Gareth Hinds, in his modern graphic novel rendition of the nearly 1000-year-old story of Beowulf, reminds the reader that superheroes are not a new phenomenon. Going back all the way to somewhere between the 8th and 11th century (no one knows for sure when the original manuscript was created), the titular character Beowulf is a superhero in every way we understand them. Between the images, choreographed like martial arts fights, and the hyper-muscular physique of Beowulf, the graphic novel lends itself to our modern understanding of what readers are looking for in a main, heroic character. Super-heroic, that is.
Illustrator Gareth Hinds grew up in a small town in Liberal, Vermont. He read a lot and drew all the time. He was also fascinated by martial arts. In high school, he dabbled as much as he could in illustration. He toyed briefly with being an engineer but then decided to do the sensible thing and go to art school. He graduated from Parsons School of Design, lucked into a job making computer games, and managed to draw a couple of graphic novels in his spare time. One of these graphic novels is the one we’re talking about.
The idea of a superhero perhaps isn’t the modern phenomenon we’ve accepted it as. Let’s take a look at how Beowulf fits the mold.
1. Beowulf battles evil forces.
Beowulf is commissioned by King Hrothgar to slay the demon Grendel. The typical superhero story often pits the forces of good against evil. The hero usually faces a nemesis or ultimate evil. The stories we know well from this past century have our main characters pitted against their evil archenemies. Some great examples readers will be more familiar with are Superman vs Lex Luthor, Bizarro, Darkside, or cyborg Superman; Batman vs The Joker, Poison Ivy, or Scarecrow; Captain America vs the Red Skull and Hydra; The X-men vs Magneto, the brotherhood, or Apocalypse, to name just a few.
People always say a hero is nothing without a good villain, which makes sense. Without a villain, there is nothing to motivate the hero to be… well… heroic.
2. Beowulf is altruistic.
Another key trait of any superhero is the need to defend the innocent and fight for justice without reward. Beowulf goes on a quest to destroy the demon Grendel simply so the Danes can live in peace and not be terrorized by the monster. Our Comic Book superheroes like Superman, to our real life U.S. soldiers who defend our people without need of recognition would fit the bill on this one.
3. Beowulf has super-human powers.
He rips Grendel’s arm off with his bare hands. Many fictional heroes display the trademark power of superhuman strength like Thor, Superman, and Wonder Woman. If you read Hinds’ graphic novel you’ll see the page were Beowulf effortlessly attacks Grendel and rips off his arm. Enormous physical strength is a trademark ability in heroic mythology. Any hero probably needs extraordinary strength in order to endure the extraordinary challenges he or she will have to face in a fight against evil.
4. Beowulf can fight without any weapons or armor.
Another thing you’ll see as you read the story is that Beowulf goes to combat his villain with out any weapons such as swords, shields, or other tools of this time period. Although he has them available, he doesn’t rely on them. He also strips himself of his armor. (Don’t worry, everyone. You won’t be seeing his privates hanging out. Gareth Hinds doesn’t fly like that.) This shows Beowulf’s prowess as a warrior and his level of confidence in battle, displaying a similar nonchalance that we often see in modern superheroes.
5. Beowulf has no known weaknesses.
Another trait that makes Beowulf an old English superhero is that he has no known weaknesses. Although some famous heroes like Achilles or Superman have very well known weaknesses, most heroes do not have even the tiniest kinks in their armor. They seem nearly indestructible, and a match for the vile evil that they must face in their stories.
Beowulf’s story is also a classic tale of a hero going an epic quest or journey, to slay the ultimate evil. Many mythologies follow this story line such as the greek tales of Hercules and the Hydra, Perseus and Medusa, and the Norse tales of Thor and the Midgard serpent. Then, of course, there’s the classic tale of Sleeping Beauty where Prince Philip slays the dragon. One difference with Beowulf is that he had to contend with three monsters — not just one. Many say that our modern superhero stories are the modern mythology. That seems accurate.