Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2001.09.43
Eric Shanower, Age of Bronze: A Thousand Ships. Orange, CA: Image, 2001. Pp. 223. ISBN 1-58240-212-4. $29.95.
Reviewed by Karl M. Petruso, Program in Anthropology, University of Texas at Arlington (email@example.com)
Word count: 1159 words
In an era when Homer's Odyssey has inspired a wildly popular comic movie set in Depression-era Mississippi (and by association a bestselling CD and a concert tour), it should come as no surprise that the Iliad has been adapted to another pop culture format. The volume under consideration here collects between two covers nine previously serialized comic books, published under the series name Age of Bronze. The author/artist is a professional award-winning cartoonist--and a prolific one--with broad interests and an obvious love of storytelling. In these nine fascicles, he has put his own stamp on one of the most enduring tales in the history of literature.
This is not the first adaptation of the Trojan cycle to the comic book genre (it has been done at least once before, in the Classics Illustrated Comics series in the 1950s). But Shanower has given himself some room to stretch out: 200 pages, as opposed to the few dozen pages of the Classics Comics format, targeting as they did the short attention span of the first TV generation. Moreover, Shanower has restricted his interest in these nine fascicles to that part of the narrative which ends with the departure of the combined Achaean forces for Troy, having decided to leave the war itself to future fascicles. As of this writing two further fascicles have appeared in print, as well as a special issue covering as a sidebar the story of the House of Atreus. The overall project is indeed ambitious: the author envisions six further volumes to cover the entire Trojan cycle.
Shanower takes up the story with an idyllic scene: Paris awakes in an Idaean meadow, alarmed to realize that his herd of cows (not sheep) has scattered. Paris is depicted as a hotheaded and rambunctious young man who, several panels later, is told that his finest bull has been requisitioned by King Priam, as a prize for upcoming games. The young man then resolves to reacquire his bull by winning the games, which he of course does. In the event, however, he learns that he is an outcast son of Priam and Hecuba. His adventures--and his fate--continue to unfold; the subsequent narrative revolves around Paris, as the story is told primarily from his vantage point.
A pedant might pick a few nits here. The circuit wall of Troy has towers with rounded crenellations of the sort depicted on Hittite ceramic reliefs. Cassandra in a Trojan shrine prays before a relief of the Hittite sun god, lifted wholesale from Yazilikaya. A room in the palace of Menelaus at Sparta is depicted as the Room with the Idols at Mycenae, complete with terracotta goddess figure. The throne rooms of Mycenae and the putative palace at the Menelaion are fitted out with benefit of Piet de Jong's famous watercolor reconstructions of the Palace of Nestor at Pylos. The Flotilla fresco from Akrotiri inspired one of the throne room walls at Mycenae, and the Antelopes fresco decorates the walls of the palace on Skyros, where Achilles has been living disguised as Pyrrha, a daughter of Lykomedes.
Counterbalancing the archaeological license, however, are some marvelous details that will reward readers who take the time to dwell on individual panels. In one sweeping Trojan panorama, an arm extending from an upper-story window dumps the liquid contents of an amphora to the ground far below (a visual analogue, perhaps, to the many mundane scenes in Homer's original works). And his many depictions of ships are impressive; Shanower has shown great care in depicting the design, construction and rigging of ancient Mediterranean vessels. His Mycenaean chariots are faithful renderings of chariots depicted on both vases and frescoes. Agamemnon is drawn with face, moustache and beard that are clearly modeled on the most famous gold death mask from Grave Circle A. The great king is shown pouring a libation into the depression in the floor adjacent to his throne.
If, in Shanower's telling, the reader misses the meddling of the gods--an inextricable element, of course, of the original narrative--this is by design. As he explains in an apologia, he made a conscious decision to exclude the machinations of the gods in order to focus on the human relationships, in particular the many and various personal conflicts and their resolution. Readers who relish the complexity of the relationships between mortals and deities in the Iliad will find this more than a little peculiar, and will scratch their heads at the advisibility of this fundamental decision on adaptation. Indeed, to leave the deities out of the equation is to generate an entirely new story, rather than a retelling of an old one. A demanding reader might identify sins of commission as well as omission. Shanower renders many scenes starring minor, even obscure players, whose role in the overall pre-voyage narrative is extraneous, even confusing. One surmises that the author rendered such scenes because he was taken by their visual possibilities rather than the function of their characters in moving the narrative forward.
The book includes, in its fashion, an apparatus criticus. An afterword discusses the evolution of the author's approach to this huge, complex and often self-contradictory body of lore (Shanower tells us that the project was inspired by Barbara Tuchman's The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam). There are excruciatingly busy genealogical charts, and a comprehensive glossary of names. An interesting component of the back matter is Shanower's paean to Manfred Korfmann, director of the recent excavations at Troy, and there is a welcome solicitation of contributions by readers to the Friends of Troy in support of continued excavation of the site.
The author draws with a clean line and in a style that is classic comic book. There are several rather graphic scenes, including sexual couplings and a birthing. Buyers would do well to review the book for age suitability before presenting it to young readers.
In short, then, readers are likely to find this telling of the story charming, if idiosyncratic. Those familiar with the archaeology of the Bronze Age Aegean will appreciate the vast research the author has invested in its preparation and the loving attention he has lavished on period (if not on specific cultural) detail. The target audience for this book, however, is not clear. As comic books go, Shanower's rendering is dense, although comics fans will no doubt recognize its novelty and ambition and receive it warmly. The book has entertainment value, but questionable pedagogical utility. This reviewer cannot endorse its use in the classroom at any level. Readers not familiar with the Iliad will likely find their attention lapsing periodically as they slog through some subplots in Shanower's rendition, but in so doing they will have been exposed in some small way to the rich and complex corpus of tales that inspired it. One hopes that mass-market readers of this book will be moved to engage Homer's rendition of the Trojan War in one or more of the several fine translations available.