Editor's Note: Marvel Illustrated: The Odyssey #1 arrives in stores tomorrow, September 10.
When I decided to read and review Roy Thomas’s adaptation of The Odyssey for Marvel Illustrated, my first thought was to wonder which text Thomas was going to use as the basis for his adaptation. I then wondered (and hoped) if he might simply write “Roy Thomas’s The Odyssey” rather than merely adapt to comics one of the public domain translations of Homer’s epic poem.
After all, Shakespeare may not have been the first to write the story of Hamlet (though he probably was). And we do know for certain that Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida is not merely an adaptation (nor a translation from Middle English to Elizabethan English) of Chaucer’s version of Boccaccio’s Il Filostrato.
Similarly, Marlowe was not the first to write a story about Faust, and Goethe’s Faust is not an English-to-German translation (and poetry to prose adaptation) of Marlowe’s work. Both Marlowe and Goethe were merely inspired by the Faust legends to write their own versions of the story.
Thus, I wondered if Roy Thomas might follow in the tradition of Shakespeare, Chaucer, Marlowe, and Goethe. An original comic book story about Odysseus is something I would welcome--though, admittedly, the Marvel Illustrated series is positioned as the company’s version of Classics Illustrated, which means the goal is to merely adapt previously written works by selectively excising scenes and compressing the remainder into a set number of pages.
Thus, Thomas’s first issue of The Odyssey is simply a condensed version of the first four books of Homer’s epic, and he appears to be adapting the story from two or more translations. The issue opens with lines that are clearly an amalgamation of the Samuel Butcher and Andrew Lang translation of 1879 and the Samuel Butler translation of 1900--both of which are in the public domain in terms of copyright.
It appears Thomas might also have looked at Butler’s translation of Homer’s The Illiad for some phrasing choices as he has altered the typical beginning of “Tell, O Muse” to “Sing, O Muse”--reflecting, perhaps, Butler’s opening for The Illiad as “Sing, O goddess.” However, what the 1879 and 1900 translations failed to reflect in the opening lines is that the speaker is not asking the Muse to “tell him” the story (nor asking her to sing the story). He is invoking the Muse to sing the story through him.
The dominant view of the creative act in Hellenic culture was that artists either channeled or were possessed by the muses while composing or performing--at the direction of either Apollo or Dionysus. Thus, the speaker should be asking the muse to use him as an instrument through which she will sing the tale of Odysseus--more recent translations (such as Robert Fitzgerald’s 1961 verse translation) make this distinction.
Nevertheless, if you read Thomas’s Marvel Illustrated version of The Odyssey, you would probably be able to pass a quiz of generalized questions posed by a middle school English teacher. In fact, the glossary of terms on the last page of this first issue would seem to indicate that the target audience is not even middle school students but elementary school students--though I don’t believe Homer’s works are required reading in any public elementary schools in the United States (and probably not in any private schools either).
The glossary contains such words as abode, ambush, amorous, bard, chariot, citadel, comrade, ingenious, lyre, mimic, muse, nymph, redoubtable, shroud, sire, suitor, and summit. I used those words in a paragraph of four sentences and then performed a Flesch-Kincaid readability analysis of my paragraph, which showed that my paragraph should be understood by people with a seventh-grade reading ability. Thus, I guess Marvel is intending this adaptation for elementary school children since it was deemed necessary to provide the glossary.
In fact, as I was reading the issue I was thinking that my six-year-old daughter might enjoy it more than I was enjoying it. She would indeed need to have most of the words in the glossary explained to her, but she wouldn’t have waited until the end of the issue to learn their meanings. She would have been asking me for a definition each time she came to a word she didn’t know--which might mean that the story should have used footnotes to gloss these words instead of collecting them in a glossary on the last page.
Aside from the condensed version of the story--which, I admit, is partially addressed by the illustrations that make Homer’s descriptive passages unnecessary--my main problem with this issue is the art provided by penciler Greg Tocchini and colorist Arthur Fujita. As far as I’ve been able to determine, Tocchini and Fujita are both from Brazil and have worked together at the same art studio in that country (inker Roland Paris appears to be an American).
I have no way of knowing if Tocchini and Fujita were merely following Thomas’s directions in the script (or those of editor Ralph Macchio), but I take exception with several of the choices that were made in the illustrations and coloring. I’ll begin with the coloring.
Several of the characters--particularly the goddess Athena and Helen of Troy--are depicted with blond hair. Of course, this has been a Hollywood tradition for Helen of Troy going back decades even though there were no native Grecians with blond hair 3,000 years ago (and there is no way the Greeks would have depicted any of their gods or goddesses with blond hair).
