Books

The Epic Comic Book of Gilgamesh

A father and son team-up to spin The Epic of Gilgamesh into comics form.

The Epic of Gilgamesh
Kent H. Dixon and Kevin H. Dixon

Steven Stories Press

Jun 2018

Other

Recorded well over a century before Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, the anonymously authored Gilgamesh is world literature's first epic—detailing battles with monsters, a Bible-paralleling arc and flood, and an underworld-crossing ferryman. Though many of the tropes are familiar, and The Epic of Gilgamesh is a standard on countless college syllabi, Seven Stories Press has released a first-ever comics version—an impressive accomplishment in terms of both words and pictures.

Kent H. Dixon originated the project with his rendition of the Babylonian text—roughly 1,700 words—using the dozens of published English translations, and occasional references back to the original syllabary, to craft his own hybrid prose-verse. At times poetic in form, even with an echo of pentameter ("Abundantly the guts did spill down the mountain's slippery slope"), his rendering also emphasizes contemporary diction, calling Enkidu a "hairball" and Gilgamesh "big and bad"—and so a good fit for his target audience of undergrads and general readers.

Kent then handed his complete text to his son, comics artist Kevin H. Dixon, who used it as a script, interpreting and adapting freely—but also lettering every word into the graphic novel. Most adaptations might trim as needed, and to that degree the Dixons' comic resembles Robert Crumb's word-for-word adaptation of the Book of Genesis. The Epic of Gilgamesh also literally resembles it, since Crumb is one of Kevin Dixon's many artistic influences. The style is aggressively cartoonish—down to characters' foreheads spraying drops of plewds when anxious and bursts of emanata when literally glowing with triumph. Crumb is most present in Dixon's masterfully detailed cross-hatching, and though some of his figures are roughly reminiscent of Crumb too, their anatomy is closer to Matt Groening's The Simpsons.

(courtesy of Seven Stories Press)

It's tempting to read Gilgamesh and his sidekick Enkidu as world literature's first superheroes—a dynamic duo of demigods who possess a litany of super-powered traits: chest as broad as an ox's, speed of a shooting star, an itch for performing extraordinary deeds, even prayers to the god of justice. But the epic's opening supervillain is Gilgamesh himself: a power-mad king literally raping his people. Enkidu may be closer to a superhero since he's created in answer to the people's prayers for a savior. But despite his good intentions, Enkidu is no match and soon is submitting to Gilgamesh too.

But maybe that was the gods' secret plan, since Gilgamesh stops abusing his kingdom and instead teams-up with his near-equal for death-defying adventures. For no reason but want of glory, they head off to battle the monstrous Hambaba and return with his head and a forest of cedar trees. Even here, Hambaba—despite Kevin Dixon's abundantly monstrous depictions—seems almost like a victim, a guardian of a beautiful natural landscape plundered by invaders. At least when the goddess Ishtar, furious after Gilgamesh rejects her sexual advances, releases the Bull of Heaven onto the kingdom, the heroes' violence is protective and so actually heroic.

Still, after Enkidu's death, Gilgamesh is sincerely heart-broken, but his attempt to reach the underworld isn't about releasing or even visiting Enkidu's soul. It's about securing immortality for himself. While that mission is unheroically self-serving, it also ends in failure—a paradoxical victory for the forces of good, since Gilgamesh, though now permanently depressed, also seems to have finally accepted his role as a just and noble king.

(courtesy of Seven Stories Press)

Kent Dixon credits his son for adding "fun and insights" to his text. That entails a wide range of very specific choices made panel by panel. Kevin Dixon sometimes defaults to what pioneering comics scholar Scott McCloud terms a "duo-specific" relationship between words and pictures. For example under the caption "Your statue, he will set at the left of his throne: all the princes of the world will kiss your graven feet," Dixon renders exactly that, creating necessary details to visualize the words' meaning, but to a redundant effect. When the text states that Urshanabi ran "striking his head with his fist", Dixon adds a talk bubble "Nooooo!!" but the image otherwise repeats the caption.

His art is more engaging when it instead interprets the accompanying language. When the "revels ran late into the night", Dixon draws Gilgamesh with a pot on his head and Enkidu passed-out and dreaming of urinating—images that fit the otherwise generic "revels" by expanding them with greater visual specificity.

Some interpretations even playfully contradict what's presumably the text's intended meanings. When a god warns that "You will have the legions of the dusty dead sitting down to dinner with the living," Dixon draws a zombie attack, even adding his own talk bubble content: "No! Grandma, don't! Aughh!"

More fun still, Dixon regularly adds visual content to expand Enkidu's character. When "Before the alter of Shamash they laid the offering, placing the heart on top," Dixon's Enkidu exclaims "Yum!" And when "they went down to the Euphrates; they washed their hands", Enkidu dives in head first.

Sometimes the art contradicts too—though not to any clearly communicated effect. When "back through the town they road, knee to knee and thigh to thigh, hand held high in hand", Dixon's heroes' knees and thighs are not touching.

It's perhaps not surprising that this father-and-son partnership does not emphasize the homoerotic elements of world literature's first seemingly gay couple. The language remains extremely suggestive, with Gilgamesh dreaming that "I felt love" for a shooting star and then "was embracing it as one would a wife!" His goddess mother explains the he will receive her "blessing as if it were a bride—a bride indeed I see, a companion for my son" whom he will love "as never have you loved before". Kevin Dixon, however, avoids any homoerotic elements in his art. Even though Enkidu should be naked during his opening sequence, Dixon draws him in a loin cloth.

