Friday, May 21, 2010

Review - Age of Bronze

Age of Bronze
by Eric Shanower
2001, 2003 Eisner Winner for Best Writer/Artist

In a sad kind of way I wish I had never read Age of Bronze. It's not because it is a bad book since it's one of the most ingenious uses of the comics medium I have encounter. And it's not because some aspect of the content made me angry even though it features a lot of uncompromisingly unpleasant people doing horrible, brutal things to innocent victims. It's not even because it's going to have me chasing down reading material on early Greece; I've already got more than my fair share of books on that subject. It's because I have now read roughly one third of a story that I strongly suspect will never be completed.

Age of Bronze is the story of the Trojan War from Paris being found by King Priam to the ships sailing away from the sacked city. Shanower set down for himself two conflicting goals in this: to be as realistic as possible and to incorporate every fragment of legend that has surrounded the war into one coherent story. The only thing that he does not do is directly place the divine on stage with his mortal heroes. He hints at it but the closest he comes is allowing the prophets to say things that come true. And even there he often gives another reason why they may say the things they do.

It's the historical details that make Age of Bronze terrific. The Aegean society of 1200 BCE is presented in the story as accurately as possible. There's no trace of the Hollywood vision of ancient societies where everything before medieval Europe looks exactly the same. It's an obsessive attention to visual details that would be impossible in other mediums (at least if you wanted to be commercially viable). While this might not be exactly how history unfolded (the inclusion of Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida as one of the many sources for the narrative means that it isn't) it looks like how it may have happened.

For those of you who lacking a classical education and don't know anything about the subject beyond the fact that there is a horse at the end the war begins when Paris the prince of Troy runs off with Helen who is the wife of King Menelaus. All of the cities states in Greece band together to capture the rich city of Troy in a conflict that lasts ten years. And in the three thousand years since then their war has been a cultural touchstone referenced over and over again.

Which is another thing that makes me respect this project. Rather than just telling the story of the Trojan War Shanower is trying to integrate everything. All the tidbits, fragments, and off-handed mentions are included, referenced, or illustrated as appropriate. And the way that he is weaving it together so well is amazing.

It isn't perfect though. The dialog is often clunky and Shanower gets very heavy with the exposition. He doesn't do much to differentiate his characters in their speech. He is getting better; the most recent volume has a scene near the end which was the first time that the dialog in a scene really worked for me. Odysseus as part of a diplomatic party unleashes a storm of curses and rage against the Trojans before Hector snaps back in their defense. It allows the two of them to share a personal moment of respect between them despite being in a crowd before Odysseus returns to the words that presage the war. I suspect that the dialog will get even better if this series reaches a conclusion.

Shanower projects that it will take seven volumes to conclude Age of Bronze and going by the first two and half these will be about ten to twelve issues each. That's a mammoth undertaking but many other creators have managed such large projects. However Age of Bronze started in 1998 and issue thirty is due next month. There have been points with a gap greater than a year between issues. It's a pace that makes me think it will never be finished or even reach the point where Homer can take over for the rest of the narrative.

Age of Bronze is a book tailor made for me and while I wanted better dialog to go with the awesome scope and plotting I enjoyed it a lot. If you have any interest in ancient Greece then this is a book that you will want to read. The only thing that I can do is warn you that it will, even should it finish, leave you hungry for more.