Modern-day readers may believe that they’ll need body armor to meet the barrage of challenges awaiting them in “The Iliad.” Exploring Homer’s 3,000-year-old, nearly 16,000-line epic poem, which details events that (probably) unfolded during the Trojan War, feels appropriately like engaging in battle.
It’s on us to keep two names straight even if they differ by a single letter (Chryseis, daughter of Chryses). Or to accept gods as all-powerful actors as well as audience members subject to fate. Or to know that the city-states, which comprise the Greek coalition opposing Troy, get several names — “Achaeans,” “Argives,” “Danaans,” deployed seemingly at random, all mean the same thing. Comprehending everything here is a task, but at the center of “The Iliad” is very clear: the horrors of war.
Homer’s poem churns on the recklessness of murderous, egomaniacal men. They purport to celebrate the women they reduce to property, and they slaughter indiscriminately over the course of what is — even by today’s standards — an extremely bloody work.
“The descriptions of battlefield death are astonishingly visceral and intense,” wrote University of London professor Adam Roberts of “The Iliad” in his introduction to George Chapman’s translation. “Neither do the protagonists seem particularly noble or heroic figures to contemporary sensibilities; they bicker and squabble like children, and kill again and again.”
Unpacking “The Iliad” as a reader is one thing; adapting it for comics is a hurdle of a different magnitude. Enter Gareth Hinds, the Vermont-born artist who has reworked literary classics from Shakespeare, Edgar Allan Poe and more. His magnificently realized graphic telling of “The Iliad” — in its wealth of muted watercolored hues and evocative landscapes — condenses a more than 20-book-length poem into 251 pages of narrative comics. It follows an equally sweeping interpretation of “The Odyssey,” which had a loose, sketchbook-style look as compared with its spiffy successor.
The painted panels of Hinds's “Iliad” — initially scripted and penciled digitally in desktop publishing software, cleaned up and finalized, and then printed and hand-watercolored — are supported with a character guide, a scene-setting prologue and copious back matter inclusive of annotations. Each serves readers well even as the visual medium on its own goes a long way in decoding this dense Bronze Age work.
The Greeks are fighting a deadly plague, courtesy of Apollo, when “The Iliad” begins. The punishment owes to Achaean leader Agamemnon’s having swiped Chryseis, the daughter of Apollo’s priest, after sacking a Troy-allied city. Ending the plague means returning the woman to her father. This enrages Agamemnon.
Seized by victorious armies as “spoils of war,” maidens are prized as slave girls in Homer’s poems. King Agamemnon will send Chryseis home, but he aims to replace her with Briseis, a beautiful slave owned by Achilles, the Greeks’ most powerful warrior. Achilles, erupting with fury, reluctantly surrenders Briseis to Agamemnon, but in retribution (the poem launches with the Greek word “mênis,” or vengeful wrath), the warrior refuses to support the Achaeans in battle. Achilles opts instead to weep and gaze into the ocean, calling on his sea-nymph mother Thetis to urge Zeus, the king of the gods, to side with Troy “and show them all the folly of Agamemnon.”
When Hinds deems “The Iliad’s” era “a tough time for women” in his notes, it’s the understatement of the Bronze Age. But who better than women to amplify the costly errors of Homeric men?
When they aren’t touted as receptacles of sexual desire (“She’s more pleasing to me than my own wife,” argues Agamemnon of Chryseis’ worth) or amassed as prizes of war, Homer’s women are blamed for ruthless physical conflicts, no matter that they’re frequently the voice of comfort or strength. When Achilles seeks consolation after Hector, prince of Troy, kills his friend Patroclus, it’s Thetis who stems his furor and equips him with new armor. When Achilles clashes with Agamemnon, it’s Zeus’ daughter Athena who recommends the most celebrated Greek warrior “cut … with (his) words” in lieu of unsheathing his sword. Alas, these are angry men, cursed with egos so brittle that not even a shield adorned with constellations can safeguard them from what becomes of acting on petulant rage.
Wide-angle landscapes in “The Iliad” comic are washed in light earth tones, while Hinds bathes the comparatively seldom-seen palace interiors in warm fireside-orange. As lengthy monologues sometimes crowd word balloons, background composite images fully visualize what’s being said. Monochromatic gods, depicted in rough linework, are set off from their richly colored, polished mortal counterparts, while Book 18’s chronicle of Achilles’ new armor, reportedly the first example of ekphrastic verse —art described vividly in a poem, in Homer’s case, by a blind person — gets a mesmerizing splash page. Hinds embellishes the “massive shield, five layers thick,” with fussily inked graphic forms, engravings of castles, wildlife and much more.
By way of chaotic page layouts that see irregular polygon panels charging here and there, Hinds’s gory war accounts recall Marvel’s Epic Illustrated magazine as much as they do aging frescoes. Scores of lives are lost in “The Iliad”’s thunderous confrontations — more so for the Greeks, who flounder against Troy without Achilles’ help. When he rejoins, it’s all the more gruesome. Hinds’ figure-drawing strengths are made known when the first spears are hoisted — battle sequences are awash in gouging and decapitations, with bearded, brawny warriors, in detailed scale-armor breastplates, brandishing swords and ornate shields. Teeth bared and faces bloodied, they leap and lunge at one another, encircled by single-stroke motion lines as horse-drawn chariots conjure clouds of dust. Even as Hinds excised some battles for length and clarity, it’s a bloodbath. Anything less would dishonor the sentiment so critical to Homer’s text.
“The Iliad glorifies courage and fighting prowess while simultaneously showing the grisly suffering inflicted on soldiers and civilians in war,” writes Hinds in an afterword. “Whenever a nobleman is wounded or killed, Homer tells us who he was and the exact nature of his wounds, in graphic detail. These details drive home the horror and tragedy of each death.”
Candlewick; 272 pp., $16.99. Gareth Hinds at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books: Hinds appears at 11:30 a.m. April 13, with graphic novelists and illustrators Aisha Franz, Michelle Perez and Maximilian Uriarte.