Gilgamesh the first superhero

by Bernard
Publish date
22 March 2012
Comments (12)

Bernard works part-time at Melbourne Museum devising and delivering presentations for visitors. The other part of the time he writes and draws and edits and publishes comic books, and also teaches and broadcasts about them.

Gilgamesh. What a guy. 

In The Epic of Gilgamesh, we learn that he's the son of a human man and the goddess Ninsun.

Gilgamesh and Lamassu in the Louvre A hero overpowering a lion (left) and Lamassu in the Louvre. These bas-relief sculpures are huge - the man figure is about three times life-size. Lion-taming spirits are often identified with Gilgamesh.
Image: caribb
Source: Used under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 from caribb.

He's two-thirds god and one-third human, and single-handedly built the city walls of Uruk to protect his people.

Gilgamesh statue Cast bronze sculpture of Gilgamesh at The University of Sydney. It was made by Lewis Batros and donated by the Gilgamesh Cultural Centre on behalf of the Assyrian community celebrating the university's sesquicentenary in 2000.
Image: D. Gordon E. Robertson
Source: Wikimedia Commons

He fought and befriended the wild man Enkidu. Enkidu and Gilgamesh fought the monster Humbaba (or Huwawa). They defeated Humbaba and brought his head back to Uruk on a raft.

Clay mask of the demon Huwawa or Humbaba. Clay mask of the demon Huwawa or Humbaba. The cuneiform inscription on the back says that if the intestines of a sacrificed animal are looped around to resemble Humbaba, it is an omen of 'revelation.' Gruesome.
Source: © The Trustees of the British Museum

Gilgamesh and Enkidu also defeated the Bull of Heaven, who was sent to destroy Uruk by the furious goddess Ishtar after Gilgmesh said that he wouldn't go to the prom with her.

Queen of the Night relief The 'Queen of the Night' Relief, possibly a representation of the goddess Ishtar. It might also be her sister and rival, the goddess Ereshkigal, or the demoness Lilitu, known in the Bible as Lilith. Old Babylonian, 1800-1750 BC, from southern Iraq.
Source: © The Trustees of the British Museum

Sure, Gilgamesh is the legendary demigod hero-king of Mesopotamia, but is he actually the first comic book superhero? Of course he is. There were definitely legendary heroes and gods before Gilgamesh, but he's the first one we have a publication for. That publication weighs a little more than your standard comic book, because it's made of tablets of baked clay. But there are 12 of those tablets, each telling of a separate episode, so each could be considered an 'issue' of the Gilgamesh comic mini-series.

The one possible argument against it being a comic book is its total and utter lack of pictures. However, this objection is easily overcome by holding the tablets of cuneiform up against the large narrative Mesopotamian wall-carvings. The tablets thus become word balloons, containing a tale that the characters on the carvings are telling to one another. THEN it's a comic book. A weighty comic book. It might even, given the scope of the story, be a 'graphic novel' (=long comic book). Ooh la la!

Three thousand years after that original clay publication of the adventures of Gilgamesh, the brilliant Jack Kirby, 'King of Comics', who virtually invented the visual language that we associate with American superhero comics, put the Babylonian demigod on paper. BK (Before Kirby), comic books used the restrained compositions and drawing styles that they had inherited from newspaper comic strips. Kirby changed all that. His characters burst through the frames. They leapt from the page.

Bernard reading comic book Me ensconced in the classic Jack Kirby comic book series The Eternals, which features his character Gilgamesh.
Source: Museum Victoria

Gilgamesh shows up in issue #13 of The Eternals (1977), a comic book series that Kirby created for Marvel Comics. In the intervening years, the character has been drawn and written by various writers and artists. Sometimes he's working under a different name (simply 'Hero' or 'The Forgotten One'), sometimes he's costumed in the hide of the Bull of Heaven, and sometimes he's fighting alongside the team called The Avengers, but I'm pretty sure he won't have a cameo in the film of the same name directed by Joss Whedon (the Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator) coming from Marvel Studios later this year. More's the pity, eh?

Comments (12)

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MaryAnne 22 March, 2012 13:48
Eraserhead or perish! Love the notion of comics from the ancients! True I guess! XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX
Robyn 22 March, 2012 13:50
Awesome story ..... cool pictures.....entertainingly told.....the comic connections are fascinating!
Bruce 22 March, 2012 16:27
Ha! Soon as I saw that pic I thought: ah, so Jack Nance lives? Stretching it a bit to say those tablets are a comic, but absolutely spot on to say Gilgamesh and their stories were the superhero comics of their day, only the readers believed these heroes really did exist. Funny how that 'template' of organising the world still has currency 5000 years later. When we stop wanting to hear these stories - then worry.
Anthony 23 March, 2012 12:08
love the add for the movie 'Orca' on the back of the comic. So Ishtar was 'Queen of the Night Relief'? Interesting...
Jo 25 March, 2012 16:15
Marvellous; comics are everywhere, and at all times.
Lisaveta 2 April, 2012 16:33
What I want to know, is what did prom night look like 5,000 years ago? Don't think there's a graphic novel that has captured that yet. Needs a bit of hermeneutics & tablet reading me thinks. Now there's a challenge for a superhero.
Juliet 4 May, 2012 14:11
Hi Anthony, Well spotted, love the humour - that made me laugh out loud. In fact it is a hyperlink creation error, should just read: 'Ishtar Queen of the Night' as you no doubt already know.
Omega 4 May, 2012 20:47
So is the 'Queen of the Night' Relief actually part of the exhibition in Melbourne? That would be exciting, if it were the case...
Bernard 10 May, 2012 10:17

Hi Omega,

The objects in this post are not on display in The Wonders of Ancient Mesopotamia, but the exhibition does include lamassu created by MV preparators.

Christopher H 24 May, 2012 00:09
Are the exhibits in this blog in the MoV's exhibition? I really would like to see them.
Discovery Centre 24 May, 2012 14:30
Hi Christopher, please see our response to Omega (just above yours). Thank you.
Hope 7 October, 2014 02:43
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