Superheroes are simply modern versions of myths, many in the comics industry would argue. Stories of extraordinary feats and altruistic exploits can clearly trace their roots to the epics of ancient times. Modern culture is full of re-imaginings or re-treads of old sagas and oral traditions going back to the very earliest times when people gathered around campfires and tried to make some sense of things or inspire hope in an often brutal and unforgiving world. When a modern artist crafts an interpretation of an old story, it can often be accompanied by the baggage of modern critique. Did the artist put forth enough effort to make the work their own? Was their interpretation meaningful, necessary, or transformational? Did the artist succeed where others stumbled?
David Rubin’s The Hero defies expectations with regard to these questions. This post-modern adaptation of the Heracles (Hercules) legend focuses on the famous demigod and the idea that Heracles was arguably the first incarnation of what we know as the superhero. Winding through his rise, the Twelve Labors, and his destined downfall in two separate volumes, Rubin has crafted an extremely challenging yet forthright take on this tragic character.
Rubin’s world of ancient Greece is stuffed with futuristic contrivances such as smartphones, television, and other modern cultural themes. This is a very satisfying conceit, as it deftly encapsulates how magic could simply be considered technology too advanced to properly explain. This juxtaposition of the old and the modern serves the story well, as Rubin here has brought a progressive emotional take on the heroic ideas of burden, sacrifice, and fighting for the greater good. In Book 1, we follow the origins of Heracles’ birth and adolescence, and the first half-dozen or so of his legendary Labors in the service of Eurystheus, King of Mycenae. As every hero needs a nemesis, so has Heracles, in the form of Hera, wife of Zeus. Utterly consumed by her hatred and jealousy of Heracles, Hera relentlessly opposes him through Eurystheus, commanding Eurystheus to conjure up Labors even more ridiculous and suicidal than the last. Nevertheless, Heracles, being the consummate hero, smashes each Labor if not with his legendary strength, than with his considerable craftiness. Book 1 concludes as Heracles reaches a zenith in his career, beloved by all Greece, and at the height of his prowess and powers.
Rubin does not pull any punches with this story. This is a book expressly written for an adult audience, as explorations of emotional, physical, and sexual violence take center stage. Rubin, hailing from Spain, made a name for himself in the U.S. working with Paul Pope on the Battling Boy prequels. His art is at once sumptuous, expressive, and cartoony, which makes for a jarring experience considering the amount of violence present in this comic. Rubin takes all of the gore of the original myths and grinds it up like sausage, spitting it out on the panels full of reds, teeth, viscera, savagery, and black comedy. The ancient Greeks would surely be proud of this package. Book 1 of The Hero is a tremendous first half of a mythological gut-punch.
The Hero: Book 1
by David Rubin
Art by David Rubin
Dark Horse, 2015
Publisher Age Rating: Mature