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interviews archive
05-11-07
ERIC SHANOWER: An Epic In Progress

Interview conducted by Elias Katirtzigianoglou

Translated and edited by Elias Katirtzigianoglou and Manolis Vamvounis



AGE OF BRONZE, Eric Shanower’s ambitious attempt to retell Homer's Epic of the Trojan War in comic-book form, has already granted him two Eisner Awards, as well as the admiration of the comic-book community, not only for the comic itself, but also for the fact that it’s a project with a far reach into the future that demands dedication and thorough research. In the following interview, the American creator talks amongst other thing for his realistic point of view on the myth, and the long way he has come in the comics industry


ELIAS KATIRTZIGIANOGLOU: You attended the Joe Kubert School of Cartoon and Graphic Art. Was there any teacher that didn't believe in your talent? What's the most valuable part of your experience there?
ERIC SHANOWER: I had different relationships with different instructors at the Joe Kubert School,but I don’t remember any instructor saying that he didn’t believe in any of the students' talent. I think each of them would say that his job was teaching, not deciding who had talent or not. The most valuable part of my experience there was the amount of work that I was required to do. I did so much drawing that I just had to get better. Also valuable was the wide range of tools and techniques I was exposed to.

EK: Why did you choose to do comics for a living and not some other type of visual art?
ERIC SHANOWER: The other sort of visual art I found attractive was book illustration, and I’ve done a lot of that, just not as much as I’ve done comics. I like comics better because the drawings tell the story, they ARE the story. Book illustrations tend to play a more supportive role.

EK: In the past, you've been part of several projects including the six-issue mini-series THE ELSEWHERE PRINCE (with script by Randy & Jean-Marc Lofficier),Vertigo's PREZ: SMELLS LIKE TEEN PRESIDENT (with writer Ed Brubaker) and you also drew some NEXUS books. Is any of these projects a personal favourite?
ERIC SHANOWER: My favorite past projects include my Oz graphic novels and AN ACCIDENTAL DEATH which was written by Ed Brubaker.

EK: What are your greatest artistic influences? Any current creators you really admire and/or would love to collaborate with?
ERIC SHANOWER: Probably my greatest influence is the work of John R. Neill, the illustrator of most of the original Oz book series. I fell in love with his work when I was six years old. It’s difficult for me to point out influences since I rarely think about another person’s work while I’m creating my own. There are a lot of cartoonists, illustrators, and artists I admire. And I always have the analytical part of my head running when I’m reading comics and books and looking at artwork.
I think Jaime Hernandez is one of the best cartoonists today. His stories in the last few years of LOVE AND ROCKETS blow me away every issue. I don’t necessarily want to collaborate with him. I’m just in awe of his incredible cartooning skill.
I don’t really have a desire to collaborate with anyone—I prefer to write and draw my comics myself. But I’m not opposed to collaboration, either. I’ve collaborated on many projects in the past and I’m sure I will in the future. I’d like to try drawing an Alan Moore script. But really, my interest is mostly in projects rather than who a collaborator might be.

EK: AGE OF BRONZE is a major departure for Image Comics, since most of the company's choices are –let's say- more "fan-oriented". How did the title land in Image, instead of another major indie publisher?
ERIC SHANOWER: Initially I was planning to self-publish AGE OF BRONZE, but the near-collapse of the US comics market in the mid-1990s made me decide to find another publisher. In 1998 I showed preliminary material to Erik Larsen at a convention—not trying to sell the project, just showing him what I was working on. To my surprise, he said he’d publish it. That turned out to be the best offer I found, so I went with Image.

EK: When did you get the idea of retelling the Trojan War? And why didn't you choose a title with a more direct correlation to the original like "Iliad", "Troy" or "Trojan War"?
ERIC SHANOWER: In February 1991 I was listening to a book on audio tape called THE MARCH OF FOLLY: FROM TROY TO VIETNAM by Barbara Tuchman. Her chapter on the folly of the Trojans drawing the wooden horse into their city made me realize that there are dozens of versions of the Trojan War. I thought it would be a neat idea to take all the versions of the story and combine them into one long retelling, reconcile all the contradictions, and set it in the correct time period.
My original title was "Troy". But in 1997 another comic book publisher announced a four-issue series called TROY that would retell the story of the Trojan War. I decided I better find a new title for my project. AGE OF BRONZE seemed to be the best. It indicates fidelity to the time period, is memorable enough, and starts with an “A” so it’s near the beginning of alphabetical lists.

