Review time! with <i>Gilgamesh</i>

The creator of this graphic novel sent it to me back in August. Yeah, I'm slow. Let's see what's what!

Gilgamesh is by Andrew Winegarner (with some assistance from April F.M. Rasmussen), and it was published by Soft Skull Press (an imprint of Counterpoint) back in 2011.

He contacted me in the summer and saw that I had reviewed Inanna's Tears and thought I'd like to check this out. As I noted a few days ago, I'm horribly behind on my reading of graphic novels, and I feel bad about that, especially when creators send me stuff. So let's take a look at this sucker!

I've never read the original myth, although I certainly know the basic outlines of it - Gilgamesh and his pal Enkidu hang out doing manly things, Enkidu dies, Gilgamesh, distraught, goes looking for a way to become immortal and ends up meeting the original Noah. I'm not entirely sure how Gilgamesh becoming immortal will do anything for Enkidu, but whatever, right? But I didn't know more than that, so it's pretty neat to read the rest of the story and find out that Gilgamesh was even more of a dick than most epic heroes, who are, after all, kind of dickish in general.

Yes, the story begins with Gilgamesh being a dick. We learn that he's the son of a mortal king and the cow goddess, Ninsun, and he brought humanity back to greatness after the flood that almost wiped out people completely. Early on in the book, though, Gilgamesh is ruling Uruk, the great city-state on the Euphrates, and he's ... kind of a dick. He worried that the enemies of Uruk might attack it, so he forced the menfolk to build a mighty wall around the city. He worked them night and day and kept them away from their families. Meanwhile, every night he abused his "kingly privileges" by having sex with all the women in the city. The people begged the gods to save them from the tyrant, so the gods created a beastly man called Enkidu, who would oppose Gilgamesh and remind him of his duties.

Gilgamesh sends a temple priestess into the jungle to subdue Enkidu with her sexual prowess. Yeah, those Mesopotamians didn't mess around with their myths, did they? The priestess, Shamhat, basically bangs the beastliness out of Enkidu, civilizing him until he's ready to challenge Gilgamesh. When he does, the two fight until Gilgamesh realizes he can't beat Enkidu, at which point they become best friends. Yes, in addition to being the ur-myth of western civilization (many, many cultures have borrowed elements of the story), the Epic of Gilgamesh is also the very first bromance in human history. Why Judd Apatow, Paul Rudd, and Seth Rogen haven't made it into a movie yet is mystifying.

Winegarner tells the tale of their friendship well, as it forms the crux of the book and drives Gilgamesh to a hero's quest that gave Joseph Campbell an entire career. The two men are diametrically opposed, as Gilgamesh represents civilization and Enkidu represents nature, and this comes out nicely in their relationship. Enkidu is civilized enough that he is able to see that Gilgamesh is abusing his power as king, which leads to their bonding, but he remains outside of Sumerian society. So he becomes the voice of reason - to a degree - as he argues against Gilgamesh going to kill the demon Humbaba (who guards the Syrian cedars that Gilgamesh wants for his massive building projects) and even when he argues that Gilgamesh should kill Humbaba when the king has the demon at his mercy - Enkidu realizes that Humbaba is a liar, and he knows the "civilized" Gilgamesh might not do what has to be done. Gilgamesh wanted to fight the demon, and Enkidu reminds him that this is what happens when you purposefully seek out things to kill - you need to follow through with it. In the original epic, Gilgamesh has three prophetic dreams (only two of which have survived in writing), but Winegarner wisely gives them to Enkidu, who throughout the story shows more thoughtfulness than the actual hero.

Of course, Ishtar sends a disease to kill Enkidu, which causes Gilgamesh to go mad with grief and head off on a quest to find immortality (so not only is Gilgamesh/Enkidu the first bromance, Enkidu is the original Woman in Refrigerator). The final part of the epic is Gilgamesh's journey beyond the bounds of the world, where he meets Utnapishtim (the Mesopotamian Noah) and fails miserably in his quest to become immortal and to at least help himself be rejuvenated when he gets old. Both times he fails because he falls asleep. Yes, really.

As I haven't read the original poem, the tone of the story as told by Winegarner is what interests me. As I noted, in the beginning, Gilgamesh is not only a dick, he's a tyrant and, as it's defined today, a rapist. Enkidu turns him from that path, but then he just wants to prove that he's awesome, so he fights the demon. He rebuffs Ishtar's sexual advances, which was the smart thing to do (people and gods mixing that way never leads to anything good), but because he didn't properly respect the gods, they didn't stand in Ishtar's way when she unleashed Gugalanna, the Great Bull of Heaven, on Uruk. When Gilgamesh defeated the bull, the gods still didn't stand in Ishtar's way when she killed Enkidu. Instead of mourning his friend and remembering his responsibilities to his city, Gilgamesh instead foolishly leaves on a selfish mission, at which he fails not because he was defeated in mighty battles but because he couldn't stay awake. Winegarner's intent, it seems, is to portray the masculine hero in as poorly a light as possible, and I'm not sure if that's in the original epic. If it is, then Winegarner makes it very explicit, and circles back to the beginning, where a scribe is telling us the story of Gilgamesh. At the end, Gilgamesh realizes that his true immortality is in his works that will live on after his death, and we see the scribe again, who obviously thinks that his work about Gilgamesh will secure his own immortality. In the end, the nerds win, in other words, while the jock is humbled because he can't force the gods to make him immortal. Maybe I'm reading too much into it, but it's my interpretation, damn it, and I'm sticking with it!

Winegarner's art is solid, although some parts are better than others. His action work is a bit stiff, but as I've often noted, the fluidity of fighting is often the hardest thing in comics art to master, so it's not too big a deal.

During the big fight scenes, Winegarner puts the characters in the correct places, at least, which is nice. We can follow the action perfectly well, and that's certainly important. He does a good job with the clothing and fashion of the time - Gilgamesh's and Enkidu's beards look correct, for instance, and Winegarner's depiction of the architecture is well done. Some things he obviously copies from photographs, but he still does good work with them. He draws statues in the book, and he uses nice blacks and fewer holding lines to create an effect of worn rock, which fits into the narrative well. He draws very neat mythological creatures, from the manticore Humbaba to the giant scorpions that block Gilgamesh's entrance to the kingdom of the sun. When he wants to, he switches from spot blacks to detailed hatching, and because he does it only occasionally, it has a nice impact - the beautiful hatching on the gods creating the storm to drown the world is really exquisite. On some of the panels, he uses cuneiform and other vaguely exotic design work as borders, which adds a patina of age and mystery to the entire book. He doesn't shy away from nudity, either - he shows, on three pages, how Shamhat tames Enkidu by having sex with him for a week (nothing too graphic, but lots of female breasts), and Ishtar, as the goddess of sex, often shows up topless. Ancient Mesopotamia doesn't seem to be as hung up on sex as modern America, and Winegarner reflects that. If female breasts cause you to have apoplectic fits, you might want to skip this.

If you've never read the epic of Gilgamesh, this is certainly a good place to read it. As I noted, I don't know if Winegarner's interpretation of it is that blatant in the original text, but it's an interesting way to view Gilgamesh's attempts to thwart death. It's always interesting to read myths from other cultures, and while I knew a lot of the story of Gilgamesh, Winegarner's telling is nicely done and easily accessible. You can find Gilgamesh at Amazon, where it's slightly less than the $14.95 cover price. If you're interested, check it out!

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

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