On Epicurus the Sage

Twenty years ago William Messner-Loebs and Sam Kieth did some comics about the life and adventures of the Greek philosopher Epicurus. I’d never read the collection — indeed, I doubt that I’d ever seen it in a comic shop — but when adding things to my Amazon wishlist, I had a “What the hell” attitude and added to to the wishlist.

Or so I thought.

In reality, I put it in my shopping cart. So that when I ordered something else, Epicurus the Sage came along for the ride.

Sam Kieth is probably best known to comics fans as the first artist on Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman (an assignment that prompted Kieth to say that he “felt like Jimi Hendrix in the Beatles” — he didn’t feel like he meshed with the assignment, nor that the assignment meshed with him) and for his Image series, The MAXX. Kieth’s artwork has a unique look to it — proportions are distorted, objects take on a freaky, even surreal edge, yet people are still recognizably people, even if they’re not actually shaped like that.

Epicurus the Sage is not some sort of fictional biography of the philosophy. The real Epicurus wasn’t a contemporary of Plato and Socrates, for instance, and Alexander the Great was older than Epicurus, not younger. Just as the Asterix books take Roman history and tosses it in the blender, Epicurus the Sage is like a Cliff’s Note version of Greek history and myth; all the familiar names are here — Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Alexander the Great, Helen of Troy. Socrates is a glory-hound, Plato is an eager-to-please simpleton, Aristotle is a raving idiot, Alexander the Great is a little boy who just wants to pillage and plunder. And in the center of this is Epicurus who just wants to be a philosopher who isn’t interested so much in how the world works — no, he’ll leave that to Plato and Aristotle — but rather in how best to live life.

And then really weird shit happens.

It snows in the middle of August. A farmer’s daughter who has been locked away in the tower has vividly erotic dreams. Helen has been carted off to Troy and Epicurus has to get her back. Faced with these problems, Epicurus would be bound to say what Lord Melchett would say some two thousand years later: “As private parts to the gods are we! They play with us for their sport.”

Quests into Hades and to find Zeus are well described and vividly drawn. Messner-Loebs scripts are quite funny, and Kieth’s artwork excels are capturing the lunacy surrounding Epicurus and his band of adventurers.

Epicurus the Sage isn’t earth-shattering, but it is fun. Imagine Blackadder or Monty Python and the Holy Grail set in ancient Greece, done in the style of Asterix, and you’re in the right ballpark. I’d made a vow to swear off philosophy, but I’m glad I made an exception for Epicurus the Sage. 🙂

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