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Achilles at the Gates! April 19, 2004

A respected comic-book artist tackles the Trojan War

Since 1998, comic-book artist Eric Shanower has brought to life the passion, courage, greed, loyalty, and vengeance of the Trojan War in his Age of Bronze series. In an interview that appeared in our May/June issue, Shanower spoke to ARCHAEOLOGY's managing editor Kristin Romey about what makes drawing epic heroes different from drawing superheroes. An extended version of the interview is presented below.

How did you get into drawing comics?
Well, I've drawn all my life. I've also written stories or told stories all my life. So, it was, in high school when I finally decided I wanted to draw comic books for a living, and I went to an art trade school called the Joe Kubert School of Cartooning and Graphic Art, after high school. And as soon as I graduated from art school I started getting work in the comics industry.

©Eric Shanower [LARGER IMAGE]

©Eric Shanower

And when did you start drawing Age of Bronze?
Well, I first got the idea for Age of Bronze in 1991, February 1991. I listen to books on tape alot while I'm working, and I was listening to the March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam, by Barbara Tuchman, and there's a chapter in there on Troy, and it just sort of, listening to that opened this whole world of possibilities. I just thought, boy, that would be a great story to tell as a comic. But at the time I thought, "oh, what a huge, huge project. I just don't have time for that." But the idea kept coming back in various ways, and I finally realized I'll just give in and do this thing. So I was doing a lot of research for several years, gathering information on both the story and the archaeology of the time, and then I had to sort of shop the idea around the publishers. I started actually drawing in 1997, and I finally found a publisher and the series began publication in 1998, in November.

In a field of publishing dominated by superheroes did you have a tough time selling the idea of ancient history, especially ancient history that is archaeologically accurate?
I knew it was going to be a hard sell, this is not something that people generally thought of as comic book material, telling the story of the Trojan War. But I was confident that it was a story that would be fascinating for people to read, once they gave it a chance. I ran the idea by many different publishers. I had originally a small publisher who was interested, they were just starting up their public publishing program, but it was taking a long time for them to get going, so finally I realized I just better look for some other opportunities. The publisher that I ended up with, it was actually quite easy. A friend in the comic book industry, who I had met many years before, was now in the position that he could give me the green light, whether he would publish this or not, and he saw some of my samples. I wasn't even showing them to him, trying to get it published by him, I was just showing him because this is what I was working on. And he looked at it and he goes, "Oh, I'll publish this." So that's how it happened, it was just sort of serendipity.

As far as the archaeological aspects of the story, what first attracted me to the story of the Trojan War was the story itself. The fact that there's been so many different versions of many different episodes down the centuries, and I was fascinated with the challenge of reconciling all the different versions and coming up with one long, coherent story line. But, immediately, when I realized I wanted to tell this particular story, I knew that I was going to have to set it in the exact time period where the Trojan war took place. That's what it would have looked like, and I wanted to show it as accurately as possible. I also wanted to sort of challenge people in their assumption that the Trojan war looks very classic, classical Greek, not Mycenaean. And I wanted to sort of upset people and challenge their preconceptions.

When you research Age of Bronze, is it library work, or do you consult archaeologists?
Well, it's sort of whatever I can get. Libraries are my primary research, just going to libraries and looking at books and taking notes and making lots of photocopies. I do consult archaeologists whenever I can, and in fact there have been some archaeologists who have been quite enthusiastic about the project, and have pushed their help on me, almost, like Shelley Wachsmann, who's at Texas A&M University. I'm on an email list called AegeanNet, and when I first wrote to it saying I was working on this project, and was anyone interested in seeing anything, he immediately wrote to me and said, "This is my book, you have to get it." So I did, and he was right, I needed it. Some other archaeologists who've been helpful have been Bernice Jones, who's done a lot of research into costumes of the time. Eric Cline, who's been really enthusiastic about the comic book series. When I first found out that there were ongoing excavations at Troy, I immediately called up the University of Cincinnati and spoke to Getzel Cohen, he's at the Institute of Mediterranean Studies there, and he seemed really enthusiastic about it. I originally called him up because I wanted to find out how I could get copies of their excavation reports, which are published in Studia Troica.

