It's a story thousands of years in the making… or rather, in the telling. Told and retold throughout the ages, the Trojan War is the epic struggle of two mighty armies in a tragic and bloody clash, seemingly preordained by the gods. Or was it? Writer-artist Eric Shanower has his own version to tell, and he's doing it for nearly a decade in the pages of "Age of Bronze," an ongoing series published by Image Comics. CBR spoke to Shanower about the series, and what it means to him.
At the heart of "Age of Bronze" is the tale of the most beautiful woman in the ancient world, Helen of Sparta, and the role she played in inciting a conflict that spanned whole continents. The exact origins of the tale and to what degree any of it may be true are lost to history, but the most famous version came from the ancient poet Homer, in his epics "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey." From those tales sprang some of the most legendary characters in fiction, including the high king Agamemnon, the clever Odysseus, the invulnerable Achilles, and many more. Some might wonder what relevance a story set so long ago would have for today's comics readers, but as Shanower explains, it is precisely the Trojan War's relevance that attracted him to the story.
"The relevance of the Trojan War story is what makes it great, the genuine human experience it depicts," Eric Shanower told CBR News. "It shows how people are and does so against a grand background of a thrilling war story. Let me be clear and say that Homer's 'Iliad' and 'Odyssey' are what I'm referring to, primarily. Of course there are other masterpieces that expand on Homer or that tell other parts of the story: the Greek tragedies, Virgil's 'Aeneid,' Chaucer's 'Troilus and Criseyde,' etc. There are also-how should I put it?-'lesser' works. In 'Age of Bronze,' I try to weave these lesser works into the framework supplied by the greater ones and I hope the lesser ones are elevated by the greater, not that the greater ones are dragged down into mediocrity in my version.
"Certainly, greater scholars than I am have analyzed Homer and others for years, digging into the depths of Achilles's wrath and reconciliation and Odysseus's journey and homecoming. The specific situations and actions of these characters are exotic to us on the surface, but the underlying experiences and attitudes are ones all humanity of all eras can recognize and relate to. This is why the story has lasted for 3,200 years.
"There are also specific relationships that can be drawn between the dynamics of the Achaeans and Trojans at war and the US government and the current wars it's running. Both the bare facts of history and the underlying truth of fiction have a lot of wisdom and guidance that many seem inexplicably blind to. Tragedy is thrilling and cleansing in fiction. It ain't so pleasant to actually live through."
Timeless though his subject may be, Shanower went further than a simple adaptation of earlier authors' work. For the "Age of Bronze" project, he has put years of painstaking research in delivering his own vision of the Trojan War, getting reference on everything from the clothing to the technology as accurate as possible to reflect the era the story is set in. As Shanower explains, "Accuracy is important to me because that's the way I envision this project. I'm an anal retentive perfectionist, and what's the point of doing anything if one doesn't take care to do it well? It would be just as fulfilling to play fast and loose if that were my intent for 'Age of Bronze.' But that's not my intent. Every project is its own thing with it's own shape and demands. I'm doing my best to make 'Age of Bronze' into what it's supposed to be.
"I want to tell the entire story of the Trojan War and make it look as close as possible to what it might have looked like if it were a true story. I don't know of any other version of the story that's tried to do these things all at once. I really want to give a 'you are there' sort of experience, but I certainly don't want 'Age of Bronze' to seem like a documentary. It's a drama with as much of the texture of life and humanity as I'm capable of depicting."
To bring that sense of life to his work, Shanower didn't settle merely for poring through books in a library. The writer-artist made a journey that gave him an up close and personal perspective on the background for his tale. Said Shanower, "In July, 2007, I went to Troy for eleven days. I spent time at the site of the ancient city, hiked all over the area visiting places Homer mentions in 'The Iliad,' and traveled to the island of Tenedos (now Bozcaada) just offshore and to the mountains south of Troy. It was one of the most magnificent things I've ever done. I took lots of photos and video and did some sketching. I was conscious most of the time of being in the present. I didn't feel like an Achaean warrior, although I did a lot of walking in order to know what it was like to travel those distances around the Trojan plain. There were some surprises-how fragrant fig trees are, reaching the ford of the Skamander (now Kara Menderes) long before I'd expected to, how large the Troy VI citadel seems in real life-but a lot of it turned out to be much as I'd anticipated from years of reading descriptions and studying photos in books."
