Friday, September 05, 2008

The matter of Troy

By coincidence, my last trip to the comics shop I patronize produced the last issue of Marvel Illustrated: The Iliad, and the latest issue of Age of Bronze. Which gives an opportunity to compare two completely different approaches to reinterpreting the Trojan War.

When people retell the tales of Troy, there are four aspects that I think are always worth looking at (these are notions I've developed partly out of conversations I've had with the likes of Nick Lowe, Paula James and Lynn Fotheringham, so they deserve credit). First, there's the issue of the 'canon'. Most of us know these stories in their most famous versions, and this can sometimes lead to imagining that they are fixed in that form. This tends to manifest itself in attacks by some classicists on retellings for 'changing things', which was the fate of Wolfgang Petersen's film Troy. Other treatments stick pretty closely to the received version, such as Daniel Morden and Hugh Lupton's version of The Iliad, which, as I recall (it's a while since I saw it), only deviates in certain minor details (and even this received criticism from some quarters). In fact, the 'canon' is a mirage. Euripides, Chaucer and Shakespeare did not feel themselves bound by Homer, and it is unfair to expect modern writers to be (see here for a fuller discussion of this in relation to Petersen's film).

Then there's the scope of the retelling. Most versions choose to tell 'the story of the Trojan War', from the rape of Helen to the Wooden Horse; Petersen's Troy fits into this, as does Lindsay Clarke's The War At Troy, and indeed Morden and Lupton's work. But Greek and Latin versions don't do this (as far as I'm aware - I may have missed something minor on this point). For an ancient author, the Trojan War was like World War II is to modern writers, a background against which to tell stories, rather than a story in its own right.

Thirdly, the attitude to the gods. Most modern treatments don't like the gods - they don't know how to cope with them. So they get removed, along with most other elements of the fantastic, leaving little more than prophetic dreams. Again, Troy is a good example of this.

Finally, there's homosexuality. Homer does not emphasize a sexual side to the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus, and it can be argued that he did not intend one to be read into his writings. Nevertheless, people have done so, ever since the fifth century BC at the latest, and it is a potential nightmare for anyone coming to the story in the twentieth and twenty-first century. Play the relationship up, and conservative critics will attack the work - but play it down, and activists will comment on the removal of a gay subtext. This happened to Troy, though I have suggested (in a piece for CA News in June 2006) that, whilst the film plays the gay relationship down in the dialogue, it is restored in the visual semiotics.

So how do these comics stack up against these points? Marvel's Iliad is part of a line of retellings of well-known literature, taking up the mission of the Classics Illustrated line. So it is the Iliad, not the tale of Troy. A prelude explains the background, but writer Roy Thomas sees no reason to add a postscript describing the final fall of Troy - the comic ends where Homer ends, with the funeral of Hector. In terms of the Homeric canon, obviously there are no conflicts. There is much omitted, as you'd expect when compressing twenty-four books of poetry into eight issues of a comic, but no changes.

And the gods are present. When you actually think about it, this is hardly unexpected, even were it not for the requirement to tell the Iliad, in which the gods are crucial. Roy Thomas has been writing superhero comics since 1965, in which gods like Hercules and Thor have regularly featured. So it's not too surprising that he has no issue with writing the gods here. If anything, they come across as better rounded characters - Thomas seems to have enjoyed writing the gods more than writing the heroes.

Pity about the art by Miguel Angel Sepulveda. It's serviceable, and at least it's not ugly in the way a lot of superhero art is these days. But all the women look like Californian porn stars, and Athena is dressed up like an Amazon from Xena: Warrior Princess.

Eric Shanower's award-winning Age of Bronze is a different matter entirely. Shanower is very definitely telling the story of Troy, according to the ancient accounts, except carefully writing out the gods, beyond the dreams of Cassandra and other prophets. Key events of divine intervention, such as the Judgment of Paris or Iphigenia being spirited away from the sacrificial altar, are reported, by people who may not be telling the truth. It's meticulously drawn and meticulously researched. Shanower makes sure to set the War against the geopolitical background of the twelfth century B.C., so far as that is known. Everyone is clothed in Bronze Age outfits, in contrast to Marvel Illustrated: The Iliad, where the arms and armour of historical Greece are depicted.

The trouble is, it's also very slow. Shanower is determined to get every part of the 'Trojan story', so we have seen the stories of Telephus, the sacrifice of Iphigenia, the story of Palamedes. Every possible author, from Homer and Aeschylus, down to obscure Latin playwrights like Accius, is drawn upon. As a result, ten years and twenty-seven years down the line, and we're only just getting to the first Greek attack on Troy. This amount of characters makes it difficult to keep track of who's who (especially on the Trojan side, where many of the main characters look alike). And combining so many different stories means that, as a whole, Age of Bronze lacks dramatic shape.

Besides, setting the story in an authentic historical background may seem like a good idea, but I can't help but feeling that, like 'historical' King Arthur stories, it's ever so slightly missing the point. These are timeless legends, that have become unshackled, at least to a degree, from whatever historical origins they may have had, and exist in an invented time that never truly was. In that respect, Sepulveda's Corinthian helmets, and the like, which look right to the general reader, are perhaps truer to the spirit of Homer, who happily mixed up elements remembered from the past and from his own time, than are Shanower's boar's-tusk helmets, which are right for the Late Bronze Age.

Shanower does make explicit a sexual relationship between Achilles and Patroclus, something Marvel Illustrated: The Iliad doesn't really engage with (but then neither does Homer, so you can see why). But Shanower does this in a very twenty-first century way. Achilles meets Patroclus, falls in love with him, and immediately loses all interest in his wife Deidamia. To me, this doesn't really accord with Greek attitudes.

I feel quite bad about my reaction to Shanower's work. It's beautifully drawn, an obvious labour of love, and unquestionably, it's a more serious piece of art than Marvel Illustrated: The Iliad. But the latter seems in some respects a little more successful.

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