Comic Syncretism
By: Ethan Casady

Throughout the last century, comics have evolved from being cheaply printed chapbooks to a driving force behind media production. Comic book characters have invaded every facet of media from toys to Hollywood movies. This influence is due in part to comics including every form of culture into a synthesized and unified conglomeration of ideas. Ancient mythologies of the Greek, Egyptian, and Norse cultures are continually referenced in comics around the world, but there are also many contemporary themes that are traded between comics from different cultures. The fluidity of ideologies between comics allows for complete freedom for modern writers and they are completely unhindered by medium restraints like time, in movies, and the lack of visuals in traditional literature.

There are many examples of this syncretism in the DC Comics universe that combines several theologies and beliefs. The DC universe embodies hundreds of different storylines that are constantly interlacing and this causes many clashing ideologies to overlap and mesh together. Historically, American comics were constrained by the government to only portray superheroes and avoided more realistic themes. However, this didn’t stop the writer’s from exploring other cultures in their unique, superhero driven, storylines.

Katana wielding her deadly sword and wearing her Japanese flag imprinted mask.
Image from dccomics.com
Katana follows the story of Tatsu Yamashiro who is an expert swordsman embodying her samurai heritage. This character was created in 1983 and has evolved aesthetically into a new embodiment of Japanese culture. Her once red mask has transformed into a literal reference to the Japanese flag. Other representations of this character show her in shamanistic Japanese clothing and adorned with a kitsune mask. Her origin stems from her husband’s death, he was a member of the Yakuza Clan, during a disagreement with his twin brother. This causes Tatsu to become detached and filled with grief as she fights to avenge her husband’s death by fighting crime. Several modern Western storylines that deal with a tragedy in Japan oftentimes has the Yakuza Clan as the epicenter.

Constantine’s ability allows him to use numerous forms of magic from across the world.
Image from comicvine.com
Constantine revolves around John Constantine, who is a British magician that haphazardly protects the world from all things mystical while offering satirical relief when needed. During DC Comic’s New 52 reboot, where they narrowed their main run of comics to fifty-two different series, John Constantine became a younger and wittier magical powerhouse. Constantine is constantly referencing several ideologies as it creates magical disasters that threaten to destroy reality. John Constantine is a master of all things mystical that range from ancient Buddhist meditation techniques to demonic exorcisms from Christianity. There was a movie adaptation of this series that starred Keanu Reaves, however, this movie relied mainly on the dogma of Christianity and had Constantine confronting Satan at the end.

The syncretism in comics is even more prevalent in other cultures around the world, especially in Japan. Japanese comics are called manga and they are often in black and white while having the freedom to explore any number of themes and storylines, contrary to American comics. The manga style is reminiscent of traditional Japanese wood block prints with the use of simplified characters and flat color distinctions.

Aladdin from Magi: The Labyrinth of Magic with his genie flute. Image from mangatown.com
One manga that clearly illustrates syncretism is Magi: The Labyrinth of Magic. This manga revolves around the protagonist Aladdin, who is a young boy that happens to have befriended a Djinn (genie) from a mysterious dungeon castle. This manga is set in a reimagining of the ancient world and is ripe with bandits and treachery. Although the world is still unique and separate from our own, there are clear influences of ancient Middle Eastern mythologies and stereotypes. Besides the fact that the main character is named Aladdin, the world is full of brothels and the society is driven by slave labor. There are also reference to several other mythologies like Greek and Egyptian references. This manga uses its unique world to emphasize and comment on these stereotypes in a comedic manner while still providing an engaging storyline.

Korean comics are becoming extremely unique when compared to other countries. There are still traditional comics, called manwha, but there has been a huge uprising of web comics in recent years. South Korea is actually the country with the most internet connectivity per population and with an infrastructure that rivals that of the US, it has allowed most South Koreans to have high speed internet connectivity. The web comics have also evolved to cater towards smart phone and tablet screens and have developed into vertical scrolling comics that allow for the artist to experiment with the integration of the format with the storyline and the ability to add music. One popular web comic is Noblesse and it revolves around an ancient vampire being revived in modern times and trying to adapt to the change. His most trusted servant is in fact named Frankenstein, who serves as the principal at the Korean school he is attending while investigating attacks from other vampires. Aside from the clear reference to Western literature, the comic is also full of other references to monsters from Western mythology.

There are thousands of examples of syncretism in comics, whether they’re harmful or creative, and this article is barely scratching the surface. Other examples include the Green Lanterns, Batman, Attack On Titan, Sword Art Online (originally a light novel), Soul Eater, Blue Exorcist, Tower of God, The Gamer…you get the idea, it’s everywhere. While this syncretism can cause a unique mixture of ideas to aid an engaging storyline, it can also further stereotypes or ignorance of other cultures and only represent common misconceptions. There is definitely a balancing act that occurs while writers are creating these imaginative and sometimes not-so-fictitious worlds.

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