Classics and pop culture

Will Comic Book Fans Read Ancient Poetry? – Graphic Novelising the Metamorphoses

businesscard_template_ukIt is a commonly accepted rule in the comics community that the formula for the perfect webcomic is mundanity + magical-realism. It is a rule that holds true for everything from so-called ‘sitcom’ or ‘slice of life’ comics, where any series that doesn’t include a magical animal or talking inanimate object is laughed out of the room,* to fantasy adventure comics that often try for a more complex blend of magic and/or science fiction with a cynical self-awareness, which constantly refers the reader to the real world and makes fan-children squeal in delight.** As a comics fan (and a webcomics fan, in particular), I know and appreciate this fact quite well; indeed it is because of this blending of the mundane and the magical that I feel so exhilarated by webcomics. It is not just webcomics, however, that make me feel this way. The Metamorphoses of Ovid captivates my imagination through similar means to the webcomics: it blends the most human of elements (love/lust, anger, sadness, joy, conflict etc.) with supernatural elements (divine power, magic, natural wonders and more). It exhilarates me, challenges me, inspires me, repulses me and then draws me back into its world in a way little else has. For this, I can say that the Metamorphoses is truly my favourite book. As most people will understand, I want to share my favourite book with anyone who will listen; the problem is that most people aren’t interested in a 2000+ year-old poem. They don’t see how its stories and values could affect them today; they don’t think the material will be relatable; most importantly, the majority of people today can’t read Latin. Translations are little help, being often densely packed with big words that send the average person to the dictionary a half-dozen times before they finish a page. I wanted to share this story with people in a way that would make the poem new again; I wanted to inspire and exhilarate others the way I had been myself; I wanted people to get excited about reading the Metamorphoses the way they do when reading Homestuck, Questionable Content and other popular webcomics. Fortunately, I happened to own a Wacom Bamboo Graphics Tablet and a copy of Photoshop.

Page 1 Excerpt

Excerpt from Page 1 – I wanted to bring the whole poem to life, even the proem.

I conceived of a project to turn the poem into a graphic novel, following the text as faithfully and closely as I could. It made sense, because of the similarities between contents of webcomics and the Metamorphoses. The idea was to go as smoothly as I could through the story without compromising on content – I didn’t want to make the abridged version, but rather the whole deal. I figured if this comic was aimed at audiences who would never otherwise read the poem, then I ought to give them everything. I set out last January to produce as many pages of the comic as I could before the summer. I have to work at night, because I spend the day in the library working on my PhD (I am studying Ovid’s reception of Greek mythography to develop repeating character-types in the Metamorphoses). Doing 2-3 hours of work on it a day, I managed to finish 12 pages (covering lines 1-88 of Book 1, or the “Creation of the Cosmos” episode). In July, I began uploading, at first to a friend’s server; when the server crashed from too many people reading the comic, I rented my own server space and moved the comic to its current home at I try to publish a page a week (I’m not always successful…); this usually covers around 10 lines of the poem (although I’ve done as many as 20+ and as little as 2).***

I’m not a formally trained artist; my abilities were acquired through informal help from the Italian cartoonist Massimo Minghella, and evenings of practice as an undergrad. However, I do dabble a lot and like drawing cartoon portraits for the Internet and logos for conferences. I decided to just use the art style I do for portraits: no black lines, just fields of colour. The vector-style art† gives it a very modern feel, something that I try to emphasise in the comic’s general aesthetic (I am actually very inspired by the look of

Excerpt from Page 22 - The dialogue, and even the internal narratives resemble smartphone messaging apps.

Excerpt from Page 22 – The dialogue, and even the internal narratives resemble smartphone messaging apps.

Apple’s iOS and other mobile devices). I feel this serves to rescue the poem slightly from its unfortunate association to a generic “ancient” past. In truth, Ovid and his poem are both quite aware of their place in history. The Metamorphoses works because it understands that myths come from many places and times, and evolve as they age and travel around the world. Because of this, I wanted to mimic the same attitude in my comic. I never seek to actually modernise the poem (although I did play around with that idea in the planning stages). I simply want the aesthetic choices I make as a cartoonist to reflect both my understanding of the poem, and Ovid’s apparent attitude towards it.

You might consider this personal imposition on the poem to be hypocritical: how can I be faithful to the text if I insert my own attitudes and interpretations? Such a question misses the point, however; I am bringing as much of the poem as I can to the comic. I am nevertheless aware that the very nature of translating and transferring a narrative across media is to change it in some fundamental ways. Where Ovid describes textually, I depict

Excerpt from Page 10 - My artist's interpretation of the four winds.

