Page 45 Review by Stephen
"He really appreciates you, my love...
"But he seems sad...
"I think he's the simplest and most complicated man I've ever known."
Behold the thrilling Twelve Labours of Hercules, here played largely for laughs, and successfully so!
Although that doesn't prevent it from becoming incredibly touching before, during and immediately after the scene quoted about, when the big galoot - on his way to Thrace to steal the Man-Eating Mares from tyrannical King Diomedes - stops by at King Admetus's gaff, finds his friend as open-armed as ever, but the city silent in mourning. Admetus excuses himself for he must attend the funeral, but he won't say whose it is.
Oblivious even before becoming blind drunk, Herakles helps himself to the hospitality on offer, roaring with laughter at his own clumsiness before finally realising that no one's joining in. The funeral, you see is for the kingdom's queen, Admetus's very own wife.
The subsequent panel is a picture of self-searching and searing, red-cheeked shame.
It's a swear word in Ancient Greek. All the swearing is in Ancient Greek. It's a cumulatively funny joke set up so well in advance that it doesn't have to be signposted here. Because here, it isn't funny.
"S-sir...? Wh-where are you going?"
He's going to Hell. More accurately, he's going to Hades, and he will bring Queen Alcestis back.
Cour doesn't signpost this, either, but at the risk of a slight spoiler, the spectral figures you'll find silently haunting Herakles throughout are his own wife and three kids whom he killed with his own hands in a volcano of rage visited upon him by the goddess Hera.
Oh, how the gods do love to interfere with mortals in most mythologies - see Neil Gaiman's SANDMAN, for a start.
To seek atonement, the half-god, half-human visited the Delphic Oracle where he was told to submit for twelve years to King Eurystheus and perform whatever tasks were commanded of him, hence, these Twelve Labours. I imagine all of that will come out in book two.
Instead Edouard Cour throws us straight into round one, in which our hulking Herakles must slay The Lion With Impenetrable Golden Fur. Hilariously, on very first sight, he flexes his bow and sends an arrow flying lion-wards. It "ptong"s uselessly off the beast's back. Well, of course it does. We are reminded immediately afterwards: "...The Lion With Impenetrable Golden Fur".
Charging up to the summit he spied it leaping down from, Herakles sees only a lake.
"Well... I guess I could use a bath..."
He strips and dives gamely in. On surfacing, he discovers the The Lion With Impenetrable Golden Fur waiting patiently for him on land, as dry as a British country meadow right now.
Other Ancient Greek swears include "orkis" and "proktos". I think you'll understand the latter at least without any input from me.
Now, I don't know how many other sources there are for the Twelve Labours Of Hercules, but mine was (and remains) 'Fabulae Faciles' which, aged 9, I had to translate from Latin. Not all of it, single-handedly: as a class we were each assigned chapters or paragraphs which we had to prepare in advance then read out in front of the headmaster who resembled no one more closely in both stature and temperament than Marvel's Wilson Fisk, Kingpin of crime. He once shook a boy - who had already been made to stand in a corner, facing away from the rest of us in disgrace - so hard by the scruff of his neck that he fainted.
I won't tell you what he did to the 1st XV rugby team, except in private.
But back to Latin and basically this: you didn't want to get it wrong.
So although you have to contend here both with my wonky memory and my wiffy language skills, those skills were at least enhanced by a certain degree of... motivation. And I can tell you this: Cour has stayed absolutely true to what I read, with but one later digression added earlier on in order to, I presume, balance things out a bit (this takes you up to and includes the 8th Labour; the digressions in 'Fabulae Faciles' became much more extensive as the extraordinary feats progressed). However, he has elaborated considerably on what was pretty brief, bare-bones, almost perfunctory narration with his own comedic panache and cleverly extrapolated detail.
For example, Herakles did take to wearing the fleece of That Lion With The Impenetrable Golden Fur, flopping down from its skull which he wore on his head as a helm, but it's never explained exactly how he skinned said Impenetrable Fur. It's Impenetrable, right? Well, it is explained here, and craftily so.
Secondly, I don't recall ancient Greeks sitting on wooden, civic park benches. They do in round two, while giving our dim one directions to the lair of The Hydra That Breathes Deadly Poison.
Thirdly, although it was made clear that poor King Eurystheus did dispatch Herakles on more than one errand simply to get rid of the goon because he feared the company of such a strong, able and determined individual with the capacity to improvise in a flash, it was never to my knowledge suggested that he set him the challenge to Clean The Stable Of King Augeas Of Elis simply to humiliate Herakles.
But it makes so much sense! Think about it: almost all of the Labours Of Hercules are feats of monumental physical prowess involving capturing or killing feared powerhouses - the besting of beasts, some of which like the Hydra could regenerate - whereas suddenly he's set the seemingly incongruous, low-level, dirty task of clearing out the cowshed! And it seems a Sisyphean task, what with all the plop being dropped 24/7 by cattle. However, see improvisation / lateral thinking!
I wish I had! I grew up on a dairy farm, so that was once my morning mission, slopping out the shippen. True fact! Also true fact: I liked it!
Anyway, my point is this: Cour has gone to enormous trouble not only to provide us with a most mischievous entertainment, but to think things through so carefully and cleverly that he adds logically to the mythology while staying entirely true. The one major departure is the invention of a mocking shadow subconscious - and, you know, all the dialogue.
Herakles himself is rendered with a sort of exaggerated Marc Hempel heft - a more-than-mortal bulk to rival his foes', rather than a mere circus muscleman - which gives him both gravity and gravitas. Those foes are as exotic as you would hope for and also include a Giant Boar, a Giant Bull, Man-Eating Birds with razor-sharp feathers, and a side-serving of centaurs after the ever-thirsty Herakles helps himself to their stash of wine.
What's probably struck you most strongly, however, are the colours, so fulsome and vibrant that they radiate heat and dominate the page. I don't have a full range for you here, but when they disappear under a snow storm for a scene of sombre reflection, it's therefore startling, with the shades of his wife and three children standing together, adrift but united in silent judgement...