(Note: This essay was originally written approximately a decade ago. It has been revised slightly for inclusion here at this time; I apologize upfront for any inaccuracies stemming from the passage of time that I failed to catch during that revision process.)

“Mythology  n. The collective myths and legends of a particular people, usually describing the exploits of gods and heroes…”

Every era of Mankind’s existence has produced its own unique set of heroes, and the past century has certainly been no exception. 

The major difference between the past and the present is that the real heroes of the past all seemed to have had at least one foot firmly planted in reality.

The careers and adventures of men such as Davy Crockett and Abraham Lincoln may have become exaggerated over a period of time, to the point that they sometimes became little more than so-called “tall tales”; and yet the men themselves were historical figures, as real as you and I. Most experts agree that the legends of King Arthur and Robin Hood were inspired by the lives and exploits of flesh-and-blood individuals. Some have even theorized that the gods and goddesses worshipped by the ancient Greeks and Romans were in fact real men and women who became deified as their stories were told and retold over a succession of generations.

Things have changed over the course of the last 100 years or so. There has still been a multitude of real-life heroes - perhaps more, in fact, than in any other period of history. And thanks to the great technological advances that have marked this period, more of us have been able to witness the wondrous deeds performed by these heroes, not only as they happen but again and again for several days or even weeks afterwards. 

We are there - not literally, of course, but television provides that illusion. We were there as Michael Jordan soared through the sky or Cal Ripken Jr. belted one out of the park to lead their respective teams to victory; we were nearly every time the space shuttle touched down after a successful mission in Earth’s orbit, and for those two missions that ended in tragedy; we were there as the American-led forces claimed victory over the minions of Saddam Hussein, and as President Obama shared the news that we had at long last meted out justice to Osama bin Laden. 

We are there to witness the birth of new legends. 

Yet the fact that our favorite sports team may have won the league championship fades into insignificance if they fail to live up to that same standard the next season. Taxpayers and politicians are more likely to remember the one space mission that went horribly wrong than the 20 or 30 successful missions that preceded it. The success of operation Desert Storm wasn’t enough to guarantee President George Bush a second term in the White House. And the glory bestowed upon our modern real-life heroes quickly fades in comparison to their counterparts of yore.

Ask John Glenn. As the first American to orbit our planet, he was the Great Hero of the Space Race. His later entry into politics was right in keeping with earlier heroes like Lincoln and Crockett and Teddy Roosevelt. All things considered, his earlier heroics as one of the original Mercury astronauts should have been enough to ensure that he be remembered as one of the great American Presidents.

Had he been a hero in some earlier era, he very likely would have been President. But in the 1980s John Glenn’s exploits weren’t even enough to earn him his party’s nomination. Because John Glenn had the great misfortune to be a Great American Hero during the latter half of the 20th Century, a time when Great American Heroes came and went more often than many teenaged boys change their socks. And when he finally got the chance for a return trip into space on board the Space Shuttle, over 30 years after his initial trip aboard Friendship 7, a great many Americans saw it as either a publicity stunt or a political payback. Or both. So much for heroics.

The sad part is that Glenn’s case is not unique. Policemen, firemen, men and women and even children from all walks of life perform wonderful deeds for their neighbors - or for total strangers - every single day. New generations of athletes, actors, and musicians step up to take their respective art forms to new heights. But these true-life heroes seem to captivate our attention only for a short period of time…if at all.

My son will no doubt wonder one day why we made such a fuss when Michael Jordan retired from basketball, or why people wept so when Walt Disney, John Wayne or Elvis Presley died. My generation didn’t seem to think as much of Chuck Yeager or Ernie Banks as our parents did; the day will come (perhaps it’s already here) when the names of Charles Lindburgh and Babe Ruth will be little more than historical footnotes.

True story. Not long ago I was standing in a music store when I happened to spy two youngsters - certainly no older than 10 or 11, perhaps just barely that - thumbing through the racks looking for some new hit recording they’d heard on the radio. At some point one of the boys picked a compact disc out of the rack, examined it closely as if seeing it for the very first time, then turned to his companion and asked, “The Beatles? Who were they?”

Scared the living bejabbers out of me.

