Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Boys, Don’t make passes at goddesses in glasses! Ross MacDonald cools up the Greek gods

Ross MacDonald illustrates the cover of Penguin's edition of
Graves' Greek Myths (2012).
Ross MacDonald has made Greek mythology even cooler with his illustrated cover of Graves’ Greek Myths (Penguin Deluxe Classics 2012). The original comic strip narrates an amusing history of the gods from Gaia and Ouranos right through to our present. With a few learned, but decidedly stylized strokes, this master of modern satirical comicbook-illustration steals the show from a blockbuster reprint that delivers Robert Graves’ lapidary classicism behind a splashy cameo by Rick Riordan. MacDonald’s contribution is the most rewarding element of this marketing flash.

Robert Graves (1895 – 1987) filled the middle of the Twentieth Century with literary classics such as I, Claudius, love poems, and translations of Apuleius and Suetonius for Penguin. His encyclopedic The Greek Myths, appeared first in 1955, “the first modern dictionary” on the subject. Though it was set in a two-volume format, Graves’ Mythology packed even more learning into subsequent editions that soon followed in 1957 and 1960. The current Penguin version weighs in with nearly 800-pages and includes each of Graves’ introductions. The Graves collection is the peerless English account of all those myths and offers a truly stirring array of most variants for all those variegated myths and collects all the documentation to assure that you’ve got all the material to back them up. Did I say "all"?

Ross MacDonald starts his theogony with
Gaia and Ouranos taking a Hollywood dip.
Don’t judge this book by its cover. MacDonald’s 10-frame strip belies the tome’s stolid, rechercée interior dustiness. Gaia and Ouranos fill the first frame, headlined by the caption “With Incest, Betrayals”. A couple embraces: he clothed in stars, all square-jawed, Bryl-creamed and darkling. Iconically, the image of the ringed planet Saturn holds his cape on his pecs. He dips his dreamy lover back in a moment of passion; she, in a verdant plunging gown, coos from her in the speech balloon “Ooh, Son…” Never mind the apparent confusion between Cronus (Saturn) and his father Ouranos (Uranus). Open to Graves 6.a to confirm that “Uranus fathered the Titans upon Mother Earth.”

MacDonald’s cover tells quickly how the gods came, affected humanity, and then abandoned us once. The graphic myth riffs on Marvel and DC prototypes. The gods “all seemed to just … vanish!” In frame seven, astonished Gothamites in circa-1945 suits and fedoras look longingly into the empty skies above their metropolis, and only a winged oxford of a departing Hermes leaves at super-heroic speed the cloudy blue globe far below in frame eight. Frames nine and ten bring the double perspective tableaux, as a caped-crusader Ares ponders dusk-lit skyscrapers, “waiting” like the Dark Knight himself to descend and resolve human ills once more. The gaudy
Ross MacDonald's Ares broods
over the Gotham-dämmerung.
colors, the capes and boots, the comic-book blocking all help MacDonald reshape his theogony into an exciting fresh perspective.

For me the image of Artemis on the front flyleaf is the most clever of all the mythological vignettes here. Is it the virgin-huntress’s icy-blue skintone? Is it that pesky bustier, or the subliminally fertile crescent moon on her brow that attracts? MacDonald imagines Artemis in eye-glasses, like a co-ed from Barnard. She of the winsome smile and a quiver-full of lethal darts. Caveat Actaeon! The ingeniously bespectacled Artemis is the best moment in this cleverly divine apparatus. The back flyleaf has Perseus and Medusa and Andromeda in no apparent interaction; amongst them Icarus incongruously skirts super-heroically near the sun. Open Graves 73.k to read of the connection between Perseus, Andromeda, and the Gorgon, then his note to learn how it’s all related to Marduk and Isaiah and Astarte the
Ross MacDonald's Artemis of Morningside Heights?
lecherous Sea-goddess (230 – 31). But, close the book…. and we’re relieved to be back out on the cover, where MacDonald’s four Olympians bring their essential attributes to their co-starring roles. The cover’s lower margin promises an “Introduction by … the author of Percy Jackson and the Olympians series.”

Riordan’s contribution to this whole enterprise deserves attention. Penguin won’t let us overlook it. It’s even billed on the book’s spine. The seven-page introduction tells the warmly familiar story of how Riordan came to write the Percy Jackson series to help his son cope. Graves’ Myths were reportedly instrumental. And since Riordan’s days in the middle-school classroom, Graves informed his mythological research. So, here is the apprentice’s homage to his venerable forebear. I can’t help thinking, though, that the best thing about the Percy books is their modulation of classical myth to our normalized world. How unlike Graves they actually are. Haley Riordan, Rick’s son, was blessed by his father’s creative adaptation of classical myths to the world he was learning to endure. Thumbing the nose at stodginess of classical narratives, Percy and his creator have ridden the elevator to the top of the heap. The result, Percy Jackson and 33 million copies sold. Tables turned, Penguin now uses Riordan to market Graves.

I’ll keep using Graves. The marketing sleight of hand won’t put me off. I hope, however, that Penguin does not confuse the market and undermine the availability of its more nimble handbook, The Penguin Dictionary of Classical Mythology by P. Grimal, ed. by Stephen Kershaw from A.R. Maxwell-Hyslop’s translation (Penguin Reference 1991). [My current copy is a 2009 reprint.] That's where I'll send my students for a paperback dictionary of Greek myths. The Grimal/Kershaw Dictionary goes so much more easily into the backpack and delivers the information you need for most myths without Graves’ hit-and-miss speculation on the origins of all things. Save Graves for the library; take Grimal/Kershaw into the field.

And Ross MacDonald’s comic book theogony? Though utterly out of place on this book, MacDonald has produced a genuinely amusing addition to the modern reception of classical myth.

— M


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