Things I Like: Age of Bronze

If you like comics and archaeology, and you haven’t at least taken a look at Eric Shanower’s epic Age of Bronze, you’re missing out.

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Writer/artist Shanower is telling the story of the Trojan War in comic form, and I mean the whole story — the abduction of Helen, Achilles hiding among the women, Troilus and Cressida. Not just the Iliad, but everything that’s anything to do with the story. It’s an entirely human tale — no gods, although the characters certainly believe in them — and it’s compelling reading.

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What’s really exciting to me is the amount of research that Shanower does to bring his Troy to life in honest-to-Schliemann Bronze Age glory. Age of Bronze is one of the only comics I love enough to collect it both in trades and in singles, and every time I’m somewhere with a good comics shop, I look around to fill in the gaps in my collection. The most recent time I was in the US, I picked up several back issues, including this special:

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This is the special in which Shanower just talks about the research he did to prepare for the book and the decisions he made (such as basing the Trojans on the Hittite culture). There’s pages of great stuff like this:

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I have a lot of time for this. Every issue of the comic also contains a section of literary and archaeological discussion — basically footnotes — in which Shanower goes behind the scenes of the book.

I love this comic a lot. So what’s wrong with it?

Well, the most important problem with Age of Bronze is that it comes out … basically every once in a while. I’ve been collecting it since about 2003 or so, and it hasn’t made it to issue 40 yet. The fighting at Troy has really only just started.

Now, if you want to read this book, all that means is that you should pick it up in trade, rather than trying to follow it “monthly.” The first volume deals with the origins of the war, while the second volume is about the buildup to the conflict and the Iphigenia story. After that, you have the third volume, in which the war actually starts. This is split into part one and part two. You can also pick up the first issues for iOS, with colour and annotations and all kinds of stuff.

Seriously you guys, it is pretty good. You can read my copies if you come to my house, but you can’t borrow them. They are mine.

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Things I Like: Age of Bronze

Things I Like: The Work of Larry Gonick

Every so often — and it is actually not as rare as all that — I run into someone who is not really interested in history. Not intimidated by it, not curious about one aspect of it but not others … someone who genuinely doesn’t really care about it. Now to me, obviously, this is a bizarre and incomprehensible attitude, but it’s not really all that uncommon. And it’s then that you realise that the things that make you you aren’t inherent to everyone, necessarily. They aren’t even really inherent to you. You learned them. 

In my case, it’s no surprise that I learned them from my parents. Both of them studied history or related fields — economics and economic history in my mother’s case, linguistics and political science in my father’s. And when I was young, they both encouraged me (and my brother, although he didn’t develop the same fascination to the same extent) to be interested in history. 

Now, when I was a kid I loved comics, of course — still do. And my parents being old-fashioned about literature in some ways did not wholly approve of this fascination. But they did what parents do, and tried to harness that enthusiasm in an educational way. So if they saw comics that they thought would be educational, they would grab them. That is how I came to be acquainted with the work of the otherwise not very well known Chinese philosopher Hong Yingming or Hong Zicheng and his work Vegetable Root Discourses — my dad picked me up a comic adaptation of the thing. 

Now, now that I’ve begun this story I don’t remember whether I actually got my first volume of Larry Gonicks’ Cartoon History of the Universe from my parents, but I’m pretty sure. Not completely, but mostly. It might have come from my favourite local bookshop, Know Knew Books, tragically no longer where it once was on California Avenue in Palo Alto but still up and about. Where was I? 

Anyway, Gonick’s history is selective and particular. He goes into particular incidents in huge detail and glosses over other things entirely. There’s also a certain amount of “common misconception” stuff, and he oversimplifies some of the cause and effect. But it was in Gonick’s comics that I first read about the early centuries of Islam, about the French and Indian War, hell, about the Peloponnesian War. His comics are clearly influenced by the 70s underground style, and they’re gorgeous, with lovely bold lines and great little characters. His style for some of his other books, like The Cartoon History of the United States, was a little more jagged, but in time I came to love those as well. I must have read each of those books a dozen times, often on nights when I couldn’t sleep. There were a lot of those when I was younger. 

A few years ago, I was in some online debate — about the whole Muhammad-cartoon thing, I think — and I emailed Larry Gonick, hardly thinking I would get a reply, but he wrote me a very interesting answer about the matter from the perspective of a cartoonist and historian. Class. 

If you want to turn out like me — and who doesn’t — you should get your hands on a set of these. No lie, there’s some good stuff in there. 

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It is a Thing I Like. 

Things I Like: The Work of Larry Gonick

Sea Monsters!

I like maps; no secret there. In fact, on the wall of my bedroom, facing me as I type, is a copy of Olaus Magnus’s Carta Marina, a birthday gift from an old friend. Some years later, my wife had it framed as another birthday gift. I occasionally get hung up going in and out of the room because I’m just looking at its details — the strange creatures, the weird people, the bizarre idea that England is way the hell up in the northern part of Britain, opposite Norway. 

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Today, pal of the blog Chris Chapman pointed out this amazing interactive version of the map, where you can click on each sea monster and read Olaus’s explanatory notes. 

