Mythos

My husband had his first mention in The Hollywood Reporter yesterday. This isn’t exactly Steven Spielberg Hollywood we’re talking about– more like “Hitler Zombie IV” Hollywood, but still, Hollywood! This was a long time coming: he’s been working in comic books since he was twelve years old– we have pictures of him at scifi conventions in Manhattan, surrounded by talent many times his age, all looking down on him (he was short) with great deference. He would rent tables at these conventions and hire talent to sign books and sketches, taking a cut from each sale. How he got these guys to work for a twelve year old is a little puzzling, and why the artists didn’t just band together and rent their own tables is even more puzzling, but in sixteen years of eavesdropping on his work conversations, I don’t get the impression artists are the most organized bunch.

He’s explained to me that back in the day (late 1970s to early 1980s), scifi conventions were not the star studded events they are today. It was just a bunch of nerds wandering around fold up tables in shabby rented rooms. Church basements were a common venue.

Fast forward to today and you have events like the ongoing San Diego Comic Con, or the NYC Comic Con at the Javits Center, which draw throngs of stormtroopers, celebrities, nerds and scantily dressed women into rooms so packed there’s barely room to breathe. Comic books weren’t cool back when my husband first started, and I’d argue they aren’t cool today and are still considered nerd fodder. But their intellectual properties are beloved the world over, having yielded box office phenoms like Spiderman, Iron Man, X-men, and so on.

My husband speaks eloquently on this issue. He explains comic books– or rather, their characters and stories– are the mythos of our age, much like the Odyssey was the cultural pulse of ancient Greece, or the Jesus story the saga of Roman occupied Palestine. He likens Superman to Jesus, though I think Moses might be a better comparison. I believe the bad guy in “Unbreakable” soliloquizes on this topic, comparing comic books to Egyptian hieroglyphics, though my husband’s take is that storytelling is one of the deepest aspects of our humanity. After all, animals don’t tell stories, though they do communicate. But unlike prose, comic books maintain the ancient art of storytelling through pictures, which would go back much further than ancient Egypt, back 25,000 years or more to the swirling cave paintings of Chauvet and forward in time to the great European Cathedrals depicting Bible stories in reliefs and stained glass.

So in that respect, comic books have always struck me as more “raw” than a novel or film, because they promulgate the timeworn genre of static visual storytelling. And judging from the massive response the world has had to comic book movies, the archetypes they depict are something ingrained in us all, or, if I can borrow a phrase from scripture, something written on our hearts.

Advertisements

Homo Spiritualis

chauvet

I watched Werner Herzog’s “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” this evening.  I’d seen it before but for some reason felt like watching it again.  Herzog is granted unprecedented access to film inside the Chauvet Cave in Southern France.  This cave contains some of the oldest known cave paintings known to man, dating some 30,000 years old.  More remarkable still is that the paintings in the cave span 5,000 years (although most date from the earlier period, and were drawn by a single artist).  The cave was naturally sealed shut approximately 25,000 years ago, its contents and paintings entombed until discovered by amateur speleologists in 1994.

One of the archaeologists interviewed describes being overwhelmed by the intensity of the experience when first examining the cave; he was afflicted with intense dreams and spiritual foreboding, electing not even to enter the cave on the fifth and final day permitted for research.  The first time I saw this film I too began having dreams about the paintings, which almost exclusively depict animals of the period.  There are also handprints made by a 6 foot tall (assuming he wasn’t standing on anything) man with a crooked pinky finger, an amorphous shape which might show a woman nude from the waist down, morphed with a bison, and exactly one human footprint made by a child.  The floor of the cave is littered with animal bones, most from extinct cave bears, and almost every surface is coated with stalagmites that glitter under the filmographers’ lights.

I am struck not just by the historicity of the paintings but by their artistry.  Whoever drew these animals was good, and would probably be a handsomely paid comic book artist were he alive today. The talent exhibited in these paintings is all the more remarkable when you consider the conditions under which he was likely working, and the rudimentary tools he was likely working with.  The animals are beautifully fluid and detailed, with meticulously drawn facial expression. Some animals are drawn with numerous limbs to give the impression of movement.

In true Herzog fashion, he interviews a number of quirky researchers in rambling exchanges that are more philosophical than informative.  One researcher opines that we as humans have been misnamed– instead of Homo sapien– “man who knows–” we should be called “Homo spritualis” because of our desire to create and forge out, often through artistic means, into the existential unknown.

Of course we don’t know if the cave paintings had any spiritual or religious significance to their creator, or to the individuals who lived in that era.  Perhaps the cave was a proto-movie theater where exciting stories about animals were told.  Herzog decides that a bear skull neatly placed on a flat stone surface was an altar, but it could have been randomly placed there by an ancient cave visitor.  Or maybe it was placed there as a joke, by some dumb, ancient teenager.