As C2E2 was in full swing, the writers of Wonder Woman and Incredible Hercules met up on Friday to discuss the linkage between mythology and superhero comics. While the Amazing Amazon and Prince of Power have two very different methods of heroism, their heritage with the Greco-Roman pantheon was a common trait the creators used to examine the comics genre.
"A lot of people draw a lot of parallels between the ancient myths and superhero stories as modern myths," Pak said. "That's interesting in of itself, and it becomes doubly interesting because Marvel and DC have these universes with Greek gods and gods from many different pantheons kicking it side by side by superheroes."
Pak then asked Simone when she decided to use "actual gods" in her run of Wonder Woman. "The truth is, I always loved mythology, and from a really young age, when I heard of such a thing, I was immediately entranced to say the least," Simone said. "I had studied it quite a lot and thought about it quite a lot, and when it came time to write Wonder Woman, I had to come to a choice and stick with 'real' mythology, as things exist exactly as we have them, or a 'DC mythology,' where we borrow from the different pantheons -- particularly in Wonder Woman 's case the Greek pantheon and integrate that into the DC universe."
For her, the answer ultimately was the one that opened more story options. "I really came into that decision at the time that it was more fun for me, and the reader as well, to do the DC approach... if you want to do World War 2 stories you can have Sgt. Rock and the Blackhawks if you do it the DC way," she explained. "I felt with Wonder Woman, we wanted to have the other DC characters, and the DC villains. When we bring in Hercules, different things happen there as well, but it's not necessarily sticking to the 'real' Greek myth."
Van Lente then asked the panelists in terms of their individual histories, which came first -- superheroes or mythology? "For me it went fairy tales, mythology, superheroes," Simone replied. "Because by the time I got to my very first actual comic, which was a Justice League comic with Wonder Woman in it, I already knew about the Greek gods somewhat."
Van Lente said he began with the superheroic tales of Jules Ffeiffer. "I literally read that till it fell apart," he recalled. "I appreciated it, when I got into the mythology... I said, 'hey, there are superheroes in togas!'"
For Pak, meanwhile, it was at the same time, with his comics exposure beginning with a Marvel treasury version of Spider-Man "for $1.50 -- how could it be so expensive?" he laughed. "Okay, Moneybags," Van Lente smirked. But Pak also got "this great collection of Greek myths ... I remember being obsessed with the centaurs for some reason."
"I was really into the Hydra, the Medusa," Simone added.
"And the Harryhausen stuff," said Pak.
"I remember the Seven Voyages of Sinbad scaring the crap out of me," Van Lente offered.
Van Lente then went to discuss how he got the call from Marvel to team up with Pak for Incredible Hercules. "I had this dusty mythology, Hamilton mythology paperback, and I dusted that off and read all the Hercules myths. And even in Hamilton's watered-down version, he killed his entire family," Van Lente said. "I'm a big Euripedes fan -- aren't we all? -- and he did a great play about Heracles killing his entire family... so it's taking what you had referenced and making it the central thrust of the whole character. Of course he's going to be drunk and a letch and hilarious to be around, but let's give him that element of tragedy... that's a very Marvel thing to have that element of loss in the character."
Pak, who wrote Hercules' adventures during World War Hulk, said he was "astounded by all the parallels between Hercules and the Hulk. This was stuff I had read years ago. Like Fred, I busted out my old Edith Hamilton, and Hercules was the Hulk, back in the day, in the sense that he would lose his temper and smash people." But there was a twist, he said: "[Hercules] would kill people. He has a huge body count," Pak said. "I found those similarities very intriguing -- for thousands and thousands of years humans have felt an attraction towards these heroes that are capable of all this destruction... the capacity for them losing their minds and destroying everything is compelling to all of us."
When asked about her favorite bits of mythology in her writing, Simone said her sowing conflict into Wonder Woman's origin was her way of making the myth seem more resonant. "I felt that the birth/creation of Wonder Woman was a little bit too bright and shiny and vague, and that was something I wanted to deal with," she said. "I wanted to show that everyone wasn't happy for her to be born... I never felt the way her origin had been dealt with was quite right for her character. I took that same darkness and tragedy and wove it into her character."
Pak asked the panel if they agreed with the allegory of superheroes as pantheons. "It's sort of a common thing that people say are modern-day mythology, the only real problem I have with that are the gods and old myths are like superheroes, not the other way around," Van Lente replied. "They would get mad, fight each other, sleep around -- they wouldn't die... Odin and Thor were more the culture heroes of that day."
"I see the parallel between when you see for example the DC trinity they are iconic they are like the gods, when you talk about their journeys they seem a little different, they seem more like the journeys of the heroes," Simone said. To which Van Lente asked, "which one of them is Jesus?"
"The gods they were manipulated or controlling the heroes like Hercules in particular were out to save and rescue and that's more like what our comic book heroes are doing, its more of that heroic journey people reading it wishing they could fight the bad guys too," Simone said. "I was struck by [the fact that] there are some real similarities between the role that Wonder Woman plays and Hercules plays in our book," Pak said. "They're explicitly described as champions, they're champions of the gods... they are the ones who are being manipulated a bit by the gods."
With the trio opening the floor up to questions from the audience, one reader asked that with the pervasive nature of the Greco-Roman and Nordic mythology in modern comics, if there was a place for non-white pantheons. "In Wonder Woman we had Hawaiian [gods] for one thing, and we have Wonder Woman pledge her allegiance to a female god as well when she had to take her father's place," Simone said. "There's so much to explore there they need to continue doing that, it brings in a lot more interesting perspectives and viewpoints other than Greco-Roman." Van Lente added that the Egyptian and Hindu pantheons are getting a lot more play in the comics sphere, particularly in their sequel to Incredible Hercules, Prince of Power, where hero Amadeus Cho is "going to take a little bit of a pantheon tour... Greek, Egyptian, Norse, Hindu... maybe more."
