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Age of Bronze, Volume 1: A Thousand Ships
Written and Illustrated by Eric Shanower
Image Comics; $19.95
The first time someone told me there was a comic book about the Trojan War, I fell asleep before they finished the sentence. I’m not really sure why that is. I like history – especially making connections that I’ve never noticed between events – and I even sort of like The Iliad. Homer’s poem does spend a lot of time with people arguing on the beach, but there’s some very cool battle stuff in there too. I’m also one of the few people who enjoyed Troy.
I think my initial reaction to hearing about Age of Bronze was due to my thinking that I’ve already heard this story a million times. And as cool as some parts of the story are (the death of Hector; any scene with Ajax), I really, really hate how the war starts: the idea of a thousand ships going to war over one woman; Priam’s stupid refusal to just give Helen back. I’ve never bought the premise and it spoils my enjoyment of the rest of the story. It’s like having to accept the concept of “Green Goblin: National Hero” in order to hopefully read a story in which Doctor Doom and Namor try to take over world and split it between the two of them.
But a while ago I started getting comp comics from Image and ended up with a few issues of Age of Bronze. I was amazed first at how detailed and realistic the art is. I can’t speak to its accuracy – though I have no doubt that it’s excellent – because I haven’t done the research, but even if Shanower had pulled the architecture and fashion out of his butt, his version of the ancient Mediterranean world absolutely looks and feels like a real, historical place.
The other thing that surprised me about those issues was how quiet they were. I guess I was expecting huge battle scenes, but these particular issues weren’t focused so much on the fighting. At the same time though, they also weren’t focused on Agamemnon and Achilles’ pouting on the sea shore. These were other characters – some I’d never heard of; some I only knew a little about – and stories I’d never heard. And they were fascinating stories too. Romances and intrigues and human drama. Quiet, but not dull. I wanted to know more.
Which brings me to A Thousand Ships. As the title suggests, the first volume of Age of Bronze focuses on setting up the war; getting all the characters into place for the big event. You might think that 208 pages is a lot to spend on set up, but not me. Especially considering that the war’s premise is what’s typically muzzled my enthusiasm. I need some thought given to why these people are doing what they’re doing and Shanower uses every one of those 208 pages to flesh out motivations and make the scenario believable. Paris’ abduction of Helen makes sense to me now (it’s part youthful exuberance; part naivety), as does Priam’s endorsement of it (he sees it as payback for Greece’s earlier abduction of his sister) and all of Greece’s willingness to go to war over it (the result of an oath the Grecian kings took that specifically pertained to Helen; this wasn’t the first time she’d been the impetus for trouble between rulers).
Not that the entire book is filled with just those characters. Like in the single issues I read earlier, there’s a lot going on in A Thousand Ships, some of it with people I’d never heard of before or only knew as supporting characters in stuff like Troilus and Cressida. If the book has a flaw, it’s that the cast is huge and can be hard to keep track of, but I don’t know how you’d tell this story another way. I don’t know that I’d want to read it another way. Everyone plays a role in getting to the point where a thousand ships set sail from Aulis for Troy and Shanower keeps confusion to a minimum by creating distinct looks for the various members of his large cast.
I still want to see Paris pay and I still sort of hate Priam for his arrogance, but I at least now understand and accept why their character flaws lead them to the actions they take. I’m a bigger fan of Hector now (though Eric Bana’s performance in Troy also helped a lot with that) and Agamemnon and Menelaus seem a lot less whiny than I’m used to. On the other hand though, Achilles is awfully young, which makes his hunger for legendary status seem immature and punkish. I’m curious to see if Shanower can (or wants to) turn that around in future volumes.
Regardless of whether my opinion of these characters has changed for the better or the worse, the point is that Shanower reintroduces them all in a way that makes you rethink them. Homer had already made them very human characters, but Shanower goes further and makes them people. He does that by deepening their personalities and motivations (and being very frank about their sex lives), but he also does it by removing the overtly supernatural from the story. These are people of faith, but you never see their gods. Sea nymphs are re-imagined as ocean-worshiping priestesses and Achilles’ centaur foster-parent is now a hairy, hermitic human.
That these are also people caught up in one of the most horrible escalations of tension and violence in history is enthralling. Even though I know how the story ends, I don’t know how I’m going to feel seeing it play out with these particular versions of the characters and I’m going to love finding out.
Five out of five big, hairy, awesome Kentaurs.