Series Info...Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #71:

Modern Myths, Part Two: An Overview from Citizen Kane to Spider-Man

by Shannon Appelcline

May 2, 2002 - Last week I proposed that mythology as it has been understood and catalogued for the last six thousand years is just about dead, that Paul Bunyan and his Giant Blue Ox, Babe, were members of the last wave of traditional mythology in America. At the same time I've promised to talk, as this mini-series evolves, about how the ancient storytelling form of mythology can be used to enhance online games. It seems a bit of a Catch-22.

So, in this week's column I'm going to discuss how to get from point A to point B, first by detailing the three major factors that have led to the demise of traditional mythology, and then by talking about what modern storytelling forms are actually mythology's heirs. That should lead me cleanly into next week's column, where I can finally talk about online games themselves, and suggest, via what we've learned this time around, how they may stand upon the shoulders of giants.

Strike One: Knowledge

Mythology, I think, really started to disappear in the fourteenth century. That's when the Renaissance began to bloom in Florence, Italy. There were other stops along the way, including the Industrial Revolution and our current Information Revolution, but they all amounted to the same thing: people knew more. As a result, mythology began to lose one of its more crucial powers — the ability to explain.

There are many mysteries left in the world — such as if there are subatomic structures smaller than quarks, and whether we can ever figure out how to achieve interstellar travel, and what quantum mechanics really mean. But most of that is beyond what the average person really cares about. For them the big questions — why the sun rises, why the seasons pass, and how the species of animals on the world have come to be — have all been answered. They don't need myths to explain them.

Sure, there are still big questions that people feel like they don't have the answers too — like what happens after death and what the future might bring — and there are sometimes myths to explain those things, but in general there are so many fewer questions that many less myths are needed.

Strike Two: Copyright

Fast forward four hundred years to the eighteenth century. People start to get uppity. They begin deposing kings and insisting upon silly things like human rights. The resounding "Strike Two" is a shot heard round the world, the start of the personal revolution.

To start off with, with nobility on the outs, the artists of the times lost their patrons, and thus they started having to make a living off their art. This quickly crossed over into those silly personal rights, and authors demanded rights over what they wrote. Or, specifically, rights over the copying of they wrote. (Parenthetically, since the real problem was copying, we can add Gutenberg, the inventor of the printing press, to our list of villains alongside Thomas Jefferson — dating things back to 1452 and that already mentioned Renaissance.)

As a writer, I should admit that I think copyright is a good thing, at least as it was originally conceived. In 1710 the Statue of Anne was passed in Britain, setting copyright to 28 years. The framers of the U.S. Constitution built from the same basis, writing, in 1790, "The Congress shall have power... to promote the progress of science and useful arts... by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive rights to their respective writings and discoveries."

It's worthwhile to take a moment and consider how that original 28-year cycle would have affected copyright. Star Wars was released in 1977, based on a book published the previous year. That means that, based on the older copyright laws, it would be coming out of copyright in just two years. Long enough for George Lucas to make a few gazillion dollars, no doubt about that, but a short enough time for the whole story to be fresh enough in the public imagination for them to still want to tell new stories about Luke (and Han and Leia and Chewbacca and all the rest) — new enough for them to take his singular story and turn into a million that might live forever.

Unfortunately, what has happened in the last two hundred years, all across the world, is that big business has been allowed to influence the governments of the world, turning copyright from something to protect the individual artist into something that protects corporate assets.

Most people blame Mickey Mouse.

Lawyers actually call it the "Steamboat Willie" rule, since that was the first movie to feature Mickey Mouse (as the title character). Steamboat Willie was released in 1928. By the copyright laws of the time it should have gone into the public domain 50 years later, in 1978. Surprisingly, and not without a few helpful suggestions from Disney, just in time Congress passed the Copyright Act of 1976. Copyright was extended to 75 years, pushing the magic date to 2003. Guess what happened four years ago? That's right, the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998, pushing copyright up to a mammoth 95 year time period. Good old Mickey is now safe until 2023 (though there are now lawyers contending that 95 years is in no way the "limited time" intended by the Constitution).

Now, consider what this longer time period means to mythology. Works don't come into the public domain where new stories can be told, and tales can't be turned into mythology until almost a century after they're created. What works were relevant a hundred years ago that might still hold the public imagination today? Sherlock Holmes. Dracula. H.G. Well's Martians. Not a lot more. I can't even take examples from television or movies or comic books, because they didn't even exist back then.