EK: Were you familiar with Hellenic myth and history before you started working on the title?
ERIC SHANOWER: I’d read various versions of the Troy story, and a lot of Greek myths in general, especially during late elementary school when I went through a period of Greek mythology enthusiasm. I’d also read Mary Renault’s Theseus books—THE KING MUST DIE and BULL FROM THE SEA—and Robert Graves’s HERCULES, MY SHIPMATE in the years shortly before I started working on AGE OF BRONZE. In 1989 I went to Greece as a tourist, but I saw mostly Classical sites, not Bronze Age sites, since I hadn’t had the idea for Age of Bronze then. I didn’t know much about the Aegean Bronze Age when I began research for Age of Bronze.

EK: Did you get to travel to Greece or Turkey in order to see the locations where the events in the book take place?
ERIC SHANOWER: I finally went to Turkey last year and spent eleven days at Troy and in the surrounding area. It was one of the most magnificent things I’ve ever done. I sketched and shot a lot of photos and video tape. I went while the current archaeological team was digging, so I spent some time with them. I walked all around the area to see the places Homer mentions in the Iliad, and to feel what it was like to spend time in the fields and among the hills. I rode a bike around the island of Tenedos and hiked in the mountains south of Troy. I still have to go to Greece to see the Mycenaean sites, but I’ll make it someday.

EK: Has the response to AGE OF BRONZE from the international academic community been positive ? Have you received any commentary from academics in Greece?
ERIC SHANOWER: The response from the international academic community is for the most part positive. It’s been really gratifying, as well as a big help with various aspects of research. I can’t recall at the moment commentary from specifically Greek academics, although I’ve received e-mail from non-academic Greek readers who enjoy AGE OF BRONZE.

EK: You're telling a classic epic, and utilizing a similarly epic scale in your storytelling. It looks to me like your hands are bound to be full with AGE OF BRONZE for many years to come. Don't you sometimes feel the urge to take a short break from the title and try your hand with something else? Are there any plans for other smaller projects?
ERIC SHANOWER: I work on other projects quite often, usually much smaller ones. My next project is drawing a three-page Uncle Scrooge story. (I’ve already written the script for it.)
I’ve agreed to write the script for an eight-issue adaptation of THE WIZARD OF OZ for Marvel Illustrated. And I’ve been asked to write and draw a 10-page comics story for a HarperCollins anthology. And those are just the things worth mentioning; there are a lot of little projects, too.

EK: Another thing that's impressive is the bibliography you used for reference on AGE OF BRONZE. What did you do when you came across a controversy or discrepancy between different historical records? For example portraying Achilles as a bisexual, is one of the controversial interpretations of the myth...
ERIC SHANOWER: Well, let’s first make the distinction between history and the tradition of literature and art known as the story of the Trojan War. Achilles and his characteristics are not history. There’s no proof that a person named Achilles fought at Troy or did any of the things we read about in Homer’s Iliad. There’s not even any real evidence that the story of the Trojan War in its general outline took place. Troy is in a strategic location and evidence indicates that conflicts took place in the general area, so we can pretty safely assume that the actual city was involved in some sort of military strife, probably many times over the centuries.
But will anyone ever know how closely history may match the traditional Trojan War we know? I couldn’t say.
The tradition of Achilles and Patroklus being lovers is centuries and centuries old. I set out to tell a version of the Trojan War that assimilates every other version I can find. Of course, I’ve had to streamline and make choices among versions for the sake of clarity and storytelling. But I couldn’t have excluded an element of the tradition so entrenched as Achilles’s love for Patroklus without betraying my purpose. I didn’t want to exclude it anyway. One of my purposes in creating AGE OF BRONZE is to show human nature, and Achilles’s love for Patroklus gives me a chance to present that aspect of human nature.
Whether my portrayal of their type of relationship is historically accurate, I don’t think anyone knows for sure. We don’t know what the attitude toward sexual and romantic love between males was in the 13th century BCE.
Actually, the relationship between Achilles and Patroklus is relatively easy to present. It’s Achilles’s relationships with all the other men and women he falls in love with that tend to be problems. I think I handled his momentary passion for Iphigenia well. I’m looking forward to his passions for Briseis, for Troilus, and for Polyxena.

EK: When asked about their favourite character from the Iliad, people always respond with 'Achilles'. I always thought that Hector is the most heroic of all, because he is a responsible, caring and brave warrior, fighting for the future of his land and his people. I was glad to read on an interview that you also "admire Hector quite a bit"... Please elaborate.
ERIC SHANOWER: Hektor is the only primary character who is just trying to do the right thing. I think that’s pretty admirable. He’s not perfect, but he usually tries to deal with conflict in a way that will be best for the greatest number of people involved.
There are other characters who could be characterized as “good,” such as Aeneas and Palamedes. But I don’t admire them as much as I do Hektor because they don’t see with as great a scope as he does.

