If you haven’t yet ready any books from Candlewick Press, you’re missing out, but if you haven’t yet read any books by Gareth Hinds, that’s something of a tragedy. But one you can, happily, correct and even have a new opportunity to do so with the release of his adaptation of The Iliad coming up on March 12, 2019 from Candlewick.
Hinds has excelled in creating literary adaptations that remind you what an artistic achievement bringing literary classics into the comics medium can be. His Beowulf had a huge impact on me some years back, but his work with Shakespeare plays, as well as Homer’s Odyssey, only demonstrated his own growth as an artist and comic creator.
If you’re new to The Iliad, the famous Greek heroic poem tells the story of the Trojan war, focusing on a wide cast of characters, but in particular on the half-human, half-god hero Achilles, and how he meets his end. It’s a blend of history and mythology that definitely lends itself to high drama.
We’re thrilled to have Gareth Hinds on site today to talk about The Iliad, a work that was in many ways the logical next step for him in terms of subject matter, but nevertheless a heroic epic that may well be the biggest creative challenge he’s faced so far.
Hannah Means-Shannon: Hi Gareth! I’m going to geek out for a minute and say that it’s great to talk to you since your Beowulf has been part of my life for a long time, and I even made it part of my curriculum when I was teaching Anglo-Saxon literature as a professor. It made a great text for showing students that there are choices in storytelling in general, as well as in visual storytelling. I was wondering if you could reach back in your memory and comment at all on the design of Grendel and his mother in that work. Your conceptions were so powerful and unique.
Gareth Hinds: Thank you so much! I look at whatever cues are given in the text, and I draw a lot of different sketches for each character before picking the one I think works best. I can tell you some of the textual cues and themes I had in mind: Grendel is immune to weapons, so I thought about him looking very hard and metallic. I think he’s also a symbol of rage, which is alluded to in his corded muscles and his face being a mass of sharp teeth pointing every which way. Grendel’s mother needed to look a bit like Grendel, but I wanted her to be more amphibian, since she lives underwater, and I think she represents a kind of dark, maternal femininity that scares Beowulf, so I shaped her a little like the famous fertility figure known as the Venus of Willendorf.
HMS: That’s really interesting, thank you. To talk about more recent work, you’ve interpreted a Homeric work before, and moving from the fantastic elements of The Odyssey, you’re now working with a fully heroic text in The Iliad. Do you have any opinions or feelings about whether these texts were actually “written” by Homer? Regardless of that, what do you think the author/narrator’s personality is like in The Iliad?
GH: We don’t (maybe can’t) know for sure, but the prevailing opinion in the scholarly community is that the poems were probably composed orally by many storytellers/singers over many generations before they were written down in the “authoritative” versions we know today. Nevertheless, the idea of the blind genius poet Homer has persisted — not only because historical folks like Herodotus said he was a real guy, but also because it’s a great image (another kind of hero, if you will). And it’s just easier to talk about Homer as the author. But as I say in the author notes, anytime someone talks about Homer, you can mentally add “or the bards of the Homeric tradition.”
As for “Homer’s” personality, it’s a bit hard to make a simple statement about it (which makes sense if we’re talking about a collaborative work). He seems to have a lot of sympathy for most of the characters, at least the noble characters — except when they show fatal pride (hubris)! — but he’s uninterested or even contemptuous of the common soldiers. He really wants the audience to be able to picture the events, so he uses elaborate metaphors from nature and civilian life in describing the action. In a few places he switches from third to second person to address a character directly, which is a very interesting and unusual choice. It creates the effect that he has a personal connection to that character (he does this with Patroclus and Menelaus). I’m not sure that all adds up to much of a picture, but those are some of the things I find interesting about the narrative voice.
HMS: I actually recently read an article where a prominent psychologist said that he didn’t think that our minds have changed much since the time of the Greek and Romans, biologically and in terms of intelligence. Do you agree? Do you think we are still those people, essentially?
GH: Yes, to a great extent. It’s striking how different certain aspects of Bronze Age culture are, but other aspects are strikingly familiar. There are places in the world today where tribalism, violence, toxic masculinity, and religious superstition are still deeply entrenched. And these Bronze Age characters speak with so much eloquence, they feel quite modern at times.
HMS: The Iliad is an iconic heroic work that has, arguably, informed every Western heroic story afterwards. What do you think the core elements of this story are that make it heroic?
GH: Great question for a thesis paper. To pick a few options and probably way oversimplify, (1) it shows a lot of different kinds of heroes, their strengths and their weaknesses. (2) It shows the potential for courage and strength to either defend people or to cause a lot of suffering and death. (3) It contrasts the violence of the war with incredible moments of tenderness and connection, such as the heart-wrenching scene between Hector and his wife and child, or between Achilles and Priam near the end of the story. (4) In a sense it asks the reader to consider what is worth dying for. I think most great war stories emulate those elements.
HMS: How did you visually approach Achilles in a way that can suggest both his god-derived and his mortal elements?
GH: He’s taller than everyone except “the giant” Ajax. He’s got a strong chin. His hair, according to Homer, is either blonde or flame-colored — I went with a reddish blonde. His hair texture and his looks are somewhat similar to those of his mother Thetis, who we meet early in the book. But we know he’s a mortal because he’s not drawn in a colored outline the way I draw the gods throughout both The Iliad and The Odyssey.
HMS: Though I haven’t yet seen the new book, I’m assuming you’re up against creating some large battle scenes. Did you have any strategies for making it feel impactful rather than the reader just becoming accustomed to seeing a lot of large-scale death? I ask because there seems to be a rule of escalation in superhero comics that can make the reader become blasé about mass slaughter.
GH: Maybe what numbs the reader in some superhero comics is that it doesn’t feel real, either because of the slick art style, the skintight suits, the superpowers, or the fact that most of the folks who get killed are anonymous henchmen. Homer makes sure you know who everybody is that gets killed — which can get numbing in its own way, but at least it feels a little more real. Homer also tends to follow one character for a little while and then switch to another, and he also periodically gives an overview of what’s happening in that section of the battle, and then maybe jumps to another section and gives an overview before diving in to focus on a few characters there. It’s a very effective storytelling approach, so I try to do the same thing visually.
HMS: How did you choose how to “write” this adaptation of the story? There must have been a lot of text you simply had to discard so as not to crowd the art. Though you are so experienced in doing this by now, with all your previous adaptations, has it become second nature?
GH: I’ve had a lot of practice at this, but every book is different. The Iliad has so much more detail than The Odyssey, that I ended up using third-person narration (which I almost never use), because that was the only way to convey so much information! And I still had to cut out a lot. I always encourage my readers to go read the original, because my versions (I think) do a good job of capturing the essence of the original, but a fair amount of material is definitely lost in the process.
HMS: This is a text that has a lot of history to it, but it also has imaginative aspects and mythological aspects. How did you explore that line between myth and straightforward history?
GH: Basically I think my job is to research the history thoroughly enough, and make the illustrations accurate enough, that the audience gets a feel for what it could have actually looked like — or what Homer, writing a few hundred years later, might have been picturing. But it’s still a mythological story, with gods and demigods running around, so I don’t hold myself to the same standard as someone like Eric Shanower who is trying to tell the story of the historical Trojan War, as opposed to what I’m doing, which is adapting a work of literature.
Big thanks to Candlewick press for use of the art, and to Gareth Hinds for taking part in this delightful interview!
Be sure to check out Hinds’ other adaptations on his website.
THE ILIAD. Copyright © 2019 Gareth Hinds. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.
BEOWULF. Copyright © 1999, 2000, 2007 by Gareth Hinds. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.