Tuesday, September 6, 2016


George Kovacs, C. W. Marshall (ed.), Son of Classics and Comics. Classical presences. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2016. Pp. xxx, 250. ISBN 9780190268893. $29.95 (pb).

Reviewed by Kyle Gervais, University of Western Ontario (kgervai2@uwo.ca)

Version at BMCR home site


With Son of Classics and Comics, editors George Kovacs and C. W. Marshall have produced no degener Neoptolemus but rather a worthy successor to their 2011 Classics and Comics1 and another important addition to the OUP Classical Presences series. A notable feature of this sequel to the original volume is a much expanded geographical focus: whereas the majority of chapters in the first volume dealt with North American comics, three quarters of the present chapters treat material from the distinctive Japanese, European, and British comic book traditions. In addition, many of the texts examined tend towards the "highbrow" end of the comic book spectrum, which should help to convince the shrinking contingent of doubting Thomas Waynes that the medium offers fertile material for serious study by Classical scholars.

My criticisms of the volume as a whole are slight. Most chapters examine a single comic or series, which does offer ample opportunity for close reading, but there is certainly more work to be done on broader topics—classicists have not yet, for example, adequately addressed the idea of superhero comics as a "modern American mythology". Similarly, while the expanded focus on non-American comic book traditions is laudable and offers many rewards to the reader, the (Classics and) comics neophyte might wonder whatever happened to The Man of Tomorrow, to The Caped Crusader, or to the comics of yesterday, like the examples of sequential art from the ancient world examined in the original Classics and Comics.

But these criticisms are slight. Taken together with its parent volume, Son of Classics and Comics continues to expand our knowledge of a rich but underexplored topic and to make cogent arguments for the place of comic books in Classical reception studies. I look forward to the inevitable conclusion to the trilogy, presumably to be titled Classics and Comics on Infinite Earths.

In the introduction, editors Kovacs and Marshall survey some of the general themes and comic book traditions for Classical comics. Given the constant and fascinating resonances between the chapters within each section, a more thorough discussion here of the chapters' shared concerns would have been welcome (I find only a handful of cross-references in the endnotes throughout the volume). But this, perhaps, would have taken space away from the introduction's primary and important contribution to the field: a wide-ranging survey of dozens of Classical comics.2

The first section, "Postmodern Odysseys", which also represent the volume's "North American comics" section, examines three serious and complex reworkings of Homeric material by indy comics artists: a retelling of the Odyssey set in the near future after a disastrous American intervention in the Middle East (Gerry Dugan and Phil Noto's The Infinite Horizon), an ambitious and not yet finished rationalizing account of the Trojan War (Eric Shanower's well-known Age of Bronze series), and a complex modern-day allegory that draws elements from a variety of ancient and modern sources (David Mazzucchelli's Asterios Polyp). The chapters take Homer's epics as their starting point but trace a wide variety of other influences (Plato, Euripides, Virgil, Ovid, Racine, Cacoyannis, and others). This section pays the most consistent attention to the various distinct ways in which the comics medium can make meaning: Marshall emphasizes and analyses the striking artwork of The Infinite Horizon, Kovacs highlights the clever depiction of the slowly rising wind at Aulis in Age of Bronze, while Abram Fox and HyoSil Suzy Hwang-Eschelbacher consider the several textual and visual ways in which allusions are signalled in Asterios Polyp. These three comics place unusual demands on the Classical knowledge of their readers, and each of the chapters considers the implications of this (cross-referencing on this point would have been particularly valuable). Marshall offers a fivefold taxonomy of intertextual reference (p. 20); Kovacs considers the dilemma of a text too difficult for the comics medium's stereotypical teenaged reader but too easily associated with low culture for the traditional academic (36); while in contrast, Fox and Hwang-Eschelbacher, dealing with the section's most ostentatiously highbrow work, argue that Asterios Polyp "rewards its meticulous reader for acknowledging its deliberate design and piecing together its puzzles" (63).

