Eric Shanower, Age of Bronze: Betrayal Part One (Image, 2008). $17.95, paperback.
By Jared Gardner
I had been waiting patiently, like a good little book reviewer, for the publication of the third volume of Shanower’s masterpiece, counting over in my head the many ways in which I love it. And then Douglas Wolk in Salon went and said much of what I wanted to say! Sigh. Still, some truisms are worth repeating. And since this particular graphic epic is still a good twenty years away from completion there is plenty of time for those who have not yet found their way to Age of Bronze to catch up and pay proper homage. Twenty-six issues and three trades in, Age of Bronze is a testament to the power of one of Western civilization’s oldest stories, to the power of the comics form, and to the unique and unparalleled gifts of Eric Shanower himself.
Shanower is not after “updating” the classics for modern audiences in the way that American popular culture usually conceives such projects (heavy-handed cross-referencing to current events; more cleavage). Instead, Shanower’s project is a labor of love of the story in all its many forms over the centuries, from Homer’s Illiad through contemporary Hollywood retellings. Any and all sources are fair game for Shanower, although his respect for history is such that he privileges the classical sources when inevitable conflicts and contradictions arise. What makes the story he tells here feel so current, so relevant, is that it is so very believable. Although the gods are actors backstage in this epic drama, we must take their powers on the faith of the protagonists. At the front of the drama, as Shanower tells it, are the men and women who led these two great forces to war in Troy. Godless, they reveal themselves to be an all-too-human bundle of contradictions, desires, frailties and ambitions.
There are no heroes here. The beautiful and fearless Achilles is an immature glory-seeker who nonetheless displays the deepest qualities of human love for his partner, Patroklus. Odysseus is an entirely convincing mixture of Machveiallian brilliance and self-serving cowardice. Paris and Helen are borderline psychotic narcissists, so in love with the other’s passion for themselves that they cannot, and will not think straight. Indeed, everyone, from the main players, to marginal character and even apocryphal relationships, are so believable one feels as if you have met them, know their type, even see qualities of each of them in yourself. At this risk of sounding old fashioned, this is surely the highest aim of narrative arts in any form, and the comics form has never had a better representative of this power and potential than Shanower’s Age of Bronze.
It is important for those coming to the book for the first time to insist that one must start at the beginning. Otherwise you will be at a loss in this third volume to follow the dozens of names and allusions, even with the handy guide to the scores of names required to tell this story. Nor will you be able to fathom the weave of so many characters, sources and subplots. But a bigger loss to jumping into the narrative in media res is the loss of time, the slow, interrupted progress of Agamemnon and the Achaeans on their way to Troy. If your memory of the story revolves around a wooden horse and a midnight slaughter, you might be surprised to discover that in three books as time is measured by volumes (or ten years, the time Shanower has been working on the story, and only about a third of the way into the whole), the battle has not yet begun. In fact, as Betrayal begins, they have once again made a wrong turn and attacked an island mistaking it for Troy, with disastrous consequences for Achilles and others. And even once Troy itself is in their sights, there are parlays and envoys, and more waiting. It is a book of waiting, about fate, glorious destiny, and the absurd blank spaces and second-guessing in between. And no form is better suited to its telling than this one.
There is a real pleasure to reading these books in the trade, but Shanower is also bravely fighting for the unique serial pleasures of the comic book form, despite declining sales of the individual issues. A couple of years ago rumors started spreading that he would likely drop the individual issues and focus on the much more profitable trades, but Shanower invited his reader to offer their thoughts about the future of the format for Age of Bronze as it moves deeper into the digital century, a discussion with relevance not only for his ongoing series but for the serial form of graphic literature more broadly. In the end, Shanower decided to keep the comic book going, and he has used the space serialization affords to share insights into his sources, his allusions, and his own personal odyssey of living with Troy for longer than the combatants in that seemingly endless (and endlessly deferred) war all those centuries ago.
So read these volumes, then track down the individual issues. And if you become desperately impatient for more (as is inevitable) grab the collected Adventures in Oz, Shanower’s brilliant Oz stories he produced for Dark Horse in the late 80s, now available in a beautifully colored and printed volume from IDW. It is all the proof one needs that what Shanower is doing with one classic work, he can do with all of them.