Marvel Illustrated The Iliad
By the very definition of the genre a literary epic must be big. Not just big thematically, but also big in terms of the length. As one scholar has noted “you simply can’t have an epic haiku.” Consequently, when famed comic creator Roy Thomas set out to adapt Homer’s Iliad as a six-issue miniseries one might think his goals were doomed to failure before he even began; 176 pages are simply not enough to encapsulate one of the founding works of a genre that is partially-defined by its massive size and scale. Yet somehow Thomas, with the help of an amazing artist, has managed to create and adaptation of the classic war story still that manages to capture the glory and subtle elegance of Homer’s masterpiece.
One of the enduring traits of The Iliad is its ability to thrive in different mediums. Originally composed as oral poetry to be read aloud at festivals and celebrations, it has subsequently found a home in books where countless translations and versions afford the reader myriad ways to enjoy the story of Achilles’ wrath. While it has yet to make its mark in film and television – although many attempts to use its view of the Trojan War have been tried – it has definitely found a place in comics. Thomas’ storytelling abilities coupled with the amazing artwork of Miguel Angel Sepulveda, have created a visual component to the story that is stunning.
The roll of the gods and goddesses is of central import to the plot of The Iliad. It is Zeus, at the behest of Achilles’ divine mother Thetis, who intercedes in the tide of battle between the Greeks and Trojans. Other members of the pantheon have their own goals and objectives however. Athena and Hera are both staunchly in the camp of the insulted Greeks, whereas Apollo and Aphrodite support the doomed Troy. Consequently, their influence in the battles is important to the success of either side and their petty and often childish infighting causes the battle’s momentum to shift back and forth. It would have been easy for Thomas and Sepulveda to have failed in their objectives at this point. Other adaptations and Illustrated Classics have sometimes been unable to use the artwork to adequately capture the writing. As a result, what was amazing in prose can sometimes fail in comic book form. Sepulveda’s talent however avoids that fate. His art is so elegantly seamless that the gods and goddesses manipulations and intrusions into the affairs of humans does not come across as cheesy or silly.
Of course, you cannot reduce the story of The Iliad into a trade paper back without some serious sacrifices as Thomas himself notes in the intro. While the majority of major plot points are represented, it is thematically that Thomas does the most editing. Part of the beauty of Homer’s masterpiece – which no doubt helps explain the work’s enduring popularity – comes from the commentary provided by the epic poet on issues such as death, morality, the relative powerlessness of humans against the might of gods and fate, and many of the other persistent questions about the human condition. The brilliance of Homer is the way his story undermines and questions the very ethos that it is nominally helping to create. Thomas is unable to give these themes the time they need and as a result a significant portion of the stories’ intellectual power is diminished.
Yet despite the necessary reduction of the Iliad’s more subtle nuances, there is still plenty of excitement, adventure, and hack and slash to maintain the reader’s attention. The rage of Achilles, the power of Ajax, and the bravery of Hector literally explode from the page. Whether it is Diomedes wounding the war god Ares, or the death of Patroclus, all the events that make the story fun and enthralling are there. While the deeper themes may have been removed, that initial story of war and honor is captured in all its exciting glory.
Thomas wrote in the introduction that his goal was to create a story that would make people who hadn’t read The Iliad want to read it. Despite the reduction in size and the editing out of some of the story’s more substantive aspects, I think that he and Sepulveda have achieved that end. As someone who has read and loved the original, I found the book fun and exciting, and I have no doubt that someone who hasn’t yet experienced Homer’s masterpiece will find something to enjoy as well. While it still remains to be seen whether those people will actually pick the book up and read it, from a qualitative standpoint I can categorically say that Thomas and Sepulveda have produced a fully realized story that illustrates the medium’s strong potential for adaptation.