This is the second installment in an anticipated seven-volume telling, in comic book format, of the Trojan cycle (a review of volume 1, A Thousand Ships, appeared at BMCR 2001.09.43). The author/artist has made an extraordinary commitment to bring to an ostensibly younger and arguably time-challenged audience the sagas of the Age of the Heroes. Not surprisingly, the volume under consideration exhibits some of the same peculiar attractions—and raises the same questions—as the first installment.
Sacrifice begins with the landing of Paris (two years after his departure) on the beach at Troy, as Helen primps belowdecks. Priam reproaches Paris for having abandoned his mission of returning with Hesione, and, fearing invasion by Menelaus and the Achaean host, prohibits Paris from bringing Helen into the city. But Paris and Helen have arrived with their boy child, Aganus. Priam demands that his grandson be raised in Troy even as he continues to insist that Helen be barred from the city. When Paris announces that Helen is pregnant with the second of the three children she will eventually bear by him, Priam relents, and they enter Troy for eight days of wedding celebration; with this, the foundation is laid for the subsequent and inevitable unfolding of the epic conflict.
Shanower depicts several of the multithreaded traditions of the cycle. The title of this volume refers of course to the story of Iphigenia. The rendering of the events at Aulis is faithful to the telling of the story by Euripides, and Shanower has effectively depicted in his own medium both the agony of Agamemnon in his dilemma and the frenzy and dark resoluteness of Clytemnestra (indeed, as the Achaean fleet prepares to weigh anchor, the anguish on her face vividly recalls that of Irene Pappas at the end of Michael Cacoyiannis’s stunning 1977 film version of Iphigenia). One hopes that Shanower will not bring an end to his treatment of the Trojan cycle before he follow this particular thread through to the collapse of the House of Atreus.
As in the first volume, Shanower has provided some gratifying visual touches, including one dialogue-heavy scene laid out over a full page which is divided into eight panels. He has clearly done his art history homework: the costumes, hairstyles, armor (e.g., boars’ tusk helmets), and weaponry are wonderful and accurate renderings of particulars depicted in Minoan and Mycenaean frescoes. Agamemnon’s face mimics the eponymous death mask excavated by Schliemann from Grave Circle A at Mycenae. Some panels will provoke a smile from readers familiar with Greek art. A battle between Achaean and Mysian warriors inspires an hommage to the Sosias Painter’s red figure kylix showing Achilles binding the wounds of Patroclus. Rather more esoteric, perhaps, are an accountant’s throne room recitations of agricultural yields to a preoccupied King Menelaus; these droll lines have all the dramatic force of the terse and formulaic Linear B tablets on which they are based.
In designing his presentation of the Trojan cycle, Shanower made the fundamental decision to exclude the gods. In so doing, he has shined a bright light on the human dimensions of the stories at the expense of other elements that have resonated equally powerfully with dozens of generations of audiences. The interactions of the gods with one another, their foibles, and especially their meddling in the affairs of men were surely appreciated by ancient audiences for their visual effect no less than were the events driven by their presence. They are wholly absent here, and one cannot help but wonder whether ancient Greek audiences would even have recognized some of the scenes in this newest telling.
Radical transformations of ancient works from one medium to another inevitably raise fascinating questions. Consider the reconfigurations of the Homeric oeuvre over the past three millennia, from recitation in preliterate times to Greek text read on the page in hexameter to dramatic performances in classical tragedy to both poetic and prose publications in other languages to cinema to public television documentaries and docudramas and, now, to the comic book. Artistic ingenuity—and, increasingly, new modes of production and presentation made possible by evolutions in technology — will continue to guarantee that the audience of each age gets the Iliad and Odyssey it deserves, in the medium it invents.
In such matters, past is prologue. This compels the following observation, which is presented by way of a heads-up. As I write this, it has just been announced that the complete works of Shakespeare will soon be made available in a format sure to be appreciated by reading-averse youth — the explicitly targeted audience is students—in the language of cell phone text messages. Soon we will all be able to experience our own virtual dark night of the soul, as we thoughtfully soliloquize, along with Hamlet, “2b? Nt2b?”. The crustier literature teachers among us might forgive Shanower in the fullness of time for adapting Homer to comic book format, thereby permitting some students to bypass the drudgery of reading the relatively prolix CliffsNotes editions of his works. But the University College London English professor who consulted on the breathtakingly gratuitous endeavor to adapt significant literary works to the language of the cell phone will no doubt be judged more harshly for his pandering (or at least one can so hope). Let readers of this journal be forewarned: While the press releases describing this sad venture do not yet predict it, Homer himself might well be in the crosshairs for the next wave of lit lite.
“ro z fngrd don”, anyone? “yn drk c”?