The copyright period is so long now, and its stipulations are so tight — disallowing even the production of derivative works — that it's no longer possible for popular stories to become mythology.

Because it's illegal.

Strike Three: Communication

That, I think, would have done it all on its own. But, in the last decade or so the final nail was put in the coffin of mythology. You could technically trace the Internet back to the 1960s, but it really entered popular culture, and thus become largely relevant, in 1995 with the birth of the World Wide Web.

Since then the globalization of the world, already well apace with McDonalds in Red Square and Disney resorts in Japan, has hit a fever pitch. We're fairly rapidly developing a homogenous culture. At the same time, it's becoming a very flat global society because we're throwing out all the uniqueness of the heterogeneous cultures that used to exist.

If mythology can't explain any more, it can at least exemplify. But what if there's no culture left to exemplify?

Strike Three.

Mythology in the Present Day

That can all sound pretty depressing to the mythologist — or to the game designer that wants to make his games into new mythologies. But, I'll tell you a secret: mythology is still around us, just in changed, sometimes diminished forms.

Today, there tend to be two main streams of mythology: folk stories and corporate stories. I'll briefly address each of this today, discussing how they've changed the standard mythic formula. I hope that doing so will give us insight into online games, for when we get there in 7 days.

Folk Stories

Last week I spoke mildly dismissively of folk tales, saying that they're not exactly mythology. And, that's true. Consider the folk tales that are still popular today, due primarily to Disney retellings: Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Beauty and the Beast. They meet a lot of the mythological criteria. They've been told and improved upon by many people. There are many variations of the same themes. They tend to have highly structured formats.

However, they don't tend to be larger than life, nor do they have larger than life consequences. Although the stableboys do sometimes become princes, they never become gods. Also, these stories don't explain.

So, they're quasi-myths, sort of.

However, this branch of mythology is the only one that has survived into the modern day without becoming mired in copyright. The common person feels comfortable telling these stories — and, more critically, retelling them — perhaps precisely because of the fact that they're about average people, and thus could be true. Three major branches of folk tales exist in the common day:

  • Urban Legends. You've doubtless heard the stories about crocodiles in the New York sewers, or the one about the murderer with the hook, or the one about getting all "A"s if your college roommate commits suicide. What, you thought those were true? Actually, they're a form of modern-day mythology, changing and evolving just like the old stories did.
  • Conspiracy Theories. Not too far removed from urban legends are those stories about how things really work in the world. A hundred years ago they were all about the Rosi-cross and the Bavarian Illuminatus. Today they're about how the government faked the landing on the moon and how they're hiding aliens in Area 51 and about how the CIA had JFK killed.
  • Cryptozoology. And finally we come to the urban legends (or conspiracy theories, if you prefer) about monsters in the Earth. Big Foot. The Loch Ness Monster. The Moth Man. Vampires. Werewolves. Yet another example of a type of story that continues to proliferate and evolve in the modern day.

On a slightly different note, history is becoming mythology in our modern world. The George Washington and Abraham Lincoln that we talk about and tell stories about really aren't the real people that lived one or two hundred years ago. New stories are invented about them, old facts about them are forgotten, and thus their mythologies expand. I've now read a number of stories about Shakespeare, from Neil Gaiman's "A Midsummer's Night's Dream" to Robert Nye's The Late Mr. Shakespeare. These stories are sometimes larger than life, and replicate and expand in ways that folk tales don't, but I expect they'll never amount to as much as older mythologies did because of too much concern over what really happened (yet another example of too much knowledge, because hiSTORY has become science rather than story).

Though all fun and definitely a part of our culture, one can clearly see the difference between modern folk tales and the complex mythologies about Arthur or Oedipus or Troy which grew up in aeons past. In many ways, they're lesser creatures...

Corporate Stories

That's probably because, in our bright new capitalistic society, the artists are all struggling month-to-month, and thus are working for companies. And, they're not allowed to share stories with each other thanks to copyright, and so little becomes larger than it actually is.

Despite that all, when we look at comic books, movies, and television shows, we see examples of things that are clearly mythology. They just can't grow to their full potential because of the strictures of our society.

