Saturday, February 6, 2010

The Big Guy -- Achilles

I’ve never tried to hide my debt to the comic books of my youth. The Trademark Universe itself is one boy’s (now man’s) passionate homage to the creative writers and artists at Marvel and DC who inspired my youthful imagination. I can wholly understand if someone sees Worlds Apart for the first time and immediately starts matching up Trademark heroes and villains with their Marvel and DC analogs.

Obviously, Achilles owes much if not all of his character to Marvel’s Asgardian and Olympian stalwarts, Thor and Hercules. If you want to call Achilles a Thor/Herc knock-off, well, knock yourself out. First, however, let me explain a little bit more about his genesis and addition to the Trademark Universe. You may find yourself second-guessing your first impression.

Before I knew the Lee/Kirby versions of Thor and Hercules, I knew Achilles. Myths and legends comprised 100% of my reading in the first and second grades. Well, maybe “reading” is a tad exaggerated. The Coe School library had some pretty cool children’s collections of Greek, Norse, and Arthurian tales. Paramount for a young Mark Kozak stood a pair of vividly illustrated compendiums: D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths and D’Aulaires’ Book of Norse Myths.

Reading contemporary reviews of the d’Aulaires’ two books, which are still available on I might add, the verdict is unanimous. These books, and especially the illustrations, make an impression on young readers that remain locked in their memories for the remainder of their lives. I thrilled to the d’Aulaires’ renderings of Hercules and Thor long before I saw my first issue of Journey Into Mystery or The Mighty Avengers.

When I first began creating my own comic book stories, then, the myths and legends I knew played as much a role in my characters as the DC Comics I venerated. My first quasi-mytho-legendary hero wasn’t Achilles, however. Instead, I roughed out some very raw stories featuring a time-transplanted hero of Arthurian persuasion, a certain flower of chivalry known as Sir Launcelot. I will address these early pre-Trademark efforts in subsequent posts.

The main point here is that I felt an instinctual need to combine myth, legend, and superheroics several years prior to discovering Lee & Kirby’s Thor. If I was “ripping off” anyone with my take on Sir Launcelot, Prince Valiant would be the victim. My childhood barber, Hank Janik of Hank’s Barber Shop fame, had a table filled with old comic books for his younger clientele: Prince Valiant, The Phantom, etc. To this day, I still remember those old, tattered funny books, which could have fetched hundreds of dollars at comic book conventions if they were in mint condition. Of course, I couldn’t follow the dense narrative in the Prince Valiant issues, but the artwork certainly captured my pre-literate fancy.

When I began reading Marvel comics a few years later, the Asgardian and Olympian gods immediately became some of my favorite characters. Given my love of mythology, I already knew quite a bit about the archetypes Lee & Kirby were reinventing. When I saw Tyre or Heimdall or Ares for the first time, I already knew who they were and what they represented. With every issue of The Mighty Thor, I marveled (no pun intended) at the cool, epic storylines spun from the fabric of the Norse and Greek myths I’d already internalized.

As I began conceiving the Trademark Universe, I knew my heroic pantheon would need to be peopled with gods and heroes of the same stature as Marvel’s Asgardian and Olympian contingent. Not wanting characters merely identical to Marvel’s deities, I fashioned the Elementals, a subject I discuss in a previous blog. While the Elementals certainly provided me the super-powerful godlike entities I desired, I quickly realized they weren’t enough. Something was missing.

I discovered what I lacked when I began to conceive my first superhero team, the Protectors. Obviously patterned after the mighty Avengers, I faced the same problem Tony Stark encountered when he began creating his New Avengers several years back. As Stark explained to Ms. Marvel, the team needed a “Thor.” I, too, sensed the same dearth when I marshaled my prospective roster for the Protectors.

