At its heart, the five part mini-series Hercules: the Knives of Kush is an elegantly simple story. After some earlier, undisclosed adventuring, Hercules and compatriots find themselves stranded on the shores of Egypt. As Iolaus the charioteer’s narration unfolds, the Greek adventurers find themselves awash on a vast ocean of intrigue and political machinations as they are swept up into the wartime court of the Pharaoh Seti. First tasked with routing out enemy spies within the palace (as foreigners, Hercules and his group alone can be trusted by the Pharaoh), the limited series invariably builds up to and sustains panoramic vistas of direct confrontation and combat on the vast dunes of Egypt.
The narrative twists and turns are themselves involving, if not completely engrossing. Certainly the sheer complexity of the political machinations and manipulations of the various factions and power-players are enough to guarantee each issue as a good read. Even the battle scenes which are notoriously difficult to subject to narrative structure, are handled admirably by writer Steve Moore (particularly issue three wherein Moore offers a glimpse into Hercules’ psychology as he prepares combat strategy). But the true complexity of Hercules: the Knives of Kush is to be found not in the narrative, but in a completely unexpected direction.
In the limited series, Hercules and his cohort (Iolaus the charioteer, Autolychus the thief, and legendary father of Odysseus, and hunters Atalanta and Meleager) find themselves amid political schism in the Egyptian state. Amenmessu, Seti’s brother and black sheep of the royal family, has been exiled to the distant south of Upper Egypt. The unremarkable quiet of the recent few months were quickly revealed as nothing more than a cover for Amenmessu to amass an army.
The looming (and by the time Hercules and cohort arrive, actual) conflict is more than just the a strangely elegiac battle between political factions, it is at its core an ideological conflict. Seti and Amenmessu have convened their military around very different protocols. While Pharaoh Seti has constructed an ordered, and above all disciplined war machine, his brother Amenmessu has evolved a complexity-driven, chaotic, cellular war machine primed for asymmetric warfare. While the Pharaoh has produced an army, his brother has marshaled the power of a cult.
Perhaps the greatest advantage of Seti’s army, its rigid hierarchical structure which produces obedience and predictability, is turned into a classical weakness by Amenmessu’s insurgent cult. As with any such cult, the myths around it are multiplied. They live in Thebes where they have wild orgies. The so-called ‘Knives of Kush’ are empowered by the greatest wizard of the age. They worship the God of Death, Apedemak. They resurrect their dead by means of necromancy. Yet, underneath their fearsome black silk masks, the Knives of Kush are sons and daughters of the same empire, subjects of the same Pharaoh. Hercules: the Knives of Kush offers a glimpse not into the religious fervor that fuels attacks against the US in such places as Iraq or Afghanistan, instead readers are offered insight into the deeper schisms within US society between liberal and conservative.
In a strange and unexpected twist, this sociocultural and political complexity is not primarily carried to the reader through the weight of narrative. Instead the panel structure and page layout of artist Cris Bolson (assisted at times by Manuel and Leonardo Silva) immerses readers in sociocultural and political complexity (rather than ambiguity). By way of example, Bolson constructs primarily three visual themes. In the first, action sequences (battle scenes, but also chase sequences) tend to be simple linear comics, easy-to-understand windows in time to a specific moment. Bolson’s remarkable insight however, comes with his second theme. In the ordinary conversation pieces that move the narrative forward, Bolson offers readers dynamic panels that are filled with image rotations, unframed panels and frequent character outcroppings. This decision is itself a statement about the cultural complexity of the Egyptian palace, its intrigues and indeed the classical world of Hercules.
It is this kind of deep and critical insight into the visualization of Hercules’ world as equal in complexity to our own that produces Hercules: the Knives of Kush as a work more in keeping with 2004’s Troy (starring Brad Pitt and Eric Bana) than with such classic adventure-yarn TV shows as Xena: Warrior Princess (starring Lucy Lawless) or Sinbad (starring Zen Gesher).