Review by Tony Keen
Spoilers in review
Epicurus the Sage was an early product of Piranha Press, DC’s short-lived attempt to break in to the 1980s alternative comics market. Piranha bettered DC’s traditional practices, and offered creators ownership of the properties it created. Moreover, imprint boss Mark Nevelow deliberately sought out less-established creators (Piranha’s big early hit was Kyle Baker’s Why I Hate Saturn).
Epicurus the Sage teamed writer William Messner-Loebs with artist Sam Kieth. Messner-Loebs had begun in the alternative-independent sector as writer-artist of Journey: The Adventures of Wolverine MacAlistaire, but more recently, prior to Epicurus, he had been writing The Flash for DC. Kieth was more-or-less unknown at the time, though he was about to come to the attention of a wider audience through his work on the early Sandman.
Epicurus (341-270 BCE) was a Greek philosopher, who gave his name to Epicureanism. His doctrines were rather more than the simple ‘do what makes you feel good’ that they are often taken for – as Messner-Loebs bravely tries to explain at one point. In this graphic novel, he is often teamed with the philosopher Plato (c. 429-347 BCE), and the young Alexander (the Great) of Macedon (356-323 BCE). A quick study of those dates shows that these three are not really contemporaries – and Messner-Loebs takes great delight in not caring. His story is filled with a wide variety of Greek thinkers of many different shades, from the eighth-century BCE poet Hesiod (see sample image) through fifth-century BCE thinker Socrates, to the inventor Hero of Alexandria, who lived in the first century CE.
Nor does Messner-Loebs stop with history, as he also includes Greek myth. Epicurus and his friends find themselves drawn into the stories of the Greek gods and heroes, despite Epicurus’ scepticism about deities (“D’you wanna tell her she’s imaginary?” Alexander asks Epicurus when they meet the goddess Demeter). In this first volume they become involved with the myth of the underworld god Hades and his abduction of Demeter’s daughter Persephone. The plot twist is that this is actually an elopement disguised as a kidnapping.
That’s one of the first problems. The ‘surprising’ twist is actually something that many other modern writers have done with the Persephone myth, so it’s not hugely original. And it’s also potentially problematic to defang a myth of rape in this fashion, as doing so can play to a narrative that rape in general isn’t that big a deal.
The other problem is that Messner-Loebs is appealing to something of a niche audience. To get the most out of Epicurus, you really need to know as much about Greek history and myth as Messner-Loebs does. Some gags work, but some probably shoot over the heads of the non-classically educated. On the other hand, if you do know the characters concerned, it is pretty funny, and Messner-Loebs and Kieth obviously enjoy knocking iconic figures such as Plato off their pedestals. There is also a fair-sized helping of good old-fashioned slapstick to appeal to everyone.
Kieth’s work, too will probably divide readers. It’s highly stylized, and some of his human figures look quite odd (see sample image), but it carries the kinetic energy of the story well, and complements the humour.
For all the reservations given here, Epicurus the Sage is worth checking out to see if you like it as if you do, you’ll probably like it a lot. Be warned though that this is definitely a comic for adults, and there is nudity. A second volume appeared a couple of years later, and all the stories were collected into a single volume in 2003.