I know it’s cliche to think things like, “Can you believe people still love the Odyssey after 2700 years,” it’s a bit like becoming enraptured with your hand when you’re stoned. Nevertheless, it is marvelous to contemplate the structure and evolution of the human hand after smoking pot (I have heard), and it is remarkable that the Odyssey remains a great read in 2012.
That awe leads many writers to want to borrow prestige from timeless works—itself a time-honored tradition upheld by James Joyce and the Coen brothers, among many others. Gerry Duggan and Phil Noto join the tradition with The Infinite Horizon, a graphic Odyssey set in a near-future dystopia where undefined wars have left the world in anarchy. Our Odysseus (unnamed) starts his journey home from Syria, where the U.S. is pulling out of its final war; his Penelope, actually named Penelope, is home with their son “Terry” in upstate New York, trying to hold their farm against waves of refugees from the city. (Oddly they’re in the Catskills and not Ithaca. Maybe Ithaca would have been too on the nose.) Odysseus slowly makes his way home, fighting past a pirate attack, the Cyclops, the Lotus Eaters, the Sirens, and I think Scylla and Charybdis.
All of this is good adventure sci-fi, and the art is several notches above average. It’s also fun to play the game of identifying which episode of the Odyssey we’re on now.
But there’s a cost to borrowing prestige from a classic like the Odyssey: it raises the reader’s expectations. When you borrow perhaps the greatest adventure story in world literature, readers will expect a great adventure as a matter of course—plus something more. After all, I could always read the Odyssey; I need an additional reason to read this new version of it. What does this version tell me about my world that the original doesn’t? Or, another option: what does this version tell me about the Odyssey that I might otherwise miss?
In other words, why are you retelling the Odyssey?
Actually, that’s a question you could ask of any work that draws on or refers to sources it wants the reader or viewer to recognize. For example, O Brother, Where Art Thou? answers well and A Serious Man doesn’t, and that accounts for about 80 percent of why the former is a better movie.
As good as The Infinite Horizon is at spinning a yarn, its answer is essentially nonexistent. As a result it’s emptier at the end than I wanted as I was reading it. That’s too bad, because the idea of using the Odyssey as a template to write about a returning American soldier is a timely one, given the struggles of our real-life returning soldiers, and I would have liked to see something more meaningful done with it.