Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Comics You Should Own – ‘Adrastea’

Come for the giant mechanical man, stay for the immortality!

Adrastea by Mathieu Bablet (writer/artist) and Mike Kennedy (translator).

Published by Magnetic Press (originally published in French in 2016).

This isn’t really a SPOILER kind of book, but watch out anyway!

Myths and legends are low-hanging fruit for writers, as they provide ready-made plots that are usually fraught with metaphor and symbolism, so writers can graft whatever they want onto them and make their points. That’s certainly true of Bablet’s Adrastea, which looks like a simple mythic journey but has more on its mind than that. Bablet sets the book in Greece during the so-called “Heroic Age,” when a Sphinx hung out in ruins and told strange riddles, Harpies flew across the land, and the gods gossiped about and plotted against humans. It feels familiar, as so much of Greek mythic culture has seeped into our own culture, and so we’re comfortable with sphinxes and satyrs and mer-people. Bablet uses this to his advantage, as his book is much more a meditation than a narrative – our hero goes on a quest, sure, but like a lot of good fiction, it’s a fruitless quest on one hand, as the tangible object he’s seeking turns out to be something more transcendental, if he can only understand it. Bablet gives us the familiar in order to ruminate on the meaning of life without overwhelming us. Myths are perfect for something like that. And, because myths can be strange – I doubt if any of us has ever met an actual sphinx – they aren’t instantly relatable to our own personal lives, so they can be more universal. We might not have to worry about the problems of immortality, but we might be able to relate to a spouse dying too soon or a child who doesn’t respect their parent. Myths can bring those elements into their telling and make themselves more humanistic without being so specific they exclude others. That is also what Bablet does in this book.

Our hero, a nameless king of Hyperborea (the ancient Greeks generally used this term to mean “anything north of Greece”), is immortal, and he doesn’t know why. When he was a child, he regurgitated a small, round stone whenever he ate anything, and eventually, he stopped eating so he wouldn’t puke up any more stones. He did not die, though, and so he grew to manhood, and people just assumed he was immortal. When he becomes king, he marries and procreates, but of course, his wife ages, and his child resents his father. A millennium later, the king leaves his decrepit city and decides to seek out the gods and find out why he has been cursed with immortality. This quest is the bulk of the book.

Due to the general lack of a significantly exciting plot, the book is a bit meandering, but that’s fine for a few reasons. One of those reasons is the way Bablet examines the king’s life and his regrets and what happens because of that. Every vignette that occurs in the book is somehow relevant to his quest (which is the nature of quest fiction, of course), but because the object of his quest is esoteric, the vignettes aren’t necessarily action-packed set pieces that add tangible things to his quest, but emotional signposts along his way to understanding. Despite some action, the book is very meditative, and the king has to learn more about himself before he’s ready to understand his dilemma.

Obviously, a lot of fiction deals with what makes us “us,” and Bablet uses the king’s quest to examine that conundrum. Even before he goes on the quest, his marriage is shaky and his parenting is suspect, two things that are important to society and so are a big part of any examination of “personhood.” But when he leaves the ruins of Hyperborea (ruination is a big part of the book, which I’ll discuss when I’m writing more about the art), his experiences become more about who he is and what his purpose is. It has been a thousand years, so his memory is failing, and throughout the book he’ll talk to himself about memories he has of his life and whether they can be trusted. Our memories make up who we are, so a man whose memory is failing cannot be said to be a whole human being, and the king frets about this. The Sphinx’s riddle sparks a memory within him, and he’s able to answer her query. The answer speaks to his immortality and the failing of it, and sets him on his journey. He finds a decrepit shrine to Rhea, the Earth goddess, and remembers her, which is another small step along the way. However, he doesn’t stay to worship her, even though she begs him, because he has lived long enough to see the folly of worship. Rhea represents the old ways, and after the king leaves, several young women destroy her shrine, making a break from the old and shepherding in the new. The king, a seemingly young man even though he’s a thousand years old, straddles these two eras, which is why so many people are interested in him. When he reaches Abdera, a city in Thrace, he’s approached by an unctuous soldier, Nicarchos, who follows him around for a time. Nicarchos tells him of the rumors of an immortal man, and our hero has to convince him that he’s not the droid they’re looking for, which he does, for a time. We also learn that the city is locked in a war with Pella, another Greek city, which is ruled, according to the soldier, by a “lustful whore” of a queen. She offended the gods somehow, and they cursed her with barrenness, so she forces every man in the kingdom to have sex with her in the hopes she’ll get pregnant. Why this leads to war is unclear, but there it is. The Sphinx’s riddle is about a man who turns away from the folly of war, yet the king finds a city engaged in a foolish war itself. He also discovers mindless and bloody worship of gods who may or may not be present to answer anymore, but his companion tells him that the rituals must be observed. Nicarchos and his city represent human vanity – he wants immortality and thinks someone who is immortal is not only lucky, but selfish. The king, like most immortal beings in fiction, wants nothing more to give it up, but he doesn’t know how and knows it would do Nicarchos and his ilk no good anyway. They are all fools, and the king has no use for them.

