From Homer to Bone: Classical Myths at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library

On Wednesday this week the 29 students of my Classical Mythology/Contemporary Art class had the pleasure of visiting the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library – the largest cartoon library on the planet and an amazing place for unique exhibitions, events and workshops as the epicentre for the Columbus cartooning community. It was here that Frank Santoro – the subject of several Minus Plato posts spoke about his work Pompeii a few years ago and it is an incredible place to contemplate the way the dynamic between Classics and Contemporary Art can extend to comics.

We were in for a treat, and not only because Billy Ireland curator Jenny Robb gave us a guided tour of their temporary exhibition Seeing the Great War, a wide-ranging show that my students were engaging with in terms of their reading of ‘epic myths’ of the Trojan War, via selections of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Virgil’s Aeneid and Ovid’s Metamorphoses, among others. But Jenny also prefaced the tour with a survey of a small, but representative selection from the Library’s holdings of original art political cartoons, comic books and graphic novels associated with the general topic of Classical Mythology.

Among the original art political cartoons Jenny showed us was a sharp juxtaposition between Achilles (with an arrow point to his heal) and the then President Bill Clinton, looking down at an arrow pointing to his spotted boxers (if you’re having trouble picturing it, you can see it here). As a simple reference to the Monica Lewinsky saga, the Classical myth worked well enough and would seem to need little further discussion. However, when I asked my students to think a little harder about the characterization of Achilles in the Iliad, even before his death at the hands of Paris’ arrow lodged in his vulnerable heal, we found out that there was more to say about the comparison than first appeared. The students understood that both the initial reason for Achilles’ rage and refusal to fight (the slight of having his slave-girl Briseis taken from him) and also the cause of his eventual return to battle and his brutality towards Hector’s body (the death of his beloved Patroclus), were in some ways closer to the general causes and general context of the Clinton/Lewinsky saga: desire and dishonour. While we have read elsewhere in Ovid’s Metamorphoses that the cause of the Cyclops Polyphemus’ brutality or Scylla’s monstrosity was ultimately accountable to desire, the same could be said of Achilles’ motivations for his rage at Agamemnon and retributions on Hector. Of course, we don’t need to go so far as the film Troy or stagings of Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida in making Briseis or Patroclus simplistic love interests for Achilles, but merely the all-encompassing desire for both honour and vengeance that, eventually, create problems for that same honour would suffice. 

In short, Clinton’s Achilles’ heal is closer to that of Achilles’ than the cartoonist may have intended. This is where a little extra knowledge about Classical Mythology comes in handy – it takes a simple analogy and enriches it to create a full-scale debate about desire and its place in the causation of events in general.

Next Jenny showed us a range of comics and graphic novels that set about directly retelling Classical myths – my favourite being this intriguing series called The Gods of Mount Olympus in Ancient Mythology published in the mid-1970s by Quintessence Publications.

The bold and dramatic comics seemed almost as if they were for some kind of educational purpose – as an early attempt at making the myths more accessible and dramatic. I will have to look into this further, but for the meantime check out this great post about them by Greg Turner. 

Next Jenny showed us some examples of what she called ‘contemporary mythology’, including Jeff Smith’s Bone and Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman. In many ways these less literal responses to Classical mythology were the most interesting to me for the purposes of the class, because I wanted the students to think beyond the direct remaking of myths in contemporary art and to see more general and tantalizing affinities whereby they are responsible for making and explaining the connections they find. While Columbus-based and OSU alumnus Jeff Smith does make direct parallels to ancient mythic narratives in Bone – e.g. the idea of a creation myth with periods of cyclical destruction -, it is more in the epic nature of his work and ideas of parodying the hero’s journey that is most interesting.

Now this parody may take an explicit form itself, especially in references to Moby Dick, but there are more general gestures to parody that dwell on the status of the Bone epic as a belated, offspring to the ancient epics of Homer – something that my students were well aware of from their readings of Vergil’s Aeneid and Ovid’s Metamorphoses. For example when Phone Bone and Thorn are saved by Gran’ Ma Ben, the latter alludes to an earlier battle she fought against ‘th’ rats back in the big war’.

We can compare a moment in Ovid’s account of the Trojan War when he has the avuncular figure of Nestor tell Achilles, fresh from his victory over the seemingly indestructible Cycnus  the story of Caenus/Caenis from earlier in the war.

Jenny’s survey of comics and Classical mythology was a perfect segue into the specific exhibition Seeing the Great War. The students were fully primed for seeing the way the simple reference employed in political cartoons and layered analogies in contemporary myth-making can function on the broader scale of the Trojan War and the Great War. (Here the epic battle between Snoopy and the Red Baron took centre stage!).

Yet, more importantly, the students were given an insight into how encountering the picturing of myth and the visualization of narratives can be as nuanced and rich as their experience of reading the epics of Homer. War, heroism, homecoming, epic and its parodies make thinking through Classical myth and contemporary art, from Achilles to Clinton, Snoopy to Bone, Cy Twombly to Paul McCarthy, an endlessly exciting adventure, full of unexpected encounters. Speaking of which, my next blog post will be about the brilliant cartoonist, teacher and storyteller Jessica Abel, who will be visiting my class next week!

For more information about the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library – their collection, exhibitions and events – go here.

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