November 21, 2014, by Guest blog
Classics in graphics at comic con
by Professor Stephen Hodkinson
Last weekend I attended and spoke at my first-ever comics convention, the well-known Thought Bubble con at Leeds. It was quite a revelation of a much-underestimated and increasingly gender-balanced facet of contemporary popular culture.
Now, I must confess that I’ve read very few comics since I was a boy back in the 1960s and used to devour the now long-defunct weekly magazine The Victor. (My favourite serial was the classic story of Alf Tupper, ‘The Tough of the Track’, an appealingly subversive tale for a boy from a Lancastrian working-class background growing up in the middle-class suburbia of Surrey.)
So why, after ignoring the comics scene for almost 50 years, was I speaking – not once but twice – at one of the UK’s major comics cons? It was down to two people: the renowned comics writer Kieron Gillen, who back in 2012 invited me to be historical consultant for his graphic novel THREE set in ancient Sparta (my long-term research specialism) and my Classics colleague Lynn Fotheringham, an expert on Sparta’s reception in popular culture, who put Kieron and myself in touch through her connections in the comics industry. The outcome was an entirely novel experience in my career: a fascinating few months in which Kieron and I batted his draft text and images back and forth in a creative dialogue of academic’s comments and practitioner’s responses.
Earlier this year THREE was published as a graphic novel to critical – and academic – acclaim. So Kieron, Lynn and I were in Leeds last weekend to talk about our collaboration: first, at the ‘Comics Forum’ academic conference, then in a public panel at the main convention. Our theme was the challenge of balancing the search for historical authenticity with the entertainment demands of the action comic genre; and how to incorporate the revisionist interpretations of recent Spartan research without presenting a Sparta alien and unappealing to an audience accustomed to its standard image in contemporary culture, cemented by the glorification of Spartan military valour in Zack Snyder’s film 300.
Both academic and public audiences were equally responsive to the issues we raised. We encouraged them to write down their thoughts about what the academic research had contributed to the graphic novel and to their understanding of Sparta. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the public responses were more factual in character (‘a better understanding of Sparta’s slavery system’; ‘Spartan women as big owners of property’; ‘the small size of the horses’), whereas the academic responses were more process-oriented (‘it enabled a broader range of storytelling options; ‘the impact on the visual form was crucial’; ‘a positive impact on the representation of how the social dynamic and mentalities of the time may have functioned’). But both were agreed about the impact of the research: ‘THREE has benefitted hugely from the academic input’; ‘my understanding of Spartan history was changed and enhanced by the academic discussion at the back of the comic’.
Each audience also posed challenging questions about my professional practice. From the academic audience: ‘Has the challenge of applying my research to a fictional narrative altered my academic perspectives on Spartan society?’ – Yes, it certainly has. From the public audience: ‘How did THREE’s search for historical authenticity relate to the increasing number of graphic novels focused on non-fictional subjects?’ – This question has prompted me to ponder about the feasibility of a comic-book academic account of Sparta to convey my research to a wider public.
Stephen Hodkinson is Professor of Ancient History and Director of the University’s Centre for Spartan and Peloponnesian Studies.
Lynn and Stephen will be presenting “This is Sparta!”: representing ancient Greece in film and comics
in the forthcoming Popular Culture Lecture series.
Kireon Gillen: http://gillen.cream.org/wordpress_html/
Photographs by Tara de Cozar