Post #27: Marvel’s Hercules
By Vincent Tomasso
Originally published Friday July 8 2016
DENNIS: It has been decided--so sayeth Thor.
CHARLIE: Thor said it!
FRANK: Who's Thor?
CHARLIE: A Greek god reference...?
DENNIS: It's a Nordic god.
--It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, "Dee Gives Birth" (6.12)
In post #25, I theorized that, because most of Marvel’s superheroes were conceived in the early 1960s, classical antiquity is not a major feature of the Marvel universe. I want to return to that idea again in this post, in which I’ll consider one of first appearances of Marvel’s most famous antiquity-derived character Hercules. Interestingly, Hercules appears in an issue of The Mighty Thor and is at first a villain, or at any rate an antihero whom Thor must “educate” in the ways of the modern superhero.*
Marvel’s Herc initially displays values that are antithetical to superheroes. He drinks and eats to excess, he’s narcissistic, and he womanizes (figure 1). These characteristics are typical of (some versions of) Hercules in classical antiquity, particularly ancient Greece. This Hercules murders his music teacher in a rage over the man’s correction of his lyre-playing, sleeps with King Thespius’ 50 daughters over 50 nights (and thinks they’re the same woman!), and strangles a lion with his bare hands.
In spite of this rough image of the hero, other ancients found ways to make Hercules moral. Alastair Blanshard’s 2005 book Hercules: a Heroic Life shows the long history of Hercules’ re-appropriation as a model of virtue and abstinence, first by and for philosophers (as in fourth-century BCE Xenophon’s Memorabilia), and subsequently by and for the early Christians (example: a series of catacomb paintings from the 300s AD) (figure 2).
The clash between Thor and Hercules happens in The Mighty Thor #126 (1966) (header image). The previous issue showcased the two characters’ very different approaches to the world. Whereas Thor defeats the villain Demon and his henchmen, who have stolen a Norn stone (“A mute testament to the folly of possessing great
power without the wisdom to use it justly!”, Thor proclaims), Herc parties and womanizes, basking in the limelight afforded by his muscular physique and Shakespeare-ese (figure 3). He’s only an accidental hero, as when he foils a robbery because the gangsters have the nerve to shoot at him and ruin his music recital.
When the two immortals meet in the next issue, it’s quickly made clear that Herc isn’t evil. Thor himself recognizes this: “I am truly certain that Hercules is headstrong rather than evil—like a small child who has been undisciplined since birth!” Although in his very first appearance in Avengers #10 (1964), Herc actually was evil, having been recruited to fight Thor by the supervillain Immortus, here he just needs some education in the Marvel tradition of superheroics.
The Norse Thor is in many ways similar to the Greek/Roman Hercules. Both characters engage in drinking contests, rejoice in battle, and have rapacious sexual appetites. Indeed, in antiquity the two characters were conflated by the ancient Roman historian Tacitus, who wrote that a group of people living in northern Europe called the Suebi worshipped a deity named Hercules (Germania, chapter 9). Here “Hercules” is probably the Roman equivalent of “Thor” (according to Birley’s Agricola and Germany 1999: 107). In spite of these characters’ similarity, Marvel chose to make Thor modern, giving him a human alter ego in the doctor Donald Blake. Through the thunder god’s experiences in and with the modern world, he has internalized the moral and ethical duties of modern superheroes, which Spider-Man articulates at the end of Amazing Fantasy #15 (1962): “With great power comes great responsibility.”
Why Marvel’s bullpen chose to use Hercules, as opposed to other mythical strongmen like Samson, Gilgamesh, Cú Chulainn, or Beowulf, is open to debate. The first** meeting of Thor and Herc in Journey into Mystery annual #1 suggests that fanmail requesting the matchup of “the mightiest immortals of all time” was responsible (though, “the matchless imaginations of Lee and Kirby” had a lot to do with it as well, of course). I wonder, though, whether Herc’s appearance has something to do with the sword-and-sandal films so popular at this time. Marvel’s Herc, at least in these early appearances, looks a lot like bodybuilder-cum-actor Steve Reeves, who starred as Hercules in two extremely successful films in the years just before The Mighty Thor #125 hit newsstands: Hercules (dir. Francisci 1958) and Hercules Unchained (dir. Francisci 1959). Like Reeves, Herc has a bodybuilder physique and wears a very similar chiton-esque garment and sandals (figure 4). Unlike Reeves, he wears a belt emblazoned with an “H”, akin to other superhero belt buckles (figure 5).
Another reason for Marvel’s choosing of Herc to be an antihero foil for Thor might be the decline of classical antiquity in American culture. With the launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik in 1957, U.S. education and culture began to prioritize the hard sciences to the detriment of the humanities. Classical language enrollments declined precipitously as a result, and concurrently popular knowledge of ancient Greece and Rome waned. Marvel picked up on this paradigm shift when it created its new roster of superheroes in the 1960s. Their competitors at Detective Comics, by contrast, had characters who were rooted in antiquity in one way or another (Wonder Woman, the Flash, Shazam, etc.). This likely happened because many of these superheroes had been created in the late 1930s and 1940s, before the turn towards science in the 1960s. Marvel’s Herc is an excellent example of the results of this. He ultimately becomes a bona fide superhero, teaming up with Thor, joining the West Coast Avengers’ roster for a time, and even getting his own series (The Incredible Hercules, 2008-2010)! But first his “ancient” character must be reformed by Thor.
Marvel’s Herc shows us that the company uses ancient Greece as a foil, as a dark mirror in which superheroes can see distorted versions of themselves. The education they provide to characters like Herc is a re-play of the Marvel superhero code, allowing young audiences to see how power should operate in our world. Antiquity's heroes need to be educated by modern superheroes to be acceptable to modern audiences.
*: Thanks to Keigo Kiyohara for introducing me to Thor in comic books! Keigo’s especially enamored of Walt Simonson’s run on Thor in the 1980s, and his loan of the Simonson Thor omnibus (now sadly out-of-print) got me interested in Beta Ray Bill, a creation of Simonson’s whose similarity to Thor initially caused them to fight. In fact, Simonson seems to have understood Bill as a parallel to Herc, as a cover of The Mighty Thor attests (figure 6).
**: Because I’m talking about comic books, I’ll play pedantic Comic Book Guy for a second. Technically, the first meeting between Thor and Herc was in Avengers #10. But because writers ignored this meeting in subsequent issues, and because this Herc is explained to have been an imposter in a 1998/9 series, I consider Journey Into Mystery annual #1 to be the first canonical meeting of the two.