Kill the Minotaur

Review of a graphic novel

This blood-soaked and interesting retelling in graphic novel form of the story of Theseus and the Minotaur is written by Chris Pasetto and Christian Cantamessa, with art by Lukas Ketner.

Josho Brouwers

Originally published in six instalments in 2017, Kill the Minotaur was published by Image Comics as a trade paperback in early 2018. Writers Chris Pasetto and Christian Cantamessa set themselves the task of retelling the ancient Greek story of the Athenian hero Theseus’ slaying of the Minotaur. Their grim and blood-soaked tale is brought to life by artist Lucas Ketner, with colours by Jean-François Beaulieu.

The story starts in “Crete, circa 1500 BC”, with the inventor Daedalus assuring Queen Pasiphaë that the “creature” is contained within a very organic-looking Labyrinth. When Daedalus refers to the creature as “it”, King Minos corrects him. “The heir to the throne,” he says, “my adopted son… Surely you did not mean to refer to him as an ‘it’, master Daedalus?”

As it turns out, Minos has recently lost his biological son; King Aegeus of Athens, in a scene later in the book, refers to the prince’s death as the consequence of “a stupid accident in the games.” Minos sees the arrival of the creature in the Labyrinth – who is in this retelling clearly not the result of an unnatural union between Queen Pasiphaë and a bull! – as sent by the gods. Minos then tells his general, the one-eyed Glaucus, to prepare the fleet for war.

The ship from Crete docks in Athens’ harbour. The ship seems vaguely inspired by ancient vessels, but is clearly oversized. The city here features Classical elements, rather than Mycenaean (Bronze Age) ones. The historical inaccuracies would have been easier to forgive if the story doesn’t explicitly claim it’s set in 1500 BC.

We then cut to Athens, “eight years later”, and are shown the Acropolis as it more or less looked during the Classical age! Of course, in 1500 BC, the Acropolis looked nothing like this. As in other instances where the creators picked a specific, absolute date for their story – like with the movies Troy (2004) and Hercules 3D (2014) – it usually makes little sense, especially in a case like this where an absolute date isn’t even necessary, and actually does more harm than good.

But still, I can understand the desire to place a story based on Greek mythology at some point during the (Late) Bronze Age to give it some kind of historical veneer. Even so, rendering the Acropolis in this way, without even an attempt to make it look more “Mycenaean”, is utterly mistifying to me. A few pages later, we’re also treated to a view of downtown Athens, replete with something that looks like a church tower; a little later, a Cretan offers a gold coin, centuries before the invention of coinage. And I won’t comment on the clothing or armour; save for something that looks vaguely like a boars’ tusk helmet, much here owes more to contemporary fantasy than Bronze Age Greece.

Clearly, then, the creative team has made no attempt at historical accuracy. But this is a tale based on a myth, so historical accuracy isn’t exactly necessary, even if some of the choices are baffling. My main concern here is how the creators go about adapting the story of Theseus and the Minotaur. The answer is that their take is, at the very least, an interesting one.

In Athens, we are introduced to Theseus and his friend Pirithous. There is no mention of Troezen; in this story, it seems like Theseus was born and raised in Athens. His father, Aegeus, interrupts Theseus as he spars with Pirithous to tell him to prepare for the Cretan “guests”, pointing out that Athens had been conquered, but not destroyed, and that the tribute the Cretans are about to collect is the price they pay for peace.

Off to Crete

The Cretans arrive on a gigantic ship and promptly march into town where they collect an assortment of Athenians. Unlike the myth, these are clearly not all maidens and youths, as at least one young man leaves behind a wife and child. When the Cretans turn to take a girl called Melide, Theseus wants to step in, but is prevented from doing anything by Pirithous, who says that, “If we do anything to interfere, Athens will burn.”

Theseus gets into a scuffle with a father who wants to protect his daughter, and manages to overcome him. This leaves him rather despondent, and he sulks at the temple in front of a statue of Heracles fighting the Nemean Lion. There’s a reference here to a “Persian” harem – some blatant and fully anachronistic orientalism, but I digress – before Theseus and Pirithous wonder about what happens to the young men and women that are taken back to Crete. Pirithous suggests that there’s a labyrinth and a monster, but Theseus dismisses that as “lies”.

At this point, Daedalus reveals himself to Theseus and Pirithous. We can now more clearly see that he has one eye that shines like gold – an important element that we will encounter again later. He asks Theseus to help him stop Minos’ madness. The prince doesn’t need much convincing and we’re next shown Theseus and the other Athenians, along with Daedalus, arriving at a Cretan harbour city that doesn’t look at all Minoan except for the giant Horns of Consecration; a huge amphitheatre – a Roman invention! – is currently under construction.

Daedalus aboard the alien ship (?), with a beam of energy surging into a “cradle” that houses a monstrous little creature that will develop into this story’s Minotaur. In the book, Daedalus is cast as an advisor to Minos, rather than an exiled Athenian inventor.

There’s little subtlety to Minos’ portrayal as a cruel despot. Works are proceeding in the city and Pirithous remarks how “Minos makes slaves of his own people.” He then walks toward the group of Athenian captives and upon hearing that one of them got ill during the voyage, runs him through with a sword and throws the dying boy into the water. He then orders the amphitheatre to be torn down because now the ceremony wouldn’t be “pure”. Everyone then heads to a throne room – or whatever it’s supposed to be – that at least features Bronze Age columns of a sort, with figure-of-eight shields decorating the walls.

