SfSW Comics #6: Athena
Reader, my name is Meg and I’m [not just] a superhero addict. I’m also a classics nut. I’ve loved classics and mythology as long as I can remember. I grew up reading Mary Renault (The Bull from the Sea) and Henry Treece (Elektra) and devouring collected Myths and Legends. I watched Ray Harryhausen’s Clash of the Titans and Jason and the Argonauts, repeatedly. Making my university choices there was only ever going to be one degree for me: Classics.
Classical mythology and Comics are a symbiotic pairing. Like mistletoe and oaktrees, modern comics sprouted from deep rooted foundation of western mythology. If you don’t believe me, ask Grant Morrison.
Sometimes it’s overt… Wonder Woman lives on the island of the Amazons, Hercules is pals with Thor. Sometimes it’s less so: Superman as a modern sungod anyone?
The treatment of women in mythology has long been a fascination of mine – and there’s a whole series of blog posts in that alone. But before we get into that, let me introduce you to a comic that brings it all together: Athena.
The four comic mini-series Athena by Doug Murray, Fabiano Neves and Paul Renaud is produced by Dynamite Entertainment. I read it in its collected form. In short the story arc is as follows:
Zeus, King of the Gods, believes that the Greek Gods are under threat of extinction, so he hides his children (Athena, Ares etc) in the human world, without any memory of who they are or what they can do. Athena becomes an investigator for the District Attorney, blind to her true power – until her life is threatened and the Goddess-In-Her is released upon the world.
In short, it’s kind of like Homer’s Iliad meets The Wire.
So far, so good. I love the premise. I love that the authors try to bring the Iliad to a modern audience. I wanted to love this book.
But I didn’t. I didn’t like it one bit.
Let me give you a bit of backstory. The Athena of mythology is the Goddess of wisdom and war. Her mother is Metis – Thought. Fearful of the power of his unborn child, Zeus swallowed her up (much as his father had done to him). One day, he had an almighty headache. His remedy was to split open his skull and lo! Out leapt Athena, fully formed and ready for action.
So Athena was born directly of a man, not a woman. She never experienced the vulnerability of infancy. She is a virgin Goddess, war-like and fearsome. She is the patron of heroes: most famously Odysseus, the wily protagonist of the Odyssey. She’s proud too. Poor Ariadne got turned into a spider for taking her on in a weaving contest. She wasn’t above bribing Paris to declare her the Fairest Goddess of the All in the infamous golden apple contest (she failed: Aphrodite offered him Helen of Troy).
This is a Goddess who split Zeus’ head open after he tried his hand at infanticide. She owned the sky god at birth. She brought down Troy.
How much of this echoes throughout Athena? Not much. And that’s what distresses me so much. The authors have taken the plot of the Iliad but completely lost the essence of the goddess.
This Athena is infantalised. Zeus has tucked her away on Earth for her on protection but keeps popping up to protect her. The judgements she makes are lessons she has to learn – much in the manner of the children in the Chronicles of Narnia being encouraged to learn important moral lessons by the messianic Aslan. She’s a Daddy’s girl – the role traditionally occupied by Aphrodite.
Her decisions are based on an appeal to her soft, emotional side. Hector asks her to look inside them and see who loves Helen more. And she does. Love? Athena? Come on!
Then there’s the art work. Let’s remember: Virgin. Goddess. Of War. The kind of lady who sticks gorgon’s head on her shield. You can spot Athena amongst statues because she’s not the half naked one… that’s Aphrodite.
So why… this? A g-string? And yes, in case you were wondering – it is.
What’s interesting is that Paul Renaud’s covers show a different Athena: a warrior in armour. That’s why I find it hard to understand why the artists chose to go with the strip bar look. Patrick Berkenkotter even adds stilettos. Because that’s practical for fighting. Right.
I’m not asking for demure. I have no problem with scantily clad heroes of any gender. But a bit of consideration about who they’re dealing with wouldn’t go amiss.
The scene that really stuck in my craw was the re-enactment of the Judgement of Paris. Imagine a shepherd boy faced with three goddesses who ask him to decide who is the fairest. He’s stuffed. There is no right answer. Imagine the sweat trickling down his neck… and the excitement in the pit of his belly because each of them is offering him something beyond his experience: unlimted power, wisdom… the most beautiful woman in the world.
Make no mistake: in any retelling of this myth, the goddesses call the shots. They are intimidating. But in Athena? The judgement of Paris turns into a podium dancing contest. The three women aren’t intimidating or powerful. They are objectified.
Maybe there’s a deeper message in this, but I’m not really buying it. More than anything, this scene was the one that turned me off.
And there there’s the overall story. It’s a bit… boring. And I hate to say that because I love the Iliad and I wanted to love this story. But there’s no real conflict. It’s hard to care about any of the characters. Nothing that you would give a stuff about is under threat. There is no great learning curve – apart from Athena rediscovering she is divine – and very little character development.
The verdict on Athena?
Paul Renaud’s covers – thumbs up.
Most everything else – thumbs down.
Read some Wonder Woman instead.