“Sing, O Muse, of the man of wily wisdom, who had in far off lands long wandered when once he had wasted the sacred town of Troy”
So begins Homer’s Odyssey, the primary source of inspiration behind Kevin Grevioux and Ryan Benjamin’s emulative epic Odyssey of the Amazons. Their own tale similarly starts with an invocation to the Muse, and attempts to imitate Homeric subjects, style, and structure sporadically throughout. Though they never succeed in even coming close to capturing classical antiquity’s enduringly excellent epic, nevertheless the book is at its best when evidently aspires to such.
Odyssey of the Amazons (DC Comics)
Towards that end, the use of an omniscient narrator marks one of the issue’s best creative decisions, but also one of its worst executions. The omniscient narrator is among the most missed devices formerly employed in the comics medium, having fallen out of favor throughout the late eighties and early nineties, even as writers were just beginning to use it to excellent effect (cf. Miracleman “A Dream of Flying” and X-Men “Fatal Attractions” for examples of particularly powerful prose from that period). Grevioux utilizes such here to harken back to Homer. While not written in heroic blank verse – as would have been particularly fitting – the frequent use of rich adjectival descriptions is reminiscent of Homer’s “wine-dark seas” and “rosy-fingered dawn,” echoed here in such lines as “swung-sharp sword,” “swarthy, sun-kissed warriors,” and “storm-kissed dark.”
Unfortunately, the best prose is front and back-loaded, with the body of the book bearing evidence as to why the style of omniscient narration has lately been abandoned, being full of weak writing which merely explains what should be evident from the art alone. Such could be a concession to Benjamin’s weaknesses as an illustrator. While he renders action impeccably, as in such scenes as the battle against the O’Kungans or the attack by the Jotuns, other aspects of Grevioux’s script he fails to capture. A map intended to depict the Atlantic Ocean and its adjacent continents instead depicts indefinite landmasses and waterways which correspond to nothing at all on earth. More egregious, Benjamin is never quite capable of consistently capturing his female faces as possessing the pulchritude Grevioux ascribes to Amazons, who “were as doughty as warriors as they were beautiful.” It’s one of the better uses of omniscient narration within, but more often than not the pencils tell a different tale.
Structurally, the work begins en medias res, as per The Odyssey, though whether Grevioux intends to return to the first five years of their (presumably decade-long) voyage remains uncertain. If not, and the series continues more or less linearly, such would be a sorely missed opportunity to have further followed the epic form.
In terms of subject, the Amazons’ own odyssey is every bit as globe-spanning as that of Odysseus’ before them. Whereas he traversed the entirety of the Mediterranean known-world, they’d voyaged as far as Nippon in the East and Mesoamerica in the West, with this first issue’s locales including an African desert and Scandinavian sea. Likewise, a longing for home, whether to be beside Penelope in Ithaca or to breathe the paradisial airs of Themyscira, weighs heavily upon the hearts of the protagonists, though for the Amazons, that is not their current course. Their mission to seek out sisters similarly blessed by the gods with immortality was intended as one of peace, but has been marked by a series of military campaigns instead, which has in turn tolled the women with increasing weariness. This theme seems less inspired by the mythological sources (even considering the martial reputation attributed to the warrior women) and more a potential commentary upon modern military engagements in the Middle-east and elsewhere, though whether this reading proves right will only be seen once subsequent issues in the series release.
The global theme, long present in DC’s depiction of Amazon culture but rarely so at the forefront, lends a great deal of visual variety, both with respect to the climes of the locales as well as the clothing of the characters, each garbed in armor distinctive to well-known world cultures. Having Aztec and Hellenic and Nipponic women standing side-by-side as part of a single sisterhood is certainly cosmopolitan, and perhaps the resultant anachronisms are thusly worthwhile, but it does raise the question of when (even approximately) Grevioux intends for this series to take place. According to both Greek mythology and DC lore, Hippolyta was a contemporary of Heracles, who himself was said to live a generation or so prior to the Trojan War, itself a historical conflict dated by ancient and modern scholars as having taken place circa the twelfth or thirteenth century before Christ. Hessia claims that “for the better part of a thousand years, Themyscira has been my home,” giving a terminus of the second century B.C. for the series’ start. However, the Mexica did not found Tenochtitlan until 1325 A.D., with the formal start of the Aztec Empire dated at 1428, leaving Odyssey of the Amazons a margin of error in either direction for of well over a millennium.
But that’s but a mere annoyance compared to the issue’s truly fatal flaw. In Greek mythology, the Moirai are the personification of Fate, one of the concepts most endemic to the Hellenistic mind. Though many poets and playwrights had retold the same myths as having drastically different events and messages, universal throughout was their agreement that everything is entirely subject to fate; free will is foreign to their outlook, and chance, personified by Tyche, is nevertheless governed by the Fates. Even Zeus himself is alternately depicted as subject to the Moirai or always working in concert with them. Their depiction in Odyssey of the Amazons is entirely uncharacteristic, with no semblance to their mythological antecedents. In their short appearance, they’re seen saying “We can only guess… If left to their own devices, their destinies are sealed and contained. But any intrusion into their land could lead to a twilight that spreads beyond the north and could encompass the entire world… the choice is yours, Hessia.”
Uncertainty. Possibility. Volition. None of these belong in any accurate depiction of the Moirai. Such certainly sets up an ominous portent of events to come throughout the series, given Hessia’s choice to set sail for the Nordic north, but different oracular characters ought to have been utilized. Having the Fates deliver a conditional of which they’re genuinely uncertain is as appropriate as having Poseidon drown to death or Dionysius attend Alcoholics Anonymous; a sea-god who can’t swim or a sober god of drunkenness make exactly as much sense as uncertain Fates deferring to a character’s choice.
When Odyssey of the Amazons most consciously emulates classical sources, whether Homer himself or even classic comics, it’s often to rousing success. Where it regresses to a more modern mindset – in the low prose of its middle section or its novel portrayal of the Moirai – the work often suffers, save solely for its global-scope and cosmopolitan cast. Ultimately, the concept of a mythological expedition in the style and structure of ancient epics and set in the DC universe is an absolutely inspired idea worthy of better writing and art than is found here. At their best, both Benjamin and Grevioux rise to the occasion of this premise, but fail to maintain that greatness consistently throughout.