As Greece heads to the polls, Boyd Tonkin hails the graphic novel that traces the birthpangs of democracy

It's been a tumultuous year for the Greek population. A timely new book recalls how democracy first took root. Boyd Tonkin reports

Boyd Tonkin@indyvoices
Wednesday 09 September 2015 14:27

Next weekend Greece votes in its second election inside a year, with the convulsive referendum on a third debt bail-out sandwiched between. With uncannily good timing, a new graphic novel from a Greek team of artists and writers makes vivid drama out of the crisis that gave birth to democracy – the system lately tested almost to destruction in its homeland.

So readers might imagine that Alecos Papadatos, Abraham Kawa and Annie di Donna drew, wrote and coloured at high speed to catch these cataclysmic moments. Not at all: Democracy owes its origins to discussions that began long before the first austerity-driven upheavals in 2010. "We didn't consciously try to emulate what was happening in Greece," says Abraham Kawa, who wrote the script; Alecos Papadatos contributed the artwork and concept, and Annie di Donna the colour design. "We told a story about the past" – specifically, the strife-ridden history of Athens around 500BC. In that period, charismatic tyranny, aristocratic stitch-ups and foreign domination had all failed the city-state. That left the citizens with one outlandish, unprecedented, last-ditch option: the rule of the people themselves.

Much of the book was conceived independently of the Greek emergency. Papadatos remembers his interest being piqued after his daughter came home with an assignment about Cleisthenes, the manipulative politician at the centre of the book's plot. Still, many of the themes have an unmissable topicality. "Demagoguery; corruption; foreign influence: all these things are > still current," says Kawa. "And in Greece, we feel them intensely."

Kawa and Papadatos came to London en route to an event at the Edinburgh book festival. Then they returned to a nation once more in the throes of election fever. Democracy tells the tale of the genesis of popular self-rule via the Everyman figure of Leander, a young vase-painter caught up in the tumult. Blending big ideas, dialectical tussles and absorbing narrative, the book permitted Papadatos to follow up his work on one of the most intellectually ambitious graphic novels ever devised.

Co-produced with the polymathic Greek author Apostolos Doxiadis, Logicomix (published in 2009) translated the story of modern mathematical philosophy, and the life of Bertrand Russell, into a mind-stretching comic-book format.

For the artist, this project gave him the chance "to combine my recently acquired crafting experience, on Logicomix, with a story that could be universal and inspiring". However, as Leander and his comrades look back on the internecine feuds of Athens as they prepare to fight the Persian hordes at Marathon in 490BC, they see that nothing about the city's new-found liberty was predestined or inevitable. Mishap, trickery and accident all had a part to play.

So did conspiracy, in the shape of the enigmatic Cleisthenes: both the "father of democracy", in one pious tradition, and also (Kawa's word) a "con-man". Papadatos says that the authors were attempting to show "how Athenian society evolved to accept these reforms. It was not just the decision of one man." He insists that "it would not have been very honest to finish by saying that Cleisthenes was the saviour. Democracy is not about the Messiah."

Like Logicomix, Democracy offers a visual treat as much as an intellectual feast. Its artwork slides fluidly between domestic scenes, civic debate, supernatural commentary (Athena, Apollo and Dionysus have speaking parts), and Hollywood-style climaxes. Kawa says that "writing a comic-book script is a bit like writing a movie script", but with techniques unique to the art of frames on the page.

"I was hugely influenced by some British writers such as Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman. They take advantage of the specific capabilities of comics."

From riot to romance, battles of words to battles of swords, Democracy spans a wide spectrum of pictorial and story-telling modes. It also lets the gods speak. As Kawa explains, divine intervention in human affairs "was a reality" to ancient Greeks. "It was as real as this table." Yet the contemporary reader may also view the squabbling gods as embodiments of the clash between faith and reason that helped to bring about democracy itself, at the time (Papadatos argues) of "a move from mythical thinking towards more rational thinking."

For Kawa, no god or oracle pre- ordained the advent of democratic government, or its endurance. "People used to think this was a culmination, a linear progression. But the ancients saw it basically as politics – not a bright story with a bright ending. It is a continuous process." As it places human choice rather than divine destiny centre-stage, Democracy draws on the moods and rhythms of Greek theatre.

The tragedian Aeschylus, who fought at Marathon, even takes a bow. With his help, the authors have fashioned not a dry civics lesson but an unfinished epic drama. On Sunday week, in Greece, the next act will begin. µ

Democracy is published by Bloomsbury (£18.99)

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