Comics that Punch You in the Face 1: Marathon by Boaz Yakin and Joe Infurnari
On the same day that historic elections rocked the capital in Greece, a graphic novel was released that makes history of its own, retooling an well-worn and often vague mythical memory of where the Olympian event known as the marathon actually came from. If you ask people on the street, the school kids are most likely to remember that the marathon arose out of a particular battle on the plains of Marathon and a crucial message bearer who crossed them between Athens and Sparta. The average adult might get confused and think that the messenger was actually called “marathon”. You get the idea. Popular memory, passed around one too many times like a weak xerox, knows how to drain the drama out of a good story.
Boaz Yakin rediscovered the drama in this story and found it shocking enough to think it deserved a good screenplay and film attention, but after frustrations in bringing it off as a film, he adapted it to what many fans would say is the next medium most suited to heavy action sequences: the graphic novel. Action sequences would be necessary, too, to set the stage of this epic struggle between a returning tyrant, Persian emperor, and a peoples’ movement to save their city. Like any great epic it comes down to one great man with a small group of highly devoted and brave people behind him. The unusual thing about this epic, particularly for the period, 490 BC, is that this man was a slave without any type of social status except for the acquired notoriety associated with his athletic abilities.
Sound like Gladiator? Well, that was a pretty good story too, for some of the same reasons. Yakin brings his in-depth knowledge of screen writing and film directing to the graphic novel script to pull off difficult characterization, pacing, and moments of emotional impact. Not to mention a remarkably even-toned use of dialogue which zooms right over the plate in terms of common parlance and a nod to historical context. This story was not one to be undertaken lightly. For one thing, it’s full of complicated names, interrelated characters, a variety of geographical locations, and modes of life that a reader is not likely to have ever encountered before in such detail. To make all this fly, Yakin pares things down the basics and works hard to balance the epic battle scenes with more episodic elements that help you get to know the main characters and care about them. One other thing: the narrative structure is highly inventive. It moves around, but not without guidance for the reader. We encounter our hero Eucles the Athenian messenger, in a “present” moment when he is setting off not on one “marathon” run, but the first of several that will push him beyond endurance, and encounter the formative experiences of his life in flashback sequences as he runs. These increase in historical detail and significance as Eucles forms a complicated relationship with the rulers of Athens, who he serves. This structure is very effective in keeping up a driving pace in the story as you root for Eucles under increasingly difficult conditions and you realize what exactly this unassuming hero is made of.
Joe Infurnari, a multiple Eisner-award nominated artist, brings a depth of experience to this project equal to Yakin’s. His book Mush! Sled Dogs, particularly, shows off his ability to create compelling character studies and a sense of natural environment. If there’s one more thing to notice about Infurnari’s work before diving into Marathon, it’s that he knows perhaps more than most comics artists working today how to handle and depict motion. This made Marathon an ideal project for him and he for it. A reader’s experience of this graphic narrative, all 188 pages of it on high-gauge paper, is totally defined and guided by this sense of motion. Yakin’s narrative sets that up, and asks for a world of speed. Infurnari accomplishes this through the use of small, liberally scattered but carefully placed panels depicting bodies in motion, particularly feet, as they move over hostile and unreliable surfaces to the skitter of sound-effects. For the reader, this does give a cinematic feel of motion and sound. But it’s probably the larger motion panels that are most impressive and give the sense of an epic in full-flight. Infurnari uses a trademark swoop in battle-scenes, viewed from a number of angles and distances to emphasize violent action, and doesn’t shy away from the gore necessary in a historical piece like this.
The comic is composed in a combination of sepia and black and white tones, the sepia most often used to highlight our central character in the often dense crowd scenes of running competitions, or the frenetic large-scale battle sequences that depict struggles between the Athenian army and the invading Persian imperial alliance. Infurnari uses fine, cross-hatching, and layered ink lines to give an impressive amount of detail and expressiveness to clothing, human figures, and facial expressions within this limited palette. It’s worth noticing that the ways in which a modern enthusiast encounters the culture of ancient Greece mainly takes only two forms: they encounter it through statuary or through the famous “Grecian Urns” celebrated by Keats.
Sculpture that survives is often in pale stone and any coloration or tint given to those carvings have long since disappeared, giving us a single-tone image with evocative texture. Grecian Urns are typically composed of a dark background with tableaux images in profile provided narrative moments in history or mythology and use earth-tones for coloration. The point is, we know Greek culture through sepia and black and white already and so a story set in motion in that palette is particularly resonant for us. It was a great choice for a historical piece grounded in the gritty, realistic suffering and determination of a remarkable slave boy become a national savior.
Infurnari’s gift for the physicality of his characters comes off with particular verve in close-up battle scenes. One of my favorite confines an small army of pursuing foes and a couple of tragically brave defenders in a gnarled, dense wood on a mountain side. The close confines of the wood draw attention to the intense motion of the combatants and make the struggle seem more personal and more devastating in physical terms. Infurnari also has a kind of genius for pacing in depicting struggle. Like Yakin, he pares down the unneccessary and resists the repetitive, which is a danger when dealing with a text like this one. Even the most compelling high-budget action film fails to grasp our attention if shots and angles are simply too similar episode after episode.
To combat this, the artist struggles with invention. You would find it difficult to locate two pages where the panel layout is overly similar. He employs a pretty vast array of panel sizes and arrangements to compliment the story telling. Infurnari uses very few full-page spreads, but when he does, they have a profound impact on the storytelling. Eucles, near the end of his relentless ordeal, appears almost saintly, washed in a white-out background, suggesting a kind of transformation he’s undertaken through commitment to his cause: saving Athens from tyrannical rule or abandonment by the populace.
First Second Books produces all-ages comics and this graphic narrative plies a confident course through historical realism to create a universal hero tale. There’s just enough grit and gore to make you feel like it all really happened, while making sure this is a story that younger readers, say from high-school upward, could fathom. This is living proof that an all-ages comic can definitely “punch you in the face”. Don’t underestimate Marathon: it will put you through the ringer. It’s unique combination of tight storytelling, intense motion, and emotional realism creates a total comics experience that gives more mainstream hero comics a run for their money (you can take or leave the pun).