Magda Van Tilburg is the creator of booxalive: a story site that features children’s picture books, poetry, jigsaw puzzles and short silent movies. It also features her delightful series of classical comics: Antiqua Signa: stories from ancient Greece and Rome, told in their original languages, using comics style storytelling, and providing explanations and translations. They’re rather wonderful works–created by an artist who is inspired by the vivid stories and art of the ancient world, and aims to present it anew (but also authentically) for young readers.
Magda was kind enough to answer some questions and provide some images from her work: read on to find out more!
What drew you to retelling the classical myths and stories in this format? What’s your favourite myth to retell?
When in highschool (called ‘gymnasium’ in The Netherlands/1967-1973), in the second year when we started with Latin, I made my own ‘papyrus’-text role with the story of Romulus and Remus, in my own first learned Latin. But in the third year the ancient Greek language was added and the more we learned about the grammar of both dead languages, the more I struggled. My mind had too much fantasy to translate what was actually written down. In my head I made it much more spicy, while I couldn’t grab the rules of grammar. Yet I simply loved the ancient stories, thanks to very enthusiastic teachers. So I decided in the fifth grade to make drawings to go with the stories and text balloons with the text that suited that special drawing. So I learned to translate what was written by drawing what the text said. I started my first graphic novel with the episode of Kirke by Homer. I think that’s also my most favourite myth.
Do you have a background in classical education (Latin or Greek at school, or classes at the university, or did you come to classical myth/history through some other means?
After my struggle in highschool I decided to study Latin and Greek at the University of Amsterdam (1973-1978 BA-cum laude). I wanted to teach my mind thinking more abstractly, and meanwhile have the opportunity to read many more myths in their original texts. And with that I started a whole series of graphic novels with the myths we read in college. Also I got afraid that such priceless folktales and myths would disappear in our modern times. Comics are very popular and get even more popular. As it helped me in highschool to understand a text, so I hoped this was the most suitable Medium to spread enthousiam for myths amongst the iYouth. Later, when I produced them digitally on my free story site booxalive.nl, I added my English translation, in the hope more public could sniff at these precious culture achievements.
Were there any particular challenges in adapting myths for your particular approach?
It was a great joy to make a storyboard from each chosen text, to figure out scenes to draw and what text could go along with them. Where to use direct speech or indirect narration. Of course I had to delete quite some sentences, for a more fluid story, and that’s how the metrum in all my titles got lost. Some scholars were very annoyed by that, but to produce a smooth visual story I had to make priorities.
Did you think about how aspects of Classical Antiquity (myth, history) would translate for young readers?
To be honest: I only had my own pleasure as a reader in mind by creating the comics. Somewhere I was convinced that would work catching for others too. (I hope I did understand this question correctly…)
What sources are you using? Scholarly work? Wikipedia? Are there any books that made an impact on you in this respect?
For each story I used the texts from the books we used in college. I still had all the important editions in my library (Loeb, Oxford Press etc.). I also consulted the commentaries in those books and my own college notes (which I had preserved for about 30 years. For after my BA I went to the Rietveld Art Academy in Amsterdam, where I graduated in 1984). I still hold all my classic related books in my library dearly. Most of all I love – funny enough – the special Greek-Dutch dictionary by Dr. J.F.L. Montijn and Homer’s dictionary by Mehler. They use an awesome, beautiful Greek font.
I was really struck by the visual intertextuality of these stories as you tell them. How did you go about selecting which art works to reference?
Thank you so much for your compliments! The references to specific art works I just choose on intuition and from knowledge from a lifetime great love for (ancient) art. That’s the beating heart of my version of the ancient texts.
Magda’s comics can be read at https://booxalive.nl/klassieke-strips/. They include Latin versions (Dido and Aeneas, Ovid’s Phaethon, Romulus and Remus) and Greek versions (Homer’s Kirke (Circe), Ares and Aphrodite, Herodotos’ The Smart Thief, and Alcestis).