Friday, September 23, 2011


George Kovacs, C.W. Marshall (ed.), Classics and Comics. Classical presences. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. Pp. xiii, 265. ISBN 9780199734191. $29.95 (pb).

Reviewed by Joel C. Relihan, Wheaton College (

Version at BMCR home site


I am, fortunately, not old enough to remember the Golden Age of Comics. My childhood experience was strictly Late Silver Age, primarily 1968-1970. I still remember the rapture with which I read Marvel's The Silver Surfer (mentioned nowhere in this book, I regret to say, though I'll return to him later) when I was thirteen. I read with a similar rapture the passage (Part VI, Chapter 19) in Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (mentioned only once) in which Kavalier gives to his son the 102 crates of comic books that he collected during his years living in hiding in the Empire State Building. The son then builds as his own Fortress of Solitude—he calls it his Bug's Nest, its Innermost Cell reached by crawling through its Secret Access Tube—a hive of neatly stacked crates in the garage, the top open to a light fixture. There he sits reading, surrounded by the complete Golden Age, chewing on his pencil. Classics and Comics holds out the promise of similar immersions and similar raptures, with essays pointing to an uncatalogable overload of texts and images: much that is new, much that has been reprinted, much that has been lost, much that awaits the attention of the researcher and the enthusiast. The book ends with an extremely valuable ten-page resource guide (separate from its extensive bibliography), under the artfully modified title A Reading List of Classics in Comics, that assembles an impressive array of print and on-line materials that can only whet the appetite. Those of us who have come back to the world of comics after The Dark Knight and Kingdom Come and The Watchmen realize how much there is to read, and how much will never be read.

As reception studies expand, comics follow the path of film as a medium full of classical appropriations calling for literary, artistic, and social analysis. Classics and Comics is a useful compendium of essays for students of the reception of classical mythology, literature, and history in the modern world, as well as for students of narrative theory. The volume makes accessible to a wider critical audience the theoretical and practical criticisms of these media from the last decade and earlier. The volume is, however, not pitched as an undergraduate text for those of us who use comics in the classroom in the cross-cultural study of heroes and in the appreciation of the differences that pictures make in story-telling. For that I find Chris Knowles and Joseph Michael Linsner, Our Gods Wear Spandex: The Secret History of Comic Book Heroes (San Francisco, CA/Newburyport, MA: Weiser Books, 2007) very useful, especially for its discussion of the two broad categories of superhero, the messiahs and the golems. Much of the classical presence in comics is purely superficial, of course; Nicholas Theisen in an essay on manga deploys the excellent phrase "the narratological equivalent of a stock photo" (62) that could well be used in other contexts where classical names and motifs appear without any signs of critical engagement. But even superficiality needs to be recognized and addressed (one frequently wonders why some comics can make so little out of a classical inheritance so rich), and much is not superficial, from the psychologically sophisticated (Neil Gaiman, for a single example) to the overly detailed (Eric Shanower).

The essays are divided into four sections. (A full Table of Contents can be seen via the Preview link above.) The first addresses how the theoretical principles that inform the modern study of sequential art can address classical issues. Kyle Johnson's essay fruitfully examines how to read the text of the Shield of Achilles in these terms without, however, addressing the actual physical design of the story panels on the shield. Brett Rogers has a nice piece on the limitations of Campbell's "Hero's Journey" in the comics world where that myth is frequently and explicitly adopted as a story-framing device; working backwards into the classical world it offers a nice antidote for students too enamored of Hero with a Thousand Faces. The section "Gods and Heroes" includes the editor Marshall's very nice piece on the Furies as reflected in Wonder Woman and in Gaiman's Sandman; in the contributors section we learn that Marshall has been researching the present volume, and not just this essay, since he was eleven, and we see just how sophisticated the enthusiasms of a life-long fan can be.

The third section, on modern uses of ancient history in comics, is less impressive, perhaps, not because of the quality of the research and the writing but because of the limitations of the conclusions. Frank Miller's 300 is not a profound critical engagement of Herodotus and Thermopylae; when it is reprised in his Sin City it is only to illustrate how the corrupt modern world cannot accommodate itself to that sort of heroic past (Vincent Tomasso); his renderings of Persians don't bear much resemblance to ancient vase paintings either (Emily Fairey). Martin Dinter informs us that fully a third of books currently sold in France are classified as bandes dessinées and offers only an efficient account of Francophone treatments of classical history within them: Alix l'intrépide, Astérix, Les aigles de Rome, and others. Anise Strong's brief essay on Gaiman's tale of Augustus within his Sandman series has perhaps the most intellectually satisfying topic to deal with in this section.

