We sure love our myths and legends. And there are quite a few that keep getting retold and reimagined. Well here’s one: Gilgamesh. The oldest story we have records of, an epic poem dated about 2100 BC, which has survived in cuneiform on fragmented tablets. It’s incomplete, but what’s archaeologists have been able to find and translate continues to fascinate readers.
In 1989, DC issued a 4 volume series that reimagines (rather than retells) this epic. Jim Starlin’s Gilgamesh is a foundling, adopted by a hippie couple after his escape pod crashes in (and burns down) their pot crop. He’s not just a foundling, he’s from a different planet. He looks humanoid enough, except for his eyes and his superhuman strength, that he can pass for human as he grows up. A skin-tight mask gives him human features.
Enkidu, in Starlin’s version, is like Gilgamesh, an alien. The two were ejected (as infants) from the last space ship of their civilization and shot down to a post-nuclear-apocalyptic Earth in order to keep their species alive. Too bad the robot who selected the two, pretty much at random, was not instructed to choose a male and a female! This leaves two survivors and no future for their kind. Not that either of them knows; they have no real memories of their origin.
Starlin’s version of Enkidu lands in the middle of a jungle / rain forest in South America and pretty much raises himself. The computer of his escape pod teaches him to speak (English, of course) but eventually stops functioning, leaving him on his own. From his conversations with the computer, he’s given himself the name “the Other” (very DeBeauvoir, innit?!).
When we re-enter the story (after the two infants have landed), twenty-some years have passed. The Other has enough knowledge of the planet and its ecosystems to know that he must defend the rain forest at all costs because it is the Earth’s last source of oxygen. He’s terrorized deforestation crews out of trying to take the land, and there’s something else lurking in the wilderness, something enormous, wild, and murderous enough to frighten even the Other.
Gilgamesh, by now, has risen to power. After involvement in a series of wars — collectively referred to as the Corporate Wars — he has become Chairman Gilgamesh, head of the Corporation and thus ruler of Earth. Nobody suspects he may not be human: his mother, who is now his advisor, has kept his secret well. Of course it is Gilgamesh’s corporation that wants to annex the rain forest. When he is alerted to the problems there, he sends Agent Bambi to trap and tame the wild man (the Other). Agent Bambi is, of course, Starlin’s version of Shamhat, the temple worker / temple prostitute in the original epic. After ‘educating’ the Other in matters of sex, she convinces him to meet with Gilgamesh to discuss the future of the wilderness he inhabits. Importantly, she takes charge of his identity: because “the Other” seems like an odd name to her, she decides he’ll be called “Otto” from now on, and so it is.
When Gilgamesh lays eyes on Otto, he instantly recognizes himself in Otto’s hairless, blocky features and perfectly black eyes and, believing his secret has been found out, he goes berserk and tries to kill Otto. They take down a good part of the palace before the fight ends. They are perfectly matched, and there can be no victor. Gilgamesh realizes that Otto has no idea they are the same, and that his secret is still safe. He also realizes that he is no longer alone in the world. There is someone like him. A brother.
The two hit it off. Otto develops an alternative plan for making the wilderness habitable (with birth control being out of fashion, the population has outgrown the cities). Otto’s plan is ecologically sound, reconciling the immediate needs of the people with sustainability. Where Gilgamesh and Enkidu battle the bull of heaven, in this version, Chairman Gil and Otto battle a powerful mutant creature called the Nightshadow in order to gain control of the wilderness. Otto is injured and dies. Gilgamesh is inconsolable: all he has achieved, all the power and renown he has, none of this can bring Otto back to life. He is, again, alone in the world.
After some weeks of smoking dope in his bathrobe, Gilgamesh has a revelation: the only place he can find the answers he needs in order to bring Otto back to life is outside of the dichotomies of “life and death, […] flesh and decay, […] reality and ephemera.” He declares to his people that he will go to the Void — the part of the planet that vanished, decades earlier, in a disastrous temporal displacement experiment — and find a way to resurrect Otto. He leaves his mother in charge of the corporation (and thus the world). She is promptly murdered and Gilgamesh’s position is usurped by the board of the corporation. (Her attempt to make “In a Gadda da Vida” the corporate anthem may have had something to do with her unfortunate end.)
Gilgamesh dons his battlesuit and enters the Void, which is, really, a void. The pages here are blank, except for Gilgamesh himself there is nothing to see. He travels to the epicenter of the catastrophe, Leningrad, and finds that the scientist who ran the experiment has survived. The scientist shows him a way to turn energy into biological matter, and Gilgamesh realizes he can use this technique to revive his brother.
He spends a few hours in the Void, but when he returns to the world, thousands of years have passed. A new race has colonized the planet after finding it dying and uninhabitable for humans. When Gilgamesh appears, nobody recognizes him. The aliens assume he is a ‘relic’ — a human — and are both curious and cautious about him. Afterall, humans did this to their own planet, global suicide by folly. Gilgamesh leaves them with his name and many questions, returns to the void, and strips himself first of his protective battlesuit, then his mask, and floats like a fetus, abandoning himself completely to the void.
I really enjoyed this reimagined Gilgamesh. The characters are interesting, the artwork gritty, and the whole endeavor stays true to the spirit of the epic.