Eric Shanower Interview

Eric Shanower has worked on many projects during his career in comics, including An Accidental Death with Ed Brubaker, several Oz graphic novels, and Age of Bronze. This month, Image releases a new Age of Bronze softcover collection and a new story begins in issue #20. Westfield's Roger Ash recently contacted Shanower to learn more about Age of Bronze.

Westfield: Age of Bronze is your re-telling of the Trojan War. What about this story appealed to you?

Eric Shanower: What appeals? Do you have all day? Seriously, the Trojan War legend is an exciting adventure filled with emotional highs and lows, so there's plenty of potential for drama. There have been so many different versions of the story over the past 2800 years, and the challenge of making all the different versions fit together coherently into one long story won't let me go. Telling a story in which the characters do horrible things to each other and making those horrible actions, if not sympathetic, at least understandable to the reader, is continually fascinating.

Westfield: One of the differences between your version of the story and past ones is the role of the gods. While their influence is felt, they don't actually appear. Why did you decide to tell the story this way and what challenges has it presented?

Shanower: I'm not the first to do this; many versions of the Trojan War have removed the gods from direct action. In fact, the European medieval tradition of the Trojan War up until the Renaissance removed the gods. I removed the gods from Age of Bronze because I wanted to tell the story from a human point of view, emphasize human motivations. Although fantasy and religion can be entertaining, I don't have any interest in telling the Trojan War story with supernatural elements. This challenges me to find human reasons, or other non-supernatural reasons, for occurrences in the story that have traditionally been caused by gods. Sometimes this is not so easy. But often there is an answer implied somewhere in some version of the story that is just waiting for me to find and develop in Age of Bronze. One instance of this is the episode of the Judgment of Paris. Paris has to decide which of three goddesses is the fairest. In the oldest versions of the episode the goddesses visit Paris, but in the medieval tradition, the goddesses appear to him in a dream. I used the idea of this dream as part of Paris's seduction of Helen. So I managed to include the episode yet strip it of the supernatural. Another problem facing someone who retells the entire Trojan War legend is one of pacing. The gods don't take action in many separate episodes among the many that have been added to the tradition through the years. If I had retained the gods in the flesh in fusing all these together, Age of Bronze would have been extremely uneven, unless I had made the opposite decision to insert the gods into the parts of the story where they haven't appeared before. But that, I think I've made clear, holds no interest for me.

Westfield: Coming from Image this month is the second trade paperback collection, Sacrifice. What can you tell us about the story in it?

Shanower: The main episodes of Sacrifice are the arrival of Paris and Helen in Troy, the first disastrous battle of the Achaeans (the traditional name for the Greeks) in Mysia and the ramifications of that, and the sacrifice of Iphigenia. There were some very challenging things in Sacrifice. One thing I had to deal with was Achilles' "magic" spear that heals a wound. Since I've removed the supernatural, I had to find a way for it to heal without being magic. Another challenging episode was the sacrifice of Iphigenia. It's been told and retold so excellently before that I'm not sure I've done it justice. I stuck pretty closely to Euripides's tragedy Iphigenia in Aulis; so closely that the last third of my book seems to me like little more than an adaptation of that play, even though I wove in elements of many other versions. I attended a reading of Iphigenia in Aulis a few months after I finished Sacrifice and as the reading unfolded I could tell that although I managed to hit the high points, Euripides is still better. I guess I didn't do too shabby a job, though, since the editors of Publishers Weekly chose Sacrifice as one of the Best Books of 2004.

Westfield: Also this month is a new issue of the comic, which begins a new storyline. What can you tell us about this story arc and who are some of the characters involved?

Shanower: The third story arc is titled Betrayal. It will cover the portion of the Trojan War from the sacrifice of Iphigenia up until the beginning of the Iliad, which is more or less through the ninth year of the war. The primary episodes are the arrival of the Achaeans at Troy, the Great Foray which is the sacking of the towns and cities surrounding Troy, Troilus and Cressida, and the betrayal of Palamedes. The actual war will finally begin, and for those people who enjoy that sort of thing, the body count starts to rise. Most of the characters have already been introduced, but I will focus on some who haven't really been in the spotlight yet: Aeneas, Palamedes, Great Ajax, Troilus, Cressida, and Antenor and his family. Among the minor players who will have notable moments are Philoktetes, Protesilaus, Oeax, Briseis, and Mestor.

Westfield: How much research do you do to bring this story to the page?

Shanower: A lot. It's ongoing.

Westfield: This is an epic story. How far out do you have it planned? Any idea how long it will take you to complete?

Shanower: The whole outline is planned, which shouldn't be too surprising since it was all there for me to map out before Age of Bronze began. I've divided the entire story into seven volumes, but I don't know how many issues that will be. Betrayal looks like it will be at least half as long again as either Sacrifice or A Thousand Ships. I don't know how long Age of Bronze will take to complete.

Westfield: Do you have any other projects you're working on?

Shanower: Nothing else at present. I've cleared my schedule to work on Betrayal. The publication schedule for the last few issues of Sacrifice was too erratic, so I've decided that Betrayal will stay on a regular quarterly schedule. However, there are a few projects I've completed that should be published in the near future: the illustrations for a new Oz book, The Living House of Oz by Edward Einhorn, published by Hungry Tiger Press; and recently published by Delacorte Press is the third volume, Face, of Michael Cart's young adult anthology Rush Hour for which I wrote and illustrated the nine page comics story Behind the Lines.

Westfield: Any closing comments?

Shanower: No one wants to be bored. I think that the idea of reading Homer's Iliad or Greek tragedy or seeing Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida just seems boring to a lot of people, no matter how much they're told that these works are interesting and important. I'm not going to say that Age of Bronze is as important as any masterpiece about the Trojan War, but I don't use dusty, old-fashioned language - the characters talk normally. And I don't dumb it down, so your intelligence won't be insulted. You don't have to know anything about ancient Greece or Greek mythology to enjoy the story. The only drawback is the jawbreaker names of some of the characters and that's why every issue has a guide to who each character is and how to pronounce each one's name. Age of Bronze is just a story of a bunch of people who are all determined to get what they want, even if they have to kill for it. The fact that people thousands of years ago were being entertained by the same story involving a big wooden horse and the most beautiful woman in the world doesn't really matter. Age of Bronze is a version of the Trojan War for readers in the 21st century