Once Upon a Time Machine Volume 2: Greek Gods and Legends, edited by Andrew Carl and Chris Stevens, seeks to confer a similar sensuous immediacy upon the gods and heroes whose stories made up a crucial part of Herodotus’s world. Adapting some of the most familiar stories and legends of ancient Greece to comics form, the 30 short comics collected in the anthology are rendered in a style that translates the hard-learned lessons of those tales into an emotional currency designed to resonate with contemporary readers.
In this quirky and skillfully executed anthology, ancient tales with extraordinary characters and events are cast into a futuristic sci-fi world filled with time travel, advanced science and technology, and beings from other planets. Characters with superhuman powers and steadfast wills disintegrate, transform, or perish in dramatic battles. They also fall in love and feel the pain of loss and the warmth of compassion. Emotionally charged, character-driven stories join epic tales of combat and perilous journeys to create a volume in which the whole gamut of human experience — desire and power, ingenuity and honor, excessive individualism and wish fulfillment — finds expression.
Following the success of its 2012 Once Upon a Time Machine — a collection of 50 graphic short stories that celebrate, revisit, and adapt classic fairy tales through the lens of the sci-fi genre — Dark Horse Comics has returned to the conceit for this new volume. The classics of Greek mythology present an obvious unifying theme for such a volume: they are among the most enduring stories of all time, reaching across cultures as they take on new and surprising configurations through the ages. The familiar legends of ancient Greece easily lend themselves to revision, and impart a simple but powerfully felt meaning. As anyone who has read the Iliad or the Odyssey knows, the gods and heroes whose lives and adventures these legends tell are at once mythical and deeply human, incredibly strong and vulnerable.
These ancient tales are not new to the comics form, but have infused it since the birth of the superhero genre. It’s not difficult to see that Superman is a modern-day Heracles; Aquaman and Namor the Sub-Mariner are versions of Neptune; and the conceit of heroes having specific weaknesses (kryptonite, the color yellow) begins with Achilles’ heel. Wonder Woman’s origin story draws explicitly on Greek mythology: the heroine’s mother Hippolyta sculpts her from clay, Aphrodite brings her to her life, and the Greek gods give her superhuman powers. And the original Captain Marvel’s powers, signified by his magic word “Shazam,” combine the abilities of Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles, and Mercury.
Moreover, many of the classic stories of ancient Greece have been adapted into comic book form, with examples including René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo’s Asterix at the Olympic Games (1968), William Messner-Loebs and Sam Kieth’s Epicurus the Sage (1989, 1991), and Frank Miller’s 300 (1998). Currently ongoing series include George O’Connor’s Olympians (begun in 2010) and Matt Fraction and Christian Ward’s gender-swapping ODY-C (launched in 2014).
Fraction and Ward’s innovation, shared by Once Upon a Time Machine Volume 2, is to transpose ancient Greek myths and legends into a science-fictional setting. This makes sense if one considers that science fiction’s explorations into scientific and technological plausibilities often incorporate the same prophetic warnings, utopian aspirations, strange voyages, and titanic disasters that mark the ancient Greek stories. Formally, science fiction shares with the ancient tales of heroes, gods, goddesses, and monsters a reliance on sermons, meditations, satires, and allegories to communicate a wide range of attitudes toward the changing world and lived human experience. Both offer readers imaginative, fantastic stories about worlds that, although distinct from the one they inhabit, intersect with it on a material and symbolic level. Through fictional explorations of human physical and emotional experience, both the ancient legends of Greece and modern science fiction prompt readers to reconsider their world and their experience in it. Given these and other similarities, it is really no wonder that Carl and Stevens opted to have their contributors adapt their mythological originals into the genre of science fiction comics.
As with the first volume, Once Upon a Time Machine Volume 2: Greek Gods and Legends approaches adaptation as much more than the straightforward retelling of familiar tales in a different medium. The editors strongly encouraged contributors to engage in imaginative reinterpretation, remodeling the original legends at will and altering their text and context to accommodate both the generic characteristics of science fiction and contemporary perceptions of the world. This invitation to creative freedom — exemplified by Aaron Conley’s closing page depicting “The Riddle of the Sphinx” being solved by Oedipus cast as a tall, lanky Spanish conquistador — produces alterations and additions to the stories that may confuse or delight, but that always provoke thought. Some of the comics recreate their source tales, while others offer barely recognizable adaptations or imaginary sequels.
