By Paul F. Lai
The Hero Book Two, recently released from Dark Horse Books, is the second part of David Rubín’s epic update of the Twelve Labors of Heracles. The two volumes are a graphic feast, a captivating contemplation of goodness and justice both ancient and modern, and a troubling example of the edges of graphic depiction (read: not for kids). But it is merits consideration for readers of a medium still coming to grips with mature heroism.
This has been the year of David Rubín’s arrival on the US comics scene. The northern Spanish creator was tapped by Paul Pope to take on the artistic mantle for his Battling Boy prequels (The Fall of the House of West and The Rise of Aurora West). Rubín has a style reminiscent of Pope’s frenetic, luscious-brushed energy and almond-eyed, moody character work. He also illustrated the Curt Pires-scribed The Fiction mini-series for Boom! But the breakout artist has made his definitive grand entrance as writer/artist in the US translation of his two volumes of Hero, the first released in June 2015 and the second in December, originally published in Spain in 2011-2012.
Hero‘s two volumes exhibit what has become Dark Horse’s high bar for graphic novel presentation, handsome and hefty hardcovers with the quality that artistic, literary comics works deserve, at price-points more suited to their hardcover fiction cousins than the coffee-table art books they resemble. The Hero is marvelously glossy, as audacious and materially impressive a prestige format as the story’s protagonist himself. And like Rubín’s Heracles, the book’s robust physicality feels necessary for the vivid dynamism of its insides, its lurid visual punchiness and striking pacing, its resplendent blood reds and ocean blues.
The Hero is Rubín’s retelling of the Greek Heracles (Hercules) myth, structured by re-workings of his famed Twelve Labors and surrounded by the frame story of goddess Hera’s murderous pursuit of this bastard hero-son of her husband-god Zeus. The frame story pits Heracles in his human mother’s womb against Hera’s schemes, but also puts him in the service of her son, King Eurystheus, a puppet for her vengeance. It also orients readers to Rubín’s narrative world, an orchestration of classical Greek myth-world (laurels and togas) with scifi technological artifacts (screens everywhere and “intermolecular reorganizers”), contemporary cultural phenomena (tabloid celebrity), and Kaiju-style monsterism. Despite the iPads and hoplite armor, the entire visual world is suffused with an organic overgrownness, as if anemone sprout from every wall and dreams have dendrites.
The meat of the story, twelve chapters of Heracles’ Twelve Labors spread over two volumes, wind up as experiments of heroic storytelling. Here are the familiar snakes in baby cribs and Erymanthean boars we US audiences have known since our grade-school Edith Hamilton. But Rubín seems to be testing them out with contemporary sensibilities, and his riffs and twists, which I won’t spoil here, are fascinating fodder for how we conceive of heroism after the specters of Superman, after modernism, after Joseph Campbell. Suffice it to say that Rubín’s variations remind us that everything new is old, and our cosmopolitanism is both ancient and unprecedented. His Heracles stares down the vicissitudes of fame as well as the many heads of Hydra, the tremors of aging as well as the feats of Greco-Luchador wrestling with champions and creatures.
What might surprise readers who hesitate to revisit Greek myths is that these comics vacate the old stories of all their dusty stuffiness and replace them with the kind of visceral Kirbyan action, forlorn poignancy, and barrel-chested delights that make comics fun. What some might perceive as a problem of audience, especially in an anglophone market, where the visuals signal “all-ages” but the content is decidedly mature, will not be a problem for its intended readers, those of us whose consciousnesses were raised on Hergé next to Homer, on Steve Ditko next to Sophocles. The juxtaposition reminds us that these originary archetypes were always meant to thrill, bedazzle, and inspire.
What might also surprise you, and what reserves me from a full-throated recommendation of Hero, is the awful brutality and sexual violence of the book, especially in its climax. We shouldn’t be surprised. Rubín signals early on that this is not a book for children, fittingly through an early expletive in the speech balloon of a child Eurystheus. And it’s also clear from the outset that Hero’s subversions of its source material won’t include overt censorship of the sorts of exploitative violence and rape that marked so many classical Greek tales, as well as the tawdry pulps that drew from their melodrama.
Those qualifications aside, it remains hard not to flinch at the thinly-shielded (or unshielded), if cartoonishly graphic, depictions of gore and gratuitous sexual violence, even if the reader (like myself) admits the possibility of such details as part of literary effect, historical necessity, or thematic provocation. This book merits a trigger warning. I grant that maybe the sharply pointed violence is meant to invite some introspection about our patriarchal idolatries of hero worship, or about the depths of human horror and heights of heroism. But if so, if there is some implicit critique of the excesses of mythological or heroic violence, I’m too distracted by its bloody presence on the page, and those subtleties were lost on me, awash in agony over decapitated children and forced copulations. And I have to wonder if a story so circumspect about how these myths play today had to rest on the victimized wife as motivator trope quite so bluntly. I am loath to attribute misogyny to the artist when the contested lineage of “heroism” he draws from is so riddled with it in such stark terms. Instead, I would just say: be forewarned.
If those elements don’t derail the experience, and if you’re cognizant that the book is about as appropriate for your adolescent niece or nephew studying the ancient world as HBO’s Rome series or actually wielding a sharpened sword in a gladiator arena, then Hero is worthy to at least adorn your bookshelf, if not challenge your adult imagination about heroism and heraldry in the 21st century.
Read David Rubín’s Hero and other works: