Sex and gender, race and Orientalism in Steve Moore's Hercules comics
The Hercules comics written for Radical Comics by Steve Moore, Hercules: The Thracian Wars and Hercules: The Knives of Kush, narrate continuing adventures of the hero as the leader of a mercenary band of mythic heroes after the conclusion of his mythic Labors. The tone of the comics, particularly of The Thracian Wars, is ‘grim fatalism’, according to the author. The violence and pessimism of the comics are of a piece with the ‘gritty’ turn in twenty-first century Anglo-American speculative fiction, in text and on screen. This chapter explores Moore’s troubling presentation of gender, sex, and race in the foreground of the comics’ interaction with classical myth. Moore modifies the ancient source material in ways that inscribe his grim grit upon the bodies of the subaltern—women, people of colour, non-heterosexuals—in an uncritical replication of modern patterns of exploitation.
The Thracian Wars are informed in large part by the author’s anger over the United States’ military action in Iraq, reflected in his narrator Iolaus’ description of Hercules’ military campaign on behalf of the king of Thrace as ‘[a] holocaust of bloodshed, rape and burning villages’. Sexual violence, here as in many other Western fictions, acts as shorthand for the state of the fictional world: women’s damaged bodies are merely a medium for the thematic message, as when Hercules spears his former-lover-turned-antagonist Ergenia from behind and says, ‘[y]ou died the way you lived…impaled on a man’s shaft’. So also the characterization of Atalanta, whose primary personality trait is homoerotic desire, whose sexuality is linked causally to spousal rape, and whose secondary trait is suicidal ideation.
The Knives of Kush takes Hercules to Egypt, where the typical racist and Orientalist tropes of the Western tradition are on display. The titular Knives of Kush, a secret society of assassins from what Moore calls ‘the barbaric southern land of Kush’, are illustrated as dark-skinned (in contrast to the lighter-skinned northern Egyptians and the northern-European-like white Greeks and Thracians), are subjected to racist invective by a main character (the protagonist Meleager terms them ‘dark-haired vermin’), are called ‘cultists’ by Hercules, are portrayed as embracing martyrdom and the ‘paradise that awaits’ martyrs, and are tortured by the protagonists.
Given the author’s comments in interviews about Iraq, the Knives are a cipher for Western ideas of Islamic extremism. The comics offer no window into the experience of, and no possibility of empathy for, the Knives themselves. Hercules and his cohorts thus play the part of American counterterrorism forces, whose use of immoral tactics make them protagonists in the vein of Jack Bauer or the new cinematic Batman. The Hercules of the world of Steve Moore is neither culture hero nor alexikakos — he is a latter-day antihero.