We’re here introduced to Ariadne, the king’s daughter, who was shown briefly as a child at the very beginning of the book. Minos drops some exposition: the ceremony is to be held in a few days, and his adoptive son, whose name is Asterion in a nod to the original tale, will then be welcomed “into the royal house of Crete with open arms.” Minos then reveals that he has had Daedalus beheaded, though it’s not clear how he figured out something was going on. Ariadne has an anguished expression on her face, but Glaucus behind her tells her to hold steady and not give away the game – clearly, Minos is widely despised.

Lost in the Labyrinth

Theseus and the other Athenians turn out to have been drugged and fall asleep. When Theseus awakes, he finds himself inside the Labyrinth. Ariadne appears and tells him that she can help him, especially since Daedalus told her much about the maze, which he studied rather than actually built. She then tells Theseus that their plan had always been to get Theseus inside the Labyrinth, so that he could “kill the Minotaur”. Ariadne then runs away (for some reason) and Theseus is reunited with the other Athenians.

At this point, the story takes a turn toward horror, with the Athenians picked off one by one by the Labyrinth – which, as a Cretan who got stuck in the Labyrinth confirms, is actually alive – or the Minotaur. Some of the walls of the Labyrinth look definitely organic, while others are smooth. The “waters” that run through the Labyrinth have some kind of mystical glow about them, and everyone is urged not to drink from it. The walls can also move and trap people, or crush them to death, when it comes into contact with blood.

The Minotaur itself is a monstrous creature, more like something out of John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) than Greek mythology: an apparently skinless body, with a swollen humanoid head with horns, and long splindly limbs. As a modern version of the ancient monster, it’s effective. Both its eyes glow gold and they weep a kind of ichor, not unlike the right eye of Daedalus, betraying a link to the Labyrinth itself.

The Minotaur in this book is a horrific creature with regenerative powers. Its design and abilities appear to owe a lot to the creature from John Carpenter’s 1982 movie The Thing. Here, the monster attacks the Athenians; Ariadne, King Minos’ daughter, is among them (left, halfway up the image, holding a bow).

When Ariadne shows up again, she is there in time to help Theseus defeat the Minotaur at least temporarily. They need to kill it for good, because once it gets out of the Labyrinth as part of Minos’ “ceremony”, it “will go free. It will grow in power, devouring whole armies, cities, nations. We must act,” Ariande says, “while it’s still inside the Labyrinth.” She then uses a star dipped in blood to highlight a path to the centre of the Labyrinth – its heart, it you will, where they must fight and defeat the Minotaur for good. Time is also running short, as the Labyrinth appears to be dying.

Once they reach the centre, Ariadne explains that this is where it all began, and where it all will end. We’re then shown a flashback and it’s revealed that the origins of the Labyrinth are extraterrestrial. A ship had crashed and Daedalus went to investigate. Cutting himself on a shining star-like object, his blood dripped on a small creature in what looks like a crib, which spawned the Minotaur. The vessel read Daedalus’ mind and started building the Labyrinth to contain the creature, with Minos growing convinced that the Minotaur was recompense from the gods for the death of his son.

Inexorably, we move toward the final showdown with the Minotaur, and a reveal or two that I won’t spoil. All of the Athenians apart from Theseus are killed. Theseus ultimately gets entangled with the Minotaur and it’s unclear if he survives. We then cut to the ceremony, where Minos has constructed a hollow cow to facilitate the Minotaur mating with Ariadne in a twisted nod to the original story. But it’s Theseus who emerges from the portal, now with one glowing eye. He appears together with Ariadne, and after a brief exchange, the two murder everyone in the amphitheatre, including Ariadne’s parents, before heading back to Athens.

Closing thoughts

Kill the Minotaur offers an interesting twist on the story of Theseus and the Minotaur. A monster roaming a dark maze is excellent fodder for a horror story and the book’s dark, blood-soaked art and excessive gore are a perfect fit for a retelling along those lines. I thought some of the swearing was perhaps a bit unnecessary, as if the creatores were striving to be ever more edgy, but it’s not something that bothered me much.

Theseus is concerned with being a hero and how he is perceived by those around him, which is an element that fits the subject matter well. At the very end of the book, it’s clear that the Minotaur wasn’t defeated so much as it was transformed by merging with Theseus. The Athenian prince remembers killing his friend Pirithous, but we saw that it had been the Minotaur performing that deed. With his memory clouded, it’s Ariadne who shakes some sense into him, telling him that he’s become what he always wanted to be: a hero.

This graphic novel’s ending isn’t nearly as neat as in the original tale. Defeating the Minotaur comes at a great cost to Theseus himself, who seems to have merged with the monster in order to overcome it, as evidenced by his glowing eye and the memories he now possesses of having killed his best friend.

Indeed, it’s Ariadne who is arguably the book’s true protagonist. In the original Greek myth, she helps Theseus by giving him a ball of thread to unspool as he winds his way through the Labyrinth. Here, she takes a much more proactive role, equipped in armour and wielding a bow. Alongside Daedalus, she is the architect of Minos’ eventual destruction, and rather than being abandoned (or killed) on the island of Naxos, she accompanies Theseus back to Athens, where she will no doubt reign beside him.

Overall, I enjoyed this book. The historical inaccuracies are a nuisance, as they always are, especially because they could have been easily avoided, either by doing some more research (or roping in an archaeologist to do it for you!) or by going all-in on the fantasy angle. Some of the characters are poorly developed, most notably Minos, who is a one-dimensional villain and ultimately not that interesting. Still, the book is an atmospheric, horror-infused romp that is well worth your time.