EK: In the AGE OF BRONZE comic, there have been on instances of divine intervention, although characters have been projecting their own feelings and decisions to supernatural elements. Do you aim to say a completely realistic story?
ERIC SHANOWER: I have endeavored to remove all supernatural elements from the story in AGE OF BRONZE. The closest I get to the supernatural is to allow characters to have dreams and visions. These aren’t supernatural; they happen to real people in real life. But they certainly can be interpreted to have supernatural sources, and I’ll let the characters in Age of Bronze interpret dreams and visions that way. So, yes, I intend to tell the story in way that could have actually happened.

EK: When is AGE OF BRONZE scheduled to end? What's the creative procedure you go to? Have you written the end of the story yet?
ERIC SHANOWER: AGE OF BRONZE will end when I’m finished with it. I don’t know when that will be. I haven’t written the script for the end of the story yet, but I have everything carefully plotted out. I’m pretty methodical about keeping several outlines for several different purposes. Sometimes it isn’t easy keeping track of so many characters and so many plot lines. My procedures change as the story’s requirements change. Also, I’m still gathering more material all the time and probably will continue until AGE OF BRONZE is over. There are so many versions of the Trojan War, so many elaborations of episodes, I doubt I’ll ever come in contact with them all.

EK: Unlike Homer's The Iliad, AGE OF BRONZE begins with Paris as a young boy. Do you plan on following Aineas, or the Greeks on their way home?
ERIC SHANOWER: No, I’ll be ending with the aftermath of the fall of the city, such as the material covered in Euripides’s plays TROJAN WOMEN and HECUBA and Quintus of Smyrna’s POSTHOMERICA. I won’t be delving into the returns of the heroes in any detail, such material as Virgil’s AENEID, Homer’s ODYSSEY, and Aeschylus’ ORESTEIA.

EK: Have you picked sides in this Trojan War? While writing did you ever find yourself more fond of Greeks or Trojans?
ERIC SHANOWER: No, I love all the characters. As the author dealing with each as an individual, I have to have some sort of understanding of them and understanding breeds empathy. I don’t favor one side more than the other. I don’t get the impulse at times to have the Trojans win. I don’t really think of it as having sides—I think of it as a story. One side will win and one side will lose. Actually everyone loses in the end. So many of them—both Achaean and Trojan—won’t live through the war. It’s not a comedy.

EK: Is the other epic of Homer, the ODYSSEY, as attractive to you, as the ILIAD?
ERIC SHANOWER: Although I like the ODYSSEY, I like the ILIAD better. The ODYSSEY is a bit too episodic for me, not grand enough. I like the ILIAD’s swirling battles and how everything moves toward the scene between Priam and Achilles in book 24. I’d never read either poem before I had the idea for AGE OF BRONZE, so I read them both with a certain frame of mind, planning to use the material from the ILIAD much more directly than the material from the ODYSSEY. So I was biased from the beginning.

EK: You have received two Eisner Awards for AGE OF BRONZE, which amongst other things is a token of your peers' appreciation of your work. Beyond that, did these two prestigious awards make an impact on the sales or visibility of the series?
ERIC SHANOWER: Yes, the Eisner Awards boosted sales, and AGE OF BRONZE didn’t get much attention from non-US publishers till after I won my first Eisner. It’s always nice to be able to mention awards in interviews and other publicity. It sounds good to people even if they don’t really know what an Eisner Award means.

EK: On the AGE OF BRONZE web-site you have a complete synopsis of all past issues and an alphabetical pronunciation guide. Has the internet been helpful to raise awareness about the book to people who knew nothing about it?
ERIC SHANOWER: I’m not sure. I don’t remember an instance of someone initially learning about AGE OF BRONZE from the website, but it certainly could have happened. I don’t know who looks at the website unless they tell me. But it’s certainly a useful tool for people who have only heard of AGE OF BRONZE to find out more.

EK: Is it me, or must you have hated the TROY movie? I can't forget the scene in the Trojan palace, where orthodox priests are between those of the royal guard…
ERIC SHANOWER: I didn’t hate the recent movie, TROY, directed by Wolfgang Petersen. It was better than I feared. It had major departures from the traditional story, and the so-called period costumes and sets were an annoying mishmash. But I’ve been exposed to so many different versions of the story over the years, that this one was just another
version. There are worse ones. But by focusing on having the characters fighting because of love rather than fighting to win glory, it undercut a lot of the power of the story. I was really happy when Anchises showed up for no reason at all other than that’s the traditional version. I wish they’d done a lot more stuff like that.

