An interview with Eric Shanower
This is the original text of the email interview I had with the Eisner Award Winner Eric Shanower.
I really want to thank Maura Pugliese, from our association, who urged me to contact Eric.
If you want to read my translation into Italian, can click here.
Did you ever visit the places where the story has its location? Or you just imagined the Aegean Sea, its Islands and the landscapes, Hellespont, on the bases of maps and photographs? Which are your interactions with University of Cincinnati and its Department of Classics and Institute for Mediterranean studies? Did they help you directly?
When I started Age of Bronze I worked from photos, maps, video, and written descriptions. I finally visited the site of Troy (Hissarlik) and the surrounding area, including the island of Tenedos (Bozcaada) and Mount Ida (Kaz Dag) in 2006. I visited the sites of Delphi, Mycenae, Pylos, Tiryns, and Nauplia in 2010.
I phoned the University of Cincinnati in the mid-1990s when I found out that excavations at the site of Troy (Hissarlik) had re-opened in 1988. I exchanged information with Getzel Cohen there. Later in 2005 I was invited by Jack Davis to give a presentation to the Classics Department and I met everyone there at the time. Jack later became Director at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens. He and his wife Shari Stocker, also an archaeologist, invited me to stay with them in Athens in 2010 and they showed me the Mycenaean sites in Greece. I gave a presentation at the ASCSA, too. All these people and places have given me immense help and support with Age of Bronze.
I counted something like 267 sources just in the first volume, and almost 400 in the following three. You used some scientific sources, like Studia Troica, but also things like ABBA songs. How did you matched all these heterogeneous sources? Which is the strangest? How long does it take to write the script of a single issue and how much the study of sources affect this time? Do you contemplate some kind of critical edition, where sources are linked to the pages and to the single illustration? In the afterword of the first volume you underlined that myths are quite confused and confusing, and you had to mix them and made some choice. As the number of sources grows in time, the first issue of your work is 16 years old, and your research is even older, did you get some important discrepancy or incoherence between what you already wrote and illustrated and some information you get from sources you discovered later? Would you have done something differently, or would you change something, because of some important discover occurred after the publication of issues? You also cite some iconographic sources (ancient pots). Did your graphic style has ever been influences by them? Did you try to be somehow coherent with Greek and Assyrian own representation?
All my story sources just go into the pot, I mix them around, and pull them out in what seems the most sensible manner. Some sources provide a lot of information for the story, some not very much. But I try to take at least some sort of inspiration from each one, no matter how tangential or odd.
Some of the oddest Troy material I’ve run across includes a book claiming that Britain was actually Troy, based on the writings of Dictys and Dares, which the author of this book for some strange reason took to be older and more authentic than Homer’s Iliad—and a book that claimed that many of the characters of the Trojan War were reincarnated as then-current world figures, including Diomedes reincarnated as Saddam Hussein. I’m not making Saddam Hussein part of Age of Bronze. I usually write a 20-page script for an issue of Age of Bronze in one to two weeks, but I continually make small revisions to the script while I draw that issue.
Age of Bronze was published for a time as a digital download for iPad. Tom Beasley of Bucknell University wrote excellent annotations for each page and included references to both literary and archaeological sources. Unfortunately the digital publisher went out of business, so those annotations stopped. It would be nice to have a fully annotated edition of Age of Bronze, but I don’t have any plans for that at present.
Fortunately I haven’t come across any new discoveries that completely invalidate my earlier work on Age of Bronze. I’ve made minor adjustments here and there to the way I draw a few things, but so far there are no major discrepancies with new information that’s turned up.
I don’t think my artwork is influenced by ancient styles of artwork. There are a few instances where I’ve deliberately used ancient art to inform Age of Bronze, but not as a whole. Of course, some ancient art takes a bit of interpretation to decipher the original artist’s intent. I’ve had to make some choices about costuming, armor, hairstyles, and things like that, which another person might have interpreted differently.
On which point of Iliad are you working now? And which is the best part of this poem for you? Did you try to be mostly coherent with Iliad even when you tell “parallel” stories, like Troilus and Cryseide?
