Pantheon is a frenetically paced and darkly comedic triumph.
Describing Hamish Steele’s Pantheon: The True Story of the Egyptian Deities as irreverent in tone seems woefully, pitifully and even staggeringly inadequate in the circumstances. From its perfectly paced and genuinely laugh out loud prologue scene onwards, Steele’s re-presented graphic novel from Nobrow Press is a deliciously and defiantly cheeky take on the myth of Osiris, Horus and Set, and the machinations and inter-relationships of the Ancient Egyptian pantheon.
When the grasping and envious god Set sets his sights on the throne of the gods his first undertaking is to remove its current incumbent, his brother Osiris. With his plots and scheming proving initially unsuccessful, the murder of his rival becomes his only route to his desired objective. But, by supernatural providence, Osiris’s wife Isis briefly resurrects her husband and replaces his one missing body part with a golden phallus in order to sire a son.
The product of that unearthly union is the god Horus and thus begins a titanic struggle between the new claimant to the throne and his villainous uncle Set. A conflict that will take in scorpion assassins, poisonous ejaculate, unlikely boat races, hippo wrestling, godly civil war and also put a rather literal spin on the phrase “sleeping with the enemy”…
As detailed in the book’s foreword by Egyptologist John J. Johnston, Hamish Steele weaves together the extant fragmentary versions of the stories presented herein into an ongoing, chronological narrative. Pantheon’s greatest strength is that Steele embraces the peculiar logic of that mythology with all its contradictions and unlikely twists while simultaneously imbuing it with his own amiably impudent touches. The source material remains intact but it’s the contemporary nature of the humorous embellishments that make Pantheon such an oddly relatable read.
There’s a hybrid feel to these pages, then; an authenticity to the source material that is nevertheless delightfully usurped by Steele’s anachronistic language and re-imagined sidesteps. That’s further embodied in his accessible cartooning which is recognisably rooted in a modern animated style and yet retains its period feel, with the luscious colouring adding to that atmosphere of the fantastic and the legendary.
Pantheon’s tour through Egyptian myth is a rapid-fire volley of running gags, gloriously juvenile sex jokes and the grossest of slapstick. The sprawling cast of characters are endearingly daft in their own ways, and are largely defined by their own incompetence, haplessness and stupidity.
It’s not all willy japes, political backstabbing and decapitation though. There’s a continual playfulness with the page in evidence from Steele. Entry to the afterlife takes on the recognisable traits of a TV game show, a Blue Peter-style guide to mummification could have come from an old British hardcover Annual were it not for the subject matter, and the sprawling double-page boat race sequence has an almost board game appeal to its structure. And, every so often, Steele is canny enough to remind his audience of the majesty of his subjects in full or double-page spreads that take a step back from the silliness for a brief moment to emphasise a sense of true drama or poignancy.
Describing something as hysterically funny is usually a strong indication of hyperbole in a review but it’s not an inaccurate claim where Pantheon is concerned. Replete with a most beguiling wit, Hamish Steele’s debut graphic novel is a frenetically paced and darkly comedic triumph.
Pantheon: The True Story of the Egyptian Deities launches at London’s Gosh! Comics this Friday April 21st. Full details on the Gosh site here.