To start with, it's interesting to note that professional publishers and producers use many of the folk tale structures I just finished talking about. The slasher flick Urban Legend was, of course, an example of the urban legend genre. Capricorn One, a movie from the 1970s, was an example of the conspiracy genre, building on the idea that the government faked our landing on the moon. The recently released Mothman Prophecies is about... the cryptozoological mothman.

Mythic structures are also used as the basis of modern stories, even when the story does not build on already extant mythology. Consider Citizen Kane, thought by many to be the best American movie ever made. It's a singular story and, as far as I know, nothing else has ever been written about good 'ole Charles Kane. Yet, it is mythological in its telling (which is, I suspect, why it remains such an icon of movie-making). The protagonist is a millionaire who influences the nation, and thus he is larger than life and the consequences of his story are as well. Even more interestingly, within the movie his story is told from the viewpoints of several different characters. Their stories cross over each other and sometimes contradict the basic view you've been given of the protagonist, creating a mythology all its own.

Spider-Man is another interesting look at how new mythologies may be created, even within the strictures of copyright. There's little question that Spider-Man meets all the criteria of mythology (almost any super-hero comic does). Like the legends of the Middle Ages, it's about a everyman (Peter Parker) who becomes larger than life (Spider-Man), and thus begins to deal with larger than life problems (super-villains). His good fight against evil is a simple duality. Icons fill the series (he is the spider, while his enemies are the lizard, the octopus, the goblin, and others).

Because of copyright, Joe Storyteller can't write about Spider-Man, but still Spider-Man's background has evolved much like mythology because so many writers have written about him, all the way from creator Stan Lee to, more recently, Kevin Smith, the producer of Clerks, and JMS, the producer of Babylon Five. And, not all of those stories are in the same "canon". Beside the Spider-Man comic there have been a number of Spider-Man television series, including the animated Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends. There have been a few TV movies, including The Deadly Dust and The Chinese Web. And then we have the newest movie, opening tomorrow.

As with older mythologies, each of these different incarnations of Spider-Man has contributed something to the main stream of Spider-Man stories today. The character Firestar from Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends made it into the Marvel Universe, for examples. No doubt other plots and characters have made the jump as well. (This Darwinian evolution is more obvious among the various Superman incarnations. For example the infamous and deadly Kryptonite made its first appearance not in the comic books, but rather in a radio series that aired during the 1950s.)

Still, because of copyright, a fairly small and select group of people have built the Spider-Man mythology. People want to expand upon mythology, but copyright prevents them from doing so. For proof of this take a look at Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a television show, and another example of modern mythology.

We once again see the same old tropes: an Everyman (Buffy Summers) becomes larger than life (the Slayer) and deals with larger than life problems (the world's in trouble, must be a Tuesday). She deals with fairly iconic baddies (vampires, witches, giant praying mantises, werewolves, and knights) in a clear fight between good and evil.

But, as I said, when people see mythology they want to expand upon it. And that's what has happened with Buffy. As of this moment offers 10,500 stories written about Buffy — the clear winner and champion in the television section. Other big winners? Angel (2,100 stories). Charmed (1,300 stories). Dark Angel (2,300 stories). ER (1,600 stories). Roswell (1,800 stories). Star Trek: Voyager (2,400 stories). The X-Files (3,500 stories). With the exception of ER, I think the mythic underpinnings of all of these stories are clear.

Skimming through other portions of, we find: Animorphs (2,800 stories). Harry Potter (34,500 stories). Lord of the Rings (7,000 stories). Final Fantasy (14,000 stories). X-Men: The Movie (1,200 stories).

The list goes on...

I hope the points I've made are these: corporations have used mythological devices in interesting ways; and there is clearly a desire by people to add to mythological stories when they encounter them.

The Future of Mythology

Before I end this week I once more want to note a few references. Everything I know about Urban Legends I learned from Jan Harold Brunvand; one of his most recent books, Too Good to Be True, is an excellent collection of urban legends that will be of interest to the layman. Andrew Lang edited an excellent collection of 12 "rainbow" fairy books which include stories from all the world and are always a source of inspiration. Finally, Umberto Eco is a brilliant source for conspiracy theories and both those and cryptozoology can constantly be found in The Fortean Times.

I hope this time around I've managed to offer a good picture of how myths have survived into the modern day in various forms. Some of the limitations of modern mythology, and some of the forms they have taken, should show us the path to mythology in online games, which we'll getting too, finally, next week.

See you in 7.

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