Orpheus, the son of one of the Muses, is gifted with the talent of music. His playing of the lyre is so beautiful that even rocks creep closer and the waters still just to hear him play. He wins over the heart of Eurydice to be his bride through the sound of his lyre and voice. But tragedy strikes on their wedding day when a poisonous fanged serpent bites Eurydice on her ankle and kills her instantly. Determined to test the limits of his abilities, Orpheus grabs his lyre and heads to the underworld to achieve the impossible—bringing Eurydice back to life.
One of the things I like most about Orpheus in the Underworld is that it’s a pretty decent adaptation of a famous tale. Not only that, but unlike other versions I’ve read or heard, this one takes the time to let us get to know Orpheus and why he could go to the underworld. Instead of just saying “He lost his love and went looking for her. Oh, and right he was great with music too.” we get to hear about his mother being one of the Muses, how he practiced his talent and wasn’t just gifted it, how he fell in love, and how Eurydice died thanks to another god’s child. Then, and only then, do we get to his journey to the underworld. It’s nice to have an actual story to follow for a change. Does it tell everything? No, but that includes an entire epic that is quite long. Most of the time people just discuss the death bit and attach a crappy moral to it. Instead, this version allows us to get to know the characters on their own.
Here’s where I’m going to ding the book a little bit, because I’ve really come to expect exceptional production quality from Toon Books and Orpheus in the Underworld falters in a couple of places. Right at the beginning, a couple of the images look as though they were enlarged to take up more space on the page than was originally intended. As such, some of the lines are fuzzier than in the rest of the book. It doesn’t kill the overall book, and maybe if I wasn’t as attuned to illustrations I wouldn’t notice, but it does present some weird contrasts of sharp crisp lines, then fuzzy lines, then sharp crisp ones again. The other thing that bugs me, and again this sounds weird, is the font choice. It’s just too formal and cold versus something that could match the life and depth of the illustrations. It just doesn’t jive well for me, because the illustrations have an air of depth to them. I mean, there’s a scene halfway through the book where Orpheus enters the underworld for the first time and sees the stillness of the place and, instead of just showing rocks and unswirling dark pools, it’s this giant cave with a field of flowers and trees not moving. And you get this epic sense of quiet and stillness. The font just doesn’t match it.
Looking past the font, there are some really great artistic choices in this book. For starters Pommaux draws Cerberus, the three headed dog that guards the underworld, with snakes on his body, which is apparently something that he is supposed to have, but never gets included. Who knew? I also liked that Hades is actually pictured looking more like the classic renditions of Zeus, with just a bit of red mixed into his clothing instead of a depressed emo goth type or a a being made of flame. Hades is Zeus’s equal in many regards and this depiction puts him in that place, which is nice.
Overall this is a great addition to the Toon Books line of adaptations of Greek myths. It has some minor flaws to it, but the depth to the story and the quality of the illustrations outweigh those flaws. In addition, there are some great notes and resources included that allow for readers to learn more about the characters. Orpheus in the Underworld could be a good way to introduce English classes, especially middle/high school age, to Greek myths. Reading the story on the page, especially a normal translation of the tale, can be painful to read with outdated language and phrasing. This series gives readers a visual narrative to follow, so they can make a connection and understand. It also allows for discussions on different ways of interpreting and understanding different tales, as you can discuss why Cerberus in this book has snakes, or why Hades looks like an actual king instead of an emo flame. A great way to introduce a complex topic to multiple ages.
It’s also important to note that the story is not fully told through the comics medium. Many pages are more like a children’s book, with a large image accompanied by narrative text.
Orpheus in the Underworld: A TOON Graphic
by Yvan Pommaux
Toon Books, 2015
Publisher Age Rating: 8-12 years