In most interpretations of Greek mythology, Athena, the goddess of war and wisdom, is portrayed as stoic and majestic, a figure to whom gods and goddesses and mere mortals turned for help and advice. But even the Greek gods and goddesses had their moments with vanity, sibling rivalry and celebrity meltdowns. It is this delightful play between good and bad that makes sisters Imogen and Isabel Greenberg‘s version of the goddess so wickedly delightful in Athena: Goddess of Wisdom and War.
The Greenbergs imbue their goddess with the heightened angst and drama of a teenager. In their hands Athena is spoiled, spirited and petulant; she is as plucky, resentful, and vain as she is gifted, wise and wonderful. And as they have done with so many of their collaborations and individual works on mythological figures, their interpretations are filled with a laugh-out-loud humor and warmth. In their able hands, learning about the Ancient Greek gods is a fun and entertaining experience.
Imogen and Isabel Greenberg talked about the making of Athena: Goddess of Wisdom and War with The Beat.
Nancy Powell: Thank you for taking the time out to talk about your Athena. Boy, what a fun read! I absolutely loved this wise, witty, vain and raging mad version of Athena. And it seems that you enjoyed creating her as well. Whose idea was it to portray the goddess in this very human way?
Imogen Greenberg (ImG): I think one of the most enjoyable things about the Greek myths is that the gods are very human and relatable – they’re a family, they squabble, they make mistakes. So, a lot of what we chose to pull out was already there in the material. Although of course, the implications when the gods make mistakes are absolutely vast. And playing with that epic scale and that very relatable personality was great fun.
Isabel Greenberg (IsG): It was great fun drawing her as a character. One of the things I love most about comics is using the images to tell another story to the words. So, I played with her gestures and expressions (I imagined her with lots of side-eyes and grandiose gesturing!) so she could be both a goddess but maybe also a bit of a teenager.
Powell: Why Athena and not the other goddesses?
ImG: I think because she’s a relatively young goddess – compared to the Olympian ‘elders’ – there’s naturally an affinity for younger readers. She’s plucky, she’s petulant and she’s learning all the time. There was a lot of potential there for a young audience to engage with her story.
IsG: She also seemed to appear in a lot of our favourite myths. So we were able to tell the stories of the Trojan war, Arachne, Odysseus and more, through her eyes.
Powell: You two have collaborated on quite a few books that deal with various mythologies. What is it about history and the classics that interests you so?
ImG: Our mum taught us a lot of mythology, history and classics when we were young. I went on to study it at university as well, and I think I liked that – even when it was very academic – they were always just such great stories. There’s such a richness to the world, but it was such a long time ago, you can be pretty imaginative in the ways you reconstruct it. Particularly with the mythology, I’ve found they’re a very flexible, almost episodic material to work from. And because it began largely as oral history, passed around, you can sort of hear everyone’s own take in the telling; and then you get to add your own.
IsG: Visually they are great fun to draw as well. Particularly as Athena’s story is so varied. I loved drawing Mount Olympus and Troy, giants and sirens, there was so much to imagine, and it made the process enjoyable and exciting from beginning to end. There wasn’t a page I didn’t have fun creating.
Powell: There is a natural playfulness and cheerfulness throughout the story, and I think that the two of you have such a natural gift for storytelling. Is it always this easy working together?
ImG: Pretty much. We have a clear process now after doing a few books together. We each have our roles and then specific points in the process where we come together to work on things. Isabel’s more experienced when it comes to creating comics and graphic novels so I’m usually happy to defer to her expertise if a query comes up. In terms of our other collaborations, we’ve found that when it comes to culinary endeavors, I’m team leader without fail!
IsG: That’s true, she is definitely the boss in the kitchen! I love working with Imogen on book projects though. When I write my own material, it’s a very different experience. Working with someone else’s words means I get to focus on the images and enjoy the process of drawing. That said, I have worked with other writers and not enjoyed this. What works well for us it that the process is very collaborative all the way through. It’s not as simple as Imogen sending me the words and me drawing. We consult each other at each stage and make changes and adaptations to fit each other’s visions.
Powell: How is working together different than working on solo projects? What in your creative process changes?
ImG: The amazing thing about working with Isabel is writing for illustration, and that’s totally different to my own work. As a writer, you have to think very differently to facilitate illustration – Isabel obviously has a lot of experience with that, so has been great at guiding me. I’ve had to learn how to write the text to give her maximum freedom to make the spreads look really stunning; and we collaborate a lot early on in the writing process to make sure that’s working.
IsG: For me it’s very different. When I am writing as well as drawing, for a start it’s a lot longer a process! When I work with Imogen the whole research and planning stage is cut out, and I get to jump in and draw. I love it both ways but for me the variation is what I love. Imogen writes in a way I wouldn’t, so I find myself creating very different images and layouts to what I might have done if I was writing too. It’s challenging , but I love doing it.
Powell: This is the second book you’ve completed about historic women, the first being Marie Curie and Her Daughters. Are you planning on covering other famous women in future books?
ImG: There’s actually going to be a companion book to Athena coming out next year. We spent a long time trying to find the right subject; she’s related to Athena but also her story is a bit removed, so we got to return to this world but also do something a bit different which was great. And Athena will be making a little cameo in that.
IsG: Yes! We’re very excited about it. I think we can say it’s about the goddess Gaia. So, there’s some crossover, but it was really enjoyable trying to create a different visual world for her.
Powell: Imogen – I understand you work in theater and the arts. Have you considered what Athena would look like on the big stage? Who would you want to play Athena and who would you want to play the other gods and goddesses?
ImG: I hadn’t thought about it, no! That’s a really great question. I think you’d need someone young and gutsy who’s also a bit petulant. I also think you could have a lot of fun with the stereotypes we have about these characters. There’s so much rich texture in the history of adaptation when it comes to the classics, I think you could have a lot of fun with that. I’d love Zeus to be played as if the actor were an extremely hammy, and slightly washed up, 1960s movie star with an outrageous moustache.
Published by Abrams Books, Athena: Goddess of War and Wisdom is available in bookstores and as an e-book now.