Volume 28, Number 2-3, Winter-Spring, 2009

Odysseus the Rebel

Story by Steven Grant, Art by Scott Bieser

Big Head Press, 2009, $12.95
Reviewed by Anders Monsen

Big Head Press runs several concurrent comics online at Bigheadpress.com. Pages are serialized over many months, building massive narratives in black & white or color. Once completed, many of these narratives find their way between paper covers. Previous such works that have been reviewed in Prometheus include the graphic novel version of The Probability Broach (with L. Neil Smith), and original graphic novel Roswell, Texas. The latest such publication is Odysseus the Rebel, which deals primarily with the tail end of Odysseus’s long journey back to Ithaca after the Trojan war.

I first read the Odyssey and the Iliad as a teenager. In the midst of a mythology phase I read everything I could find primarily about Norse and Greek gods and legends. I have since read both of the works attributed to Homer many times, and recently read Dan Simmons reweaving of the tale thousands of years in the future in his novels Ilium and Olympos. The story of the ten year war between the Greeks and Trojans, and one lone man’s ten year journey back to home and family remains an enduring legend. Steven Grant and Scott Bieser’s Odysseus the Rebel is but the latest interpretation of the tale, but by adding a mere two words after the protagonist’s name they have already set the tone. Not Odysseus the Cunning, nor cruel or deceitful Odysseus as he is known in most account, but a rebel. A rebel against what, the reader may ask. The answer appears swiftly. After a couple of pages to set the time and location—“ten years since Troy fell…and ten years of fighting before that”—we find Odysseus adrift at sea, in a confrontation with his worst enemy among the gods, Poseidon. Though seemingly helpless and near death, the Ithacan king remains defiant, refusing to acquiesce anything to this god, one of the most powerful among the Olympians, save only Zeus and Hades, and ruler of the ocean upon which Odysseus is but a speck.

Herein lies the essence of the title, the theme of the book—Odysseus’ anger and rebellion against the gods. He firmly believes that he alone is responsible for his own fate, that despite the gods’ insistence on his obedience in return for an easy journey back to his wife Penelope and his son Telemachus, he will make it home on his own terms. His will and defiance are far stronger traits in Grant & Bieser’s work than any other variation. And certainly, such traits would endear him as a libertarian hero.

A few of the other Greek heros appear, all in fairly minor roles. Agamemnon comes off the worst, a brutal killer (and not merely content with the enemy). Menaleus appears as a simpleton, and Achilles a whimpering poser concerned in the afterlife only about whether his name is remembered. The times were rough, 3000 years ago, and swords appeared swiftly as methods to resolve disputes. Blood flows freely in many of the scenes. Nudity is almost casual, from young to old.

Grant’s story deviates in several episodes from the more well-known sources, in particular with the death of Ajax. One strange anachronism is Odysseus’s journey to the underworld. I could find no mention in this book as to why he had to make the journey there, save something briefly said while on the way. But once there, the underworld is a strange and ghostly modern American city, maybe even New York City. The dead look like homeless people, and shades of modern people can be seen walking the streets, as in a hazy mirror of the future.

And the gods? Well, the gods are as cruel and vain as always, concerned only with being worshiped. Herein lies the modern mystique of the state—once people stop believing, you have lost them forever. Religion and the state works pretty much the same way; the gods and system must be obeyed, logic be damned. As Odysseus gives the gods no favor, he is the ultimate rebel. They do not want him dead, they want him broken, crawling back to them for forgiveness and favors. But he will not yield.

The story ends, not so much in the same manner as the original, but rather along one of many alternate interpretations, with Odysseus embarking again on unknown voyages, “to sail beyond the sunset,” as in Tennyson’s poem. I felt sorry for poor Penelope, but Odysseus made some sense in his explanation, although the transition is almost too swift, too abrupt. Man and god seem almost reconciled. Both claim victory, yet despite past animosity seem like old friends.

I have read this book several times from beginning to end, and occasionally just opening a section at random to look at the art and how it interacts with the plot. This is not a retelling of the entire Odyssey in graphic novel format. Such an undertaking would span several volumes.

Bieser’s art sketches a variety of scenes with equal acumen, from raw and bloody brutality (much as it was in the original), tenderness (such as Odysseus’s faithful dog waiting until his master’s return), and a range of other emotions experienced by gods and humans alike. While the story takes occasional liberties with the original source, Grant tells a great yarn. If the Iliad was all about Achilles’s rage, the Green and Bieser’s interpretation of the Odyssey is all about Odysseus’s rage. His rage at being dragged into a war that lasted a decade, and then fighting Poseidon and other gods ten more years to get home makes his tale legendary. Odysseus is far more known today than any other Greek or Trojan hero, and a worthy tale for this and many more re-imaginings of his story. His rebellion add a certain anti-authoritarian twist and perhaps an added cachet among libertarian readers.

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