EK: Did you read superhero comics as a kid? I'm asking because while you have said that you don't follow superhero comics at the same time you contributed with a 5 pages sequence to Erik Larsen's 12 issue maxi-series FANTASTIC FOUR: THE WORLD'S GREATEST COMICS MAGAZINE dedicated to the genius of Jack Kirby. Did you enjoy drawing Kirby's iconic characters?
ERIC SHANOWER: Yes, I read superhero comics as a kid. I went through periods of loving the JUSTICE LEAGUE, the X-MEN, and others. I still read superhero comics once in a while, but it’s usually for a specific reason, such as the work of a friend. But as for drawing a superhero comic myself, that’s a different matter. If an editor calls me with a job and I can fit it into my schedule, I will very likely accept it. It doesn’t really matter what the job is—whether it involves superheroes or not.
There’s always something challenging about drawing a new project, no matter what the subject matter is. I certainly don’t need a pre-existing fondness for any of the characters. I only need to sympathize with them while I’m actually drawing the story. Attempting to draw the Fantastic Four in the style of Jack Kirby was an interesting and enjoyable challenge.

EK: You have been working as a professional artist since 1984. What changes have occurred to the industry since that time? Are things better or worse these days for the aspiring cartoonist?
ERIC SHANOWER: Back in 1984 the US comics publishing was growing unbelievable. Almost anything could find a publisher. Lots of new people were entering the field. I found it relatively easy to get work when I entered, and within a year I was negotiating the contract for a graphic novel series. Nowadays my impression is that it’s really pretty difficult to break in. I don’t know, really, since I’m not in the position of trying to enter the field. But I do know others who’ve broken in recently, so I know it’s possible. Lots of other things have changed over the years. Page rates have gone up, formats and printing are almost completely different, more people are reading comics than before, more of the work is better and worth reading.

EK: If from now on you were allowed to read only 10 comic books, which one's would you choose from and why?
ERIC SHANOWER: I’ll assume you mean 10 actual publications as opposed to 10 series. LOCAS by Jaime Hernandez, WATCHMEN by Alan Moore, THE FREDDIE STORIES by Lynda Barry, THE MONSTER SOCIETY OF EVIL by C.C. Beck et al, BACK TO THE KLONDIKE by Carl Barks, TINTIN IN TIBET by Herge, IMPOLLUTABLE POGO by Walt Kelly, MANHATTAN BEACH 1957 by Yves H. and Hermann, SALOME by P. Craig Russell, and THE PERTWILLABY PAPERS by Don Rosa.
Of course, if I could select entire series, my list would be different and include CEREBUS by Dave Sim, BLUEBERRY by Charlier and Giraud, MASTER OF KUNG FU by Doug Moench et al, NAUSICAA OF THE VALLEY OF THE WIND by Hayao Miyazaki, PROMETHEA by Alan Moore and J.H. Williams et al, THE MARVEL FAMILY by Otto Binder and C.C. Beck and Kurt Schaffenberger et al, CALVIN AND HOBBES by Bill Watterson, TERRY AND THE PIRATES by Milton Canniff, the run of The X-MEN by Chris Claremont and John Byrne et al, and KAMANDI THE LAST BOY ON EARTH by Jack Kirby et al.

EK: Are you satisfied with the diversity of the medium today?
ERIC SHANOWER: Yes, there’s a lot of diversity. Of course, there’s always room for more good comics. I definitely want more good comics.

EK: Do you have any close friends from the industry?
ERIC SHANOWER: I have a lot of friends in the comics business. No really close ones right now, no one I talk to at least once a week.

EK: Tell us about Hungry Tiger Press. How did it come into being and what are the plans for the future?
ERIC SHANOWER: My partner, David Maxine, and I began our own publishing company Hungry Tiger Press in 1994. He wanted to publish a yearly anthology of Oz stories, comics, verse, and illustration, and I wanted to publish AGE OF BRONZE. AGE OF BRONZE ended up at Image Comics, but we published David’s anthology and lots of other books. We published some music cds, too. David took over the company completely in 2003. I still do freelance jobs for him and a bit of proofreading.

EK: What would you like to be asked in an interview and no one ever thought of asking you?
ERIC SHANOWER: "What became of Dash and Javen in THE BLUE WITCH OF OZ?" My answer is that I’m not telling.

EK: Thank you very much for this interview and I wish AGE OF BRONZE the best. Since the first issue in 1998, it's been, in my opinion, one of the best comic books in the international market.
ERIC SHANOWER: Thank you, Elias. I try my best.

More info about Eric Shanower and his works at:

http://ericshanower.com

http://www.hungrytigerpress.com

http://age-of-bronze.com




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