Have you been to Troy?
No, I haven't. Early on in this project I had a friend who was going to Troy, so I said to her will you please take pictures for me. She said yes, and I said, "This is what I need. Please stand, you know, up at the top of the hill and just take pictures in a circle looking away." Because all the books have pictures looking towards the site, but so few, there's so few pictures looking away from the site. And I knew I'd have to draw shots from all different angles. I said, "Just stand up there and just turn in the circle and take pictures." So she did. So I do whatever I can to get information and do the research.

You answer all the letters from your readers, in the back of every issue, and they're asking you questions about Bronze Age trade routes, and what was going on in the Black Sea at the time, and you answer everybody....
Well, I do the best I can. You know, I've been doing research now for I guess 12 or 13 years, I have lots of books. I can't always, with the questions, I can't always answer off the top of my head, I sometimes have to go look in a book, but I do the best I can. And once in a while I say something wrong and I realize I've made a mistake, and so I try to correct it later.

Do you attend archaeological conferences as well, to sort of keep up on the latest Bronze Age research?
If I can I do. I really haven't attended that many. The latest AIA/APA was in San Francisco, and I really planned to go, but I had a deadline so I just couldn't make it. I did go to the one in San Diego in 2001. I took a lot of issues of my comics and just stood in the hall and handed them out to people. Just trying to make people aware of what I was doing, aware of Age of Bronze. Some people sort of just scurried away as fast as they could, once they saw I was handing out comics. Some people took them, and some people took them and they came right back and said, "Oh, this is wonderful." I also met face to face a lot of people that I had only corresponded with or sent email to before.

It's remarkable that you have a full time job doing a comic series on the Bronze Age. You're up to issue 18 now?
I'm working on 19. It's the end of the episode about the sacrifice of Iphigenia.

How many episodes do you estimate are actually going to take place in the series?
Well, I don't know exactly how many of the serialized comic book issues there are gonna be, I estimate between 60 and 70. But there are going to be seven of the collected volumes. I know exactly which portions of the story are going to go into each volume, so that's set.

Sacrifice comes out in May?
Yes, volume two. Age of Bronze: Sacrifice.

©Eric Shanower

Where do you see the story line of Age of Bronze ending? Is it going end with the end of the Iliad, continue through the sack of Troy, or is it going to pick up with the Odyssey?
It's going to end shortly after the fall of Troy. I'm not going to be doing the Odyssey, or the Aeneid, or the Oresteia. Part of my fascination with the story is the many different variants of the story, and trying to reconcile them all and make it to all make sense. There are different variations of the Odyssey, but there's just not as many, and it just doesn't--I don't have as much of an interest in doing the Odyssey. And I've gotta stop somewhere. This is a huge project. It's gonna possibly take me 15 to 20 years to complete, and I'm...I think I'll be pretty sick of Greek mythology and Aegean archaeology by then.

Did you have an interest in ancient cultures when you were growing up?
I had an interest in ancient Egypt. Which began with the exhibit of Tutankhamun, the funerary goods from his tomb, that was touring the U.S. in 1976 and 1977. I went to see that when I was about, I guess I was about 13 or 14. And it was so fascinating to me. I actually was planning to do a comic book story set in ancient Egypt, just prior to Age of Bronze. But I was doing research for it, but it was so overwhelming, we have so much information on ancient Egypt, that I was just drowning in research. When I got the idea to do Age of Bronze and tell the story of the Trojan War, I was so relieved to see that there's relatively little that survived in comparison to Egypt. And there's still a lot. I mean, I've done a lot of research, but I see the same artifacts in book after book after book. So it's a little bit of a relief in that sense.

Did you have much knowledge of archaeology at all before you started Age of Bronze?
Oh, not really. I had quite an education. Now people, now people they call up and ask me about, like ancient Egypt, and usually they're asking things about that don't take place during the period I know about, and I have to tell them I just don't have any idea. I do have sort of an overview of Greek history, but I don't know specific things that people that call up and ask about classical Greece, or about Alexander the Great, and I just have to tell them I really don't know. Whatever I can say I try to relate to Age of Bronze.