Though his father describes the epic as containing "adult content", Kevin draws only one, unerect penis, and though the goddess Ishtar invites a gardener "to touch here my slit, cleft like your dates of the willowy palm", he angles her inside a wagon to avoid drawing her vagina. And even though Enkidu and the holy harlot Shambat "coupled for a week", most of the details are obscured by an action cloud more typically used for cartoon fight scenes.

(courtesy of Seven Stories Press)

But Dixon may be at his comics best when working with very few or no words at all. Though the epic is often heavy with language and his captions and talk bubbles crammed with text, the adaptation also includes a nearly wordless eight-page sequence when Gilgamesh travels to a gate to the underworld guarded by scorpion men—images I assumed Dixon invented freely until I read their description in the text. Dixon extends the underworld river crossing similarly though more briefly, but most of his visual expansions fall in more obvious moments: Gilgamesh and Enkidu's fight scene, and Gilgamesh's fight with two lions.

Dixon scolds himself in his introduction for drawing the middle of the epic first, resulting in slight changes in Gilgamesh's rendering as he fine-tuned the character. But more jarring, he also alters his layout style, drawing the middle section with fewer panels and much larger lettering in contrast to the opening chapters. I also wish he had selected some style variation, either in panel content or panel framing, to indicate imagined and dreamed images, something the epic includes in abundance. Kevin Dixon even adds a chapter-long dream sequence to the end with his own interpretation of an often-deleted section believed to have been added after the original composition.

These challenges aside, the Dixons' adaptation has earned its rightful place on college syllabi, replacing its dozens of text-only predecessors, none of which offer the range of playfully inventive visual effects only possible in the comics form.


7

Music

Books

Film

Recent
By the Book

Jack Halberstam's 'Wild Things: The Disorder of Desire' (excerpt)

Enjoy this excerpt of Wild Things: The Disorder of Desire, wherein Jack Halberstam offers an alternative history of sexuality by tracing the ways in which wildness has been associated with queerness and queer bodies throughout the 20th century.

Jack Halberstam
Music

Sotto Voce's 'Your Husband, the Governor' Is Beautifully Twisted DIY Indie Folk-rock

Singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Ryan Gabos releases another odd, gorgeous home studio recording under the moniker Sotto Voce.

Music

Numün's 'voyage au soleil' Is a Trippy, Ambient Ride and Ambitious Debut

Eclectic instrumental trio numün combine a wealth of influences to create a vibe that's both spacey and earthy on voyage au soleil.

Music

L7's 'Smell the Magic' Is 30 and Packs a Feminist Punch

Abortion is under threat again, and there's a sex offender in the Oval Office. A fitting time, in short, to crank up the righteously angry vocals of feminist hard rock heavy hitters like L7.

Books

Can Queer Studies Rescue American Universities?

Matt Brim's Poor Queer Studies underscores the impact of poorer disciplines and institutions, which often do more to translate and apply transformative intellectual ideas in the world than do their ivory-tower counterparts.

Music

Jim White Offers a "Smart Ass Reply" (premiere)

Jesus and Alice Cooper are tighter than you think, but a young Jim White was taught to treat them as polar opposites. Then an eight-track saved his soul and maybe his life.

Music

Ed Harcourt Paints From 'Monochrome to Colour'

British musician Ed Harcourt's instrumental music is full of turbulent swells and swirls that somehow maintain a dignified beauty on Monochrome to Colour.

Music

West London's WheelUP Merges Broken Beat and Hip-Hop on "Stay For Long" (premiere)

West London producer WheelUP reached across the pond to Brint Story to bring some rapid-fire American hip-hop to his broken beat revival on "Stay For Long".

Music

PM Picks Playlist 4: Stellie, The Brooks, Maude La​tour

Today's playlist features the premiere of Stellie's "Colours", some top-class funk from the Brooks, Berne's eco-conscious electropop, clever indie-pop from Maude Latour, Jaguar Jonze rocking the mic, and Meresha's "alien pop".

Culture

Plattetopia: The Prefabrication of Utopia in East Berlin

With the fall of the Berlin Wall came the licence to take a wrecking ball to its nightmare of repression. But there began the unwritten violence of Die Wende, the peaceful revolution that hides the Oedipal violence of one order killing another.

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Music

Electrosoul's Flõstate Find "Home Ground" on Stunning Song (premiere)

Flõstate are an electrosoul duo comprised of producer MKSTN and singer-songwriter Avery Florence that create a mesmerizing downtempo number with "Home Ground".

Music

Orchestra Baobab Celebrate 50 Years with Vinyl of '​Specialist in All Styles'

As Orchestra Baobab turn 50, their comeback album Specialist in All Styles gets a vinyl reissue.

Music

Hot Chip Stay Up for 'Late Night Tales'

Hot Chip's contribution to the perennial compilation project Late Night Tales is a mixed bag, but its high points are consistent with the band's excellence.

Music

The Budos Band Call for Action on "The Wrangler" (premiere)

The Budos Band call on their fans for action with the powerful new track "The Wrangler" that falls somewhere between '60s spy thriller soundtrack and '70s Ethiojazz.

Music

Creature Comfort's "Woke Up Drunk" Ruminates on Our Second-Guesses (premiere)

A deep reflection on breaking up, Nashville indie rock/Americana outfit Creature Comfort's "Woke Up Drunk" is the most personal track from their new album, Home Team.

Books

For Don DeLillo, 'The Silence' Is Deafening

In Don DeLillo's latest novel, The Silence, it is much like our post-pandemic life -- everything changed but nothing happened. Are we listening?

Music

Brett Newski Plays Slacker Prankster on "What Are You Smoking?" (premiere)

Is social distancing something we've been doing, unwittingly, all along? Brett Newski pulls some pranks, raises some questions in "What Are You Smoking?".


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.