If my new team was truly to be The World’s Greatest Heroes, I needed a blockbusting representative from the myths and legends I loved. More importantly, the Protectors needed a Thor, a bedrock of raw fighting prowess about which the other team members could assemble. With super-tough-guys Thor and Hercules already taken by Marvel, I looked through my edition of Bernard Evslin’s Gods, Demigods, and Demons for MY Thor.

Theseus? Too obscure and not badass enough. Meleager? Talk about obscure! Atlas? Possibly. I flirted momentarily with Gilgamesh, but I couldn’t get past the unsavory elements of his character. Samson? No, that would bring the whole Bible into the mix, and I was trying to keep things simple. I toyed with the notion of Sir Launcelot again, but he was too woefully mortal.

I needed a guy who was going to kick ass and take names, the kind of hero a “normal Joe” super-baddy would flee immediately. My mind drifted to the Trojan War, to a certain invincible, hot-headed demigod prince who clashed with kings and gods head-on and never backed down from any fight. Achilles, Son of Peleus, would be my Thor. And, unlike Marvel’s somewhat watered-down characterizations of Hercules and Thor, my demigod would be torn from the pages of Homer himself, strutting and fretting upon the pages of The Protectors, dysfunctional warts and all.

Just recently I finished Caroline Alexander’s The War That Killed Achilles. I find her take on Homer’s Achilles fairly spot-on: arrogant, immature, petulant, but still heroic in the final summation. Other epics and cycles of Greek mythology also deal with the figure of Achilles: the Aethiopis, the Achillead, the Cypria. In these works, however, Achilles is more superhero than human.

In the renderings of Achilles I read as a boy, authors like Bernard Evslin and Edith Hamilton drew their sketches from all these sources. When I created my own Trademark version of Achilles, I kept the superhuman aspects of the character, while also shading him with much of Homer’s three-dimensional elements. On the negative side, he would brood, feud, and often enter the blackest moods. On the positive side, he lived for the glory of battle, and a Protector could find no better comrade-in-arms if the chips were down.

For more on Achilles, let’s turn to the Titanic Trademark Handbook:

Achilles (No secret identity, but will often refer to himself in the third person as the Son of Peleus) The fabled Trojan War hero was resurrected by the Protectors in their battle against the mythic super-baddie Antaeus, son of Gaia. Achilles is a super-strong, relentless fighting machine whose body is invulnerable save for a small molecule-sized spot on his right “Achilles” heel. Needless to say, after spending a few millennia in a coma because of Paris’ lucky shot during the Trojan War, Achilles now wears a pretty sturdy pair of adamantium boots. But as we know in the super-biz... stuff happens.

Since his resurrection, Achilles has proven a staple in the Protectors line-up. Unlike Marvel’s Norse and Greek gods, however, Achilles did have to learn English. Luckily, fellow Protector Flurry, a virtual immortal herself, knew ancient Greek well enough to serve as the Son of Peleus’ translator and tutor.

Not the brightest of super-guys, Achilles still has problems with modern English at times, which causes him frustration. Anyone who’s read the Iliad knows this warrior-prince can be a real hot-head, too, and his three-thousand-year nap didn’t really cool him off much.

Weapons -- An invulnerable suit of adamantium armor forged by Hephaestus (not that he needs it much) and a battle sword that cuts through just about everything.

Personal Items -- Achilles is a bit of a womanizer who has cut a swath through the hearts of various super-heroines, most especially Flurry, Howitzer, Clarion, Driad, Maze, and Slice. He’s also walked on the dark side, bedding marquee villainesses like Morningstar and Paradise. Needless to say, none of these relationships fared very well, and the son of Peleus is still a confirmed bachelor.

Achilles’ best friend is the sometime superhero Cheetah, who has marketed his super-abilities into a lucrative Hollywood action-hero career. Both men are incurable womanizers who can dive off the libertine deep end if not properly supervised. Among the Protectors, Achilles is closest to Flurry and Airfoil. He respects Silver Streak, but still challenges his authority at times. One Protector Achilles does not challenge is Hangman, who basically gives the Son of Peleus the proverbial willies.

No comments: