I’ve always been a fan of Greek and Roman Mythology but I have never been a big fan of Hercules – a.k.a. Heracles, a.k.a. Herkales, a.k.a. Hercle. Maybe it’s because I grew up with the image of Hercules being Lou Ferrigno and most of the Hercules stories of the time being built around the image of Hercules as the quintessential jock – strong of limb and slow of wit. This was an unfair portrayal, I found out later, when I finally saw the much better movies starring Steve Reeves which were more mythological accurate. It was in these films that I first saw a Hercules who showed off a head for strategy as well as his mighty muscles.
The “Herc” of Ryan Foley’s Legend: The Labors Of Heracles falls neatly into this later mold. He is a man of action but also a man of wit and cunning. Told through the frame story of a Roman teacher speaking to her pupil as they wander the city, this volume tells us the story of Heracles – a bastard son of Zeus, born to a great destiny. Despite this, Zeus’ wife Hera was jealous of her husband’s affairs and continually sought to kill the women involved and the resulting children.
Heracles proves to be too hardy for this, strangling the snakes Hera sent to kill him as an infant. Hera bided her time, waiting until Heracles was grown and married with children of his own. Enchanted to see his family as monsters, Heracles killed them in a rage. When he recovered his wits, he wandered until he came to Delphi, where Apollo’s oracle charged him to do ten tasks for his cousin Eurystheus as penance. And so begins one of the greatest epics of all time, condensed into eighty illustrated pages.
Foley’s script is a good one, neatly conveying all of Heracles’ struggles without seeming rushed – a mind-blowing task given the space involved. Sadly, the artwork of Sankha Banerjee doesn’t hold up quite so well. Banerjee’s realistic style suits the subject matter well but it is unevenly inked, appearing far too sketchy. The coloring is also inconsistent, with Hercules hair shifting between brown and blonde at different points in the narrative. But worst of all is the lettering, which employs a number of inappropriate fonts for the “WHACK!”s and “SLASH!”s in the action scenes.
This book, like all the Campfire Graphic Novels series, is meant (and I am quoting from the Campfire Mission Statement in the front of the book) “To entertain and educate young minds…” This suggests this series is aimed at children but there is a lot of content in this volume that seems remarkably out of place in a graphic novel for elementary school students. Hercules’ Ninth Labor, for instance, makes no bones about the fact that Hercules slept with the Amazon queen Hippolyta in exchange for her girdle. While there is no nudity, I found the images of Hippolyta in a form-fitting diaphanous robe romancing Hercules to be rather risqué and the narrator notes that Heracles’ was “a virile man” when discussing what Hippolyta demanded of him. Mention is also made of the ivory bull that became the obsession of the wife of King Minos of Crete and how his queen’s display of “uncontrollable passion” for the animal gave birth to the Minotaur.
I’d advise any librarians in conservative communities to be cautious about including this book in their collections. This is all true to the original myths, of course, but there are many illustrated guides to Greek and Roman Mythology that cover the same subject matter without being quite so explicit and are equally fun to read.