Alecos Papadatos, Abraham Kawa, and Annie Di Donna. Democracy. London: Bloomsbury. 2015.

I have been wanting to read Democracy since I first heard about it last September at a colleague’s dissertation defense. Aside from the fact that it is a graphic novel about ancient history which references Josiah Ober’s Mass and Elite in Democratic Athens as a major source, I had read and enjoyed Papadatos and Di Donna’s previous collaboration (with Apostolis Doxiadis and Christos H. Papadimitriou), Logicomix: An Epic Search For Truth. How would the same group handle the Cleisthenic reforms? And how would they do so in the context of the economic and political upheaval in modern Greece?

The short answer is: very well.

The novel is framed as a tale told beside a campfire by an Athenian soldier, Leander, over the night before the Battle of Marathon (490 BCE). His story begins with the tyrannicides, Harmodias and Aristogeiton, and continues through the conflicts between the Pisistratids and Alcmaeonids to the eventual establishment of democracy by Cleisthenes. Leander is very much Cleisthenes’ man, first meeting the exiled Alcmaeonid in Delphi, and later speaking up for him against Isagoras. At each step Leander encourages his fellow Athenians—whether in the lead-up to the Cleisthenic reforms or in the lead-up to Marathon—to look for the connections between all these different phases. “You people have no memory?” he shouts incredulously at the Athenian crowd (122).

It is, perhaps, the Athenian crowd—the mob, the gaping demos—that is the true hero of the story. As Lysander recognizes, its memory is short and its heart fickle. “There’s something monstrous about crowds, you know,” Cleisthenes tells Leander.

Solon saw it it in the disenfranchised, the poor masses not benefited even by his laws. In horror, he saw that to control it, he’d have to become a tyrant….Peisistratus came to power because of Solon’s reluctance to act. And even the tyrant didn’t slay the monster. He manipulated it, controlled it. (98)

The sentiment is echoed throughout the graphic novel—indeed, Cleisthenes’ words return to haunt Lysander in dreams. “There’s something monstrous about crowds, you know. Belonging can be a horrible thing” (169). In one of the work’s strongest passages, Apollo, Athena, and Dionysus stand over an unconscious Lysander, discussing human nature in explicitly Birth of Tragedy terms. “You and your nineteenth century, Apollo. What next, you’ll be quoting Nietzche? You are only going to confuse the readers” (170). Is democracy ultimately Apollonian, or is it a form of Dionysian chaos?

The question—as Apollo’s claim to be “everywhere at once, wherever and whenever there are mortals that know of [the gods]” suggests—is one which resonates not only with Greece at the turn of in the sixth and fifth centuries BCE, but also with Greece of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries CE. Although the authors have stated that the novel was not conceived with contemporary events in mind, I couldn’t help thinking, seeing a (historically uncertain) police force of Scythians patrolling the streets of Athens, of the military police in Athens under the Colonels, and of the many more recent clashes between riot police and protestors in Syntagma Square as I looked at cinematic angles of terrified women and children in scenes of mob violence.

Visually, the novel is beautiful, with Papadatos’ spare drawing style and panelling choreographed expertly with Kawa’s script. Annie Di Dura’s coloring is gorgeous—the final spread of Greek soldiers rushing towards the Persian army at Marathon into an orange-pink sunrise, for example, made me linger long after I had finished reading the last words.

Democracy is a fresh and innovative take on a turning point in history, a beautiful and sobering reminder of how contingent and unexpected democracy actually is.