I’d never heard of Edouard Cour’s Herakles before it was nominated for an Eisner for Best U.S. Edition of International Material, but then I’d only heard of 40 percent of the nominees in that category. The Eisners are weird, though, a mix of the Academy Awards, the Independent Spirit Awards and, say, Quentin Tarantino’s list of favorite films in a given year. There are always strange choices, things that didn’t make a bunch of year-end best-of lists. Herakles is one of these, but the awards are having their desired effect in shining a light on it. Book 1 (the nominated one) came out in July 2018, book 2 in January and book 3 came out on July 23. I also hadn’t heard of Cour, but considering that he was only 26 when book 1 came out in French (in 2012), I’m less surprised by that.
Most series that focus on mythology are more polished than Cour’s, like George O’Connor’s Olympians series for First Second. They’re pretty, full of tall, slender, well-muscled folks who remind one of classical statuary, and their lines and neat and clean. Cour’s book isn’t like that at all. It jumps straight into the action with almost no exposition, just a title card reading “Herakles must slay the lion with impenetrable golden fur that lives in the hills of Nemea.” But then, that’s the right way to start--in medias res, like Homer--for a story of this type. Besides, most of us know some of the background: 12 labors, some of which are more famous than others (Nemean lion, Hydra, maybe the stable cleaning); strongest man in the world, half-god. And that’s about all you actually need to know, although you’ll pick up on some of the hints much faster the better you know the story, and an understanding of the book’s literary predecessors may make it more palatable.
Cour departs from the tradition in the way he pictures his hero. Versions both classical and modern rely on his physical beauty: broad chest and shoulders, narrow waist, good-looking head of hair, nice jawline, good posture. Not this one. He’s scrambling up awkwardly over a hill when we meet him, a big, squarish sort of a dude with no defined musculature, more Juggernaut than Superman. His hair pokes out in all directions, his eyes are slits, and he looks like he doesn’t smell too good. Even his speech balloons are square, in contrast to everyone else’s more traditional rounded shapes. His fighting style isn’t elegant at all. It’s direct and brutal (though very effective), and he’s haunted by a host of darkly rendered ghosts from all the people he’s killed, for good reasons and bad. The gods, when they show up, are more like ghosts than idealized humans: large, mostly silhouettes, with glowing blue eyes and bad manners. They’re not something to aspire to. They’re short-tempered and impulsive and inclined to manipulate mortals to their own ends.
Herakles is stuck in this world. He experiences periodic rage blackouts, at the end of which he comes to only to find he’s murdered some more people, including those he loves. He doesn’t know what the hell is going on, and although he tries to follow the rules he’s been given, they keep changing on him. Cour’s images don’t look like the ones that run around the sides of Greek pottery, although there’s clearly a bit of black-figure influence in the silhouetted characters, and people are quickly recognizable by their shapes. Instead, they suggest a harsher version of Ingri and Edgar Parin d’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths, with a lot more motion and an early fight scene that features our hero’s wing-wang quite prominently. I think Cour is working digitally, but his pictures look like they’ve been made with colored pencils, just like the d’Aulaires’ much prettier pages. He doesn’t throw in too many colors at once.
Some scenes are total chaos, and the narrative can be choppy and unclear; the conclusion, in book 3, is both overly telegraphed and not laid out well enough. At its best, the book gets at the feel of Greek poetry more than Greek visual art, an aesthetic worldview far more alien to our own than the one that produced the sculptures we’re used to seeing. There’s scatological language throughout that isn’t creative, and Cour doesn’t bother trying to make any of his characters sympathetic. Herakles may be put upon, possibly cursed, but we don’t identify with him. He’s not an anti-hero. He’s just an alien being from an alien world who makes a lot of bad decisions and isn’t particularly bright. We feel adrift in this universe, which is, I think, the intended effect. The critic Harold Bloom’s central thesis was that a great strangeness that didn’t fade with the decades was the defining characteristic of great literature. Cour’s book isn’t that great literature, but it is a mostly successful attempt to capture the weirdness of the Homeric epics.