He leaves the city behind, fights Polyphemus the Cyclops, and has a fever dream in which he remembers meeting his own son, now an old man while he remains young. It’s a very metatextual moment, because he’s actually in a theater, and the scene plays out as if he’s in the play, but he’s also imagining it. He shows that he still hasn’t learned enough, as he blames his son for his son’s anger, even though it stems from the father’s selfishness. As the king collapses from the strain of memory, he’s taken away by guards to the “lustful whore” of a queen, the ruler of Pella. She wants his immortality because she can’t achieve immortality in the way humans are meant to – by passing along the bloodline to children. Her curse means that she’ll die without issue, and her name will die with her. Unlike the king, who can’t die but does have the ability to have children, she will die but can’t have children. His ability to procreate is rendered meaningless by his immortality, while her inability has made her own life meaningless. The city is attacked by Talos – the giant bronze guardian of Crete – and the king escapes, but not before promising to lift her curse. It is easier, after all, to help someone else than confront your own demons, and the king would rather have an external quest than an internal one.

He finally reaches Mt. Olympus, but the gods are no help. The gods, as they often are in mythology, are largely ineffectual, and they bicker like children, which makes sense as they’re not actually real adults, but just stock representations of abstract ideas. We do find out that the queen of Pella is not quite blameless in her curse, but it’s still a childish curse, and Artemis, who leveled it, lifts it just as easily. They tell the king there’s something more powerful than gods, and he needs to go to the underworld to finish his quest. Of course, because he’s in the underworld, he’s confronted with the dead, and this, more than anything external, helps him understand his immortality and what to do about it. He regains his memory, leading to a good epiphanic moment, and he’s ready to head back out into the world. Granted, his epiphany isn’t the most shocking realization in the world, but because Bablet has taken him on this journey and he’s seen so much of life – both the good and the bad – it feels earned. Yes, it’s the journey and not the destination and all that, so we can expect at the beginning that the ending might not be what the king expects, but the way Bablet manages to keep things subtle as the king moves through the world (until the very end, because that’s the nature of epiphanies) is nicely done. We might understand, on a basic level, what the king figures out, but it means more because we’ve seen so many unusual people along the way, doing some good and some bad things. Even the gods, which can represent God in a Christian milieu or just anthropomorphized abstract ideas, are unimportant to the king in the grand scheme of things. He craves something more, and he finds it at the end of the world.

Bablet’s art also fits the tone of the book, as his amazingly detailed world is full of natural and untamed beauty and a sense of decaying civilization, almost a reflection of the king, who is immortal like nature but has allowed his life to fall apart. Early on, Bablet does something that we might not notice at first glance but becomes important later. When the king talks to his wife, we never see her entire face. She’s facing away from the reader or we get a small portion of her face, the rest cut off by the panel borders. It’s noticeable but not exactly noteworthy until, a thousand years later, the king leaves his city and he can’t recall a good deal of his life. The conversation with his wife is not a flashback, but we come to understand that he himself doesn’t remember exactly what she looks like, so their conversation is a nice bit of foreshadowing.