With the real world aspects thoroughly covered by the research, one might ask; what about the mythological aspects? Therein lies the key difference in Shanower's version. "Age of Bronze" tells a story that could have happened in the real world, and, as such, all elements of the supernatural have been removed from this retelling. Shanower believes that the approach was guided by the evolution of his own personal philosophy. "I don't believe in anything supernatural," the author said. "I used to be a Christian of the Protestant variety. During my process of chucking all the bunk associated with that religion out of the window, I had the idea for 'Age of Bronze.' The absence of any hard-and-fast supernatural elements from 'Age of Bronze' is integral to my decision to retell the Trojan War story. I wouldn't be much interested in telling the story any other way."
With the gods largely removed, the "Age of Bronze" centers on the human characters, but Shanower is quick to emphasize though that our knowledge of the culture of that era is almost entirely secondhand. "The period I'm interested in-the period in which 'Age of Bronze' is set-is the Late Bronze Age, the 13th century BCE. When laymen refer to ancient Greece, they usually mean the 4th and 5th centuries BCE, the period of Classical Athens. 'Age of Bronze' doesn't really have much to do with that period beyond some of the sources I use for the story, primarily the Greek dramas of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides.
"Bronze Age Greece is a period from which we've recovered a lot of physical evidence-pots, walls, things of that sort. But our knowledge of value systems from that age are rudimentary and generalized. The intellectual life of those people just hasn't survived with any real detail."
Even so, Shanower's view is that while the details may change, humanity itself remains largely the same. Some of the practices in "Age of Bronze," such as human sacrifice, may seem shocking to the modern reader, but Shanower believes the values and motivations behind them aren't that different from those of today. "Humans are humans and have been for thousands of years," Shanower explained. "The basic texture of civilization hasn't changed. Changes in science and philosophy aren't progress on a greater scale; they're simply new ways for us to talk and look at the same questions we've been asking ourselves over and over again since prehistoric times. I don't think that morality progresses. It just swirls around and when it's swirling around you, you think that it's progressing.
"On an individual basis, yes, there can be moral progress and there is. People can learn, change, and grow. I just don't believe there's any collective moral progress. Maybe it's impossible, since infants are born without morality and have to learn everything as they grow. When that person dies, most of what he or she has learned is then lost. It's not difficult to see why things stay at status quo."
The other body of work Shanower is famous for are his series of "Oz" graphic novels, recently re-released by IDW Publishing in the "Adventures of Oz" trade paperback. Shanower has a lifelong love of the "Oz" stories, and fans might ponder the contrast between that world --filled to the brim with fantasy and as far removed from the real world as one can get-- and "Age of Bronze," which deliberately eschews the supernatural for an as true-to-life a setting as possible. Indeed, Shanower enjoys Greek mythology as well, but he doesn't see the Oz setting as carrying the same religious implications that informed his direction for "Age of Bronze."
"I have grave concerns with the idea of religion and dedication to belief in the supernatural," Shanower said. "I don't have problems with fairytale magic because people don't build their lives around believing in it. Well, actually, that's not completely true. I do know of an adult who at least professes to believe in Oz as true and it effects this person's actions and relationships with others. And I have more antipathy for this point of view than I do for the beliefs of those who claim to believe in a deity or deities. I find the statement, 'I don't share your beliefs but I respect them' to be incredibly wishy-washy. I couldn't say that with any honesty. I respect people, but I often have absolutely no respect for their beliefs."
The detail that goes into each issue of "Age of Bronze" requires Shanower to live in the ancient world for the long haul. Begun in 1998, it was recently estimated by Shanower that it would be another 15 years before the entire "Age of Bronze" saga is completed. After so much work, will he be in for something as research-intensive with whatever comes next? "I don't know what's after 'Age of Bronze,'" Shanower confessed. "I probably will want to do something completely different, but whether it'll be something with intensive research attached, I couldn't say.
"I don't think I'm interested in researching periods/cultures per se," the author continued. "I'm interested in stories. And if I need to do research to increase the value of a story for myself, then I'll do that. I love doing research when it serves a creative purpose. I absolutely love doing the research for 'Age of Bronze,' and I'll be doing research on it until the project ends. But as soon as 'Age of Bronze' is over, I suspect my interest in digging into new aspects of the story and archaeology of the Trojan War will wane pretty quickly. There just won't be any vital reason for it anymore. Some interest will remain, I'm sure, simply because I've incorporated the Trojan War as part of my identity by this point. But I predict it'll be a nostalgic interest, more an interest of idle curiosity-like hearing news about what a former friend is doing in life now-rather than a matter of vital focus.
"If I were assigned to do research on, say, Russia during the 1530s, sure, it would probably hold my interest for a little while just because I know nothing about the subject, but without a purpose for that research, I wouldn't be able to support my interest over anything remotely resembling the long haul."
"Age of Bronze" is now on its 25th issue, with two trade paperback collections out so far, and a third on the way.
Now discuss this story in CBR's Image Comics forum.