Homer’s Iliad only covers a short period near the end of the Trojan War, though it refers to both earlier and later events in the war. I haven’t reached the Iliad material yet in Age of Bronze. I’m currently working on the episode of Helen and Achilles meeting on the summit of Mount Ida, an episode near the end of the Kypria, the poem that preceded the Iliad in the Epic Cycle. Next I’ll be writing and drawing the episode of Troilus’s death, which is the final episode in the Kypria. I’ll still have some other material to cover before I get to the Iliad, though, such as the trial of Palamedes and Achilles sacking a whole bunch of cities around Troy.
My favorite part of Homer’s Iliad is Achilles fighting Hektor.
One of the challenges of the Troilus and Cressida material was to make what’s essentially a story of medieval courtly love fit into the Aegean Late Bronze Age. My technique was to focus on the story threads that were universal to human experience and try to eliminate all Christian and medieval influence.
The Greek poet Kostantin Kavafis, in his poem Trojans wrote:
Our efforts are those of men prone to disaster;
our efforts are like those of the Trojans.
We just begin to get somewhere,
gain a little confidence,
grow almost bold and hopeful,
when something always comes up to stop us:
Achilles leaps out of the trench in front of us
and terrifies us with his violent shouting.
Our efforts are like those of the Trojans.
We think we’ll change our luck
by being resolute and daring,
so we move outside ready to fight.
But when the great crisis comes,
our boldness and resolution vanish;
our spirit falters, paralyzed,
and we scurry around the walls
trying to save ourselves by running away.
Yet we’re sure to fail. Up there,
high on the walls, the dirge has already begun.
They’re mourning the memory, the aura of our days.
Priam and Hecuba mourn for us bitterly.
Do you agree? Is your vision of Trojan War different? And what do you think about humanity in this story? Which values described in Iliad (courage, honor, faithfulness, hospitality, respect for “external” entities like gods) are still good for our times? Which aspect of the poem (and of your work) make it actual nowadays?
Certainly the Trojans lose the war. But I don’t think that before the end of the war that they are clearly destined to fail. They have as much a chance of winning as anyone in any war. But on the other hand, because of who the Trojan are, because of whom Priam is, because of whom Hektor is, the Trojans will lose the war.
I hope to show the entire tapestry of human capacity for both good and evil in Age of Bronze. I think that all of human capacity is already there in the story of the Trojan War and is one of the reasons that the story has lasted for thousands of years and means so much to every generation. I designed Age of Bronze to show the story on a human level, to eliminate the gods as actors and agencies.
I think all positive values, including a few you mention, are relevant for all times. They’re universal for humanity. It’s the humanity of the characters in any version of the Trojan War story that captures an audience’s attention and continues to make the story interesting and vital.
About characters: In Achilles we find the brave and young hero, and you also describe his relationship with his mother Thetis, and his love with Patroclus. Do you think he is coherent with the character of Greek legends or have you built your own Achilles? Did you do the same with other main characters (Paris, Helen, etc)?
Where did you get their physical features (hair color, height, etc)? Which are your main sources for this graphical feature (in addition to what you wrote in the afterword of first volume)? Are you trying to be faithful to sources (which ones?) or are you also giving a personal view of them? In this second case, why and how?
My version of Achilles is a sum of all the versions of Achilles I’ve read about. I do think he is recognizable as the Achilles of Homer’s Iliad, but he is also more than that, since I’ve drawn on more sources than the Iliad. I think I’ve treated all the characters in a similar way. I don’t want to make them different than we find in Homer, but I certainly want to make them relevant in their thoughts and actions to a modern reader.
For physical appearances in general I looked at art from the Aegean Bronze Age, mostly frescoes and paintings on objects. For specific characteristics I used what I could from the literary tradition. Although Helen and Achilles are sometimes depicted as having blond hair, I gave them dark hair, since I haven’t seen any blondes among Aegean Bronze Age artifacts. A few of the characters were inspired by artifacts, such as Agamemnon, who was based on the famous Mycenaean shaft grave death mask popularly called the Mask of Agamemnon. Klytemnestra was based on a Mycenaean fresco. Cheiron was based on a Pompeiian fresco. But most of the characters’ appearances I simply create myself. For some characters I only need to draw a sketch or two to come up with a look that seems right to me. Other characters take many attempts.