The second section, "East's Wests", comprises three studies of manga. Unlike Western comics, the Japanese manga tradition does not trace its ultimate roots to the Classics (in the sense of Greek and Latin literature), and thus Classical material in manga tends to appear in either superficial or heavily modified form. The authors in this section each address this problem in their own way (again, I found myself missing an integrated discussion of shared concerns). Gideon Nisbet's chapter on Appleseed (Shirow Masamune) acknowledges that the text's in-depth engagement with its Classical material is an exception to the rule, and he explains it through the author's engagement with the science fiction of Isaac Asimov and its attendant Classical influences. Nisbet also points out that the Classical allusions, though wide-ranging, can all be traced to a small section of a Japanese translation of Robert Graves' The Greek Myths. A similar second-hand engagement with (and thus distortion of) the Classics is identified in Nicholas Theisen's chapter on Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (Miyazaki Hayao), this time via a Japanese translation of a dictionary of Greek mythology. In this case, however, Theisen reads against the author's claim of second-hand engagement in order to compare more directly the manga with its ultimate source material in the Odyssey. Finally, Sara Raup Johnson identifies a range of allusions in Fullmetal Alchemist (Arakawa Hiromu), from superficial or distorting to deep (this approach could be fruitfully compared with the taxonomy offered in chapter 1). Scholars of Classics and comics often display competencies not usually demanded of other Classical scholars; in this case, two of the chapters engage closely and profitably with the original Japanese text, discussing issues of translation along the way.

The third section, "All Gaul", is divided into three parts, each discussing Goscinny and Uderzo's phenomenally popular Asterix series. As noted in the introduction (and studied by Martin Dinter in the first Classics and Comics volume), Roman history is a particularly popular topic in European comics, and readers might therefore lament missed opportunities for breadth in these three chapters on a single series. On the other hand, the tight focus on Asterix amply demonstrates that (at least some) Classical comics can withstand intense scrutiny and a variety of critical methodologies. Each chapter approaches the material by way of a particular theme: ethnography, autochthony, and translation. The first two chapters are ambitious in their approach and offer many valuable insights, only occasionally suffering from imprecise thinking or expression (who exactly, for instance, is the "we" invoked in the final section of chapter 8?); the third chapter is a standout in the volume. The section begins with Eran Almagor's discussion of Goscinny and Uderzo as "latter-day ethnographers" following in the footsteps of Diodorus, Strabo, Caesar, et al. This approach is productive: many more studies could be made on continuities of form or genre (in addition to subject matter) between Classical and comics texts. Also productive is Almagor's sensitivity to the artistic opportunities allowed by the unique form of comic books.

The next chapter by Stuart Barnett engages with the concept of autochthony (in the context of the Gauls' resistance to the invading Romans) but widens its focus to a variety of contemporary political issues: globalization, isolationism, nationalism, resistance, big and small media, and so on. The chapter begins with an informative contextualizing introduction to the series: readers less familiar with Asterix might want to start here before reading the rest of the section. The final chapter by Siobhán McElduff engages with several of the issues treated throughout this section (resistance to globalization, Rome moved to the periphery and Gaul to the centre, etc.) but is primarily concerned with the problems and practices of translating this French series into a variety of foreign languages (107 thus far) and cultural contexts. McElduff focuses on Korean, Arabic, and UK English translations and uses the familiar categories of "domesticating" and "foreignizing" translations as her starting point. Her adaptation of this theoretical framework to the comics medium is, however, exemplary, particularly in her discussion of the visual elements of comics that resist or complicate translation—facial expressions, colour, layout, typeface, and so on.

