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Good Read Column for January 4, 1999

Age of Bronze

(The Story of the Trojan War)

By Eric Shanower
Age of Bronze
By Eric Shanower
ongoing series
32 pages, Image, $2.95

4 ½ smileys(of a possible five)


I really didn't know much about Eric Shanower before picking up this comic. I was a bit intrigued, though, at the idea of a comic about the Trojan War. So I picked this up on a whim, out of curiosity.

I'm glad I did. This is a stunner. Shanower's art is clean, clear, crisp and sharp, full of telling detail and expressive faces. The story is intriguing, starting with Paris as a poor cowherd - which Shanower says he got from Ovid, but is certainly not in any version of the story I'm familiar with.

That's not a complaint - far from it. Making the "matter of Troy" new and wonderful is quite an accomplishment, especially doing it while remaining faithful to at least some extent to the old sources and departing from them mainly in the interests of anthropological history - preferring truth to legend, as it were. For instance, he says in the letter column, "In legend, Oenone was the daughter of a river god. I have made her a poor mountain priestess."

Shanower has obviously done a lot of research before starting this project. In that sense, it almost reminds me of Jason Lute's Berlin - both comics have a real sense of history to them. Not textbook history, which is usually dry and pedantic and often insufferable, but what textbooks should be, bringing past eras alive and making them real for us.

Not that there's any real similarity to the books. They are as different as ancient Greece is (or was) from 1920s Berlin, and that's as it should be. In particular, unlike Lutes' deliberately slow pace, Shanower starts things off with a bang, with Paris protesting the king's men requisitioning his father's prize bull (and almost getting himself killed in the process) in just the few pages.

The bull was to be sacrificed to the gods, who would then heap blessings on the family for sacrificing such a fine animal to them. Now it is to be the prize at the king's games. "The winner will sacrifice the bull, so the gods will be pleased just the same," points out Paris' father, Agelaus. But that doesn't placate the impetuous youth, who swears he will go and win the king's games, so that he can sacrifice the bull and the blessings of the sacrifice remain with the family.

Along about now those of you, like me, whose familiarity with Troy is limited to Homer are saying "Wait a minute, wasn't Paris a prince? Wasn't Priam, the King of Troy, his father?

That's how I remembered the story, anyway. There are hints here that, like the British Arthur and many other legendary princes, Paris was raised by adoptive parents. These seem to have been aware of his true parentage, however, because in a brief exchange between Agelaus and his wife, when he says "It seems that the time has come for him to know the truth," and his wife answers "The truth is that he is our son!" Agelaus replies "His blood is higher than ours."

That was very near the end of this comic, yet I didn't add anything beyond my standard spoiler warning simply because you can't really spoil anything with respect to the first issue of what will obviously be a long series. We're just getting started. There are no endings here, or even in sight. My guess is that we've probably got quite a bit of story to tell before Paris even gets to see Helen, much less carry her off and start a war - a war Homer tells us lasted for ten years.

Not only that, but if you're more up on your mythological lore than I was, you would already know that Paris was abandoned as an infant on Mt. Ida to die because it was prophecied that he would cause the downfall of Troy. He was suckled by a bear and in most versions taken in by a shepherd, but Shanower has taken a cue from Ovid to make him a cowherd instead.

(I just did a little Web research while writing this column - the Internet really is an amazing tool, isn't it?)

So the only surprise to me would have been no surprise at all if I'd studied harder in school. I even know now what's going to happen when Paris participates in the games, but that would be a spoiler, I suppose, so I'll keep it to myself.

As far as I know, this is the first time anybody's ever tried a straight historical adaption of a mythological story in comics form. Oh, sure, we've had Thor, Hercules and Gilgamesh all transformed into modern superheroes. And, come to think of it, there were a couple of "Beowulf" adaptations - one a series, the other a graphic novel. But no one has done ancient Greece, at least no one I know of.

Frank Miller, you say? Well, Miller has beaten Shanower to the punch a bit, but his story is rather firmly historical rather than mythological. Of course, Schliemann has showed that Homer's story was not entirely fiction, that although Paris probably didn't choose between three goddesses (I wonder how Shanower is going to handle that one) and Achilles probably wasn't invulnerable except for his heel, there really was a war between the Mycenaeans and the Trojans and Troy was sacked and burned. And since Shanower seems to be trying to depict what he surmises to be the "real" story behind the myth, I suppose you can say that he and Miller are playing on the same turf.

The main difference between Miller's work and Shanower's is this:

I picked up the first issue of 300 and thought "Wow! What stunning art!" But I just couldn't get myself involved in the story. I knew that it would sell like hotcakes, there would eventually be a "graphic novel" collection, probably with "additional art" and I decided to wait for it, if I bought it at all.

I picked up the first issue of Age of Bronze and thought "Wow! What stunning art!" And found myself immediately engrossed in the story, so much that I read half of it there in the comic store before even buying it to take home. There's no way I can possibly wait for the trade paperback - I can barely wait for the next issue!

Buy this one, folks. It's really good.

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