Olaus, or Olof Månsson if you’re feeling prosaic, had the dubious distinction of being the Catholic archbishop of Uppsala. I say dubious because this was actually shortly after the Reformation, and poor Olof never actually got to, you know, be there in his archiepiscopal capacity. 

Olaus Magnus is known partly for his awesome map but mainly for his book, Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus, which is all on Google Books in its fantastic original edition. Even if you (like me) aren’t going to slog through a bunch of 16th-century Latin, it’s got some badass woodcuts. 

Researchers at Plymouth Marine Laboratory in the US have suggested that some of the elements of the map might not be so fanciful, and that the whirlpools up there off the Norwegian coast are in fact based on real currents. I’m not so convinced, personally — even if the map resembles reality, that would be one of the only ways in which it does. 

I have no overarching philosophical point about this one. I just like maps. 

Sea Monsters!

Lunatics: Roman Nikolai Maximilian von Ungern-Sternberg

I have always been fascinated by Bohemond of Taranto. Such an exciting character, such colourful times he lived in. So many tense and gripping incidents in his story. He could be the protagonist of a novel. Well, in fact he is the protagonist of a novel, Count Bohemond by Alfred Duggan. 

Alfred Duggan is someone I should talk about more on this blog, honestly. 

But the romance and the sorta-kinda heroism and the just general … accomplishments of Bohemond make him the kind of character you can admire, like a pirate, while not actually wanting to ever go anywhere near him. He was more like Hannibal Lecter than Dirk Dauntless, I imagine. 

That is the kind of historical character I get fixated on a bit sometimes: undeniably a thug and a bully, and undeniably someone who lived his life in a way that is, to put it mildly, hard for me to empathize with. But somehow impressive nonetheless. 

But that style of historical violence addict can sometimes go too far even for me. Case in point: Baron von Ungern-Sternberg. Like most people who know about the Baron, he came to my attention when reading one of Peter Hopkirk’s books about interwar Central Asia. But I really got into him when my friend James Palmer published a biography of him. 

I’m not going to spoil the book — you should read it — but suffice it to say that Ungern-Sternberg was a combination of eccentric and just utterly horrible. He was a Westerner fascinated by Buddhism, and there’s nothing too unusual about that, but the form his took was a little different from your typical spiritual seeker. Like, for instance, he got very enthusiastic about the idea of restoring the Bogd Khan — the traditional monarch — in Mongolia, as part of some kind of mystical monarchist thing.  His particular brand of murderous bloodthirstiness went well with Mongolia’s demon-haunted mixture of Buddhism and traditional beliefs. He adopted a sort of Genghis Khan-type personality and may or may not have been referred to as the “God of war.” He was also a fierce anti-Semite. And I mean an anti-Semite even by the standards of a Russian aristocrat in 1920. 

In any event, he set up as a warlord in Central Asia during the Russian Civil War, nominally part of the White army but in effect answering to no one but the voices in his head. He used to feed people to wolves and so on. 

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Not a guy you’d want to meet in a dark alley; he has sheep killer eyes. Or, to be more accurate, burn-you-alive eyes, or make-you-climb-a-tree-and-stay-there-all-night-and-shoot-you-when-you-fall-out eyes. 

Like most real psycho tyrants, he didn’t last. He was captured by the reds and shot. Somehow, his policies of beating people to death with sticks or conscripting random strangers into his horde failed to endear him to his own troops, who tried to kill him. 

He’s turned up in a few novels and games as a villain, but doesn’t seem to have the cultural penetration you’d expect from a legendary maniac. It’s probably because his mania was in the context of the Russian Civil War, something not a lot of us care about. But he’s worth a look if you like psychotic mass murderers with outrageous wardrobes. 

Maybe “like” isn’t quite the right word there. 

Lunatics: Roman Nikolai Maximilian von Ungern-Sternberg

A quick link

OK, I know I said this earlier, but it was a long time ago so I’m going to repeat it. If you like history, and you like stuff that’s free, you need to be subscribed to the ONDB Life of the Day. Every day, a new biography appears in your inbox or feed reader, and sometimes it’s some tennis player and you just scroll past and sometimes it’s a guy whose profession reads “assassin” and you learn something new and awesome.

It kind of challenges a lot of our assumptions about the social proprieties in past ages, actually, but that’s another story. Check it out.

A quick link

An upcoming talk

OK, so I have a pretty full schedule today and I do not know if I will have time to make a full-length update. I am not even sure what it will be about, although if I can be bothered to do a bunch of scanning it will be about fun illustrations in excavation reports. However, more likely it will be about quackery and a specific quack from Iowa. 

Anyway, my real point here is to say that I am giving a talk at Treadwell’s Books in London. You can find the details here. It is a sequel to my earlier talk on Lovecraft and archaeology, but you will be able to follow it if you have not seen or heard the first; I will start out with what I hope will be a good summary. 

If you have never been to Treadwell’s and you ever find yourself in London, you need to go there. It is a great place. And the pub across the street, the College Arms, has (or at least used to have) some kind of 19th (?) pornographic etchings on its walls, just hanging out there in front of everybody. I am assuming they did not really look at them closely. 

An upcoming talk