Micro-chat: The Modern Demigod Archetype

The World’s Strongest

Comics have become an incredibly vivid and influential form of storytelling since the early Twentieth Century. While there are numerous recognizable characters, none are perhaps as universally known as Son Goku and Superman. Son Goku is the protagonist of the Dragon Ball series (originally published in 1984) by Japanese comic artist (mangaka) Akira Toriyama. Superman, created by writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster, first appeared in Action Comics #1 in 1938 and is one of the flagship characters of DC Comics.

Action Comics #1 (June 1938)

For decades, fans have pitted these two characters against one another in arguments over who is mightier. They have cited several similarities between Goku and Superman, particularly regarding their physical strength and fighting ability. Nevertheless, other comparisons can and have been made, by fans and critics alike, that paint a fascinating picture of these two characters.

For example, both Goku and Superman are the survivors of a nigh-extinct race of extraterrestrials. Both were spirited away as babies from a dying homeworld by their parents, who would assuredly perish alongside their planet. Both orphans were discovered by kind-hearted humans; they were adopted and assumed new identities, unaware of their otherworldly origins until much later in life. To the surprise of their adoptive guardians, both boys began manifesting superhuman abilities and traits that betrayed their alien heritage. As adults, Goku and Superman have come face to face with many combatants and enemies seeking destruction or conquest, including villains directly responsible for annihilating their native races. Moreover, Goku and Superman married and started families of their own, becoming parents to half-human, half-extraterrestrial children.

With all these parallelisms, is it possible that Goku and Superman have a common ancestor—metaphorically speaking? This Micro-chat will attempt to answer that very question while also briefly examining two literary characters who directly inspired Goku and Superman, respectively.

The Monkey King Reimagined

In the case of Goku, there is a clear inspiration that East Asian fans would immediately recognize. Goku is based on Sun Wukong the Monkey King, an East Asian character originating from Chinese literature and mythology. Known as “Son Goku” in Japan, the Monkey King is a trickster-adventurer character from the 16th-century Chinese novel Journey to the West.[1] Born from a stone that holds the power of yin (earth) and yang (heaven), Wukong terrorizes Heaven and is, thus, imprisoned by Buddha in a mountain. He joins a monk on a pilgrimage to India to gain freedom, becoming a bodhisattva (a person who journeys to discover Enlightenment) and eventually attaining Buddhahood. 

Comparison of Son Goku (adult & child, left) and Sun Wukong (right)

There are several traits of Goku that the Monkey King directly inspired. All Saiyans (Goku’s race) were born with a monkey-tail which transformed them into gigantic monkeys during a full moon—Wukong was famous for his multitudinous transformations. The Monkey King’s signature weapon was a golden staff (the Nyoi-bo) that could change its size and length. He could surf through the air on clouds and was an exceptional fighter with prodigious physical strength that even Heaven feared. Goku has all these qualities, although his extendable staff and “flying nimbus” disappear from the story in Dragon Ball Z (DBZ, the sequel manga to Dragon Ball). Furthermore, in DBZ, Goku defeats the alien warlord, Frieza, who subjugated and later led genocide on the Saiyans. This event is reminiscent of the Monkey King’s defeat of the Demon King of Confusion, who had enslaved the monkeys of the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit, Wukong’s birthplace.[2] 

By contrast, Superman appears to be a trailblazer. Many people see him as the quintessential American hero and the archetypal superhero from which most other Western comic book heroes are inspired. However, is it possible that an earlier work of literature may have inspired the Man of Steel?

A Martian Influence?

In 1912, American writer Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote a fantasy novel titled A Princess of Mars about an ex-Confederate – later known as “John Carter of Mars” – who finds himself transported to the planet Mars and becomes embroiled in a struggle between two warring factions. Quickly, John Carter realizes that he has superhuman abilities while on Mars and uses these powers to rescue Princess Dejah Thoris and secure the Helium Throne. He appears in the rest of Burroughs’ Barsoom Series, later becoming the Warlord of Mars and marrying the Princess. 

A Princess of Mars (cover circa 1917)

A Princess of Mars was released twenty-six years before Superman’s debut in Action Comics #1. Still, comic book fans should notice a few immediate commonalities between John Carter and Superman. Both men had humble origins in the American countryside: John Carter grew up in antebellum Virginia; the Kent family raised Superman on their farm in Smallville, Kansas. Due to his abilities, John Carter became a hero to the Martian people. He fought in defense against their enemies, eventually learning to live among them. Moreover, like Superman (and Goku), John Carter assimilated into Martian society and, after his marriage, fathered earthling-Martian children.