Given all this, perhaps it is little wonder that future historians may one day look back and notice that the greatest heroes of the past century - those men and women who stand the best chances for being long-remembered, as the stories of their accomplishments survive well beyond the lifespan of the storytellers - are those heroes who never existed except within the realm of imagination. The legends of King Arthur and Davy Crockett were inspired by reality; not so the legends of Superman or Han Solo, yet they seem more familiar to our children than their older, fact-based counterparts.

Some years ago a high school classmate and I worked as teachers in a third-grade boys’ Sunday school class. One Sunday the lesson had to do with heroes, and during the course of the ensuing discussion we were surprised to find that only three or four out of a class of 19 were able to tell us who such legendary characters as Robin Hood or historical figures as Thomas Jefferson were. Even more amazingly, fewer still were familiar with the stories of Moses, Joshua or David - a sad commentary, I thought, on the state of modern Sunday school lesson plans.

Yet each and every one of those 19 boys knew everything there was to know about G.I. Joe, John Rambo, the X-Men and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. And they cheerfully proceeded to tell us all about them.

So why is it that the heroes which exist solely in our imaginations may outlive those we see every night on the Six O’Clock News? Ask a hundred so-called “experts” and you’ll probably get a hundred different answers - not one of which is likely to help you get any closer to the truth of the matter. 

And in the long run, maybe it doesn’t even really matter. Perhaps it’s enough that we have heroes at all. As long as we have tales of derring-do and great accomplishments to capture our imaginations and the imaginations of our children, as long as we can be inspired by these tales and thus strive for great things in our own lives, then the existence of our heroes has been justified.

Even if those heroes are only make-believe.

*      *      *

Of course, it’s not very fashionable these days for our heroes to appear quite so heroic.

Blame the march of time. The world isn’t quite the place it used to be.

Seven decades ago, when my dad was a little boy and it only cost a nickel to spend an entire Saturday at the local movie house, all a fellow needed to be a hero was a white hat, an iron jaw and the proper motivation: a damsel to save, vengeance for a hurt loved one, whatever. Throw in the occasional comic relief sidekick and either a rocket ship or a horse with a goofy name, and you had yourself a basic, straightforward hero. 

Things are different today. For whatever reason, it has become fashionable in the modern era to impose upon our heroes all manner of physical, social or psychological weaknesses. The simple heroes of my father’s youth are laughable by contemporary standards. Their motives can no longer be pure, their goals no longer strictly noble, their actions no longer always fair. To be a hero in today’s world, you’ve got to be vicious, ruthless, and just a little bit sick in the head.

This is a fairly recent development. But with a certain application of what academia refers to as “revisionist history,” it becomes possible for us to foist such traumatic case histories upon even those heroes who had existed before that development. We’ve been told, for example, that the reason Sherlock Holmes “loathed every form of society” and was such a cold and apparently unfeeling individual stems from some unhappy event which transpired during his childhood, possibly one parent’s unfaithfulness to the other and the consequences of that infidelity.

There are other examples of such revision. Did the childhood trauma that caused young Bruce Wayne to eventually take on the identity of Batman also cause him to become as mentally unbalanced as the villains he fights? Well, okay, there may be a certain amount of validity to that argument. It would have to be difficult to wallow in the muck and the mire of humanity without becoming a little dirty yourself.

But did the teenaged Tarzan really eat human flesh or have sexual relations with female apes? It’s doubtful that Edgar Rice Burroughs would have ever thought of such a thing, much less written about it, given that the Victorian Age was still not all that far behind him when he first conceived of his heroic jungle man. But Philip Jose Farmer has focused much of his career upon the pondering of such questions, and has come up with some pretty convincing arguments that would support even the most outlandish or grotesque of his theories. 

Now let me ask you another one: was the strong bond between Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock simply the result of working together in such close proximity, or evidence of a homosexual relationship between the two?  The second doesn’t seem likely, yet I've been told that there is a fairly large (and predominantly female!) segment of “Star Trek” fans devoted to that very concept. The stories they churn out are often accompanied by artwork that would have offended Robert Mapplethorpe; so fanatical are these so-called “Kirk-Spock Ladies” in their beliefs that when Gene Roddenberry wrote the novelization of the first “Trek” theatrical film, he included a rather lengthy footnote in which Captain Kirk himself acknowledges the rumors but questions the wisdom of anyone who would willingly choose a lover who comes into sexual heat only once every seven years.

