Advance Review: Once Upon A Time Machine Volume 2 Transcends The Limits Of Greek Myths

by Koom Kankesan

(A teenaged Paul Pope reads about Achilles in the Iliad)

Once Upon A Time Machine, Vol. 2 is an oddly rich smorgasbord from Dark Horse. The first volume brought together a number of creators (many emerging) to work on short sci-fi twists upon world folktales. It was something like four hundred plus in terms of page count and was picked up by Dark Horse from the publishing house Locust Moon Press which operated from a now defunct comic shop, Locust Moon. The new volume is in the same vein but is more modestly sized at two hundred pages plus. It operates under the same editors (Andrew Carl and Chris Stevens) and uses some of the same talent but has a few established creators submitting work too.

The focus of this volume is Greek myths and it remains an all-ages book so there are no graphic bouts of violence and sexuality (which Greek myths were rife with) but there are some interesting stories and twists. Editor Andrew Carl’s story (illustrated by Gideon Kendall) reimagines Daedelus and Icarus as time travellers who go further and further back in time to record what they see. The son does not heed his father’s prohibition and steals away in the time machine to witness the big bang and the birth of the universe. In the process, he’s torn apart. This story, coming early in the volume, almost serves as a template for how the anthology works. The connection to Greek myth is clear and faithful in its homage, the reinvented premise and world are sound and unique, the storytelling is clear, well-structured, and paced.

(from A Heavy Stone for All the Peoples (Sisyphus) by Chris Stevens and Dave Chisholm)

Someone once said to me that in any anthology, one third of the stories are going to be great, another third are going to be poor, and then there will be a third that is entirely forgettable. This points to a difficulty in reviewing anthologies. How to give an overall review to something that is effectively a sum of disparate and distinct parts? I found that I could divide this anthology into three different categories myself: a) stories that followed the essence of the myth closely like Carl’s Daedalus and Icarus one b) stories that only made a nodding reference to the myths they were tied to and were otherwise more influenced by manga or whatever their creators were into and c) stories that were so abstracted as to be more about design and aesthetics than narrative sensibilities.

A stellar example of category a) is the spin on Odysseus by Josh O’Neill and Charles Fetherolf (‘The Slaying of the Psuedors’). In this version, Odysseus returns to his home planet after the wars to find that aliens have colonized the planet and transformed the inhabitants into odd hybrids like themselves – ‘monsters.’ His son is some sort of pterodactyl-type creature. After fighting the aliens, Odysseus has to reconcile himself to the fact that what has been done cannot be undone and he decides to submit himself to the process so that he can join his son and wife. This was my favourite story in the book. The pacing and storytelling are excellent. It contains the joy of sci-fi, the poetic tragedy of the best Greek myths, and really beautiful artwork, as only comics can deliver. It takes a limiting form (the short story in comics) and transcends its limitations beautifully.

An example of category b) I enjoyed was Mike Baron’s story featuring the Pegasus (‘Flying Horse Style’, illustrated by Jeff Johnson). His story involves a world where kung-fu practitioners live alongside Greek mythological creatures such as winged horses and chimaera. The Pegasus then becomes a basis for a style of kung-fu (Flying Horse Style) and the story is more of an homage to chop-suey movies rather than Greek mythology.

Category c) is the most interesting category. One of my favourite entries in this category is ‘Theseus and Metrotaurus’ by Ronald Wimberly. The tale features a very urbanized Theseus thrown into a NYC-esque industrialized subway (instead of a labyrinth) to confront the Minotaur which resides in its steel bowels. Another story (‘Cosmogony’ by Jonathan Tune, coloured by Eleanor Doughty) looks at the relationship between Gaia and Uranus via the lens of aliens who unleash technology to terraform a planet. Of course, the sentient beings who evolve there mess it up and in the end, the planet must be destroyed. What’s brilliant about this story is not only the art which employs a non-realistic, individualistic style, but the writing – its detached third-person computational commentary provides both irony and an engaging puzzle for readers who must know something about the relationship between Gaia and Uranus to complete the meaning while reading the story.

Perhaps the element I liked most about the anthology was the pinups scattered throughout the anthology. These one page pinups in many cases were very design oriented and ‘cleansed the palette’ in between stories. While superhero comics used to feature pinups that readers could tear out, I’ve never seen the practice employed in non-superhero anthologies. Being design-oriented and conceptual rather than narrative, these get closer to the unconscious level of dream upon which myth really works. The pinups are not exactly adult but they offer something abstract that is not only geared towards kids, but is quite rewarding for adults flipping through the anthology.

(Arachne by Maelle Doliveux)

Once Upon a Time Machine Volume 2 is available from Dark Horse on April 11, 2018.