Frequently, and often problematically, the classics of ancient Greece and Rome are used as a kind of shorthand for sophistication. Even the name implies a timeless purity of taste, distinguishing them from media intended for mass consumption. Meanwhile, new branches of classical scholarship are becoming increasingly concerned with the many ways that the literature and history of the ancient Mediterranean world have come to impact contemporary culture.
The presence of classical references in graphic narratives is particularly fascinating, given the popular perception of graphic works as popular culture rather than serious art.
The first comic book I ever encountered was an abused issue of The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck that had been on the bookshelf in my bedroom for as long as I could remember. My parents would never have given it to me themselves; I was encouraged toward toys and diversions that my mother considered educational—like pop-up books about the life cycle of monarch butterflies—and away from cartoons and other forms of entertainment that would “rot my brain.” Comics definitely fell into the latter category.
Ancient Greek and Roman historical and literary traditions, however, have been incorporated into Scrooge McDuck just as thoroughly as they have into the superhero stories from the Golden Age of comic books. As part of Scrooge McDuck’s elite millionaire status, he is an amateur archaeologist and collector of rare artifacts. Other titles in the series have included elements of Greek mythology and history such as the Golden Fleece, King Midas, and the Battle of Marathon. But what happens when we start paying closer attention to these ancient echoes? How can a classical reading alter the common perception of graphic works as inferior to written works?
Canadian artist Kate Beaton is best known for her webcomic Hark! A Vagrant, which takes inspiration from literature, history and popular culture. Some of Beaton’s comics feature well-known comic book characters like Wonder Woman and Lois Lane. Her work approaches these characters from a feminist perspective, drawing attention to the frequently sexist representation of women in mainstream superhero comics. Hark! A Vagrant is heavily influenced by Beaton’s formal education in history and anthropology at Mount Allison University.
Beyond simply drawing inspiration from classical history and literature (along with European history and literature in general), the humour in Beaton’s work often depends upon her audience’s knowledge of the source material. If you’re unfamiliar with the details of the French Revolution or never read Plato, you’re not going to get the punchline.
Take her comic “Rage of Achilles,” for example, based on a scene from Homer’s Iliad. After being clogged with the bodies of Trojans, killed by Achilles during his grief-fuelled rampage after the death of Patroclus, the river Scamander rises up to join in battle. Beaton provides almost no context for the scene besides the title. Without prior knowledge of Homer’s epic poem, the panels don’t make sense, despite the casual, modern dialogue that Beaton humorously puts in the mouth of the Greek god.
When superhero comics from large franchises incorporate classical elements, they tend to do it in a way that readers who are unfamiliar with the ancient source material are not alienated from the story or characters. While a knowledge of the myths and literature that inspired the comic might enhance the audience’s enjoyment of the work, it isn’t a prerequisite for understanding. By creating work that assumes the reader is familiar with concepts and ideas generally associated with higher education, Beaton is writing back against the tradition of comics as entertainment for adolescents.
In the late 1980s, writers like Alan Moore and Frank Miller revolutionized American comics when they began introducing darker themes and storylines into their work that were clearly intended for mature readers, rather than children, previously the assumed target demographic of most comic books. In much the same way, Beaton challenges commonly held perceptions about the audience of comics by suggesting that they know just as much about Sophoclean Tragedy as they do about the death of Gwen Stacy in Spider-Man. The fact that her work has gained such a large fan base only proves that she’s right.
In Toronto artist and record shop proprietor Lorenz Peter’s The Grey Museum (Conundrum Press, 2013), echoes of ancient mythology are put to a different use. Earth has been occupied by a race of alien, coffee-drinking clones that have built a machine to “contemplate” things and subsequently obliterate them by turning them into “Awht.” The Grey Museum is a challenging, surreal space adventure that follows the last survivors of Earth as they come in contact with lost deities, intergalactic beings and forces that they don’t understand.
When the Greys’ machine “contemplates” a seed that has fallen to the earth’s surface from a goddess’ whale (just go with it), the seed changes from a teardrop-shaped mound into a geometric sculpture. In The Grey Museum, the desire to analyze is a violent act that results in the literal destruction of whatever the thing being “contemplated” originally was. The machine is the Greys’ way of defending their territory from the gods and goddesses who seek to return vegetation and life to the post-apocalyptic landscape. Examination is a militant gesture.
This is why attempting a classical reading of The Grey Museum is so ironic. The book argues that imposing any kind of analysis is unavoidably destructive. Despite its condemnation of appreciation and collection, The Grey Museum relies heavily on classical motifs and ideas.
When one of the female protagonists meets a powerful god, she first encounters him as a giant snake that seduces her with its tongue. The scene recalls the many instances in mythology when Zeus appears in the form of an animal in order to have sex with a mortal woman, most famously with Leda, the mother of Helen of Troy, who has intercourse with Zeus while he is disguised as a swan.
Parallels to Homer’s Odyssey are also apparent. Like Odysseus on his return to Ithaca, one of the characters of The Grey Museum is delayed on his journey back to Earth (where he, in another similarity to Odysseus, wants to reunite with his estranged wife) and literally held captive in the lair of a goddess. Like Circe, who Odysseus is told will take his “manhood” unless he swears otherwise, the goddess encountered by the exiled earthling also demands a phallic sacrifice before she offers to send him home.
Far from resembling Homeric heroes, the mortal characters in The Grey Museum are weak, flawed, and confused. They blunder through the narrative, more the objects of pity than examples of greatness. The power of Peter’s graphic novel is not in its creative use of classical source material as a means of elevating the graphic medium to the level of “serious” art, but in including elements of “high” culture in a work that points out the absurdity of such distinctions in the first place. Both comics and myths, The Grey Museum argues, must be taken at face value and enjoyed on their own terms.
Webcomics, graphic novels, superheroes, billionaire ducks—the ways that graphic works allude to the ancient world is as varied as the medium itself. The incorporation of classical works in comics can become a means of celebrating graphic narratives and speaking to the varied interests and knowledges of their audience. However, it can also function as a weapon with which to dismantle the distinctions between high and low, between serious art and entertainment.
Of course, there are many more examples of graphic works incorporating classical elements. Anyone interested in further exploring the relationship between classical studies and graphic works should check out Classics and Comics (edited by George Kovacs and CW Marshall), a collection of essays on graphic novels and comics written primarily by scholars for an audience already familiar with both comics and the history, literature, and mythology of the classical world. Its sequel, Son of Classics and Comics, was published earlier this year and expands on the scope of the original by including essays on Manga and European comics.
Questioning how and why these works engage with classical material is an exercise with the potential to shed light on not only the position of graphic novels within our cultural and literary landscapes, but also to provide a glimpse into the role that the classical world still plays in both our art and our imaginations.
Shannon Page is originally from Cobble Hill, British Columbia. She holds a BA in English and Classics from Memorial University of Newfoundland and is currently working on an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Toronto.