Issue 1: Page 00
“Well then, what shall I go through first, what shall I save for last?”
-Homer, Odyssey 9.14-15
The Trojan War.
Where to begin?
In the work that you’re about to read, the Trojan War—the legendary decade-long struggle waged by the Achaeans (i.e. Greeks) against the Trojans over Helen of Sparta—has a beginning as humble as the rustic dreamer on whom the comic opens.
A young cowherd wakes. He realizes with a shock that his herd has scattered.
If this is your first encounter with the Trojan War, you’ll be wondering who this cowherd is, and what this little bucolic scene has to do with the massive war to follow. And even if you’re familiar with the story, there’s a good chance that this beginning is something you didn’t anticipate. Either way, there’s more happening under the surface of these panels, and more going into author Eric Shanower’s choice of a beginning, than you may realize.
Of course, the same can be said for all of Age of Bronze. That’s the reason for this Reader’s Guide: to talk—and to give you a chance to talk—about where this story comes from, about its sources and its settings, its characters and its themes, and also its medium. What does it mean, after all, to tell the story of the Trojan War in a comic? The idea of this guide is to provide a lot of background and a little interpretation, but even more than that to invite you into our ongoing conversation about the comic, the Trojan War, and all things Bronze Age. Expert or neophyte, longtime reader or first-time browser, this is a place to learn, ask about, discuss and debate the world of Age of Bronze.
So let’s dive in. We’ll begin, appropriately enough, by talking about beginnings. Not just the beginning of the story of the Trojan War, but the beginning of the story of the story of the Trojan War.
Why start here? Because the story of the origin and development of the Trojan War myth is also, in a way, the story of Age of Bronze itself.
It all starts a bit over 2,700 years before the first issue of Age of Bronze with the Iliad and the Odyssey. These two epic poems, traditionally attributed to Homer, are our earliest surviving literary sources for the Trojan War. You probably already knew that both poems were about the Trojan War and its aftermath. But if you’ve never read the Iliad, you may be surprised to learn that it deals with the events of only a few weeks near the end of the war. That leaves huge swaths of the myth—including some of its most famous events, like the Judgment of Paris, the Trojan Horse, and the Fall of Troy—untold or only alluded to. From the perspective of the Trojan War as a whole, the Iliad most definitely does not begin at the beginning. Nor does it follow the story through to the end.
The same goes for Odyssey. The Odyssey only tells the last (and lengthiest) of a group of tales called the Nostoi, or the Returns of the Achaeans who assaulted Troy. In other words, the Odyssey, like the Iliad, is only part of the story. There are numerous loves, famines, infidelities, murders, victories, betrayals and even human sacrifices that fall outside the bounds of the Iliad and the Odyssey. And yet they’re very much a part of the myth of the Trojan War as we know it. And since Eric is telling the whole story of the war from its beginnings to the fall of Troy, that means they’re also a part of Age of Bronze.
So where’s the rest of the story coming from, if not from Homer? And where does this saga really begin?
Since so much of mythology is interconnected (as we’ll see from the frequent flashbacks and references to pre-Trojan War events in Age of Bronze), the first question is a bit easier to answer than the second. So let’s start there.
Age of Bronze isn’t the first retelling of the Trojan War: it’s been adopted, adapted, elaborated, extended, amended and even occasionally belittled by many, many different kinds of writers from many times and places throughout the millennia separating Homer’s poems from us. And all of that material is fair game in Age of Bronze.
The comic is drawing not only on epic poetry, lyric poetry, tragedy, comedy, biography and history from ancient Greece and Rome, but also on mythological handbooks and (purported) first-person accounts of the Trojan War from late antiquity, as well as medieval romances, Shakespearean drama, 17th-century theater, 19th-century opera, modern reworkings of the myth, and more. A big part of our conversation will naturally be about which sources are being used where, and how Eric is either stitching them together or deciding between them. (As you’d imagine, with such a big body of literature there are bound to be disagreements.) If you’re familiar with some of the sources, it’s a chance for you to show off. And if you’re not, it’s an opportunity to embark on your own odyssey through them, since we’ll be linking to many of them in this Reader’s Guide. It’s also a chance to think about what it means to combine so many stories that were composed in such different contexts—after all, Greece in the 8th century BCE is a lot different from, say, early modern Britain—and to talk about how comfortably they sit alongside each another.
