Each week, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic book of significance. This week, it’s Pantheon: The True Story Of The Egyptian Deities. Written and illustrated by Hamish Steele (DeadEndia, Moose Kid Comics), this new graphic novel takes an irreverent look at Egyptian mythology, with lush visuals and an audacious comedic sensibility. This review reveals major plot points.
Ancient mythology is really damn weird, but what do you expect from civilizations trying to figure out how the world works without any sort of foundational knowledge? These people explained the world through stories about extraordinary beings that had their own personal drama just like anyone else, except their drama was responsible for nature and society and anything else that wasn’t fully understood. Hamish Steele’s Pantheon: The True Story Of The Egyptian Deities spotlights just how strange mythology can be, adapting ancient Egyptian folklore in all of its absurd, grotesque glory.
Combining a Matt Groening-esque aesthetic with the anachronistic literary jokes of Kate Beaton and the gross-out comedy of the Farrelly brothers, Steele creates a highly entertaining, but still informative, interpretation of these myths. The cartoony art style and edutainment aspect of Pantheon might suggest that it’s appropriate for younger readers, but that is definitely not the case. Steele is aware that his book might catch the eyes of children, so he puts a cheeky warning on the back cover: “Pantheon contains incest, decapitation, suspicious salad, fighting hippos, lots of scorpions, and a golden willy.”
That sounds pretty risqué, but it doesn’t quite capture just how vulgar this story can get. That “suspicious salad” is tossed in a dressing made of a god’s “evil cum,” which is “farted out” by his nephew after they have anal sex. This is a plot directly pulled from Egyptian mythology (Morgan Jones wrote an interesting article about it for Michigan Quarterly Review), and while there’s a lot of artistic license taken in the depiction of events, Steele isn’t deviating from the source material. He wants Pantheon to be “faithful,” but he also admits in the afterword that there have been so many different versions of these stories over time that “faithful” becomes a tricky concept.
The opening sequence is a prime example of how this book incorporates a modern sense of humor into these legends, recounting the ancient Egyptian creation myth with an appropriately grandiose sense of visual scale. A pyramid emerges from the great sea of Nu, sprouting a lotus that opens and flowers the sun, which becomes the first god, Atum. This is when the tone changes. A close-up shot of Atum’s grinning face is paired with the caption, “With only eternal darkness for company, Atum did what anybody would do when faced with endless loneliness,” and the next panel zooms far out to show the entire majestic tableau formed during the prologue, with Atum turned away from the reader. “He had a wank.” That blunt, concise caption shifts the book into more colloquial language, which dictates the dialogue for the rest of the book.
When the god Ra asks for one of his children to become a symbol of fear, he prefaces his request by saying, “I need someone willing to do some freaky shit!” When that symbol of fear turns into a bloodthirsty monster, Ra immediately regrets his decision and mutters, “Oh, crap.” Set is constantly called a “cock” by his family members, to the point where there’s a two-page spread that has “SET YOU COCK” written in giant white letters against a black background. It’s not often you read stories with lines like, “That fish ate my husband’s dick!” and “Have me now, I’m a sex velociraptor!” The dialogue in Pantheon is hilarious, especially when paired with his sharp comic timing. One of the funniest moments of the book is a nonverbal reaction from Isis after her sister asks her if she can live with a husband that doesn’t have a penis; Isis’ stone face is a punchline that says more than any words could. Luckily for Isis, her resurrected husband ends up with a magic penis made of gold, so it all works out (for a little while).
I’ve mentioned the semen-coated salad, but that’s just one of the many strange developments in this story that Steele mines for humor. A heavenly cow takes the gods off of Earth and into the realm of Duat. Isis disguises herself as a Mrs. Doubtfire-styled nanny and tries to turn a baby prince into a god by throwing him into “divine flames of purification.” The segment “How To Mummify Your Friends With Anubis” breaks down the mummification process with a grisly how-to guide, which includes a second step that involves ramming a scrambling hook up through a cadaver’s nostril and using it to liquify the brain so it pours out. (“A long pencil or stick can be just as good, but it might take a bit longer!”)
Sexually explicit, gruesomely violent, and filled with foul language, Pantheon is a graphic novel that will appeal to fans of Archer and Adult Swim’s cartoon lineup. Steele also works as an animation director (you can view clips of his work on his website), and that experience informs his comics. Simplified, highly expressive characters interact in front of detailed backgrounds with lush color palettes, and Steele’s moment-to-moment storytelling is exceptionally clear and smooth. Inspired by ancient Egyptian artwork, Steele presents nearly all the action from a side view, with the characters mostly in profile, a composition that is also common in a lot of classic comics and cartoons.
Steele does break from the side view occasionally, usually to add an extra element of drama to a particular moment. When Set slices his brother, Osiris, into 42 pieces, his victim is turned toward the reader so we can see the explosion of blood and gore. When Horus has his eye taken out by a spear to the face, he turns toward the reader as he realizes there’s now a giant hole in his head. A boat race between Horus and Set is presented with a bird’s-eye view to fit the entire river track onto a two-page spread. When the majority of the book sticks to a single general layout, moments like this become even more exciting.
Pantheon’s primary aim is to entertain, and while myths were first used to explain the world, they wouldn’t have survived if they didn’t amuse the people listening to them. Much of these plot points are symbolic in nature, but when presented literally, they create something that is so out there that it’s impossible not to laugh at how ludicrous it all is. And yet, these are myths that have influenced storytelling for millennia, constructing a foundation that future creators would build on in their own unique ways. There’s a profundity to these tales that Steele is deeply aware of, and after all of the jokes, he ends the book by highlighting how these gods helped shape the world by giving humans deities to believe in. Deities that were like them in the best and worst ways—inspiring humankind to look to each other for answers to the universe’s mysteries.