November 15, 2009

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Age of Bronze Volume 2: Sacrifice

Written by Eric Shanower
Illustrated by Eric Shanower
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This second volume of Shanower's epic retelling of the story of the Trojan War continues to set the stage for the main action. Before the heroes of Achea and Troy can bloody themselves on the shores before Troy, they first must all be in the same place.

That's the main focus of the stories collected here. Paris returns to meet a rocky reception at home, as the reaction to his piratical actions is not all that he hoped. Still, blood is thicker than water, and when you're pretty sure you're invincible, the fear of an attack is lessened.

Meanwhile, the Coalition of the Unwilling head off to what they think is Troy, but ends up just being a place to lose soldiers and time. As the season gets worse, the band breaks up, but Agamemnon won't let Odysseus go home.

That might not be such a bad thing, because Agamemnon, Menelaus, and Achilles all find that coming home isn't all it's cracked up to be. Subplots that won't play out immediately are dealt into the deck while Odysseus once more gathers the suitors together for a second assault.

But it won't be quite so easy this time. A wronged man wants revenge, and the ever-wily Kalchas puts the leader of the Acheans in a no-win position: Sacrifice your daughter (to the gods of course!) or the ships will never sail.

Well, we know how that plays out, but the scars left will impact on almost every single person involved. The ships can sail again, but at what cost?

Shanower once again provides us with a very modern-feeling set of characters. They are still epic figures doing larger-than-life things, but their decisions are far more complex, with the ambiguities highlighted more than the action.

In some cases, character flaws are used for both good and bad. Achilles' impulsiveness nearly leads to ruin for the Acheans and causes problems in his marriage, but it also givs him the desire to protect Iphigenia despite barely meeting her. Odysseus' verbal skills save the expedition on more than occasion, but they lead directly to the death of an innocent girl and prevent him from going home to Ithaka. Priam's pride and desire to keep his family close is admirable, but at the same time completely foolhardy.

It's a skilled writing trick that puts complications into characters that are ususally seen in a more straightforward manner. Shanower seemlessly slips these foibles into his writing while still telling the bigger picture. While that writing trick is on display in Volume 1 as well, two examples come to mind in this trade, Odysseus and Agamemnon.

If you'll recall, Odysseus did not even want to fight the Trojan War, but by the time the Iliad comes along, he's all about winning the battle. How did this change happen? My memory doesn't recall any ancient answer, so Shanower takes it upon himself to show the change gradually.

While still fairly reluctant at the beginning of this volume. Odysseus takes to his work for Agamemnon quickly and fast becomes his primary advisor, surpassing Nestor, the oldest of the coalition. By the time this trade is over, he's finding ways to get the ships sailing, no matter what the cost. A man bothered by the beating of a dog is now the same man dooming a girl to death. There's a definite change here, and it doesn't go unnoticed by Odysseus himself. He closes this volume by discussing how much he loves being in the thick of things, but how it's also causing him to lose his moral compas. He even tries to con Klytemnestra into believing her daugher ascended into heaven, perhaps the scummiest thing we've seen him do so far. How far has he fallen in his search for glory?

It's a touching scene which Shanower emphasizes with Odysseus the man shrinking as his words continue to expand. The "heroic" Odysseus would never say such things, but for the human Odysseus, this makes perfect sense and brings him closer to the reader. After all, who hasn't made decisions that lead you down a path you never thought you'd tred?

Shanower's bigger trick, however, is in making me feel sympathy for Agamemnon. In the Greek myths I've read Agamemnon is a jerk, a man whose title is higher than his station. He causes strife between the allies, tries to keep the glory for himself, and sets himself up for the fall that will come in his later years.

This Agamemon is far more complex. I don't know if this is Shanower's design or if he read an epic story I missed somewhere along the line, because his portrayal of the High King of the Acheans is far different than any I've seen before. While this Agamemnon is very much a schemer, he also has a heart when it comes to his family. He absolutely agonizes over the decision to sacrifice Iphigenia, as "the gods" force him to make a decision between his brother's need for revenge and the love for his own daughter. Even once the die is cast, he still wavers until the High King isn't king of anything--events and actions take place without any ability of his to stop it, even if he wanted to. (The answer to that question is left devilishly ambiguous.)

The artwork on this book continues to be very strong. Shanower continues the tricks we saw in the first trade, using superhero tricks in sparing doses to punctuate the narrative. He also continues to put together unique layouts, draw intricate group scenes, and show that his ability to design a page is a strong part of why Age of Bronze is so successful. My favorite was a visual of Agamemnon literally tearing himself apart, but there are many others you could select as the best graphic in the book.

As I mentioned in my review of Volume 1, Shanower's strength lies in his ability to update the story to echo modern sensibilities without completely changing the narrative. A few focal shifts and the removal of direct intervention by the gods makes this trick work. Emotions are given a stronger emphasis, often just by wordless facial expressions. It gives a completely different take on the events of the Trojan War, one that I am glad to be reading.

You can check out the Age of Bronze website here, which includes a link to read the first chapter online for free. Fans of myth and lovers of good comics will be glad they did.