Age of Bronze

By: Eric Shanower
Genre: historical fiction (Trojan War), mythology
Context: published in 2001 & 2004 by Image Comics; planned to run for 7 volumes

More Eric Shanower so soon after Adventures in Oz, but this work is a little under 10 years after the Oz books, and it definitely shows. Shanower, already an accomplished artist in Oz, has become a top storyteller by the time he starts Age of Bronze, his telling of the events surrounding the Trojan War. Where the panels in Adventures were often irregularly sized or laid out in somewhat odd ways, Age of Bronze establishes itself with pages that are mostly three tiers of panels.

This regular grid makes it much more effective when Shanower breaks the pattern, smattering borderless flashback or dream images that seem to exist outside of the hard, defined borders of his here-and-now traditional panels. Techniques like dropping away the borders (or seemingly burning them away as a priest suffers from a vision, the man inside the dissolving borders resolving into higher and higher contrast as though under a bright light) and using full page compositions to explain a character’s backstory (as when two sons of Herakles meet, their reminiscences defined by a white void shaped like their father rising through the middle of the pages) are perfectly executed.

A couple other techniques don’t work as well for me. When Priam, king of Troy, is telling the story of how Herakles kidnapped his sister, the art shifts to a style that is reminiscent of a Saturday morning cartoon, and I’m not quite sure why. When Agamemnon is struggling with whether or not to sacrifice his daughter, he is shown as a man being literally pulled apart, as though he’s made of paper. It’s a neat effect and, like the cartoon Herakles, shows how great an illustrator Shanower is. However, the formal message is unclear. (I also think it would just be cooler if Agamemnon looked as as though he were inscribed on a tablet that was breaking, especially considering a message he tried to send to his wife regarding his daughter was earlier broken in two.)

I think these are my only gripes, though. These are dense, dense books, and Shanower works hard to establish the huge cast as actual humans with rich histories. The amount of research he’s done is obvious, as he remains visually faithful to the Bronze Age and morally faithful to the harsh and sometimes alien views of the Achaeans and Trojans.

I always think of being taught the Iliad as undergrad, where my professor lectured that the cultures in the book were not concerned with personal, internal guilt at all. Instead, he called them “shame” cultures; what mattered was what people saw and reported and gossiped about. Shanower plays this well. Rarely (if ever) are a character’s feelings internal. There are no thought bubbles or narrative captions in the book. All the characters act out their feelings with others, stalking and spitting and screaming or seizing and lusting and kissing, and it’s all layered with what the characters want at the moment along with what they want others to think.

So, yeah, dense books. They took me much longer to read than anything else so far. I could probably go on and on about the well-rounded females in the book, the neat ways of incorporating mythology while staying realistic, and the fact that Shanower is actually telling the history of most of classical Greece, with appearances by or references to Oedipus, Medea, Jason, Herakles, and so many more while still constantly moving the plot of the impending war forward. Dense books. I hope Shanower finishes the entire thing.

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Adventures in Oz

by Eric Shanower
Genre: all-ages fantasy
Context: published in a collected edition by IDW in 2006; originally published by First and Dark Horse from 1986-1993

This comic has page numbers! Looking back, the Act-I-Vate Primer had page numbers, too, but Abe Sapien and Actions Speak both lacked them. It’s hard for me to take a publisher serious if they don’t number the pages in their books. How are things supposed to be cited? It’s like they’re not willing to adhere to the dress code despite wanting to be taken seriously for so long.

Another important question: how am I supposed to know if I skipped a page? It’s easy enough in a book, as page turns are usually mid-sentence or even mid-word. However, in a printed comic, a page is a narrative unit. While things will occasionally cross or occur in the gulf between panels, I don’t recall ever seeing a comic story somehow cross the page turn. It’s the equivalent of having a paragraph finish on every page in a book. Given the fact that narrative jumps from page to page are pretty important in comics (i.e., page 12 ends on a cliffhanger of someone’s surprised look, page 13 cuts elsewhere), I’ve gotten accustomed to accepting that the start of a page might be in a place or time far separate from the action of the previous page. It makes it hard, then, when I skip a page, force the next page into my comprehension of the story, and don’t realize I missed a vital sequence until pages later.

In fact, awareness of the page as a unit is probably one of my prerequisites for thinking an artist is really, really great. Aragones and Mignola, (from my first two reviews) know how to do this. JH Williams does it. Jack Cole does it. Being able to stage a page clearly so that it means more than just a series of panels, being able to control the pacing and eye movement of the reader — this is the iron foundation of a cartoonist over which flash and style can be added.

End the ranting. Adventures in Oz is a really pretty book. It’s a collection of smaller graphic novels that Shanower’s produced over the years, so there are a number of complete stories. It has a “This book belongs to” plate at the beginning. If I were a kid who enjoyed Oz, Narnia, and Wonderland, this book would be perfect. The plot progressions and syntax aren’t challenging, but they’re not necessarily fluff, either. They occupy that sweet spot of truly all-ages.

The book is slightly oversized, which does a service to the art. I first encountered Shanower as an inker over Steve Rude (and maybe an artist of the backup stories?) in Nexus, where he was a perfect fit. Like Rude, Shanower walks the fine line between classic illustrator and quality storyteller: his realistic anatomy and technical linework don’t get in the way of the sense of motion that’s integral to comic storytelling.

This is helped by the colors. Oh, goodness, the colors. For the first two novellas, there are vibrant flat colors that match closely the nice work that First was doing at the time. The last three, though, have amazing watercolors that, to me, redefine what painted comics can be.

(‘Cause I hate painted comics. Alex Ross, while a fantastic draughtsman, will never be a comic artist in my mind. Similarly, comics with overly digital colors, with gradients and lens flares and muddy blurs that obscure the linework make my eyes glaze and dry.)

I don’t want to drag this out anymore, but I just want to say that the soft washes of the watercolor model shapes and show light while receding behind Shanower’s linework where harder paints or arbitrary digital fills would take over, respectively making the art more static or mechanical.