Superman has been around since June of 1938, for over seventy-seven years. For at least the last twenty, and almost certainly longer, many critics and commentators have questioned whether the big blue boy scout is still relevant in the current age, suggesting that he may no longer be a hero with a place in the modern world.
Heracles has been around for millennia. His cults long preceded any citation by Homer or Aeschylus, and may themselves find antecedent in Egyptian worship of the same mythic figure as early as the 21st century Before Christ.
I was first exposed to the character when I came across a copy of Bulfinch’s Mythology in the third grade. I immediately fell in love with his summations of the foundational stories of all western culture, all steeped in rich Attic flavors which the Norse and Egyptian myths could never match. Favorites included Theogony, the Titanomachy, Prometheus and Pandora, Deucalion and the great Deluge, the rape of Persephone, Phaeton son of Helios, Daedalus and Icarus, Apollo and Daphne, Orpheus and Eurydice, Pygmalion and Galatea, Eros and Psyche, and of course, the Twelve Labors of Heracles.
Several years later Disney brought Hercules to life in an eponymously titled animated musical. It was the first occasion in which I’d been exposed to the source material prior to experiencing an adaptation. Between the faithless, infantilized translation from myth to movie and the fact that the film stood in the immediate shadow of the Disney Renaissance (1989’s The Little Mermaid through 1994’s The Lion King), I walked out of the theater utterly disappointed.
This was the baggage I brought into reading Abnett and Ross’ Hercules #1. If the Last Son of Krypton is so difficult to write given modern sensibilities, how much more so the half-son of Zeus? If Disney at their creative zenith was not capable of doing justice to the ur-hero, could their subsidiary Marvel revive the character during one of the comic publisher’s most creatively bankrupt periods (Hickman’s Avengers run notwithstanding)?
Abnett sidesteps the later while diving headfirst into the former. There is certainly an acknowledgment of the accounts written by Euripides, Virgil, et al, but this never feels like the same character who wrestled Antaeus and slew Ladon. I like this book not because I like the mythic figure Hercules but entirely despite the fact.
Ignoring the disconnect, Abnett can be seen to have created an utterly compelling original character. Here is a man whose great deeds are behind him, who knew how it felt to be a hero once and now only feels emptiness in the absence of that vocation, who does not himself know whether his copious consumption of libations constitutes revelry or despondence. And he is also a man who wants none of that to be true a minute longer, who wants to face the world head on and held high again. That’s an eminently relatable character, perhaps not for everyone, but after the last year I can definitely relate.
Per a conversation with fellow demigod of old Gilgamesh:
“You’re a hero, Gil. The world always needs those.”
“Not our kind, Herak. We don’t have capes, or rocket-boots, or… web-shooter things.”
“Maybe. But we’ve got experience, Gil. More than most. More than any.”
“Huh! Too much!”
“Aye. I’m going to get you back in the game, Gil. You can help me make some new myths.”
This here is the promise I’ll be sticking around to see if Abnett delivers on. Just as I can always read back issues of Superman prior to DC’s total reinvention of the character post-Flashpoint, so too can I always go back to Edith Hamilton or Bulfinch’s or Mythology for the Hercules I’ve grown up loving. It’s a new day and I’m ready for some new myths. If they happen to feature a Hercules who wields a taser, machine gun, and thermal imaging specs, all the better.