Kovacs, George, and C. W. Marshall, Eds.: Classics and Comics

By Burrows, Claire | Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

Kovacs, George, and C. W. Marshall, Eds.: Classics and Comics


Burrows, Claire, Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts


Kovacs, George, and C. W. Marshall, eds. Classics and Comics. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. 265 pp. Paperback. ISBN 978-0-19-973419-1. $29.95.

From Rene Goscinny and Albert Uderzo's Asterix to Stan Lee, Larry Leiber, and Jack Kirby's adaption of the Thor figure, mythology has provided fertile content for comics. Hercules, for example, seems commissioned for the comics panel. The hyperbole, the heroes, and the graphic descriptions make mythology easily translatable into comics. Classics and Comics taps into these two forms of popular culture: comics, the paragon of disposable culture, and classical mythology, the stories underlying so much of our collective unconscious. The editors, George Kovacs and C. W. Marshall, are interested in the ways in which comics and classical mythology or "the Classics" intersect, and they acknowledge that this is a book intended for "the capeless classical scholar" (5). All the contributors except for cartoonist Eric Shanower are classicists, most involved in academia. Unlike other texts that merely use comics as case studies, however, Classics and Comics gives comics their due respect as a unique medium with its own history.

The book's introduction sets a positive tone, offering a succinct history of comics and a concise definition of the medium. Happily missing is the defensive tone by which so many studies of comics are limited. Perhaps this is because the classics are respected and entrenched in the academy so that the editors did not feel pressured to validate the project. These scholars lend legitimacy to comics studies by offering their own prestige. Following the introduction, the book is divided into four sections: "Seeing the Past through Sequential Art," "Gods and Superheroes," "Drawing (on) History," and "The Desires of Troy." There are sixteen distinct essays, each written by a different author. While there are too many to address each here, I will note a few that I think best demonstrate the tone and scope of this collection. While I do not agree with every essay's observations and conclusion, this does not detract from the book's worth because the mark of a good collection is a multivalent approach.

Before attending to the chapters themselves, one should note a particular strength of this collection: images. Ironically, integral but absent from so many studies on comics are good illustrations. Copyright permission and reproduction costs can be prohibitive for the inclusion of panels, but this book has wonderful full-page illustrations, albeit all in black and white. Noteworthy are a 1965 Steve Ditko cover of Spider-Man and a full page of Wonder Woman and the Furies from J. G. Jones's 2002 Wonder Woman: The Hiketeia. The visuals allow the comics novice, as well as the reader familiar with Marvel's Ares miniseries, to appreciate the discussion. Turning now to the inclusions in the volume, Kovacs explains that "It is not only the characters of myth and history who are appropriated to the comics medium, of course. Allusion, metaphor, and imagery allow writers to borrow narrative patterns and motifs from the ancient world, regardless of whether their texts explicitly acknowledge this engagement" (20). In other words, Classics and Comics is not merely thematically literal, but also a theoretical analysis of the form and techniques of comics. The essays approach this task in a variety of ways.

Gideon Nisbet's "An Ancient Greek Graphic Novel: P.Oxy. XXII 2331" can be described as conventionally classicist. Twentieth-century comics are not mentioned, and only technical terms such as "gutter," "mixed-media," "deconstructive interplay between image and text" cue the comics-literate reader to the relationship with the graphic novel. Nisbet establishes the correlation between the literary papyri and comics by analyzing the rare grulloi, "humorous cartoons, drawn in black ink and with fading traces of original coloration in green and two shades of yellow" (28). …

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