Another reader asked that if mythology was, in essence, the stories of religion, did they think that Christianity would play a role in comics. Will any superheroes meet Jesus? "I keep trying and they keep saying no," Van Lente cracked. "It's censorship, pure censorship." In seriousness, Van Lente posed the question of whether or not it was okay to "violate" Greek mythology and not Christian mythology. "I think it should all be violated," Simone said. "That's something all creators have to deal with in every sphere... the idea, 'you're attacking me.'" Van Lente said. "If there are a bunch of Zeus worshippers I've offended in this panel, I'm sorry... And now, I'm going to get an angry email about this."
Responding to a question on "Kirby-ian mythology," Pak discussed the evolution of pop mythology and comic conventions -- specifically mentioning how most mythology has asides and recaps like today's comics. "We love continuity, we love the little editor boxes, we draw on it all the time," he said. "There are multiple myths, nobody knows the real order of the Labors, there's just a lot of contradictions.
"And that's a fun thing...it lets you tell different kinds of stories, which is why I think the myths have been so strong and valued in different ways, and I think that's the same thing with the comics," Pak added. "If every comic was locked down in stone, down to what people where wearing and the choreography of the scenes, these things would have died a long time ago... I think that allows for these stories to be living stories that grow with every different generation."
One question that came up was regarding tone to match myth. "Each book I do and each character I work with has a certain tone, so that changes as far as that goes. As far as "are comics myth," it's all fiction," Simone said. "They have certain similarities, but to me, when I look at it, myth is something that's not true, something that someone made up at some point, so if you want to call comics myth, that's fine."
Putting a spin on the question, Van Lente asked how literal were people viewing mythology -- and were there any fundamentalists for these stories? "Were there any worshippers of Zeus? Did they literally believe that Zeus turned into a swan and slept with his lady? Because I certainly do," he said. Pak, meanwhile, said "I think i've been influenced by this journey of a hero thinking and so that probably has a big effect on everything I write... Joseph Campbell argues its the universal human story -- going out in the world, making sense of the world and doing what you have to do."
Simone continued with the thread, saying that since beginning her run on Wonder Woman, she was able to see the variations of how the character's mythology changed with separate societies. "I've had the opportunity to travel around the world since I started Wonder Woman and see what she means to people from other cultures around the world, [places] without women's' rights and what Wonder Woman means to them.
"I've realized the last couple of years...she's bigger than DC, she's bigger than who's writing her, because of what people grab onto and transfer onto her and what they take from her character and use that in their own life and use that to motivate them to work out more and be in shape, or do more charity, or stand up for themselves, or get out of an abusive relationship," Simone continued. "Out of all the comic book characters I've seen, that's the one I've seen truly transcend... Wonder Woman just represents so many things and different things to people, and when you go and talk to them, and talk to a group of gay men or women that don't have rights or young girls who want to grow up and be strong, to my mind it's had a real global impact."
For Van Lente, meanwhile, writing Hercules led to a more "human" take on the gregarious Avenger. "I was at a bar with a writer friend of mine and she asked what I was working on, and I told her I was working on a comic about Hercules, and she said -- 'You mean the guy?'" he recalled. "Yeah, and that's what he is, he's not a superhero with an 'H' on his chest, he is just this guy." Pak agreed: "He doesn't have a great moral or symbolic journey in that way -- the bar is set so low for him it actually becomes a really fun way to tell a story about these heroes," he said. "He and Amadeus take these baby steps and its really monumental for them."
One conventioneer asked the writers about the role of tragedy in their mythological stories. Pak recalled taking a class on tragedy, which really impacted his writing. "The professor's big theory was that not everybody likes tragedy -- some people hate it -- as literature. The real attraction is that tragedy says it's not your fault, that the gods do these crazy things they put you through these crazy trials they punish you, and that true tragedy was when good people suffer for no good reason. That kind of thing is interesting and definitely there's a very clear moral in superhero stories in particular, but sometimes just showing the tragedy -- looking at World War Hulk, it's not as clear as what the moral of the story is -- sometimes this is how the world works."
Considering Wonder Woman's mythology-laden origins, Simone was asked whether or not it was needed to tell stories with characters like Zeus and Athena anymore in Diana's greater adventures. "The stories are so compelling, and especially with Wonder Woman, with her history, it's impossible to not mention it now," Simone said. "But now, after 65 years of it, it can drag the story down now... but she is on Earth now as well, so I consciously made the decision to not have them controlling her all the time and bogging down the story."
With the panel reaching its end, one audience member kept things simple -- who's the characters that are most fun to write? "They're all fun to write, I can't write them if i'm not having fun," Simone said. "I really enjoyed the Zeus/Athena storyline I did in Wonder Woman, because it was such total different viewpoints... you got Zeus's perspective, Athena's perspective and the Amazons' perspective."
"I like writing Amadeus, because he's always trying to put one over on the heroes and it drives them crazy," Van Lente said, hinting at an Amadeus/Thor fight in the upcoming Prince of Power series. Pak agreed: "I think Amadeus, Hercules and Ares have been a blast to write... Great characters do things that no character should ever do because its really fun. So they've been a blast," he said. "But strangely enough, the Marvel god I've had a lot of fun writing is Thor. I had so much fun writing Thor because he's a fantastic straight man, and he's also really wise. He's an endearing character in many ways."