Hellenic art consistently shows gods, goddesses, and humans with black hair that is thick, coarse, and either wavy or curly. For instance, even though they weren’t colored, an examination of the detail of such Greek statues as the Aphrodite of Milos (or the Venus de Milo) shows that the hair is thick and wavy. Thus, it would be black if colored, yet in this story we have numerous characters with blond, brown, and red hair--with the most obvious instances being Athena and Helen.
The Hollywood (and general American) trend is to think of women who are meant to possess a “dazzling beauty” as blondes, which is why the black-haired Lybian actress Rossana Podestà was given a blonde wig for the starring role in the 1956 film Helen of Troy, and why the blonde German actress Diane Kruger was cast as Helen in 2004’s Troy (of course, in Hollywood, redheads symbolize fiery beauty and brunettes symbolize mysterious beauty, so a black-haired Athena or Helen would come off as too dark and foreboding).
However, despite the Hollywood and American bias in casting these roles of “dazzling beauties,” I wondered if there was anything in Homer’s work that might indicate that Athena and Helen should be blond. Of course, Homer would not have conceived of these characters as blondes--nor would have any of the bards who inherited his epic songs from him.*
In Book IV, which is the last book that Thomas adapts in this first issue, the Butcher and Lang translation states the following about Helen: “. . . the gods no more showed promise of seed to Helen, from the day that she bare a lovely child, Hermione, as fair as golden Aphrodite.” In this case, it is Helen’s daughter, Hermione, who is described as being “as fair as golden Aphrodite.” However, neither Hermione nor Aphrodite should be considered blonde due to the description of “golden.”
If it’s indicative of coloring at all, it’s probably meant to describe an olive-yellow skin tone that could be found in northern Mediterranean regions. Unfortunately, this adaptation also gets the skin color wrong as all of the characters are depicted with Teutonic skin tones that more appropriately match their Teutonic hair tones.
Additionally, the Fitzgerald translation from 1961 describes Helen in Book IV as she enters a scene involving her husband, Menelaus, and Odysseus’s son, Telemachus, that makes her sound as if she should be depicted as blonde:
. . . Helen cameHowever, Fitzgerald is taking artistic license here in the translation as the more correct description is that Helen is as lovely as Artemis, the goddess of the hunt who possesses golden arrows. If any coloring implication is intended, it is again a likely reference to an olive-yellow skin tone.
out of her scented chamber, a moving grace
like Artemis, straight as a shaft of gold.
However, goddesses and beautiful women aren’t the only creatures that Fujita chose to depict as blond. In the scene in which Zeus sends down two eagles locked in struggle to appear as an omen in support of Telemachus’s warnings to his mother’s deadbeat suitors, we are shown in three of the four panels two American Bald Eagles with their distinctive white heads--the fourth panel inexplicably has their heads colored the more appropriate brown. Of course, bald eagles are found only in North America, and the more appropriate choice here would be golden eagles--which are found throughout the world, and which live in Greece year round. Indeed, the fourth panel makes them appear to be golden eagles--yet they are clearly American Bald Eagles in the first three panels.
Finally, Tocchini draws Helen as if she’s in her late teens. However, at this point in her life (twenty years after she was abducted by Paris and taken to Troy), she would be at least in her mid-30s if not her early 40s (which would be near the end of her days given the life expectancy of humans in the Mediterranean area 3,000 years ago).
I suppose the gods kept her looking young and desirable for their own purposes.
This comic book adaptation of The Odyssey is hardly “classic.” In fact, it’s almost laughable in its misrepresentation of Hellenic physical attributes--though it is appropriate for Menelaus to be shown with red hair since that’s the epithet that Homer uses to describe the character (“red-haired Menelaus” or “Menelaus of the fair hair,” depending on the translation). It undoubtedly indicates that Menelaus stood out by having either a reddish tint to his black hair or had brown hair in contrast to the black hair of his Grecian peers.
Thomas’s script is passable as an outline of the story, but it lacks the significant details that make the story rich in connotative meaning beyond the basic plot of Odysseus’s tale. Still, it is The Odyssey regardless of how poorly it's handled!
* Homer, of course didn’t “write” his epics. He composed them as songs--first as outlines and epithets that would be easy to remember. The melody and the epithets would allow the bard to remember the outline through the mnemonic aspect of marrying the lines to a melody, and the outline would then be filled in with improvised details that might differ from performance to performance--tweaked, perhaps, to accommodate a dilemma or socio-political view that was current at the time of the performance.
At some point after Homer’s death, one of the subsequent bards who inherited the epic several generations later wrote down the lines--thus removing the possibility of further improvisation of the details.
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