

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4 Responses to The (Super)Hero With a Thousand Faces

  1. lelinda42 says:

    Campbell’s monomyth actually reminded me of a Bildungsroman, which is a coming-of-age story (that focuses on emotional and moral growth). Many hero stories and by extension super hero stories could be classified as bildungsroman type stories as well, especially Spider Man (which features a teenage protagonist at the start). Many of them feature an emotionally immature protagonist (sometimes only in the context of the story) who undergoes a journey and eventually mature. Serialized comics can have extended character development and thus have more time to expand upon the monomyth/bildungsroman archetype. Another thing I notice at times with long running comics, especially those in Japan, is the evolution of the art. The art evolves with the story and characters. If you take a look at long running series like Kentaro Miura’s Berserk or Masashi Kishimoto’s Naruto, the art takes a drastic change from what it originally was. Most of the time the evolution of the art, I think makes the story better and more beautiful. However, there are instances where the change in style (be it subtle or drastic) completely changes the tone of the story. The evolution of the art raises some questions about the relationship of artistic style and plot. Does the art style affect the story? Especially when there are changes occurring during a long run? Is the evolution of the art similar the evolution of the protagonist? As in that it is a growth of the artist as well.

    P.S. I know I went off on a tangent, however, with comics being a visual medium I think they’re valid questions.

  2. turnerkr says:

    I really enjoyed your post because I had never heard of Monomyth before and it really intrigued me. I was a bit skeptical when you said it could be applied to all heroes journeys, and as the person I am set out to find an example of a hero’s story that doesn’t contain this idea. But much to my avail, I was unable to come up with one. I did however find that even stories without superheroes like the lion king follow this idea. Simba being the main “hero” of the story takes part in the hero’s journey by being a part of the departure, initiation and the return, as he takes responsibility for his actions and he regains order and control of the kingdom. Another example I can across was the story in the lord of the rings, and the Hercules Greek myth.
    As you said that you can’t watch a movie without noticing this, I am now definitely the same way. And again, I really enjoyed your post and learning about this topic!

  3. Elizabeth McLellan says:

    It’s interesting to think that there is still much variation among stories even when something so linear is applied to them. I mean, you attributed Campbell’s notion to a wide variety of examples: “From Prometheus to Batman; from Moses to The Matrix’s Neo; from Achilles to Katniss Everdeen.” I can only vouch for a handful of these examples, but the hero’s progression is cleverly concealed. Had you not opened my eyes to it, I would have never realized the procedural path heroes take even though now it seems so obvious. Interesting post.

  4. Mike says:

    Can I use your very awesome super hero analogy comic as well as the other pic in my own exploration of discussions of the Campbell Myth?
    It is quite awesome and easy to understand.
    Currently making a video comparing six different views of Star Wars.

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