The final section, "Modern Classics", contains four chapters that "interrogate the limits" of the representation of the past by comics (p. xxix); interestingly, and in keeping with the geographical divisions of the volume, all four deal with texts by British authors working largely in the British comics tradition (a tradition similar to the North American one [p. xxviii] but nevertheless distinct in ways that might have been discussed). The chapters treat a wide range of topics and take a variety of critical approaches. Ian Runacres and Michael K. Mackenzie survey trends in Classical allusions in British political cartoons from the 19th to 21st centuries. Their lament of the declining Classical content over time is unsurprising, but their analysis is informative and sensible—discussion of a recent cartoon invoking Europa and the bull is particularly astute and ably demonstrates the importance of caution against overanalyzing pop culture texts. Frederick Williams and Edward Brunner examine Martin Rowson's challenging adaptation of T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land into the hard-boiled fiction genre. The discussion of this very difficult material is insightful, agile, and well worth reading, but those who find the conceit a bit much will be particularly pleased by the admission that "numerous facets of Rowson's text are always slipping over and beyond a horizon of meaning, often gesturing happily to us as they go off into clouds of obscurity" (p. 195). Next, Matthew Taylor discusses allusions to Alexander the Great in Watchmen; his many persuasive arguments show that even subjects as well-studied as Watchmen and the reception of Alexander offer many opportunities for further analysis. The final chapter by Kate Polak discusses an issue of Mike Carey's Lucifer series (a spinoff of Neil Gaiman's The Sandman) in which the titular antihero establishes a Garden of Eden that reverses all the key details of the other Garden (worship, not knowledge, is forbidden, and so on). The conceit is pure comic book, but the analysis (evidently drawn from a larger research project) moves rapidly over a number of topics: control, trauma, gender, 'the gaze', identification, desire, hysteria (with a brief swerve to PTSD), the power of names, and the meaning of good and evil, invoking the works of Sigmund Freud, Homi Bhabha, Erin Runions, and others and positioning the textual/visual medium of comic books on par with (or even above) single-medium works like Paradise Lost and Alexandre Cabanel's The Expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Paradise. I found myself wondering if a single issue of a comic book might just crumble under such scholarly pressure.

Still, this relentlessly serious approach is a suitable final reminder of the argument made repeatedly and successfully throughout the volume: that Classical comics rewards serious study from a variety of angles and will continue to do so in the years to come.

Table of Contents

Introduction. C. W. Marshall and George Kovacs

Postmodern Odysseys
1. Odysseus and The Infinite Horizon. C. W. Marshall
2. Mythic Totality in Age of Bronze. George Kovacs
3. Classical Symbolism in Asterios Polyp. Abram Fox and HyoSil Suzy Hwang-Eschelbacher

East's Wests
4. Mecha in Olympus: Masamune Shirow's Appleseed. Gideon Nisbet
5. [un]Reading the Odyssey in Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. Nicholas Theisen
6. Xerxes, Lost City in the Desert: Classical Allusions in Fullmetal Alchemist. Sara Raup Johnson

All Gaul
7. Re-inventing the Barbarian: Classical Ethnographic Perceptions in Astérix. Eran Almagor
8. Asterix and the Dream of Autochthony. Stuart Barnett
9. We're not in Gaul Anymore: the Global Translation of Astérix. Siobhàn McElduff

Modern Classics
10. Classical Allusion in Modern British Political Cartoons. Ian Runacres and Michael K. Mackenzie
11. Eliot with an Epic, Rowson with a Comic: Recycling Foundational Narratives. Frederick Williams and Edward Brunner
12. Ozymandias the Dreamer: Watchmen and Alexander the Great. Matthew Taylor
13. And They Call That Poison Food: Desire and Traumatic Spectatorship in the Lucifer Retelling of Genesis. Kate Polak



1.   BMCR 2011.09.47. The cover image for the present volume is also a worthy successor of the first volume (both images drawn by comics artist George O'Connor): the first inserts Hercules into the iconic cover of Action Comic's #1, while the second inserts various superheroes into the foot race of a well-known Panathenaic prize amphora by the Euphiletos Painter.
2.   The production of Classical comics proceeds apace, and so this list can already be supplemented: Kieron Gillen's Three or The Wicked + The Divine, for instance, or Dan Abnett's recent Marvel Hercules.

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