The Classics in Comics

Those of you who are regular readers of “Old News” will have noticed that I have been away from my blog for a few days.  My absence was due to the fact that I was in San Diego this past weekend enjoying Comic-Con, the hugely popular annual meeting celebrating all things related to comics.  Yes, it’s true – I am a “geek.”  In fact, there are many “geeks” in the fields of history, archaeology and Classics, people who love reading fantastical novels and watching movies and TV series based on comics, fantasy and science fiction.  Oh, don’t act so surprised – it’s only natural.  For many of us, it was the stories of gods and heroes that we read as children that led us to the real histories of ancient civilizations.

I certainly would not be breaking any ground if I were to point out the similarities between the characters and actions of (for example) Superman and Hercules.  After all, what are superheroes but demi-gods of modern creation, and what are comics but a modern form of myth-making and of preserving and presenting society’s values and fantasies?  But it’s not even necessary to claim a pedigree for comics that stretches back to antiquity in order to justify an archaeologist spending time at Comic-Con.  Anyone who has kept an eye for the past few years on graphic novels, and on films developed from those novels, will know that there has been a steady stream of books and movies based on and incorporating elements of classical history and mythology with varying degrees of success.  The most popular of these is probably the 2006 film 300 (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0416449/), a special effects-laden retelling of the historical last stand of a group of heroic Greek warriors against the mighty Persian army at the pass called The Hot Gates (Thermopoylae) in 480 B.C.  The film was based on a graphic novel of the same name by Frank Miller, and although he is not alone in his use of ancient sources in the comics field, Miller’s book and the resulting film are certainly one of the most high-profile success stories in the genre.

Ancient history and literature can be found at Comic-Con in many forms ranging from comics featuring historial and mythological characters continuing their heroic existence in modern settings (e.g., the Marvel Comics character Thor, the Norse god of thunder, who made his debut in comics in 1962 and is the titular hero of a current Hollywood blockbuster ) to reworkings and even faithful retellings of the ancient myths and legends themselves.

An excellent example of the latter type is the Age of Bronze series, a graphic novel rendition of Homer’s Iliad, written and illustrated by Eric Shanower (www.age-of-bronze.com).  He has currently made his way through approximately half of the epic – the battle for Troy has just commenced in his series, so it’s a great time to get in on the action! – and will publish the continuation in comic issues that will periodically be collected into lengthier hardback graphic novels.  I had the opportunity to speak with Eric about his work at the show and was impressed not only with his genuine love for the ancient tale but with his dedication to undertaking thorough research on the history and archaeology of the Trojan War and of the Bronze Age in general.  He has spent a significant amount of time at the site of historical Troy on the northwest coast of modern Turkey, getting a feel for the landscape and touring the site with several of the archaeologists and architects responsible for the excavation and preservation of the remains of the city.  He has also visited other Bronze Age archaeological sites, such as Mycenae, that figure in the narrative.  Even a casual glance through his issues is enough to see the results of his homework in recognizable landscapes and faithful renderings of monuments.  Shanower has garnered multiple awards for his painstaking labor on the project, the first volume of which was published in 1998 – Age of Bronze has earned him two Eisner Awards (like an Oscar or an Emmy for the comics industry) (UPDATE: I have just been informed that Eric won another Eisner at Comic-Con 2011, this one for his work on The Marvelous Land of OZ.  Congrats!), and the work has gained an audience outside the world of comics as well; in 2004, Publisher’s Weekly called the second volume of the series one of the Best Books of 2004.

For classicists, archaeologists, and those interested in ancient myth and history, Shanower is an author to keep an eye on.  The series could be useful in university classrooms, especially in the context of discussing narrative and the similarities and differences between relating stories orally and visually, or when considering the use of images to tell stories in ancient societies.

An ancient "comic book" image? "The Suicide of Ajax," black-figure amphora by the painter Exekias, ca. 530 B.C.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “The Classics in Comics

  1. Great report – and congratulations to Eric Shanower on his 2011 Eisner Award!

  2. Useful content and awesome design you got here! I want to thank you for sharing your solutions and taking the time into the stuff you publish! Sublime work!
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