Age of Bronze has such a huge cast--Ajax, Agamemnon, Hector, and Achilles, and Helen--who's your favorite character?
That's really hard to answer. I love them all, no matter how despicable any character may be. And a lot of them do really horrible things. If you had to pin me down I would say Hector is my favorite, because he's pretty much the most upstanding character in the story. He's always trying to do the right thing. Whether he succeeds or not is a different question, but his motivations always seem to be pretty noble, and I like that.

©Eric Shanower [LARGER IMAGE]

What are sort of the particular artistic or narrative challenges you have in translating an epic about the Late Bronze Age into a comic book series?
Well, the first thing that comes to mind is the settings. For instance, I've had to draw the palace at Mycenae. But what exists today is just a ruin. And we don't exactly know what everything looked like. Half the sort of ruin has fallen down the hill, so we don't exactly know what was there. There are plans, site plans in books, and I take those and I do little measurements and then I draw my own plans. Actually, for the palace of Mycenae I built a little model to help me draw it. We don't exactly know what was painted on some of the walls, at Mycenae, so I've had to look at some of the frescos we've recovered from Pylos. That palace has a lot more remaining from ancient times, so a lot of the palaces I've had to draw in Age of Bronze I've taken from Pylos.

What else? Oh, in drawing Troy, the top of the hill was shaved off at some point in post-Bronze Age times, and so we don't have any record of what was actually on the top of the hill. So, the palace that I've constructed is pretty much made up. Although since I've based my Trojans on the Hittites, I have had some basis to go from. Hittite remains. Some other challenges are, in comic books, in superhero comic books it's really easy to tell the characters apart because usually they have big letters or symbols on their chests. In Age of Bronze the characters change their costumes, change their hairstyles, they age. And often they're in different environments. So I've had to try to make each of their faces very distinctive. Sometimes people tell me they can't tell the characters apart. Other times people tell me that I've done a wonderful job at distinguishing the characters, and they can always tell who's who. So I don't really know exactly whether I'm succeeding or not. Although I'm doing the best I can. Let me think of some other challenges. Oh, in one issue I had to draw...I wanted to draw musical instruments. The only musical instrument that I'm aware of from the Mycenaean era is the lyre. We have pictures of it on some frescoes. But I wanted more instruments than that, so I actually went to some Egyptian research and used some instruments from ancient Egypt. I hope that was, I hope that was sort of correct.

Did you have any archaeologists complaining?
Not about the musical instruments. No one has commented on them. Yeah, I've had comments. One archaeologist said that some of the pottery I had drawn was from Late Helladic IIIC, instead of Late Helladic IIIB. I looked at all my sources again and I didn't understand what this person was talking about, because I believe I had drawn something from Late Helladic IIIB, but I could be wrong. All I can say is, I do the best I can with the knowledge and the research I've been able to gather. If someone wants to point out little things I've done wrong, well, I'll try to correct them next time I have to draw a similar scene.

How would you characterize your readership? Is it an average comic book reading audience?
It's quite diverse, as far as I can tell. I knew when I began this project it was not going to be very popular with the traditional comic reader. I knew that I was going to have to branch out and try to find new audiences. The fact that I was doing the Trojan War, which is such a bedrock of Western civilization, I knew the general public was going to be able to respond on some level, it would know what I was talking about. Even if all they knew about the Trojan War was, well, there was this big wooden horse and there was this woman named Helen of Troy. Even if they just knew that I knew that I had some means of capturing their attention, at least for a moment. So I had confidence that I would be able to keep the series going by finding readers who aren't traditional comics readers. Now, at the same time, the response from within a traditional comic readership has been more than I expected, and I've been grateful and thankful for that.

You're very direct about the adult content in Age of Bronze.
Well, I like to say, the Trojan war began with sex and it ended in violence, so if you have any squeamishness about either of those things, this is probably not the series for you.

