Laura Jenkinson is not your typical Classics teacher: in her classroom, myths and legends take shape in cartoon form. As stick figures, Odysseus, Hector, Ajax, and the rest of the Trojan War gang guide her students through the worlds of the Iliad and Odyssey.
On Greek Myth Comix she shares the fun with the rest of us, breathing new life into tales many of us struggled with in school and rekindling our passion for the classics. She chatted with us about why her stick figures have no faces, teaching the smartphone generation, and how art helps her manage anxiety.
Why did you first start creating Classics comics?
First, a New Year’s Resolution to be more creative, and second, an A-level Classics student applying for animation courses who asked me to help him make a portfolio. When we were studying the duels in the Iliad, he’d made an excellent booklet of stickmen fighters to illustrate it, which got me thinking about other Classics references we could illustrate. I figured we’d egg each other on — in fact, I drew way more than him!
The word hamartia, the tragic flaw that brings about a hero’s downfall, first appears in Aristotle.
I started Greek Myth Comix two years ago, inspired by my students — I asked them what concepts they’d like explained visually, and it went from there; I think the first one was hamartia.
Why stick figures?
I really like the simplicity of stick men; I used to draw massive stickmen battles as a kid. You can get a lot of physical expression out of a simple assortment of lines.
Did you ever consider giving the characters eyes, noses, and mouths?
I did. But it’s been done before, and I hate it when someone puts a face to a character, when we all already have our own imagined versions. These stories were orally-transmitted tales that worked with the power of listeners’ imaginations: who am I to dictate what those imaginations see?
Since children love detail, especially when they can recognize something or an image references something they know, I compromise: I fill my comics with details that call back to Greek black or red-figure pot artwork or traditional costume, or even cheeky references to modern pop culture. I keep the bodies simple and leave faces blank, save for an occasional eyebrow or other indicator of emotion, so the reader’s imagination still has an important role.
Artist Scott McCloud explores the history and elements of comic art in the books Understanding Comics, Reinventing Comics, and Making Comics.
In his work Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud talks about the simplicity of features that allow the reader to identify with the character. I felt vindicated when I read that, having already decided not to draw the faces in!
Can you walk us through translating a detailed epic poem into stick figures? What story has been the most challenging to capture?
There are lots and lots of notes! I read a story once, then go through it again turn it into a flowchart. Often I’ll get distracted by details that I’ll then go and research — making decisions about how far you’ll take the research is like a Choose Your Own Adventure, as you don’t quite know where you’ll end up. There are often variations on a myth and I like to include details from them all if I can, even if just in footnotes.
Next I check through my collection of reference images and note the ones that might be useful — mostly pottery paintings. Then I sit down to draw. I’ll lightly rule out the boundaries for a strip, then pencil in each panel, going back frequently to my notes. When I’m happy, I go over the pencil in ink.
Rhapsode, noun: a person who recites epic poems, especially one of a group in ancient Greece whose profession it was to recite the Homeric poems from memory.
Each myth has its own difficulties, but I think the Odyssey has probably been the most challenging. It’s probably a bit hubristic to imagine I can illustrate and explain it at the same time, but the challenge of creating a “realistic” (as in “true to the text”) and interesting image that’s also educational and fun is addictive. I developed some ways to represent recurring features of the text, like the epic similes, which I repeat in the comic panels to emulate the repetitions in the text itself that helped the original rhapsode remember the story’s details when reciting it from memory.
Another challenge is just staying true to the text. I prefer to use more transliterated versions of the Odyssey, as the translation stays truer to the original meaning without having to fit into a line of meter, which can be forced or overly poetic.
What elements of the comic versions do you think help students the most? The visuals, the humor, the plain(ish) language?
Well, to use Homeric last-first order on that question, the language is both plain and as close to the translation as possible — I like to use a mixture of explanation and original narrative, so they’re reading the text but not missing the point. The humor is definitely useful! There’s already a lot of humor in Homer and I like to draw it out; it’s easily missed by younger students who think that “old” equals “serious.”
There’s already a lot of humor in Homer and I like to draw it out; it’s easily missed by younger students who think that ‘old’ equals ‘serious.’
Overall, though, the visuals are the most important. I don’t mean to denigrate students when I say that they’re much more dependent on the visual than any classes that have come before. They have instant access to pictures and videos of anything in the world, so they’re less reliant on their imaginations. (It’s not just the young — I’ll often reach for a reference before using my own imagination.) I try to compromise with images that help students understand of the nuances of the text without spoon-feeding every detail. The comics, without faces or much physical detail, are unfinished without the student’s own input.
It seems to work. There are schools, colleges, and even universities and Classical societies and scholarly articles that have linked to the comics for use in their courses and articles. One of my recent teenaged students saw one of the comics used in her first university Classics lecture at Kings College in London!
Have you thought about branching in other directions? Will we get Ovid or Pliny the Younger comix?
I often ask for suggestions for what people would like to see, and recently I’ve been getting commissions to illustrate poems and bits of other epics. One of my classes had to do a fair bit of work on Pliny the Younger’s letters this year, so maybe some comics on him would be good! I’ve made it my mission to do the whole Odyssey, but when I need a break I tend to go off-topic, so it’s going to take me a long, long time with lots of other, smaller comics finished first.
You’re open about the fact that you have Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Does your art help you manage it?
If I didn’t have it, I would produce much less artwork! I have a constant need to be on a creative project: at work, I produce the costumes and props for the school plays, often by hand and from scratch — I fill in every spare second with either making or drawing. I get excited when I think I have a whole weekend to myself to just draw. That probably doesn’t sound very healthy, but it seems to be the same for most creative people. I may sound isolated, but at work, I probably talk to two hundred people a day.
Knowing I have something to do stops me from feeling anxious, and when the creative flow takes over I’m not thinking about anything but the work. Anxiety is the new modern fact of life for a lot of people. Creativity is definitely one way to manage it.