Interestingly, the manifestation of John Carter’s powers has a few similarities and differences to those of Goku and Superman. Since he was born and grew up on Earth, which has higher gravity and atmospheric pressure than Mars, John’s strength and agility were heightened. Likewise, Saiyans were born on a planet with a stronger gravitational force than Earth, significantly increasing their muscle mass and endurance, explaining Goku’s incredible fighting capabilities. Inversely, Superman was born on a planet that orbited a Red Giant, which hindered any manifestation of superpowers. When he arrived on Earth, however, his body began to absorb the rays of the yellow sun, resulting in his powers developing.[3]

All four characters mentioned previously – Goku and Sun Wukong, Superman and John Carter – share a crucial trait of being dual-natured. Their natures are of Earth and Heaven, making them uniquely powerful and awe-inspiring individuals. It would seem then that digging further into this dualistic nature is the key to discovering, if possible, the common ancestor of Goku and Superman. 

The Bridge between Two Worlds

In ancient world religions, a hero was an individual who walked that thin line between humanity and divinity. They were often the children or descendants of gods and other supernatural beings – demigods, they were called – and displayed traits beyond ordinary humans. Some heroes exhibited superhuman abilities, possessed innate wisdom or cunning, were beloved by gods and men and defied the very extremes of human imagination. Ancient peoples would worship these individuals and claim them as their own. Families claimed to be descendants of heroes to increase their prestige, while cities and towns worshipped them as folk heroes. They did all this to assert some connection between themselves and the divine.

The most famous demigod in mythological studies is Herakles, or, as he is more widely known, Hercules. Herakles was, in many ways, the hero of the classical world. He was the son of Alcmene, a mortal woman, and the almighty god Zeus, who resided in the Heavens atop Mt. Olympus. Herakles possessed superhuman strength and often displayed remarkable cunning. His adventures and achievements are some of the most documented events in Greek mythology and literature, particularly his Twelve Labors, making Herakles the greatest of all Greek heroes. The worship of Herakles spanned across the Mediterranean to the Indian subcontinent, and he remains a highly influential character in popular culture and media today. Thus, would it be surprising to suggest that he may be the mythological blueprint for modern heroes like Goku and Superman?

Well, that may be a bit excessive to propose. It may be more appropriate to say Goku and Superman took some inspiration from the classical demigod model, and Herakles is perhaps the greatest and best example. Like them, Herakles was of two worlds: he lived in Greece among his mortal family (he even had a thoroughly mortal twin brother), but his father was a god – the greatest of the gods, at that.[4] Herakles often used his incredible powers in search of glory throughout Greece, although several of his more famous feats (e.g., the Twelve Labors) were done in service (or punishment) to others. In the Gigantomachy, he assisted the Olympian gods in defeating the Giants whom Mother Earth sent to destroy her grandchildren for deposing their parents, the Titans. He bedded multiple women and fathered many children, some of whom became kings and heroes. Furthermore, upon his death, he was burned on a funeral pyre – a traditional heroic funerary rite – and ascended to godhood.

Herakles was simply the greatest demigod.

The Modern Demigod Archetype

Demigods were the superheroes of the ancient world. They existed in every corner of the globe and all world religions. They were heroes who had some connection to Heaven and accomplished amazing feats of strength or wisdom in pursuit of glory and adventure. In our modern world, however, the image of a demigod is a bit different. Where the gods of ancient peoples came from some divine realm, today we have aliens who visit Earth from somewhere “beyond the stars” – i.e., the modern demigod is drawn from the same cloth as the classical demigod, it is just that our understanding of what they may be has changed.

So, Goku and Superman may be the “descendants” of Herakles and the demigod archetype. If nothing else, they certainly possess more demigod-like traits than other modern heroes. Alternatively, their creators were tapping into an entirely different motif or archetype yet-to-be-discovered.

[1] Literary scholars and folklorists believe that Wukong is based on the Hindu Monkey-god Hanuman, a prominent figure in Hinduism and Buddhism with whom he shares numerous characteristics.

[2] Journey to the West, Chapter Two.

[3] The explanation for Superman’s powers was established in Superman #146, published in 1961. 

[4] Herakles’ twin, Iphicles, is the son of Alcmene’s husband, Amphitryon. In mythology, Alcmene slept with Zeus and Amphitryon on the same day, resulting in half-brothers born of the same mother but different fathers.

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