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Review: Orpheus in The Underworld

Orpheus In The Underworld
By Yvan Pommaux
Toon Books; $17

The oft retold myth of Orpheus and Eurydice gets another telling in French cartoonist Yvan Pommaux’s Orpheus In The Underworld, which follows his previous entry in the new Toon Graphic Mythology series, Theseus and The Minotaur.

You probably already know the basics: Orpheus, son of a muse, grows up to be a great musician and falls in love with Eurydice. They marry, but on their wedding night she is bitten by a serpent and dies. Orpheus follows her into the underworld and appeals to its rulers, Hades and Persephone, and the king of the underworld makes Orpheus a deal.

He will allow Eurydice to return to the world of the living by following Orpheus up and out, but only if Orpheus manages to make it all the way back to the surface without ever once glancing back at her. Tortured by the thought that Eurydice isn’t really behind him, Orpheus eventually breaks down and looks over his shoulder, sees Eurydice, and loses her forever.

And if you don’t know the basics, well this may not be the most passionate or original version of this myth–a favorite of creative types of all media, starring as it does a tortured artist—but Pommaux’s hybrid picture book/comic book tells the basic story in a faithful and straightforward manner.

The story begins with a storyteller, who spends a few pages explaining of the gods and Olympus, the muses and Orpheus’ father, before recounting the Orpheus story, the most colorful parts of which chronicle his journey through the underworld of Greek mythology, wherein he meets characters from other stories, some seen only at a distance.

Pommaux slips back and forth between the style of a picture book or illustrated prose, with lines of narration nestled within large, page-filling illustrations or hovering in paragraphs on a page with several smaller spot illustrations, and more familiar comics-esque pages, with character dialogue appearing in bubbles. There aren’t really any panels, although some of the illustrations are juxtaposed closely enough, and depict scenes so close in time to one another, that they function like comics panels.

Despite some naturally gruesome scenes and an attempted rape, the more adult sequences are toned down to the point where if you didn’t know they were part of the story, you wouldn’t even notice them here. Eurydice’s would-be rapist merely “pursues” her at her wedding, for example. The vultures that “daily devoured” Tityos’s entrails are shown biting him in the belly in a rather long shot, and when Orpheus is torn apart by madwomen, that too is shown in longshot, as a cartoon dust cloud is raised around the melee.

Asterisks follow each proper name, referring to the bottom of each page where the pronunciation is revealed, and the book includes a map of the underworld, little profile cards somewhat suggestive of baseball cards of all the main players, and an index of places, people and objects from within the story.

Taken all together then, it’s an excellent piece of mythology 101 for relatively young readers, and one that provides avenues for further exploration, as any good introduction should.

As with all Toon Books, the overall design is lovely, and while Pommaux’s pencil and ink artwork is representational enough to seem almost generic, he has some truly lovely touches in several images, like the vision of Earth as seen through break in the clouds that form the floor of Olympus, the surreal and serene nature at the gates of Hades, and a peaceable kingdom scene in which all sorts of animals sit together to listen to Orpheus play.

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J. Caleb Mozzocco About J. Caleb Mozzocco

J. Caleb Mozzocco is a way-too-busy freelance writer who has written about comics for online and print venues for a rather long time now. He currently contributes to Comic Book Resources' Robot 6 blog and ComicsAlliance, and maintains his own daily-ish blog at EveryDayIsLikeWednesday.blogspot.com. He lives in northeast Ohio, where he works as a circulation clerk at a public library by day.

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