A wave of sword-and-sandal epics will be hitting movie theaters--Troy, Alexander the Great with Colin Farrell, then another Alexander with Leonardo DiCaprio--and on your website I saw a t-shirt you were selling with Achilles and Patroclus. Will modern audiences allow their ancient heroes to be bisexual or gay? You're already dealing with that issue.
Well, one of the earliest questions I got when I began announcing that I was going to be publishing Age of Bronze was, how am I going to handle Achilles and Patroclus? So I knew that people were going to be watching. When I sit down at my drawing table and decide what's going to happen in a my version of the story--[a story that has] developed over so many centuries--I want to be as inclusive as possible, to tell as many of the episodes, to use as many of the characters, and to tell every aspect. It wasn't really a question of whether I was going to show the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus, it was just how I was going to do that, and how much of the erotic aspect I was going to show of that. The response has been, for the most part, positive. I got one letter saying that I was about hitting this person's tolerance level. I published that in the letters column in one issue, and I immediately started getting letters from other people saying how, who was this person to tell me how to create my comics. So, it's generally been positive. I don't know, obviously, what's in the minds of the moviemakers. Yeah, there's people who are going to be upset by it, but I think they're not in the majority. I think most people just sort of take it in stride these days. People who don't know the real stories may be surprised or shocked.

Would the narrative of the Trojan War suffer if you didn't show the complex relationship between Achilles and Patroclus?
My version certainly would. You know, there's lots of kid versions that don't address sexual matters directly at all. But, my version is about the characters, it's about the humans who are undergoing these experiences. I'm trying to show human nature, why people did all these horrible tings, what they were motivated to do, and, in the horrible situations they're put in, how they deal with the decisions they've made. And how just fate carries them along, and how they react to that. There's decisions I have to make at times, including aspects of the story or not. For instance, in the Iliad, Iphigenia is never mentioned. Agamemnon gives a list of his daughters and Iphigenia is not among them. Yet the story of Iphigenia is one of the more famous episodes, so I had to include it. Yet, what daughters do I include, among Agamemnon's daughters? Do I include every single daughter that's ever been attributed to him? Well, I would come up with half a dozen. My general tendency has been to be inclusive rather than exclusive. If one source has a list of characters that were, in a certain place at a certain point in the story, another version has a different list of characters at that point. I would rather include all of them than pick and choose. For Agamemnon's daughters, though, I did pick and choose. I chose the ones that seemed to have been the most well known over the centuries, which are Iphigenia, Electra, and Chrysothemis. Also Orestes, but he's not a daughter. He's the son. Even now...I think to myself, did I make the right decision? Did I do the right thing? Like I said, I'd rather be inclusive than exclusive, but sometimes I have to make decisions to be exclusive. For an aspect like Achilles and Patroclus' relationship, the fact that they were lovers is such a tradition in this story that there's no way I could not include that.

What other comics have you worked on in your career?
I did a series of Oz graphic novels, which were based on the Oz books by L. Frank Baum. I've worked on some superhero comics, like the Justice League of America, Wonder Woman, Aquaman. I worked on a series adapting Harlan Ellison's short stories, it was called Dream Corridor. I've done tons of things. I'm just trying to think of the things that might be more recognizable. The Oz graphic novels and Age of Bronze have been the two major projects in my career. The Age of Bronze is absolutely my favorite right now. At some point when I'm finished with Age of Bronze I'll go on to other things and they will, whatever I'm working on I'm sure will be my favorite thing at the moment.

If and when you do get to Troy, what's the first thing you'll do when?
Oh. Well. One thing that I absolutely need to do is go there and walk all around the Troad, and figure out distances and how far things are from each other, so that it can give me a better sense of just what the land is like around there, so I can draw the battles and the camps. So, I don't know if that's the first thing I'll do, but that's one thing I want to do, is just walk around. And figure out, for instance, when, what it looks like when Achilles is chasing Hector around the city, and things like that.

* For more about Eric Shanower's Age of Bronze series, see his website

© 2004 by the Archaeological Institute of America