Achilles the great hero of the Trojan War entered the conflict dressed as a woman hidden on the island of Skyros. Put there by his mother so that he would not be not dragged into the war which would kill him. Calchas, a seer, foretold that without Achilles, the Greeks would not conquer Troy. So Odysseus sought him out and tricked him into revealing his disguise.
This story is not told in Homer, but comes from various ancient retellings of the myth.
The beginning of things are of interest to mythologists. Homer began his epic poem, in the middle of the war, with the rage of Achilles, angry that his human spoil, Bresis, was taken from him to appease Apollo and prevent plague. Eric Shanower, the writer and artist, begins Age of Bronze his version of this myth, with Paris angry that his father’s prize heifer is taken from him on orders of the king. Both characters are impetuous and their emotional reactions drive the plots in both stories.
Human emotion lies at the heart of the events of the Trojan war and one assumes all things.
The cartoonist Eric Shanower began Age of Bronze in the late Twentieth century. The first issue was published in 1998 and to date 34 single issues and four trade paperbacks have been published.
Shanower uses fine lines to create richly textured images in black and white ink with almost tacticle surfaces.
Characters are realistically drawn and expressive
The almost chiaroscuro effect of hatching creates vivid scenes of action or tension.
At times, when a character is telling a story, Shanower uses a more traditionally cartoon style – differentiating between the levels of narrative and emphasising the fictional nature of storytelling. This in turn emphasises the realistic nature of the main story.
One of the most striking aspects of the book’s imagery is the historical world in which it is located. Shanower’s Greeks wear clothes and inhabit worlds which are drawn from the archaeology of the period in which the war was believed to have been fought. The Trojans resemble the Hittite inspired cultures of Western Anatolia.
If the Trojan War actually happened, when it was claimed to by later writers, then this would be historically accurate, or at least more accurate than art which shows the Greeks and Trojans wearing armour from the Classical period (500 years later).
History and myth
An important theme to the book is the nature of myth – is it pure fiction or is there a gem of historical truth.
Shanower became interested in the Trojan War in 1991 after listening to the March of Folly by Barbara Tuchman, a history of armed conflict which begins with the Trojan War. He was drawn to the complexity of myth in which different stories and different versions of the same story conflict with each other.
In Age of Bronze he also draws upon later tellings and includes references to Shakespeare, Chaucer and Eugene O’Neill. This makes it a richly allusive work more akin to David Jones than other comics.
The first world war?
The books include violence and sex, but have a sophistication lacking in say, Games of Thrones.
A Thousand Ships (the first paperback collection including issues 1-9) is more interested in the logistics of war than the stories of heroes. The tension is driven by the need to feed a growing army.
This is a world of both personal intrigue and international diplomacy. Myth and history combine. The Greek forces are combined following an oath they swore at the betrothal of Helen to Menelaus. Yet at the same time Agamemnon (High King of the Greeks and brother to Menelaus) needs to balance the other important regional powers – the Hittites and Egyptians.
Troy’s wealth is derived from international trade and its strategic position in the sea routes.
The two side are distinct but closely linked.
This brings an interesting element to the book around race and culture. In Homer, the Greeks and Trojans seem to share culture, language and religion and to be related. In Age of Bronze the two sides can speak with each other. Perhaps they share a common language, a diplomatic language such as Akkadian, which is neither Greek or Trojan.
The Black and White artwork also makes the race of characters more obscure if not totally indistinct. The Trojan War has sometimes been presented as the first clash of east and west. Here it is firmly a clash of men.
The world of Homer was god-infested and the gods fought alongside the armies of both sides. The Greek Diomedes even managed to wound the goddess Aphrodite as she carried Aeneas (her son) from the fray.
Age of Bronze is a religious world in which due deference is paid to the gods and religious traditions and rites, but in which the divine is an intangible presence. Dream oracles are an important way in which human characters feel they converse with the divine. Icons and idols are another way. Helen is shown praying to female figurines which are sometimes called Aphrodites. The Trojans have an altar with a calf. Yet the gods do not fight alongside the Trojans.
This is a very human world of fallible humans.
Age of Bronze is a superb comic book, a brilliant introduction to the multilayered myth of Troy which accreted around Homer during the ancient world and beyond. This series brings an intelligence and emotional depth to the hallowed works of Homer making them breathe “pure serene”.