Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark
The transformation of humans into monsters or animals is a standard feature of two great genres: classical Greek and Roman myth and American comic books. As those of us know who spent our childhoods and teenaged years greedily hoarding the latter, such transformations are only occasionally effected by a mere change of costume. Batman, for instance (introduced in 1939), is an ordinary Homo sapiens who simply dons his bat-like hood and cape when he wants to battle evildoers; his extraordinary powers are the fruit of disciplined intellectual and physical training. More often—and more excitingly—the metamorphoses occur at the genetic level. The Incredible Hulk, who debuted in 1962, is a hypertrophied Hercules-like giant, the Mr. Hyde aspect of an otherwise mild-mannered scientist named Bruce Banner, created during a laboratory accident involving gamma rays. Wolverine, one of the X-men, who sports lupine traits following his transformations, belongs to a despised race of “mutants” with remarkable powers. (The comic book series, now reincarnated as a hugely popular film franchise, debuted in 1963.)
Perhaps most famously of all, the crime-fighting Spider-Man—the character was introduced in 1962 and got his own comic series the following year—is really just an ordinary teenager from Queens named Peter Parker who undergoes a kind of human-arachnid hybridization after being bitten by a radioactive spider during a class trip to a science fair. It can be no accident that popular narratives involving gamma rays, mutants, and radioactivity should have gripped the imagination of young people in the early 1960s, when the cold war—and with it the seemingly constant threat of nuclear catastrophe—was at its height.
Two millennia before the Cuban missile crisis, the popular fascination with metamorphosis was already firmly in place. The gods of Greek myth regularly transform themselves, abandoning their everyday humanoid shapes for those of animals—often (if not always wholly explicably) for the purposes of seducing mortal girls: Zeus ravishes Europa in the form of a bull, Leda in the shape of a swan, and, in one odd variant, his own daughter Persephone in the shape of a snake. But the gods clearly enjoy transforming humans, too. Hence, for instance, the story of Actaeon, a young hunter who offends the virgin goddess Artemis and is turned into a stag that is then torn to pieces by his own hunting dogs—the hunter become the victim, in other words.
This by no means atypical narrative suggests a crucial difference between the ancient and modern models of human-to-animal metamorphosis. For today’s audiences, such transformations are liberating—literally “empowering”—whereas for the ancients, they were, more often than not, humiliations, punishments for inappropriate or overweening behavior. One of the most famous examples of this moralizing strain in ancient tales of shape-shifting is the comparatively late myth (there are no traces of it in the extant Greek material of the Classical Age) of Arachne, the…
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