So in spite of the fact that Age of Bronze is a coherent and entirely enjoyable read on its own, it takes but a little investigation to realize that you’ve only begun to plumb the depths of what Eric has created. It’s a hugely ambitious project. And that ambition—to incorporate and reconcile all the different versions of the Trojan War—brings us right back to the issue of beginnings, and to the question of where and when the Trojan War really begins.
It’s a tricky one, because very few of our sources actually tell the story of the Trojan War from beginning to end. It’s such a long saga that most authors just pick one event or series of events to depict in a given poem or play. In fact, the philosopher Aristotle, writing in the 4th century BCE, is very emphatic about piecemeal being the correct way to go about it:
“. . . we have a further proof of Homer’s marvelous superiority to the rest. He did not attempt to deal even with the Trojan War in its entirety, though it was a whole with a definite beginning and end—through a feeling apparently that it was too long a story to be taken in in one view, or if not that, too complicated from the variety of incident in it.1”
Of course, Aristotle didn’t have comics in mind when he wrote this. Something to think about as we read Age of Bronze is why Aristotle’s view, which might seem perfectly reasonable for a play or a poem, might not be true for a comic released over the course of several years—or decades— in a combination of short monthly installments, graphic novel collections, and, as sometimes happens, in one massive volume at the end of its run. Readers who are familiar with the ways comics balance serialized storytelling with satisfying episode-length narratives should feel free to lead the discussion about how the story of the Trojan War works and can work in this medium. (Many of you are also probably experts in continuity puzzles, which, for reasons we’ll discuss, are a problem in mythology no less than in comics.)
Still, even though Age of Bronze is unique in its goal of using sequential art to tell the story of the Trojan War from beginning to end, the Aristotle quotation above makes clear that the myth was felt to have a definite beginning: the Judgment of Paris.
It’s a beginning that Eric decided not to use as his own—not exactly, anyway. Let’s turn the metaphorical page and look more closely at where Eric’s version of the story starts. Then we’ll investigate his reasons for beginning where he has.
Down here at the bottom of each page I’ll cite my sources for the preceding discussion and offer some recommendations for further reading.
The first and best resource for all things Age of Bronze is Eric’s website, www.age-of-bronze.com. You can find numerous interviews with Eric, as well as online texts of several of his sources. You can also learn more about Eric’s other projects.
The two texts I quote above are Homer’s Odyssey and Aristotle’s Poetics. There are numerous translations of each.
The Odyssey translation that I used is Robert Fagles’. He has translated the Iliad as well. Both are very readable, and boast thorough introductions by Bernard Knox. You can also find free translations of Homer at several sites online. Among my favorite web resources are theoi.com, which features a free library of ancient texts (including the Iliad and Odyssey), and the Perseus Project, which offers both English translations of ancient texts and the works in their original Greek or Latin.
There are numerous dictionaries, anthologies, and textbooks of mythology. Anthology of Classical Myth is an excellent volume, though it is organized by source rather than by subject. Try Morford, Lenardon and Sham’s Classical Mythology if you want a text organized by topic/myth. Of course, you can also search theoi.com for a given character or myth and find a summary followed by a list of sources.
I know of no single, comprehensive resource for post-antique mythology. However, Diane Thompson’s The Trojan War: Literature and Legends from the Bronze Age to the Present treats the major developments and adaptations of the Trojan War myth from Homer to the 20th century.
These suggestions for further reading are not, and will not be, comprehensive. So if you have favorite books or resources that I do not include, always feel free to mention them!