Comics review: Olympia

(cover image courtesy Image Comics)

Imagination can be a powerful thing.

In the face of reality, which can often be cruel, unrelenting and comes with few to any certainties including any sense of justice or guaranteed happily-ever-afters, imagination allows us to escape the world we occupy, to picture a place where we are triumphant, where good things do happen and where the bullies and unfair twists-and-turns of life cannot affect us at all.

If anyone is in need of the life-changing powers of imagination, it is Elon, the protagonist of Olympia by father & son Tony and Curt Pires (with art by Alex Diotto), a latchkey kid whose loving mum works long hours in a local hospital and who is grappling with the still painful death of his beloved dad.

Throw in bullies and a general sense of life being unsettlingly adrift and Elon has a lot on his plate, his only true salvation being the Olympian superhero comic books he reads out in the woods.

This series means the world to him, not simply because it is full of adventure and derring-do, and good soundly beating evil, but because for a the time he is reading it he feels safe, cocooned from the insidious weight of a reality which looks like it’s coming close to crushing him.

You can see just how much of the weight of the world he is carrying through the empathetic writing of Tony and Curt Pires (Tony was undergoing treatment for cancer at the time of writing and subsequently passed away so the book is reflective of the disorienting truth of grief and loss) but the art of Alex Diotto who reflects the weary, emotionally-dampened persona of Elon in every deeply-affecting frame.

Into the middle of Elon’s exhausting new life, quite literally into the middle in fact, crashes Olympian, the titular character from his comic books, all armour and swords and towering gold-haired presence, cast out from Olympus by the Big Bad of the series, Vilayne whose sole wretched goal is to lay waste to all the worlds of the multiverse and those that inhabit them.

It is by any estimation a titanic struggle and one that Olympian, weakened by his descent from the heavens, is not yet strong enough to fully participate in or emerge as the all-conquering hero.

(image courtesy Image Comics)

Now, you might think that having the hero of his favourite comic book series come crashing into his flesh-and-blood reality might be enough to profoundly freak Elon out to a paralysing degree but he is remarkably unfazed, perhaps because he is desperate for something to happen, but more likely because life has conditioned him, through some recent events to wholly unthinkable things and he is grown up enough to cope with things that might have once overwhelmed him.

Whatever the cause of his sangfroid, Elon takes Olympian’s presence in his stride, and much like the hero of many a Spielberg film – the back cover of the trade paper edition that collects all five episodes together assures us that Olympia is “a must-have for fans of Jack Kirby comics and Steven Spielberg films” and for once, the hype is right on the money – sets out to him his favourite superhero reclaim his throne, his kingdom and save the worlds of multiverse including Elon’s own.

With remarkable calm and an impressive head for planning, Elon enlists the help of the comic’s creator Kirby Spiegelman, a man who lost almost everything and who doesn’t have a great deal to live for anymore.

His despairing state of mind, and the horrifying ease with which Vilayne despatches innocent people when he comes down to our earth in pursuit of Olympian, are illustrative of Olympia‘s willingness to be brave and honest about the darkness of life.

It’s not wantonly violent or cruel for the sake; in every instance, where we are given a window into the hellishness of some people’s realities, it is portrayed with sensitivity and understanding (Vilayne’s killing spree aside which is just pure, plain, bloodthirsty comic book evil) and a real understanding of the human condition.

What Olympia also does is magnify the vibrant, escapist importance of comic books overall, and Olympian in particular, and how in the very worst of times, much like books, they can be a vital lifeline to hope and sanity.

(image courtesy Image Comics)

Olympia also delightfully demonstrates with great humour and buoyancy of purpose that comic books can also be a huge amount of fun.

Yes, Olympian and Vilayne fight, with respective armies at their backs, for the life and soul of our worlds, and the entire multiverse and in typical superhero fashion lay waste to more than a few city blocks while doing so, but there’s also a lot of humour to be had before that all takes place.

For a start, Elon’s absolute relaxed attitude to helping Olympian and finding Kirby, who is flummoxed in the extreme by the fact that his creation has sprung fully to life – an occurrence which reflects how alive comic books are for so many people and that they feel real and tangible, evidence of great storytelling and inspired artwork, both of which Olympia has in pleasing abundance – is a joy.

As is Olympian’s supremely unfazed reaction to landing unceremoniously on earth and discovering he has a creator and is going to meet him.

The bonds between these three key characters, and the witty banter between them, provides Olympia is a bright comedic lightness that balances beautifully with much of the darkness of grief, pain and loss that suffuses the comic in rich, moving profusion.

Described as a “love letter to the comics medium”, Olympia is an affecting gem, a vibrantly exciting adventure to equal any superhero adventure out there, but with a profound amount of transcendent and grounded humanity that lends real weight and substance to the story and which gloriously reaffirms once again how much we depend on great storytelling as a way of making of life as its horrific worst and its outrageously brilliant best, both of which find their home and touching expression in this gem of a comic book.

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