Of all the deities and figures of Greco-Roman mythology, perhaps none is as renowned or revered as that of Hercules (Heracles). His legends and deeds have endured centuries of adaption and appropriation, inspiring art, film, comics, and other stories. Steve Reeves’ portrayal of Hercules in the 1958 peplum film of the same name set the template of a cinematic Hercules which would be echoed over the years by Arnold Schwarzenegger, Lou Ferrigno, and Dwayne Johnson, with a small-screen incarnation portrayed by Kevin Sorbo. Hercules has appeared in various comic book iterations at DC, Dell, Marvel, and Gold Key and in a set of graphic novels by Steve Moore, The Thracian Wars and The Knives of Kush. Each of these iterations of Hercules take liberties with his mythology (which itself is fluid and composed of conflicting accounts and tales), but interprets and builds upon it, as well.
French comic book author Jean-David Morvan’s Hercules: The Wrath of the Heavens is the newest comic book adaptation of the Hercules mythology, but with an extreme twist: It re-imagines the story of Hercules and his Twelve Labors in a space-faring setting rather than the era of antiquity on Earth. In this iteration, Hercules has killed his family and is under the control of Hera, an Axiomatikos (who function as the equivalent of the gods in this setting) who extorts him to carry out her tasks, the equivalent of his Twelve Labors. The collected issues in this volume of Wrath of the Heavens has Hercules face the first three of his labors: the Nemean Lion, the Lernaean Hydra, and the Golden Hind of Artemis. A comparing and contrasting of the original myth to Morvan’s version highlights the unique qualities that Wrath of the Heavens has to offer to the Hercules canon while also illustrating the main plot points of the graphic novel.
The Nemean Lion
“The first was to kill the lion of Nemea, a beast no weapons could wound. That difficulty Hercules solved by choking the life out of him. Then, he heaved the huge carcass up on his back and carried it into Mycenae. After that, Eurystheus, a cautious man, would not let him inside the city. He gave his orders from afar.” (Hamilton, 231)
In Wrath of the Heavens, the Nemean Lion is depicted as a giant, indestructible, mechanical feline-robot that looks like a cross between a Transformer and one of the colossi from Shadow of the Colossus. The lion roams the planet of Nemea, attacking farms, killing the inhabitants, and harvesting the children. The first of the labors from Hera, Hercules bests the beast and uncovers the reasons the children are being harvested.
The Lernaean Hydra
“The second labor was to go to Lerna and kill a creature with nine heads called the Hydra which lived in a swamp there. This was exceedingly hard to do so, because one of the heads was immortal and the others almost as bad, inasmuch as when Hercules chopped off one, two grew up instead. However, he was helped by his nephew Iolaus who brought him a burning brand with which he seared the neck as he cut each head off so that it could not sprout again. When all had been chopped off, he disposed of the one that was immortal by burying it secretly under a great rock.” (Hamilton, 231)
In regards to the second labor, the Lernaean Hydra takes on an unexpected form: a group of prisoners who are all clones of each other (Thus, they share the same mind.) while also being immortal, the result of a science experiment of imbuing them with powers from the Exogi (another powerful race). Instead of the swamp, Hercules faces the clones in the prison they are attempting to escape from, and as in the original myth, Hercules has assistance from his nephew Iolaus, a soldier who is also able to shed a little light on Hera’s omnipotent control over Hercules.
The Golden Hind of Artemis
“The third labor was to bring back alive a stag with horns of gold, sacred to Artemis, which lived in the forests of Cerynitia. He could have killed it easily, but to take it alive was another matter, and he hunted it a whole year before he succeeded.” (Hamilton, 232)
The last labor explored in the issues collected in Wrath of the Heavens portrays the stag as a shape-shifting and teleporting prostitute named Elafina who can protrude golden horns from her head and hands. She is rapidly teleporting around, killing various generals who abducted young girls and forced them into sexual servitude, and Hercules is ordered to apprehend her alive. In a slight subversion on the original myth, rather than a full year, Hercules is able to deduce Elafina’s next targets and moves to apprehend her quite quickly.
Described as Hercules meets Gears of War, this description of the comic series is fairly apt. The Hercules in Wrath of the Heavens is portrayed much like Gears of War’s Marcus Fenix: bulky and massive, sharing the posture of a brutish football player, adorned in futuristic armor that blends Spartan and barbarian elements with a hint of Space Marine. This Hercules fights with massive chain guns, space revolvers, fists, a mace, and even antimatter devices.
This version of Hercules is also quite graphic in both blood and sexual content. While not massively gory, Wrath of the Heavens has quite a bit in common with Hong Kong action films of the ’80s that had a strong emphasis on heroic bloodshed. In this series, Hercules is drilled and stabbed, but impossibly keeps on going. As this comic is a Euro-comic, the sexuality in Wrath of the Heavens is not throttled back, with the third labor of Hercules really diving into the sexual world in this universe. To keep the super soldiers battle ready and stress free, an entire brothel/prostitution industry is prominent in the narrative. Women have vaginas instead of eyes, Hera is depicted as buxom as possible, and Hercules even uses a phallic sex toy to stir and sample a drink.
It’s a gritty and unforgiving universe, and the artwork from both Looky and Olivier Thill conveys this succinctly. Steel grays and muted blues dominate the color palette in Wrath, also in alignment with the visuals of Gears of War, but also perhaps with Borderlands video game series, but absent with the cartoonish vibrancy. The world in Wrath is also immaculately detailed: rocky outcroppings, corridors of panels, and neon-holographic signs. It’s easy to get lost in the details and the textures. The characters, especially Hercules, are incredibly detailed in their attire; the individual bandages, armor embellishments, and tattoos make this a visually rich Hercules.
Hercules: Wrath of the Heavens gambles to position the Hercules myth into an interstellar setting ultimately works; the original myths of Hercules are so malleable that with skilled hands, the heart of the stories can be conveyed in a variety of ways with adventurous liberties taken. While this version of Hercules may stand in stark contrast to the iconic versions of Reeves and Sorbo, it remains an excellent adaptation while being engaging and exciting, and perhaps palpable to entice new audiences, as well. The series becomes exciting in speculating how Morvan is going to subvert the other nine labors into something new and refreshing. The stories may be old, but Morvan is definitely accomplishing something new with them.
Creative Team: Jean-David Morvan (writer), Looky (artist), Olivier Thill (artist), Virginie Sélavy (translator), and Marc Bourbon-Crook (translator)
Publisher: Titan Comics
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Hamilton, Edith. Mythology. Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 1942.
Nicholas Diak is a pop culture scholar of industrial and synthwave music, Italian genre films, peplum films, and H. P. Lovecraft studies. He contributes essays to various anthologies, journals, and pop culture websites. He is the editor of the anthology, The New Peplum: Essays on Sword and Sandal Films and Television Programs Since the 1990s. He can be found at nickdiak.com.