The fourth part, on Troy, is dominated by Eric Shanower's on-going graphic series Age of Bronze. What to make of Eric Shanower? He has his own essay here, "Twenty-First-Century Troy", an account of his own history and methods entertainingly presented as a comic strip. His work is also the subject of an essay by Chiara Sulprizio, "Eros Conquers All: Sex and Love in Eric Shanower's Age of Bronze". Sulprizio puts her finger on the problem, though not as critically as she might have: an account of the Trojan War that leaves out the gods, stresses love as the motive for action, and which will seriously curtail depictions of the fighting when he finally gets to that portion of the Trojan War covered by the Iliad, is, for all its length, a reduction of the possibilities of the Greek story. Or, rather, and crucially, of the Greek stories; Shanower believes that all the stories can be melded into one. Shanower's virtues are undeniable (I have used his first volume as an excellent warm-up for a class on Tales of Troy, not only because of its account of the earliest stages of the Trojan saga but also because it aids the student in visualizing Homer's world) but at heart he is a rationalist: his story is a vast synthesis of all the wide range of reworkings of Troy, but it must be tidy. For example, his "Troy for our Times" (if I may call it that) draws on Racine and Gluck to solve the "problem" of the sacrifice of Iphigenia by allowing Shanower to make her Achilles' lover, and thus willing to sacrifice herself for love; her rescue by the goddess becomes impossible in a godless universe, so the lying Odysseus becomes the vehicle for that story. His character explains (205, panel 2), "I found a solution in the spurious ending to Euripides's tragedy. A messenger relates the rescued-by-the-gods story to Klytemnestra. If I give that speech to Odysseus, there's no chance she'll believe him. That covers both versions and bolsters my anti-supernatural theme! Perfect!" Part of the reception of classical mythology that is Age of Bronze must deal with the expansion of the story: comics give the modern world a medium in which to tell the tale of Troy, start to finish, at far greater length than any ancient author ever attempted. But the other part is its lack of sympathy for ambiguity, for variation, for the supernatural. There are cultural forces at work here. Were the tale of Troy retold for the modern world in manga form with Japanese story-telling sensibilities, the result would be very different.

For to retell stories is not the same thing as being sympathetic to them. This point is well made in the last essay, Thomas Jenkins on two French Heavy Metal retellings of the Odyssey from the late 60s and early 80s. Neither was comfortable with the idea that Odysseus could be content to go home to stay and live happily ever after with Penelope. Tennyson didn't like that either, but here the problem is the boredom of monogamy after decades of sexual adventure.

Benjamin Stevens's perceptive piece on Kingdom Come works well with its intertextual Biblical resonances to show just how sophisticated a reader is presupposed by this morality tale mash-up of superhero myth and scriptural prophecy. The whole volume could have made more room for such issues of intertextuality, for the use of comic characters as intertexts for classical characters and classical themes when no explicit mention is made of the classical world at all, beyond the confines of the Hero's Journey. The classical hero is torn between the world of the gods, which is denied him, and the world of mortals, where by virtue of his god-like excellence he does not belong. His agony is a longing for transcendence; his story is of the grudging acceptance of the world of mortals and mortality. Shanower has no room for this, though other modern tales of ancient heroes come close (see R. Clinton Simms on Oeming's Ares: God of War). But what is the story of the Silver Surfer (to return to my youth) but this view of the hero translated? Not a Superman or a Frankenstein but a reluctant Messiah, the Surfer longs for the heavenly world that Galactus (who created him) has denied him, and he often hates the mortals whose cause he finds himself compelled to champion. The Marvel Universe learned something here, I think, from classical mythology that it did not label as such.

1 comment:

  1. Its hard to know what the reviewr means by this:

    "For to retell stories is not the same thing as being sympathetic to them. This point is well made in the last essay, Thomas Jenkins on two French Heavy Metal retellings of the Odyssey from the late 60s and early 80s. Neither was comfortable with the idea that Odysseus could be content to go home to stay and live happily ever after with Penelope."

    It seems t imply that Homer has Odysseus staying home living happily ever after (if Homer isn't the contrast, then what?). But, of course, no such story is to be found in Homer.


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