I love comic books and the movies that are based on them. Who doesn’t? Iron Man, Batman, Daredevil—sign me up. I’ll be there. But comics can do so much more than just entertain us with tales of action, supervillains, and heroes in cool costumes, and every once in a while a publication comes along and reminds me how deep the medium can really get. I just finished reading one of them: The Odyssey of Sergeant Jack Brennan by Bryan Doerries.
Doerries, the author of The Theater of War: What Ancient Greek Tragedies Can Teach Us Today, is a founder of “Theater of War”: an ongoing project in which actors like Adam Driver and Jesse Eisenberg present Greek dramas to combat veterans. Having seen the therapeutic value of these stories for himself, Doerries has expanded from stage to page with his first graphic novel: a retelling of Homer’s The Odyssey packaged for a modern audience, and particularly those who have experienced war for themselves.
On the eve of their departure from Afghanistan, a squad of young Marines that just wrapped up their first deployment gather together for a meeting with their leader, Sergeant Jack Brennan. Brennan wants his men to understand the challenges they’ll be facing when they return home; that leaving the battlefield behind isn’t easy, and that other dangers—depression, anger, addiction—may yet await. Lectures won’t reach these young men, so instead, Brennan decides to tell them the story of another warrior, Odysseus, and his long voyage home.
Brennan sees himself in Odysseus. He, too, knows the incredible burden of leadership, and the pain and guilt a warrior suffers losing the men who trusted him to get them home safe. Like Odysseus, Brennan has always tried to do the best he could by his troops, but he can’t always protect them from themselves. He hopes that they’ll learn from Odysseus’s story.
At first skeptical, they begin to see reflections of their own hardships in the miseries endured by Odysseus’s men. One Marine who was briefly hooked on pain pills after a combat injury has been to the land of the Lotus Eaters. Many of them have spent time “speaking” with the dead, just like Odysseus does when he descends into Hades. Most of them have heard the Sirens’ call to risky, foolish behavior, and all of them have been blown off course and far from home by the winds of battle. Through Brennan’s account of this ancient tale, these young men learn that while the means of war may change, the horror and sadness of it is eternally recognizable. Warriors will always have a heavy load to carry, and sometimes they can’t do it alone.
Beautifully illustrated by a team of artists at the Sequential Artists Workshop, and written in modern prose, this haunting take on a classic war story is immediately accessible and not easily forgotten.