Hercules: The First Superhero by Philip Matyszak
Book Review by caldrail
The superhero is nothing new. Our modern day graphic novels descend directly from the American comic books that emerged in the thirties, as if the United States was seeking hope in a world that was threatened by economic woe and violent conflict. Perhaps oddly for that nation in particular we find the iconic Superman was an alien orphan. In his first outing we are told he could hurdle skyscrapers, leap an eighth of a mile, raise tememdous weights, run faster than a streamline train, and nothing less than a bursting shell could penetrate his skin. Within a decade or two, his feats exceeded those limits by orders of magnitude.
A phenomenon of industrialised and global society? Not at all. Cast back two thousand years and we might almost be talking about Hercules. Born a demigod due to the machinations of Olympian gods he was in many ways an alien among Mankind. Capable of jaw-dropping impossible feats, he fought strange and terrifying monsters, led armies, and basically in the course of his adventures impinged himself upon ancient culture so much that Commodus, among the worst of the Caesars that Rome found itself subject to, actually took on the role in private and public life, albeit with fewer displays of amazing powers.
In Hercules The First Superhero Philip Matyszak sets the scene by the very same comparison between ancient and modern. His knowledge of superheroes perhaps needs expansion, for whilst he is quite correct about the square jawed clean cut morally certain Superman, there was also appearing around the same time a morally dangerous vigilante, the quite psychotic Batman, whose original persona was nothing like Adam West's camp television interpretation of the famous sixties television series. And again, we find some familiarity with our ancient hero, Hercules, who unlike Kevin Sorbo's wise cracking tv good guy, was guilty of theft, rape, genocide, and much more besides.
The origins of Hercules as retold by the author begin with the soap opera squabbles of the divine families of Olympus. Our hero is given powers far beyond human limitations in a dramatic parallel to the more accidental radiation induced metamorphoses of later American superheroes. He is, right from the start, a dispossessed king, a dangerous loner, and a magnified example of moral and social norms, all themes that later superheroes would revisit in one form or another.
The book reveals a character that is complex and deeply flawed. In fact, though the author does not stress the analysis, we find ourselves learning something about the Greek psyche, peering deep into a dark place, a world that has been left behind. A world where sttength and courage are admired. Where decisive action is respected. Where results dictate opinions. This was after all a culture in which winning was everything. Much is made today of sportsmanship, the 'taking part', which is important to modern sports. For the Greeks, coming second was a humiliating failure and a reason to become a social outcast.
Modern superheroes often have moral dilemmas resulting from their secret identity. Hercules has no such secret and indeed is quite capable of blowing his own trumpet. Instead, the moral dilemma, in yet another parallel, results from the inner demons that drive Hercules' behaviour. He doesn't want to be a villain - he just sometimes does bad things without realising what a negative effect he's going to have. The impulsive side of Hercules is extraordinary. He does not vacillate or consider at length. He makes only the most cursory plans. What is vital to his character is that he acts, rightly or wrongly, but that he does something about his desires and situations. This is typical of the insights into Greek culture that Matyszak leaves for us to discover.
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An appendix lists the substantial number of literary sources that deal with stories about our demigod hero. Matyszak has written what amounts to a commentary on the collected tales of Hercules, looking into the legends and observing those behaviours and attitudes that seem very cruel and unfair to modern sensibility.
There is a cheerful and amusing manner to the two hundred page work with many subtle lampoons of modern culture, and the authors narrative makes Hercules, warts and all, almost a real person, someone the reader can get to know.Such is the immersive quality of the original tales that the foreword for this book is a the very same written by Diodorus of Sicily, still fresh and relevant after more than two thousand years.
Philip Matyszak has a doctorate in Roman history from St. John s College, Oxford. His books include Legionary, Gladiator, Ancient Rome on 5 Denarii a Day, Ancient Athens on 5 Drachmas a Day, The Classical Compendium, Chronicle of the Roman Republic, and The Greek and Roman Myths. He lives in British Columbia, Canada.