(On the other hand, the subsequent events of the film “Star Trek III: The Search For Spock” do make a bit more sense if one accepts the K-S Theory as gospel…)

If it seems that a great deal of this revisionist history has to do with a hero’s sexual habits, you’re right. We can probably place a great deal of the blame for that on Frederic Wertham, and his misplaced vendetta against Batman and Robin.

“At home they lead an idyllic life,” Wertham wrote in his book “Seduction of the Innocent.” “It is like a wish dream of two homosexuals living together.”

Anyone who actually read the books had a pretty good idea of just what it was that Ol’ Doc Wertham was full of. Batman and Robin, gay? I don’t think so. Sure, they expressed concern and affection for one another - but so did my father and I, for crying out loud! No faithful reader of the mythos ever read more into their relationship than that, nor should they have. And yet the ugly rumor has somehow managed to persist even to the present day. Mike Royko wrote newspaper columns about it. Stand-up comedians devote entire routines to it. When Tim Burton kept the character of Robin out of his films “Batman” and “Batman Returns,” many presumed it was for fear of launching a new round of smirks and innuendo; the creators of the 1960s “Batman” television series claimed to have created the character of Aunt Harriet for much the same reason.

For the record: Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson were most definitely NOT homosexuals. This comes from the man who created them, cartoonist Bob Kane himself, and it seems to me that if anybody should know it’s him. 

But if you still have your doubts, all I can say is go pick up a copy of Issue 60 (December, 1985) of Tales of the Teen Titans,and take a gander at Dick Grayson on Page 22, panel two. Then we’ll talk.

*      *      *

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

It has been written that an integral part of every legendary hero’s story is the story of the hero’s death. Moses saw the Promised Land, but was not allowed to cross over. For every Davy Crockett, there is an Alamo. As wonderful as Errol Flynn’s “The Adventures of Robin Hood” is, the tale remains incomplete without that final story of the arrow shot through the window to choose his final resting place.

Of course, death need not always be the end. Christianity has built its entire foundation upon the story of Christ’s resurrection and the promise of his eventual return. England’s King Arthur remains “The Once And Future King,” who will one day return to lead his people to victory once more.

So it is with our New Mythology. Spock and Superman have both died and been resurrected. Ben Kenobi was killed in “Star Wars,” but his spirit remained to give useful counsel through two sequels. 

Somewhat more realistically, when one Robin was killed off in the Batman comics, another stepped forward to take his place. And Batman himself faked his own death at the conclusion of the classic “The Dark Knight Returns,”  choosing to become a behind-the-scenes advisor to a whole new generation of younger heroes dedicated to the continuation of his mission.

Mankind needs its heroes.

Dark days may come, as they have in the past. The minions of evil may even take control of this crazy world for a time. But there shall always be a hero standing off in the wings, waiting for the proper moment to take his stand and save his people. Waiting to fight the good fight, to trounce the bad guys and deliver us from evil.

There are those who will fault me for this, but it is something I believe to the very core of my being: there is as much a place in this world for such fictional heroes as Batman, Tarzan or Doc Savage as there is for the historical heroes we honor. They exist for a reason. They exist because they represent a model of what we all might aspire to be, if only we have the proper dedication.

Anyone who reports a crime, or contributes to a worthy cause, or simply stands up and says something that needs to be said - all of these people are heroes. Tarzan, Doc Savage, Luke Skywalker and the like may only be a shared figment of the imaginations of talented storytellers and the audience to whom they tell their stories; but the ideals which they represent are very real indeed. 

Ours is an evil world; it’s sad but it’s true. Yet we can change it if we want to. If we really try.

When I was a boy, and I used to race home to watch old “Batman” reruns after school, my mother would occasionally fuss and remind me that “You can never grow up to be Batman, you know.”

But you were wrong, Mom. I have grown up to become Batman. So has the kid who became a policeman, the kid who became a lawyer, the kid who joined the military or became a doctor, or just a loving parent. Batman isn’t real, but we are. And we are him. Because we care. Because we believe. And when the time is right, we’ll be there to take our stand. To fight the good fight. To say what needs to be said, or do what needs to be done.

Somebody has to do it, after all. So it might as well be us.

I know, it all sounds rather silly. You say it’s nonsense, and you’re probably right. But it’s inspiring nonsense - or can be, if we allow it. It’s the sort of nonsense that can give a man purpose. And every time I take a stand for something I truly believe in, I thank God that I took the time to make such nonsense a part of my life.

And what’s so wrong about that?

(Copyright 2011 by John Allen Small)