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.

The Act-I-Vate Primer

Stories by: Michael Fiffe; Jim Dougan & Hyeondo Park; Simon Fraser; Roger Langridge; Tim Hamilton; Mike Cavallaro; Dean Haspiel; Maurice Fontenot; Joe Infurnari; Leland Purvis; Jennifer Hayden; Nick Bertozzi; Jon Leavitt & Molly Crabapple; Mike Dawson; Pedro Camargo; Ulises Farinas
Genre: webcomic anthology
Context: originally published by Act-I-Vate Comix; printed in 2009 by IDW; introduction by Warren Ellis

I’m never sure to rate anthologies. Is one good story enough to keep a booking hanging around my house? Should the stories be complete? (I mostly gave up on “sampler” anthologies awhile ago. It’s why I don’t have many of those Best American Comics collections.) Luckily, The Act-I-Vate Primer circumvents these problems. It has a number of complete stories. Almost all of them are at least interesting. A few of them are great.

Dean Haspiel is perfect as usual, offering up a red-soaked “Billy Dogma” story about a break-up so churning with tension and subtext that it threatens to destroy a city. It’s better than it sounds. It’s like some surreal myth boiled up in a bent spoon.

My other favorite is Ulises Farinas‘s “Motro.” I see his work more in magazines and on books covers these days, which is too bad (for me, but probably not for his bank account). His style is similar to Geoff Darrow or Seth Fisher (and maybe even Brandon Graham and James Stokoe): it’s cluttered, but the lines are clean. I’ve seen it called “fusion comics” (named after fusion cuisine) as it blends manga stylings with European sci-fi sensibilities like Valerian or Moebius’s work. Motro is about a nameless boy from a tribe of people living in an icy wasteland. There are some truly awesome drawings of a giant icy deer of death. I can’t explain it.

Anyway, the other stories are good, too. Nick Bertozzi has a tragic little fruit-themed story. “Vishnu & Vuclan” is a wordless short that, while not quite as good as Sergio Aragones, is still neat. Even my least favorite story, a seeming fragment about a Victorian gossip rag, is bolstered by awesome Molly Crabapple art. It was also my first exposure to Roger Langridge, one of the best cartoonists ever.

The Act-I-Vate website has all these stories (and more!) for free. Igor Kordey! (who gets a terrible rap in American comics) Scott Shaw! Way more. It’s worth the price of admission.

Abe Sapien: The Drowning

Writer: Mike Mignola
Artist: Jason Shawn Alexander
Genre: occult adventure
Context: published in 2002 by Dark Horse; part of the Hellboy/BPRD line

I’ve had multiple friends who say they don’t read comics because they don’t know how. They don’t know whether to look at the pictures first or the words. They worry that they won’t know how to read the art or miss which parts are important.

I bring this up because Mignola starts The Drowning with a poem stretched across an opening fight scene. How much weight should the poem have in relation to the larger story? I think that, in my younger days, I would have read the poem as something akin to an opening voiceover monologue in a movie, reading carefully in order to extrapolate its relation to the book as a whole.

This time around, though, I treated it more like a soundtrack. The words, individually, just that important. What’s important about the poem in relation to the story are the broad images. Think of the music in Wes Anderson movies — how all that pop music, cultured and structured but with the earliest rumblings of cultural revolution reflects the purposeful dollhouse sets and repressed characters.

With “You Gentlemen of England” in The Drowning, it’s obviously about the tension between the dangers “out there” in context of the safety at home, but more than anything, it’s about the rhythm.

(Just now, looking up the full poem, I found out that it’s actually a song, so my “awesome” analysis of a poem as a song in a comic becomes less cool. But continuing…)

I’m not sure if Mignola lays out the pages before Alexander draws them, but there’s a rhythm to the pages that matches the books that Mignola draws himself, and the song matches that rhythm so well that you can almost here the record scratch as a line repeats itself three times, unfinished, before the final words fall at the end of the flashback. This effect is helped immensely by Clem Robins’s sound effects. Their clean, almost-hand-lettered style normally meshes quietly with Mignola’s art in Hellboy, but when juxtaposed with Alexander’s inky, murky art, it’s like a rock beat with an orchestra of strings. That’s a compliment.

An attempt to capture the rhythm of the book with my webcam. It would help if the captions were legible.

The art is great. Lots of ink brushed and dripped all over the place. It’s perfect for an aquatic character on an island adventure. The story works well. It’s Abe’s first mission without Hellboy, and things go pretty terrible for him. He learns lessons. You know how it goes.

The thing that I like most about the narrative is that there aren’t really any bad guys and no one really does anything right and the possible antagonists end up dealing with each other. While the story superficially breaks the rules I learned in high school about having the protagonist struggling and overcoming on his own, it ends up working for me.

Abe, despite being a fishman, is a pretty regular guy who ends up thinking a lot about things regular guys think: What do I want from my job? How will I handle failure? Is failure inevitable? What do I do about all the forces beyond my control? It’s blue collar existentialism by way of that fairy tale process where things happen according to an internal logic that remains forever just out of logical grasp.

Mignola’s ability to capture that dream-like sensibility, contrast it with the everyday bureaucracy and everyman sensibility, and craft it all into a cohesive whole is always pretty neat to me. The two attitudes interact, but the supernatural is never properly filed, numbered, and exposed. For every piece of information the bureau collects, more questions are raised (or more agents are lost). It’s a messy job.