Fans and professionals alike return to the idea that DC Comics’ superheroes are a modern-day pantheon, a contemporary mythology of godlike beings accomplishing tremendous feats. Grant Morrison’s JLA run, which debuted in 1997, explicitly modeled itself on the notion of the Justice League as members of a sci-fi Olympus in their lunar Watchtower. No comic book, however, has looked at what that analogy means in a more unflinching fashion than All Star Batman and Robin, the Boy Wonder.
The long-delayed, oft-maligned series hasn’t been published since 2008, but rumblings of a sequel still bubble up occasionally. Writer Frank Miller mentioned working on the series as recently as 2015. In ASB&R, Miller, in collaboration with artist (and DC co-publisher) Jim Lee, spun a yarn about a set of heroes who were abusive, indifferent, and just generally mean. For example, after bringing Dick Grayson back to the Batcave for the first time, Batman instructs Alfred to let the boy hunt subterranean rats for sustenance. This boorish behavior is all intentional; it’s reminding you, dear reader, who those ancient gods really were.
First, let’s set a limit on the term pantheon. For our purposes, and following the intentions of nearly everyone who has made the comparative, we’re going to look to the Greek gods and, to a lesser degree, the Norse, although much of it applies to the pantheons of other cultures.
When DC’s heroes are described in these terms, we typically mean they’re larger-than-life figures who undertake amazing quests and accomplish fantastic deeds. Zeus, for example, overthrew his father Cronus, freed his devoured siblings from his stomach, and ushered in the Golden Age. Not much different from Superman’s departure from a dying world, saving the last of his people, the bottle city of Kandor, from the tyrant Brainiac, and then dying and being reborn while preventing the monstrous Doomsday from annihilating Metropolis, is it?
Athena tamed horses for humanity and invented the tools for music and agriculture. Odin made Earth from the skull of Ymir and created Valhalla to honor fallen warriors. Batman triumphs again and again over the maniacal darkness at the heart of Gotham City, bringing order to the untamed underworld. Wonder Woman prevents Ares from dragging all of humanity into unending war and violence. This altruistic aspect of the mythological beings is what we always refer to when we call DC’s superheroes a modern mythology.
Yet those same gods have another side to them. They are petty and vindictive, to humanity and each other, all too often brutally callous to the plight of the people who worship them. They are Lotharios; they lash out with floods and plagues; their failings are tremendous exaggerations of our own shortcomings. Zeus’s infidelities, Hera’s vengefulness and Hades’ abduction of Persephone are only the iceberg’s tip. Remember Thor’s goats that he devoured every night and resurrected every morning? Bet they enjoyed those evenings with the thunder god. Or his treatment of his daughter’s suitor, Alviss the dwarf? These gods are not human, which puts them out of touch with humanity but also makes them as human as any of us.
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