in Opinion | 12 MAY 05
Featured in
Issue 91


New genealogies of Greek gods, superheroes and comic book villains

in Opinion | 12 MAY 05

Genealogy is one of the most popular hobbies in the world. The process of searching out the furthest branches of one’s family tree has been greatly facilitated in recent years by the digitization of national censuses and a wealth of Internet sites, yet perhaps the most impressive monument to our age’s particular obsessive compulsion has been Harold and Jon Newman’s A Genealogical Chart of Greek Mythology (2003).

In a task of almost Sisyphean proportions the Newmans spent nearly 40 years linking 3,673 figures from Classical myth into one family tree spanning 20 generations. Drawing on a host of ancient sources – from the familiar, such as Homer, to the obscure, such as Stephanus of Byzantium – the chart incorporates the marriages, affairs and progeny of gods, titans, kings, heroes, mortals, giants, nymphs, rivers, stars and personifications of abstract concepts (most noticeably Chaos, who sits at the top of the tree). Considering that Zeus is said to have fathered 104 children and Poseidon some 150, the chart has to contend with one of the most complex, not to mention dysfunctional, families ever to have existed. For example, there are 18 individuals in the chart called Lycus, ranging from ‘Lycus 6’ (as the editors term him), a centaur in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, to ‘Lycus 15’‚ one of the lost comrades of Aeneas in Virgil’s Aeneid. To make matters even more complicated, different sources often give these mythological figures widely differing parentage: for example, Erebus is said to have been the child of both Cronus and Chaos. Yet despite having to pick their way through oddities rarely found in traditional family units – most people’s grandmothers are not the result of parthenogenesis – the Newmans have succeeded in creating one of the greatest achievements in genealogical mapping.

The first tentative steps towards compiling a similar, but more contemporary, mythology can be found in the number of recently released reference books devoted to comic books. The DC Comics Encyclopaedia by Phil Jimenez, the Comic Book Encyclopaedia by Ron Goulart, 500 Great Comicbook Action Heroes and 500 Comicbook Villains by Mike Conroy (all 2004) are just some of the titles designed to chart the hundreds of superheroes and villains to have appeared in print over the last 80-odd years. As well as sharing with Greek myth an overabundance of characters with superhuman powers, the mythology of comic books also has its fair share of inconsistencies and contradictions. Thanks to the numerous writers involved, the loose framework of comic book universes and the characters’ eternal susceptibility to popular trends, the origins and personalities of superheroes are even more susceptible to change than those of the Greek gods. Thus one can come across ‘Manhunter’‚ a crime fighter who since the 1940s has appeared in five different incarnations, including as a policeman, a big-game hunter and a jazz musician.

Such confusion can be partly traced to the comic book writer Stan Lee’s invention of the ‘crossover’ title at Marvel Comics in the 1960s. In the crossover story previously unconnected superheroes began to appear in one another’s adventures – Spiderman might find himself fighting alongside the Fantastic Four, and Thor might appear in the midst of an Incredible Hulk romp – and irregularities within the different story strands increased dramatically. To cope with this, some titles chose to spread their pantheon of heroes across parallel worlds. However, this attempt at simplification simply led to yet more complications when superheroes started travelling between these different worlds. As such, a comprehensive charting of comic book mythology would test the skills and patience of even the most fervent nerd.

Other than the retroactive salvation offered by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints – whose belief in baptism for the dead has seen the creation of the immense International Genealogical Index – chasing a bloodline provides most genealogists with a one-of-a-kind egotistical thrill. When we search for our ancestors, there is the small but significant hope that Charlemagne may have sired some far-flung cousin, or that a great-great-aunt was ‘out of’ a royal courtesan. Genealogy is popular because it places our lives within the grand sweep of history. It is, like the comic book, a form of escape literature.

The wish to identify ourselves with characters involved in great historical events is an ancient one. While compiling A Genealogical Chart, the Newmans found that many of the real people mentioned in their source material – identifiable by the presence of birth and death dates – claimed to have gods as ancestors (apparently a fairly common belief in Ancient Greece). Even the 5th-century BC historian and genealogist Hekataios of Miletos, who had one of the most rational approaches to mythology (‘The tales of the Greeks, are, in my opinion, not only multiple, but ridiculous’), claimed a god at the head of his family tree. It makes one wonder whether our own present-day mythology of comics will one day be employed in a similar manner. If in 2,500 years time our ancestors fail to trace their own family trees back past the 20th century, might they take as the head of their own genealogical line one of our era’s more popular myths – Batman, Captain Atom or the Green Arrow?