While there are many out there who might turn their noses up at comic books, there are comics (or if you prefer to be a bit more pretentious, “graphic novels”) out there that have a great deal of literary merit. Today, I want to recommend two such comics.
The first is EPICURUS THE SAGE, written by William Messner-Loebs and illustrated by Sam Kieth. It was published by Piranha Press, which was an alternate imprint of DC Comics. The original book contained only two stories, but the edition I read was a 2003 printing that collected four stories into one book.
The main character of the stories is, of course, Epicurus. He and his friend Plato, and Aristotle’s young pupil Alexander of Macedon travel around ancient Attica and the Peloponnese. The stories are actually quite literate and humorous, and feature other philosophers and figures of ancient history and legend who were from roughly, if not exactly, the same time period. Epicurus and his friends stumble into mythic situations, such as the Rape of Persephone, and The Iliad. All the while, we learn about Epicureanism, and other major Greek schools of thought. And we learn of the customs of the day, and of the ancients’ attitudes toward philosophy, women, and so on. We even learn a bit of history and legend. In fact, I would say that this comic is a wonderful introduction to more serious study of ancient Greek literature and philosophy
Much of the humor comes from the light-hearted handling of philosophy, and the fact that the ancient myths are never quite what they seem—For example, while Hades does carry off Persephone, it was a far more mutual arrangement than Demeter (who enlists the reluctant assistance of Epicurus and young Alexander) suspects.
WONDER WOMAN: THE HIKETEIA was written by Greg Rucka and drawn by J.G. Jones back in 2002. I really liked this comic for its solid presentation of Diana, and for connecting her firmly to ancient Greek customs and mores.
The story begins by introducing the ancient Greek custom of hospitality, and the ritual of the Hiketeia. The Hiketeia was an ancient Greek ritual in which a supplicant would beg for, and place himself under, the protection of another. There were rules for both host and guest to follow, on pain of rather dire penalties. Xenia was the ancient Greek concept of hospitality, and violation of the formal courtesies of Xenia could bring down the wrath of the Gods. Violation of the Hiketeia could bring the wrath of the Furies themselves. This forms the basis of the story.
One evening, a teenaged girl, Danielle, comes to the Themiscyran embassy, and begs Diana to accept her as a guest under the rules of the Hiketeia. Impressed with the girl’s understanding of ancient Greek custom, she accepts. The girl, in return for guest-right and Diana’s protection, begins to help Diana with her daily duties as ambassador to “Man’s World.” Soon, however, it turns out that Batman has been pursuing this girl. After trying to convince Diana to turn Danielle over to his custody, Batman tries to take the girl by force. Diana, bound by the Hiketeia, does not allow him to do so.
At this point, we learn that Danielle is wanted for murder, and Batman is not about to let his quarry escape.
I won’t spoil the rest of the story for you; you’ll have to read it for yourself. But I will say that I really like this story because, as I noted above, I enjoy most stories that actually connect Diana to her mythic roots, and because this is not a story in which Wonder Woman must “beat up a bad guy” in pursuit of justice. She is put into a situation where she must protect someone she’s really only just met from an old friend and colleague whom she trusts. It’s a complex situation without easy resolution, and certainly not a situation that can be resolved with violence.
EPICURUS THE SAGE and WONDER WOMAN: THE HIKETEIA may only be comic books, but they are also genuinely entertaining stories with lessons to teach the reader. And I do highly recommend them.