Nov 24, 2009

Crisis on Earth H: Superheroes, Fruit Pies, and Iterations of Myth

A short paper written for my Contemporary Popular Culture course. With thanks to Dr. Julian Holland for making this abstract topic seem....well....not necessarily clear, but a little less abstract, perhaps. Ahhh, cultural studies ;D.

Crisis on Earth-H: Superheroes, Fruit Pies, and Iterations of Myth

In the mid- to late seventies, a parallel world, affectionately dubbed “Earth-H” or "Earth-Hostess" by comic fans, appeared in the form of one-page advertisements in many popular comics (see examples in Appendix). Each ad reads like a comic story, but instead of defeating the villain through ingenuity or super-powers, the hero is victorious by judicious application of Hostess products, be it fruit pies or Twinkies. Analysis of the Earth-H texts shows that the contemporary way of engaging with our myths involves the need for repeated tellings in different forms and for tangible evidence of those myths.

The adoption of the comic book format to sell these products is a form of commodification, though one with some interesting attributes. The comic book itself was commodified in its early years, the first actual magazine format comics being "free" with the weekend newspaper. Once it was realized that children were willing to pay for their comics, publishers birthed the modern periodical medium. If commodification is indeed "[r]endering any artifact, action, object, or idea into something that can be bought"(O'Brien 354), the Hostess ads would seem to have commodified a commodity. Or rather, they have commodified the art that constitutes the commodity. However, rather than assuming "that through commodification things lose their implicit value" (354), the comic community has embraced the "Earth-Hostess" comics as a valid, if somewhat ridiculous, part of the accepted comic book lore. While the use of sequential art to sell snack foods is commodification, the very fantastical nature of the medium, this concept of parallel worlds where anything can happen, envelopes and legitimates all uses of comic book concepts.

The Hostess ads illustrate a somewhat less-positive aspect of popular culture, the inclination to standardization. A look at the two examples in the appendix reveals a striking number of similarities. In figure 1, "The Spider-Man and the Fly!", Spider-Man has been captured by a villain, just awakening in chains. Figure 2 shows Daredevil swinging through the city, musing on "all these problems [that] are the work of one man"(“Daredevil”). The stories begin in media res, as if the ad is a continuation of some longer story, functioning to insert the ads into the ongoing narrative of the characters. This enables, as will be discussed later, the use of the characters mythological resonances to lend credence to the advertisement. Further into the "story," each character seems to gain the upper hand, only to have their respective advantages stolen away at the last moment. In a standard comic book story, this might be the moment when something fundamental goes wrong with the villain's plan, or when the hero calls on previously unknown reserves to triumph. Following this seeming defeat, of course, is the denouement of the piece, the defeat of the villain by the use of Hostess brand desserts. These tropes are standard throughout the Hostess snack ads; all that is really changed from ad to ad is the super-hero and super-villain involved. While the artwork for each piece is unique, the stories are standardized, giving the parallel world of "Earth -Hostess" a predictable series of stories.

The super-hero is, it may be argued, a modern Western interpretation of such figures as the Native American trickster gods, or the Greek demi-god heroes, or even, in the case of someone like Superman, the messianic figures of Christian mythology. While the advertisements do use standard comic book devices to lure in unwary readers, it is not solely the use of the comic book format that makes the ads effective. One must also consider the content of the narratives, most especially their use of super-heroes. A super-hero is an embodiment of certain values and assumptions.  Each one stands for different things, though most share the betterment of humankind as a core value.  While the surface of a character like Spider-Man portrays his wise-cracking personality and fantastic powers, he also represents ideas, or ideals, that the Hostess ads rely upon for veracity. Spider-Man, is the hero who tries to do good, regardless of the hardships he must suffer, or the lack of accolades that come his way.  He is in many ways the martyr archetype, the Christ-like figure of suffering for the good of the many.  Myths come about "in response to a great many different social and psychological needs"(Grant vii). Spider-Man has long be thought of as the everyman with a heart of gold, the tragic hero who knows that "[w]ith great power there must also come -- great responsibility" (Lee 11), and it is these ideas that his depictions in any form carry with them. Thus, it can be argued that while defeating the dastardly Fly with Hostess Twinkies, Spider-Man is demonstrating this responsibility, and that someone who wants to emulate Spider-Man's noble qualities must necessarily use Twinkies as a means to his or her ends, too. Patently ridiculous, perhaps, but definitely what the company paying for the advertising is counting on.

These three meditations on aspects of the Hostess snack ads point to some interesting facets of contemporary culture. While many decry commodification as a denigration of "authentic cultural forms" (O'Brien 354), there is, in our consumer-driven society, a desire to somehow be attached to the heroes we revere. In this case, it involves eating the same snack foods that Daredevil and his enemies just cannot resist, but it could as easily be a pair of costume glasses that look just like Harry Potter's. Commodification helps us to make concrete links with our ephemeral mythologies. These links then, these concrete proofs of our heroes, become representative of the ideals that lie behind those heroes. In our contemporary setting, we like to be able to hold onto our myths. For this reason, it seems, many of our myths are interchangeable. The stories that are told of modern morals have standard pieces that parallel one another. While this is apparent in the two examples of the Hostess ads, one can apply these tropes to any popular cultural myth, and to any advertising that co-opts these myths.

In “The Production and Reproduction of Legitimate Language,” Pierre Bourdieu draws the distinction between “competence adequate to produce sentences that are understood...[and ones] that are listened to” (55). Successful advertisers are adept at gaining this mythological linguistic capital. Could Hostess have anticipated the envelopment of the world of their ads into the canon of comic book lore? It seems unlikely, but the Hostess ads demonstrate a company that not only understands the technical language of the comic book, but the mythological language that underlies it. While the argument can be made that these pieces are simply iterations of the course of myth through society, when myth is being commodified and standardized by a company trying to turn a profit, caution and criticism must be exercised in the stories we consume.

The examples of the Hostess snack comic book ads demonstrate a shift in the relationship the modern consumer has with myth. No longer is it acceptable to simply hear a story - we must now hold it in our hands. However, the standardization of these myths is not solely the realm of advertising. The sitcom always has a moment when the hero is at a low point, only to be rescued by some freak circumstance. The same goes for the crime drama. Many cherished cultural heroes share the same values of loyalty, selflessness, and wit. This interchangeability perhaps suggests that there really is only one myth, and we tell it over and over with different versions of the same pieces, and hold onto it with different versions of the same concrete proofs.

Appendix: Adventures from Earth-H!
Fig. 1 “The Spider-Man and the Fly.” from Omega the Unknown #5 (Marvel Comics, 1976).
Fig. 2. “McBrain's Brain Drain” from The Avengers #177 (Marvel Comics, 1978).

Works Cited

Note: The citations for individual comic books are based on an article online found at http://www.comicsresearch.org/CAC/cite.html. It is a work in progress, as there is no official MLA guide for citing comic books.

Bourdieu, Pierre. Language and Symbolic Power. Harvard University Press, 1995.

“Daredevil in McBrain's Brain Drain.” The Avengers #177 (November 1978), Marvel Comics.

Grant, Michael and John Hazel. “Introduction.” Who's Who in Classical Mythology. London: Routledge, 1999. vii – x.

Lee, Stan (w), and Steve Ditko (p). “Spider-Man!” The 100 Greatest Marvels of All Time (December 2001), Marvel Comics.

O'Brien, Susie and Imre Szeman. Popular Culture: A User's Guide. Toronto: Nelson Education Ltd., 2010.

“Spider-Man! in The Spider-Man and the Fly!” Omega the Unknown #5 (November 1976), Marvel Comics.

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