Excerpt from Page 10 – My artist’s interpretation of the four winds.

visually; where he leaves details up to the reader’s imagination, I have to fill them in. The comic is very much a case of reading with me, specifically. You are seeing the Metamorphoses as I see it.†† This is an inevitability, but one that I have decided to embrace. It is, to my mind, akin to the process of teaching literature. When I supervise undergraduates, I know that they and I both have reconcile our attempts to understand the poem with the knowledge that we can never eliminate subjectivity. While in the classroom I try to limit subjectivity as much as possible, to develop my students’ ideas alongside my own, and add caveats to any interpretation, I have much more freedom in drawing the comic. So, as much as the comic is a gateway to Latin literature for my readers, it is a study in reception for me. I get to act out my interpretations of the poem before an audience and see and hear their responses. I think of it as performative scholarship.

Of course, being a scholar of the Metamorphoses for my day job, I have a lot to say about the poem, even more than I can express in the comic. Therefore, I always include a blog post with each page. The post, which includes the Latin text and my own literal English translation, acts as a sort of layperson’s commentary. I aim it at non-academics, and try to explain the in-jokes, the references and the mythographic tradition. The comic is designed to stand on its own, but my posts give further and deeper info to any curious soul who wants to know more. I also have a comments section for people who want to ask questions or start a dialogue with me and other readers. This idea comes not from any scholarly source, but in fact from the webcomics world. Pretty much every comic has a blog, usually displayed below each day’s comic, in which the author gives background and musings (while trying to avoid spoilers). Comic fandoms often have lively communities built around comments sections, which I always felt makes webcomics a particularly compelling medium. I was particularly inspired by a comic called Happle Tea, which bills itself as “the only comic that excoriates religion, pop culture, and politics while, at the same time, lauding the world of cryptozoology.” The author, Scott Maynard, is not a classicist (his

Happle Tea strip, "A Dream Come True", about Pygmalion in Ovid, with part of Maynard's blog post.

Happle Tea strip, “A Dream Come True”, about Pygmalion in Ovid, with part of Maynard’s blog post.

website says he studied art), but often draws comics making jokes about mythology. He always includes relatively well researched, but also accessible blog posts with each strip, citing where he got his ideas (he’s actually done a few Metamorphoses strips). His commenters then join in a discussion that happens independently of academia.††† This phenomenon, above all, was what inspired me to produce this comic and the commentary I include with it. I sometimes feel that modern classics have a defeatist attitude, a feeling that we are not relevant to the modern world, and cannot hope to be. I disagree with this, and point to Maynard’s comic and others as proof that many non-academics can and do care about the things that inspire us in the ancient world. At the end of the day, this is my comic’s project: to inspire the world (or at least a few fans) with the Metamorphoses in the same way I feel inspired.

If this blog post has inspired you, please read the comic and leave some comments – let’s build a new, invigorated conversation about the classical world through the medium of goofy pictures!

* I’m thinking of Something*Positive, Girls With Slingshots, Scary-Go-Round, Questionable Content and many others.

** Here, I am thinking of Gunnerkrigg Court, Paranatural, Ava’s Demon, Dresden Codak, Sfeer Theory, Homestuck, and many, many others – really, these are just the tip of the iceberg…

*** Just for perspective: the poem is 15 books long, and each book is about 800 lines.

† It’s not true vector art (such as the Obama “Hope” poster), because I do it all by hand with raster images. Vector art usually uses paths, and is often based on photographs.

†† Ain’t that a scary thought?

††† If you want to hear more about this phenomenon in modern webcomics, then come see my paper, “Webcomics Paratext and Public Engagement with Classical Mythology”, at the CA conference in Bristol this year.


2 thoughts on “Will Comic Book Fans Read Ancient Poetry? – Graphic Novelising the Metamorphoses

  1. Thanks for this Charlie! Have you ever dabbled in classical comics before, or did you just decide to start with this major project?
    I’d love to see a comics version of Livy Book 1. Hint. When you’re done with the Met.

    • Haha, well that might take a while – this is projected to take me over a decade to finish… I had no experience with classics comics, and only one short-lived ‘sitcom comic’ (with plenty of magical realism, naturally) before this, so I really am jumping into the deep end here. So far it’s been difficult, but also rewarding and tons of fun!

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