Graphic novelist renders myths modern

On Nov. 12, author and graphic novelist Anders Nilsen came to St. Olaf to give a talk about his work. Nilsen’s work explores and combines ancient myths and religious themes. His most recent graphic novel is titled “Rage of Poseidon.” It contains seven short stories that focus on ancient Greek myths and biblical stories interpreted for the present day.

“I think the stories are as relevant today as ever,” Nilsen said, “which becomes clear as soon as you brush away some of the old-timey trappings.”

Nilsen began his talk by reading an excerpt from “Rage of Poseidon.” This particular story involved the Greek goddess of wisdom, Athena. Those familiar with the myths about Athena would be taken aback by this portrayal.

Nilsen presents Athena nursing a bad hangover after a night of heavy drinking. In addition, the book contains a story about Abraham and Isaac in which Isaac is more intent on his video games than anything else and a story about Jesus and the Greek goddess of love, Aphrodite, meeting in a bar.

After reading from his book, Nilsen talked about the process behind his work with graphic novels.

“Most of my work starts with stuff that I am doing in my sketchbooks,” Nilsen said, “and I’m always trying to come up with ideas and challenge myself. At some point I started to notice that I had a bunch of stories on this theme, and I decided to adapt them.”

One of Nilsen’s main points was that the messages and themes of ancient myths are timeless. “We’ve been telling these stories and retelling these stories for literally thousands of years,” he said, “to the point where our stories end up following pre-dug paths.” If humans have been telling the same sorts of stories for centuries, this makes Nilsen’s modern interpretation of ancient myths even more interesting.

Nilsen also addressed the religious aspect of his work; many important Christian figures appear in “Rage of Poseidon.” An self-identified atheist, Nilsen stated that he is fascinated by religious stories and practices. Regarding this interest, he said “Religion is probably the biggest manifestation of people’s struggle to understand the world around them and their roles in it. [Religion means] to grapple with the deepest fundamental issues of what it means to live a good life, what is truly important in the world and how we should treat one another.”

Whether Greek or biblical, almost all of the stories that Nilsen uses in his book are well-known. This familiarity gives power to his work. By changing and subverting these well-known stories, Nilsen invites the reader to view familiar religious and mythic stories in new ways.

A good example of this is a sketch that Nilsen drew a few years ago. It showed Adam and Eve after they were banished from the Garden of Eden. They used a ladder to sneak back into the Garden to steal some more apples from the Tree of Wisdom. While humorous, this image also encourages the viewer to think about a well-known story in a new way.

By combining Christian stories, Greek myths and real-life situations, Anders Nilsen created a fascinating graphic novel that mixes the ancient and the modern. Nilsen’s book will be arriving in the St. Olaf Bookstore this week. It’s definitely worth a look.

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