The art is magnificent throughout the book. Part of the theme of the book is entropy and how the king, shockingly, resists it, so Bablet’s world reflects that beautifully. Early on, before the millennium-jump, Hyperborea is presented as a bit of a paradise – the stones are cut and polished, nature exists alongside civilization in a seemingly symbiotic relationship, and the light is bright. When the king is older and he has his conversation with his wife, Bablet paints the sky a darker blue and the queen coughs up blood, staining the shining tiles, and the greenery is creeping into the rock. When the king finally leaves his city, nature has almost reclaimed it, as trees and vines grow everywhere and animals run free rather than sitting sedately as they did in the city’s heyday. Once out in the world, the king exists in a massive and stunning world, each vista more impressive than the last, and while this was the way of the world for centuries, before humans developed machines to tame the landscape and so Bablet isn’t inventing anything, it still feels like a metaphor for the smallness of humanity and their tiny place in the world. His landscapes are fierce and powerful, and he often shows them from odd angles and odd perspectives, so that the king is walking through a kaleidoscopic frenzy that seems alive and dangerous. Even Abdera, which is a big city, feels decrepit, and it’s interesting how Bablet implies the idea that most people have about their own times and times past – the “golden age” is always in the past, and the present is a dim shadow of it. The people of Abdera, who are even living in a “heroic age” – Heracles has a cameo in this book – are living in the ruins of a better civilization, one the immortal man represents. He’s a link to that past, which is why people are interested in him, and their run-down city is an external indication of that. Pella, where the cursed queen lives, is different – it’s much nicer, more in harmony with the natural world, more like the king’s city back when he ruled a thriving metropolis. Bablet makes sure to color the first scenes between the king and the queen of Pella in blue tones, reflecting her despair over being childless, but it also links Pella to Mt. Olympus, which is also deeply blue, because the queen carries a curse from the gods. Olympus, of course, is baroque and chilling, but Bablet’s vision of the underworld is truly amazing, as it’s all rectangular tiles and rigid angles, a sterile and foreboding environment in which the dead live. It’s creepy and the slightest bit modern, leading us to believe that the true death is the divorce from nature that it (and the modern world) represents, and the ending of the book, where the king returns to the natural world, seems to back that up. It’s all done visually, and it works very well.

He gives us visually interesting characters, too. The king is largely nondescript, but that’s fine, as he’s an everyman type character (an immortal one, sure, but still an everyman). His Sphinx is a terrifyingly beguiling creature, luring the king in and then revealing her monstrous parts, so he’s ensnared before he knows to get away. The zombie army she conjures is weirdly Harryhausenian, and we can almost hear the clanking as they approach the king with murderous intent. The religious ritual the king stumbles into is full of blood and sex, and it’s a horror show of the worst of humanity even though Nicarchos sees it as the best of them. The attack by Polyphemus a wonderfully staged action piece, which sets the scene for the two times Talos shows up – once in Pella, when the king runs from the mechanical monster as it crashes through the city, and again in the underworld, when the king has to fight it but doesn’t know how. There’s even a somewhat unnecessary panel showing the king running across stone columns set in a lake in which Bablet shows us what’s under the water – mer-people killing a giant squid – and it’s a gorgeous scene, giving us again another kind of perspective on this weird world. The final few pages, when the king meets his fate, are astonishingly beautiful and sum up Bablet’s point excellently without words – the art is enough.

Despite the lack of a very good plot, Adrastea has a lot on its mind, and Bablet does a good job taking us on this journey with the king. He makes some good points about humanity, and the book is an examination of humanity, so the fact that he’s making these points works in its favor! It’s a gorgeous, thoughtful book, and it has some interesting exciting parts because it’s not all philosophical, and it has a giant mechanical man attacking cities! How can you not love it? Something seems to be wrong with our Amazon links, so here’s one that I hope works? (We can’t do images anymore, but this one should work, I think.) It’s a European comic! Those are super-classy!

If you’re interested in the archives, you know where to find them!

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