Gods seem not to be a real presence in the story so far. Their names have been used perhaps three or four times, and never in the first volume. Humans seems to be much more afraid about gods’ vengeance than it seems to be due or necessary. Why gods are in such a deep background while in Homer they are really immanent? Will it be the same to the very end?
I’m not interested in having the gods take part in the story. I’m interested in the human characters and how they interrelate. One of the main purposes of Age of Bronze is to show how humans can justify doing terrible things to each other. I want to make that comprehensible to the reader, though not necessarily sympathetic. The supernatural element of the Trojan War story will be suppressed throughout Age of Bronze.
Of course the characters believe in the gods—some believe more strongly than others. The Achaeans worship the Greek pantheon and the Trojans worship the Hittite pantheon. I only use the names of Greek gods that we know existed in the Late Bronze Age. I don’t mention the Hittite gods’ names at all, since in the literary tradition the Trojans worshipped the Greek pantheon and I don’t want to contradict that.
You gave a lot of space to smaller stories: Phyloktetes, Troilus, Cryseide. How have you chosen them? You wrote in the afterword of volume I, that you wanted to give space to all stories which are part of Trojan history tradition (I only read Italian translation, sorry I am not using your own words). Is it difficult to give the proper equilibrium between Greek and ancient sources and the tradition coming out from more recent writers (Shakespeare, Chaucers)? Did you try to include stories and characters which are nearer to Anglo-American tradition? Why?
Every episode of the Trojan War that I can find goes into Age of Bronze. I don’t choose some episodes and not other. I use them all. Sometimes I have to reduce them to mere mentions, such as the idea that Helen was left in Egypt before Paris returned to Troy. I can’t always fully integrate episodes that are diametrically opposed to the traditional story. But I always try to find some way to use them, even if I have to transform them radically.
My purpose isn’t to concentrate on episodes and characters that are nearer to the Anglo-American tradition. I’m trying to fit every episode and character of the Trojan War into Age of Bronze. My intent is to tell the whole story of the Trojan War as it’s developed over the centuries.
Graphically, why did you choose black and white instead of colors? Was it difficult to keep the same graphical register for such a long period (16 years!)? What did you change in these years? There are some parts you would draw in a completely different way?
I chose black and white for Age of Bronze because it would take too long for me to color the project and because black and white is cheaper to print than color.
However, the digital edition of Age of Bronze was colored by John Dallaire under my supervision. Even though the digital edition was discontinued when the publisher folded, John and I have continued coloring Age of Bronze, and an edition in color will be published one day.
I haven’t purposely changed anything about my drawing style for Age of Bronze since the beginning. I just try to draw as well as I can. I hope my work is getting better with time.
There are a few details in costume and architecture I might choose to draw differently now than I did years ago, but these are minor. One change I made for the color version was to put artwork on the walls of Priam’s throne room. I knew back when I first designed the throne room that the walls should be decorated, but it seemed too burdensome to have to draw those decorations in panel after panel whenever I drew Priam’s throne room, so I left the walls blank. It’s easy to put the wall designs into the digital edition of Age of Bronze—and I only had to draw the designs once.
Heroes and superheroes: In your opinion, superheroes are somehow the heroes of a modern epic? Which are the differences you find? It is still possible to build an epic in our days?
I don’t see much parallel between modern superheroes and the heroes of Greek epic. I guess other people do see parallels, but I don’t. I don’t think the themes are there in the same way for superheroes, and if there are themes at the beginning of those superheroes’ stories, those themes are often lost among the shuffle of different writers and illustrators. Modern superheroes are franchises that eventually become debased by the agglomeration of more and more material that must be produced to keep the franchise bright and shiny to the eyes of a fickle public.
I’m not sure what it takes to build an epic, so I can’t say for sure whether it’s possible to build an epic today. I guess the closest I can think of is George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series. That seems to have the makings of an epic. I guess we’ll see at the end what the final lesson is that he’s been building up to.
Are you trying to be didactic, bringing more people near to classical stories and history? Or you just want to tell a nice story, maintaining a formal link with sources?
I’m not trying to be didactic in Age of Bronze. I’m trying to tell an exciting, emotional drama. I want the reader to think and feel with the characters inside the story, not think about what it takes to make Age of Bronze or about where it came from.
The last question: when are we going to read the end of the “Age of Bronze”?
When I reach the end.