Hamish Steele’s comic adaptation of the Ancient Egyptian creation myth is a six-out-of-five star masterpiece.
To find out about crowdfunding, the appeal of comics, and the process behind Pantheon and Deadendia, read our interview with Hamish Steele.
Mythic tales are proven by longevity to be the best and most memorable narratives available. Even the newest spate of retellings – see Neil Gaiman’s latest work, for example – can barely be called a trend, because these manifestations of civilisation’s oldest stories never lose momentum.
The creation myths of Ancient Egypt that have survived to be re-told today are as vast and varied as we might expect, considering the 6,000 years that civilisation spent adapting them into their own art and culture. In adaptation, as we’ve discussed in other places, things are lost and gained for the benefit of the medium into which a story is transposed. Even the most faithful is burdened by the soul of the original.
When starting his graphic novel, Pantheon: The True Story of the Egyptian Deities, Hamish Steele, creator of the webcomic Deadendia, aimed to tell the “most faithful and entertaining” version of these early myths within his illustrative powers.
The resulting book, originally self-published and now released in full colour by Nobrow Press, is beautiful in its bold creativity, with characters that provide endless wit and humour. The narrative, endorsed in the foreword to the colour edition by Egyptologist John J. Johnston, is clear, concise, “comprehensive”, and has been thoughtfully arranged – with charts and all sorts – to solve literally any problem of confused identity or misunderstanding of context.
In terms of storytelling, through all the techniques that comics allows, Pantheon can be reviewed as a perfect adaptation into the medium. But what’s really compelling is the question of that crafty claim within the book’s subheading. It’s unquestionably faithful – an official expert said so – but is Pantheon “true”?
We’re not about clickbait and conniving suspense here so let’s acknowledge straight away that it is. This deified term that haunts all creatives, truth, be it spiritual, human or perhaps moral, is fairly subjective after all, and so, fortunately for me, are reviews.
But there is an argument for capturing the intended spirit of a thing that Steele really nails with this book. He points out himself in his author’s note that the stories were never meant to be taken literally; a conclusion we can reach ourselves when considering how often, as fairly new tales, they were represented in artistic styles that are so open to interpretation.
Instead of the terror and doom that we might associate with godly vengeance on disrespecting humans, godly abandonment of humans they kind of accidentally massacred, godly rows with other godlies, and even more beyond the first 40 pages, Steele doesn’t let all the bloodthirsty whimsy take itself too seriously.
Inserting some kind of joke into every sequence – be it the playful appearance of gore and destruction, the “sexy and useful” application of body language, or self-referential dialogue like, “Oh my Isis, it’s Isis!” – the tone is one without care of consequences that instantly makes the characters’ strange decisions and non-action more digestible.
It’s revivifying to the reader as well, that a story so old at its bones can feel like its gone beyond progressive by refusing to judge any behaviour as transgressive. The whole amazing slab of pages, from end to end, achieves more nudity than your average HBO show, but it’s neither gratuitous nor futile. The original myths are rife with incest and homoerotic relationships, births and one giant golden penis.
Not to show the graphic content through the graphic form would be disingenuous, rendering the end result meaningless. But by not allowing his colourful characters to condemn each other for taboo behaviour – even murderous rampage is easily brushed aside as ephemeral inconvenience – Steele hands control to the reader to make what they will of his recreation.
To learn more in the creator’s own words, read our interview with Hamish Steele.
Image from Nobrow Press