Review: Gilgamesh II
Updated: Sep 7, 2020
Published by DC in 1989 with story and art by Jim Starlin and colors by Steve Oliff, Gilgamesh II is sort of a lost piece of work. I mean, I was in comic retail for 25 years and I only just now read it, and I've never been asked about it in my entire career. It's a little weird considering how loved Starlin's work is and that this fits right into the tapestry of his usual existential space operas.
It's also a little odd that it doesn't get mentioned more often because it fits pretty well with the other numerous socio-political comics being released as prestige series at the time. Chock full of political commentary? Check. A biting satire of corporations and their endless consumption of the world? Check. Tons of tight grid panels that would make Tom King swoon? Check. A deeply pessimistic outlook of the future of our society? Check. Ronald Reagan? Check, check, and check.
The series is basically a post-apocalyptic adaptation of the Epic of Gilgamesh, following the main story beats of the original epic and leaving plenty of room for all the social angst and violent satire that Frank Miller and Alan Moore didn't use up in 1986 (but that Miller would definitely go back to the well on with Martha Washington in 1990).
It starts the Epic though by flipping the tone from it's mythical origins into sci-fi ones, having the hero arrive on Earth as an alien baby via your traditional Superman route. Except this time with hippies.
Dumb hippies who can't get their mythical heroes right.
I kind of immediately fell in love with the book at this point. It quickly starts to set the stage for the new world order as war and environmental collapse opened the doors for corporations to assume control of society.
On the other side of the world, it turns out there was a second alien baby who grew up in the wilderness. This child grows up to be the equivalent of the original epic's character Enkidu. In this case he's simply known as the Other, and Gilgamesh sends a corporate spy to 'convince' him to stop preventing land development in the Amazon.
After some rigorous 'convincing', the now renamed Otto and Gilgamesh go through the motions of the original epic. Which yes, means beating the crap out of each other. This is where I do really love Starlin, because he wears his Kirby on his sleeve and knows when to switch gears from socio-political and literary commentary to comic book punch-em-ups. More on that later.
Book Two focuses on the friendship between Gilgamesh and Otto, and their famous quest to kill a mythic beast. In the original story it's a creature called Humbaba, but for this series they just refer to it as the Nightshadow. Starlin does a great job of incorporating this sub-plot with the corporate subterfuge he needs to set-up for later chapters, and then pulls together a pretty great suspense/horror story for the rest of this chapter.
Now for a real quick spoiler alert, I am going to show the monster here because it's one of the most perfect Starlin-esque drug trip mutant creatures you can ever imagine. Also, this is like 31 years old, so screw it.
Chapter 3 focuses on that corporate subterfuge I mentioned and a lot of fighting with a ninja.
I mean like, a lot of fighting with a ninja. There's like 22 pages of ninja battle.
Chapter 4 gets kind of heady with its existential quest material, adapting Gilgamesh's quest from the original epic to conquer death.
It adapts the quest into a more sci-fi tone though as it brings back a quickly mentioned Chekhov's Gun plot device (and waits a few acts to fire it off, so I do recommend reading this all at once). I'll not spoil the exact nature of these revelations, but I will share some great art as Starlin embraces his inner Steve Ditko as well.
In many ways I can see why this may not have caught on to the same crowds that Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen hit with their grim 'adultification' of the medium. I'm not always a huge Starlin fan as I feel he can ramble on a bit, plus he has that odd 'Big Boi' alien fetish that's prominently on display in this series. Never noticed it? Just think about all his favorite villains to focus on:
Thanos Darkseid Mongul High Lord Papal (Dreadstar) Lord Synnar the Demiurge (Hardcore Station, and yes, that's his name) Breed (Breed)
I'm not here to kink shame Starlin though, far from it. I absolutely loved this series. It's absolutely ridiculous and beats you over the head with its messages, but in a great way that has a lot of fun. The art looks great as Starlin is experimenting a bit in his cross hatching and line feathering, and it feels right at home with it's late 80's dystopian comic brethren before everyone got too cool and exxxtreme.
I'm also a bit of a sucker for the Gilgamesh epic in general these days, so that's why I got off my ass and grabbed this set before it disappeared into a quarter bin somewhere. Which, seriously, the next time you can go to a comic convention (2022 maybe?), take a look through the quarter bins and see if you can fish a set out. While I would say it's worth paying $15-$20 for a set, you really shouldn't have to because most retailers won't bother to stock this in their regular back issue bins.
To my knowledge, I don't believe this has ever been reprinted in a nice collection. I've never seen one in my entire 25 years of comic book store retailing, and I guess I'm not surprised. I would assume though that at this point Starlin can take the property to anyone he would like (Dark Horse? IDW?), but the question is would anyone care to reprint it? One can dream.