Back in 1998, comic book artist Eric Shanower started an ambitious new project: a modern retelling, in graphic novel form, of the entire story of the Trojan War. What sets this reinterpretation apart from what came before is that Shanower chose not to limit himself to just the ancient sources, but to also incorporate later material, including Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida.
At the same time, he also engaged in painstaking research to make sure that the clothing, architecture, and equipment used by the characters was as accurate the late thirteenth century BC as he could make it. The amount of research he did is clear from just looking at the bibliographies listed at the end of each collected volume of books and from examining the panels of exquisite black-and-white artwork that form the core of this modern retelling.
The story so far
Shanower’s project is ambitious, with a projected seven volumes necessary to tell all of the tale. The first volume, A Thousand Ships, appeared in 2001. It starts off with the story of Paris. He is sent by his father, Priam, the king of Troy, to Greece, where he meets and falls in love with Helen, the wife of Menelaus, the king of Sparta. When he abducts Helen, Menelaus asks his brother Agamemnon for aid to go and get Helen back. Agamemnon musters the largest army that the world has ever seen and, at the very end of the book, the thousand ships of the Greek army set sail for Troy.
Volume 2, Sacrifice (2004), sees the Greeks arrive at a place that Achilles believes is Troy. He and his men proceed to attack the natives, but is later told by Agamemnon that they were mistaken. They are actually in a region of Mysia. They manage to placate the local people and then return to Greece. There, the fleet gathers anew at Aulis, but unfavourable winds prevent them from leaving. Only if Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter Iphigenia will the gods be placated and the fleet be allowed to leave. Initially, Agamemnon refuses, but is eventually convinced by his men to acquiesce. He lures Iphigenia to Aulis, where she is killed. Favourable winds do indeed return and the Greeks once again set sail for Troy.
The third volume, Betrayal, was published in two parts (2007 and 2013). In the first part, Agamemnon sends envoys to Troy and various smaller events happen, such as Philoktetes getting bitten by a snake. In the second part, the Greeks finally arrive at Troy and much of the book is filled with some well-executed battle scenes. Of course, we’ve now only reached the first stage in a war that will not be won until the tenth year. In other words, there is ample material left for Shanower to fill the remaining four volumes.
Comments and criticism
The art in the books is phenomenal: black-and-white line art that is highly detailed. Some of the characters are easily recognizable, such as Agamemnon with his sharp features, or the incredibly ugly Thersites. Other characters don’t fair so well. The Trojan princes in particular are virtually indistinguishable from one another. Similarly, many of the young women all look alike: it’s often left to clothing and jewellery to tell e.g. Helen apart from Cressida, and that’s a shame, even if it’s not particularly unique to this comic book series. Still, the level of detail on display is impressive on the whole.
Another issue is that this series might never be finished. Nearly two decades after Shanower began this project we’re only about halfway through. This seems to be a case where the creator has bitten off more than he could chew. While the idea of doing a retelling based on virtually all relevant material is certainly laudable, I cannot help but feel that a shorter, more focused project would have been better.
I also feel that something was lost by not including the gods, but this seems to be a characteristic of many modern retellings of ancient stories in which the gods originally loomed large. While it does take away a little from the story, which benefited from having mortals (who have to achieve lasting glory on the battlefield) contrasted with immortals (who don’t), it doesn’t harm the overall work.
Furthermore, the story has some pacing issues. In the summary above, you’ll notice that the ending of volumes 1 and 2 are essentially the same, and with volume 3A feeling like we’re just treading water until the Greeks finally manage to make landfall near Troy, the series sometimes drags a bit. This is one instance where I think a modern retelling would be better if it just skipped some elements altogether instead of slavishly following the original sources.
The bottom line
When it comes down to it, I would heartily recommend this series to anyone interested in the Trojan War, Greek mythology in general, or the Mycenaean Bronze Age. It’s not without its problems and, truthfully, the series may never be completed, but it’s still a worthwhile addition to anyone’s collection.
Here’s hoping that Shanower will be able to find the time and resources to complete the second half of his epic reinterpretation of the Trojan War.