The volume opens with Andrew Carl and Gideon Kendall’s modern-day Icarus traveling back to the Big Bang, where the universe begins and where “everything that’s ever gonna be” exists, only to perish into nothingness. This futuristic take on the familiar tragic story of arrogance and hubris introduces a number of themes that will be crucial throughout the volume: travel and journeying; ambition; and the desire for power, honor, and fame. The stories in Once Upon a Time Machine are all, in one way or another, stories about characters who strive to stand out above others so that they and the deeds they accomplish will be remembered across the ages. In the 24th-century Olympius of Mike Baron and Jeff Johnson’s “Flying Horse Style,” a man named Pegasus is a master teacher of kung fu, in which he trains to increase his strength, dexterity, and mental prowess. With his armed winged horse, he accepts the challenge of Master Chimera, whom he defeats although “there were two of us. And only three of them.” Pegasus exemplifies the commitment of all the heroes in the volume — whether gods or humans, glorious or tragic — to cultivating mind and body in order to achieve glory.
If the stories in the collection are bound generically by their translation into science fiction, they are bound stylistically by their creators’ masterful art and expert use of compressed storytelling techniques. With narratives ranging from one page to just under 15 pages, the storytelling in the volume is both verbally and visually concise.
Written, illustrated, colored, and lettered by Eisner Award–winning and up-and-coming artists, the artwork in the anthology combines a range of drawing styles — naïve, realistic, and expressionist — and hints at influences from modern art, abstract art, digital art, and, of course, comics — including the highly recognizable styles of superhero comics, manga, and newspaper comic strips. Page layouts are often experimental, adopting and adapting traditional uses of the comic panel and grid design to explore various themes, move between different places and times, and draw readers into stories. The stories employ coloring and lettering to great effect, enhancing their mood and tone. In Ronald Wimberly’s dialogue-free story “Theseus and Metrotaurus,” bright electric colors and pop-art aesthetics communicate the psychedelic, radiating energy of Metrotaurus, who manages the underground subway into which Theseus has been thrust. Josh O’Neill and Toby Cypress’s “Eurydice” alternates subdued shades of brown with soft purples to distinguish between Orpheus’ harsh reality and the softer world of his desires, in which his music summons Eurydice from the dead. The linear, regularly spaced uppercase lettering of Jonathan Tune’s “Cosmogony,” based on the story of the Titan Uranus, mirrors the detached mood of scientific discovery that animates alien life forms who wish to colonize Earth and rid it of infestation. And the irregular height and width of the lettering in Andrew Carl and Pam López’s “Daphne” matches both the casual cool of the story’s hero and the whimsical world of teenage love. As these brief accounts suggest, the images in Once Upon a Time Machine do not simply illustrate stories, but actively contribute to their meaning.
The book’s title page, which also serves as the title page for each story, promises from the outset a group of tales that stand outside of time, confounding past, present, and future. Mythological figures stand beside humans, animals, human-animal hybrids, and robots to witness their entry into a giant wormhole — an event that may well guarantee an expedited journey through space-time, but that is fraught with the danger of sudden collapse and disintegration. Attracted to its force, all look to the giant wormhole with anticipation and courage, drawing their arrows and raising their arms as they face its alluring light. Combining imagined, real, and potential epochs in the history of humanity, the title page seduces with its minimum use of negative space and its densely populated scene of wonder and promise. It serves as the portal into the mythical world of Once Upon a Time Machine, introducing readers to the volume’s main themes and drawing them into the immensity of the dense, action-packed, sci-fi storyworld of the narratives that follow.
In several of the short story comics, the tropes of science fiction meet those of superhero comics. In Andrew Carl and Sebastián Piriz’s “The 12 Labors of Mech-Detective Heracles,” for instance, super-strong caped heroes exist alongside animal-robot superbeings. The anthology also features 10 pinups — Pandora, Arachne, Hyperion, Aphrodite, the Minotaur, Hades, the Muses, Eros, Cerebus, and Ares — that recall those included in superhero comics. Not surprisingly, some of these pinups incorporate science-fictional tropes such as technologically enhanced limbs, rocket-monster hybrids, discarded machinery, and teleportation devices. Like the stories in the volume, the pinups resonate for their seamless coupling of Greek mythology, science fiction, and the superhero story to produce something novel and entertaining.
The ease with which this volume translates the classical legends of Greek gods and heroes into new generic spaces, and the creative mastery that makes each story challenging and new, are genuinely exciting. Throughout Once Upon a Time Machine Volume 2: Greek Gods and Legends, readers get the sense that the classic stories remain relevant to the human experience. Just as Herodotus focused on the mythological or wondrous, but also explored the many manifestations of common human nature, the longing described in “Eurydice,” the sweet success experienced by Theseus, and the heroic failure of Icarus evoke emotions that remain familiar. Readers who pick up this book (and pick it up they should!) will find a compelling blend of the fantastic and the familiar.
Nancy Pedri is professor of English at Memorial University of Newfoundland, Canada, and co-author of the forthcoming book Focalization in Action, on the concept of focalization in comics.