November 14, 2009

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Age of Bronze Volume 1: A Thousand Ships

Written by Eric Shanower
Illustrated by Eric Shanower
Image

I have to admit I was a bit surprised this was an Image comic, but hey, I'm not going to complain if they decide to pursue angles that aren't Invincible or Savage Dragon.

My mother started me on Greek and Roman (mostly Roman--to this day she's sad I prefer the Greeks) myths from as far back as I can remember, pulling no punches on the often brutal legends that make up Greco-Roman mythology.

I drifted in and out of interest over the years, but my love for the mythology of Zeus and Hera was rekindled in college by a classic class that found me reading well above and beyond the required books.

One of the keys was getting to read Robert Fagles' translation of the Illiad, making the book far more interesting than the pedestrian version of the Odyssey that I read in high school.

There's not much of the Trojan War cycle available that I haven't read, plus I've done additional reading on the archaeological expeditions to find Troy and even Peter Ackroyd's book based on those expeditions. So I knew that at some point, I wanted to read Age of Bronze.

Thanks to one of my local used book stores, I was able to grab the trades issued so far and spent some of my downtime in Richmond catching up.

Age of Bronze is planned as a seven volume set, split into appropriate sections. The goal is to retell the Trojan War in its entirety in a graphical form without being a direct translation of the source material. That's a pretty ambitious project, but it seems to be working out well so far.

"A Thousand Ships", with Helen ghosted into the background, sets the stage for the War itself. We meet Paris, the rebel of Priam's sons, and see that he is bound to cause grief to the father who tried to get rid of him in the first place. Clues as to the trouble ahead are laden in prophecies unheeded as Paris departs for Sparta and makes a cuckold of Menelaus. Meanwhile, Thetis tries hard to save her son Achilles, disguising him as a girl to prevent a terrible fate.

Menelaus seeks out the assistance of his ever-scheming but powerful brother Agamemnon (drawn brilliantly with a handlebar moustache, soul patch, and pointed beard that makes him look like a total douche) to enact revenge upon Paris and the Trojans. But are Agamemnon's motives just to help his brother or something more?

As the trade comes to a close, the "fellowship" is put together, as Nestor is wooed by a last shot at glory, Odysseus is tricked into helping, and Achilles betrays his ambition and seals his doom. Soon plans are made to take Troy--but how long will it take? Whispers and oracles say it could be ten years...

Obviously, a lot of "history" is condensed in the interest of space. There were many a suitor called to fight for the return of Helen, but to try and draw each and every one would take a seven volume set in and of itself. Shanower does a good job hitting the highlights, providing enough information for those who are not seeped in the myths and not omitting anything a fan of the legends would be upset at not seeing.

In exchange, he uses the time to develop the backstory of the Trojans versus the Achaeans, relating Hercules' sack of Troy and the political positioning of Priam and Agamemnon. This helps give a more realistic bent to the proceedings (more on that later). Shanower also takes time to establish characterization for our main players. The words and actions of Hector, Achilles, Paris, Odysseus, Menelaus, and Agamemnon will echo through the series and it's good storytelling to make sure we see this now, as it will color our opinion of later actions. Even "smaller" players like Kalchas are fleshed out, as the supporting cast's interaction with the main characters is crucial to enjoying the story of Troy.

All of this is helped by an expressive art style that focuses on facial expression to express what words may not. Almost every page could tell the story of the Trojan War without dialog, a powerful statement to the quality of the artwork. Shanower has a huge cast to deal with but manages to make most everyone look different by little changes in dress, hairstyle, and body language. In addition, while being mostly straightfoward, when Shanower opts to use "superhero" tricks, they are extremely effective. Kirby close-ups and Aparo angle-shots break up the art, as do splash pages, creative page layouts, and even a slightly cartoony style in flashbacks. I was really impressed with Shanower's talents in terms of the artwork.

Shanower's ambition is to retell the myth of the Trojan war for a 21st Century audience and I think he succeeds very well. It's not easy--as Shanower himself notes--to mesh Greek myths with one another, as timelines from storyteller to storyteller vary more often than a supermodel's wardrobe. However, the overriding vision of updating the myths helps this. It's easier to make decisions to override and merge conflicting stories when you aren't worried abour doing a line for line adaptation.

To give you some idea of what you're in for, Paris is played like a brash fratboy with a rich father, and it works because he's always been a jerk. Priam and Agamemnon think and act more like Saddam Hussain and George HW Bush (weak analogy, I know, but you get the idea) then men directed by fate. Everyone at the Trojan and Achean courts are jockeying for position, just like a modern political administration, with favor changing with the wind. (It's just a tad more violent here. Most of the time the advisors don't die or attack each other on a battlefield these days.) Greek legend never did go easy on its heroes, with rape, jealousy, and pettiness all over the oral tradition. As a result, it's perfect for a modern interpretation, and Shanower's changes do not seem jarring at all.

The gods themselves are completely absent, arguably the most controversial change that Shanower makes. Since his focus is on the human element of the story, this makes perfect sense. Taken with the gods, the story of the Trojan war shifts the focus from the humans fighting the battles to the gods who often manipulate them. While I'll always enjoy my myths, I really like this take on the Trojan War--it gives it a sense of reality. After all, are we removed at all from the idea that a god or gods are inspiring our wars? By stressing the similarities to modern times, Shanower actually makes the story of the Trojan War seem even more timeless.

"A Thousand Ships" launches an epic story filled with contradictions, cowards, cowherds, and conspiracies. In Shanower's capable hands, I'm looking forward to see how this modern graphical interpretation plays out. You can check out the Age of Bronze website here, which includes a link to read the first chapter online for free. Have a look--those who love mythology will find much to enjoy, I think. At least, that's what my oracles tell me.