Friday, May 8, 2009


By Chris Wilson

It is amazing that a tale over 3,000 years old is still one of the greatest war stories ever told, even more amazing is the fact that it is an epic poem. THE ILIAD (and THE ODYSSEY) has greatly influenced Western philosophy and literature and despite the age of this great work, it is very relevant to today’s youth, that is, if those youth will bother to access it.

Considering Homer’s epic poem spans over 15,000 lines of poetry – the brunt of which has more archaic language than the typical 21st century student, child or adult, can muster – it’s no wonder that the only students who read THE ILIAD are those required to do so for a literature class. That’s a sad commentary, I must say, and while I disagree philosophically with the idea of only reading great works when one is forced, I understand completely. It takes great commitment and fortitude to work through that many lines of epic Greek verse, decoding difficult text, making sense of the imagery, and understanding the themes and motifs. Thus the point of having a literature class: to help us understand and appreciate great works and how they still apply to our lives, as that is what great literature continues to do, but only if the populous will actually read and make sense of it.

Even after such an academic exercise as the deconstruction of great literature, does the average student leave the schoolhouse with a deeper understanding and appreciation of THE ILIAD? Do they get it? Do they want to get it? Well, that all depends on the student, and the teacher, and in some cases the translation.

Before embarking on Marvel Illustrated’s tale myself – having read the original for my required Freshman Studies class during my bachelor’s degree in 1995 at a private liberal arts college – I turned to scribe Roy Thomas’ introduction to this comic adaptation. Thomas’ first encounter of THE ILIAD was not of the dactylic hexameter in a specialized literature classroom, but of the Classics Illustrated comic adaptation from 1950 when he was only 10 years old.

“It filled me with what the editors of the CI series claimed they wanted to instill in me: a desire to read the original. I worked my way up to that goal, first through a YOUNG PEOPLE’S ILLIAD by A.J. Church … graduating to Samuel Butler’s late-19th-century translation…. In high school (or was it college?) I found the time on my own to read Alexander Pope’s poetic translation….”

From Thomas’ own story we can peel back the purpose of comic adaptations of traditional literature: reading motivation. Comic adaptations of traditional literature introduce old stories in new ways for contemporary readers and give them access to a story that would likely go unread. Just as Thomas discovered, reading those adaptations – presented on his level – allowed him a foundation from which to embark on a journey to read the original.

Despite the dogma of some academic circles, there are no rules governing when or how a reader engages a text. Certainly, an intellectual purist may choose only to read the original on his or her own, but most likely the average reader will only read classic stories when an instructor requires it. And he or she may or may not succeed beyond reading words, listening to lecture and passing an essay test. Those exercises do not necessarily guarantee connection or appreciation of the text. Furthermore, lectures and exams are not how literature is engaged in the real world. Just as with HARRY POTTER or the TWILIGHT series, real readers – engaged readers, passionate lovers of literature – stand in lines, recite quotes, and reflect upon their connection to their beloved stories. They care. Real reading is about love and motivation, excitement and engagement, passion and connectivity.

Unlike the typical college student, Thomas read THE ILIAD because he wanted to, because he needed to, because his first exposure to the classic tale gave him a reason to read. Certainly things were left out. Absolutely, the story was abbreviated and condensed. Equally indisputable is the fact that it was the comic adaptation that first brought Thomas to THE ILIAD; it is that adaptation that instilled reading motivation and the urge to tackle Pope’s translation.

So when I tell my friend that I just read THE ILIAD and he responds with “Why is Marvel doing that? What’s the point?” I can confidently explain to him the purpose of comic adaptations. It is my belief – supported by anecdotal experiences such as Thomas’ – that contemporary translations and adaptations of classic works build the foundation upon which more students can ultimately read, understand, connect with, and enjoy the original texts or classic translations.

When Thomas writes, “Every generation should have its own translations of THE ILIAD, one that speaks to it in its own special way” he taps into something profound and brings a modern connection to a classic works. Why do we insist on forcing students to come to literature, rather than bringing the literature to the students? Perhaps more comic adaptations will lead to a revitalization and appreciation of classic literature. If Thomas’ experience can be applied to a larger population, that revitalization and appreciation will occur.

Using comic adaptations of classic literature allows the educator to bring stories to students when they are young, building a solid literary foundation upon which students can use to help them understand and relate to the world around them and the world that came before them.

Literature – be it comic or prose, classic or modern, original or adapted – creates a powerful emotional response in the reader. We should expand our modes of thoughts and our arguments for “canon” to include all types of written word. Otherwise, we run the risk of relegating those beautiful old works to the dusty shelves of academia.

We can bring old and new together to form a new, rich, literary tradition where comics and prose and poetry, where original works and adaptations can be read simultaneously, appropriately and deeply.

1 comment:

Alison Webster said...

Chris hitting the nail right on the head, as usual.
Here in the UK new generations of kids are reading those same Classics illustrated and in a lot of caes being motivated to actually pick up the book. Great tools for teachers and parents alike. What was great, was to find that CI have now started to publish teachers resources to accompany the books. Superb!