On Reading Homer

Two questions have been raised in the comments, which require a lengthy answer.
David Ellis asks:
Actually, I would tend to disagree that all comics are simply created to entertain. I think their authors often have far more than that in mind (WATCHMEN comes to mind, as does KINGDOM COME to name just a couple, I am not a comics aficionado though, just an occasional reader, so I’m sure there are others that might be better examples).
In two thousand years, it would honestly not surprise me that much if tales featuring Superman and Batman are studied as seriously and with as much reverence as tales featuring Odysseus, Achilles, or Hercules.
And, just out of curiosity, what precisely do you think it is that The Oddyssey or The Iliad have and which makes them of timeless importance that cannot be found in any comic ever written? It’s hard to discuss the difference, I think, without a bit more specificity concerning what separates the two.
Well, the question astounds me. I am almost speechless. Almost.
Let us compare:
“Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus’ son Achilleus
and its devastation, which put pains thousandfold upon the Achaians,
hurled in their multitudes to the houses of Hades strong souls
of heroes, but gave their bodies to be the delicate feasting
of dogs, of all birds, and the will of Zeus was accomplished
since that time when first there stood in division of conflict
Atreus’ son the lord of men and brilliant Achilleus.
What god was it then set them together in bitter collision?”
—- Vs. —-
“Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s Superman! Yes, it’s Superman. Strange visitor from another planet who came to Earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men. Superman, who can change the course of mighty rivers, bend steel in his bare hands, and who, disguised as Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter for a great Metropolitan newspaper fights a never-ending battle for truth, justice and the American way.”
I hardly know where to begin discussing differences. Can’t you see it? Can’t you simply see it?
The difference is that Homer wrote at a level of craft that rewards continuous study, with insight into human nature matched only by the deepest thinkers, a command of the language so masterful that, even in translation into tongues uninvented when he wrote, the soaring music of the verse is still audible, and he touched on universal themes. He was a great poet, perhaps the greatest of all the human race, ever.
Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster were two kids who came up with a funnybook idea that was pretty good, as funnybook ideas go, but countless writers and editors added and subtracted from their basic idea, and no one person can claim the credit for Superman any more than one architect can claim credit for a cathedral. Obviously there is no central vision, theme, plot, or other artistic craft covering the whole corpus of Superman tales.
We have had five decades of shallow, fun adventures meant to be read once and thrown away. Comic have value to collectors because of the perishability of the medium: they are not written to last. The wording is meant to be cheap and gaudy and flashy and to appeal to the most crude and obvious of sensibilities. They’re fun. I like them.
But comics are, and comics by their design are meant to be, the most shallow, juvenile, and temporary of all forms of popular entertainment. They are the heirs of the pulps, which are glorious in their cheapness.
Attempting to address deep and serious themes in a comic, such as by, let us say, giving the Hulk a past as an abused child, or having Green Arrow’s sidekick be a heroine addict, is a distraction from the appeal of comics, and it annoys far more often than it pleases. I would far rather read about the world’s greatest escape artist using his Mother Box (a living computer!) to outwit the Dark Gods’ plan to discover the Anti-Life equation, which will spell the end of freedom in the pan-cosmic universe! I don’t need a lecture on social justice or nuclear disarmament from some dropout ink-jockey penning the latest ish of Green Arrow. 
Even the most complex and profound comic ever, and I mean Alan Moore’s WATCHMAN, rewards successive re-readings to appreciate the subtle intricate of the man’s craft, to note little background details and parallels in the theme and structure the artist has put in. The overall message, however, is simple, even cynical: question authority. It is a message meant to appeal to teens, or grown-ups who still think at the teen level.
Homer is talking about something deeper: the nature of what it means to be a mortal man in a violent world, where even the gods are playthings of uncaring fate, and the honor of brilliant and godlike men drives them to deeds of dark madness–and yet even here is the mercy that will return the body of a fallen foe to a weeping father. We are all, all too soon, fated to die. How shall we live til then?     
Once could write a book just on the description of the shield of Achilles, and have it be a good book, too. One cannot pay the shield of Steve Rogers the same amount of attention and have it reward the effort.
Homer improves your mind and soul, if you read it as it should be read, as well as gratifying the senses with images and metaphors of unparalleled power. Comics are fun to look at, and in recent years, modern printing processes have made some of the colored pictures really very good.
So, no, I cannot tell you specifically how the one differs from the other, because I see nothing but differences, differences so profound I consider it unfair, unrealistic, and inconceivable to find any basis of comparison. Indeed, I think the burden of the argument is on the other side. You tell me first in what why they are alike at all, aside from those things all stories have in common, and I can tell you more specifically how they differ.
One thing occurs to me about the criteria for judging a books greatness. You consider characterization one of the fundamental criteria but many books of the western canon are very weak on characterization. I wouldn’t call the writings of Homer exactly strong on characterization. This seems to have not been that much of a priority–I’d say Homer was no better at it than George Lucas (and it can’t get a lot weaker than that).
The criteria by which a book is judged have evolved over time. I’m not sure its entirely legitimate to judge the greatness of all books by the same standard.
I respectfully but absolutely disagree with your judgment, to the point where I suspect you of levity. Please reread the Iliad and the Odyssey with an eye toward characterization, and you will notice something rare both in ancient and modern literature that Homer does with unparalleled craft and genius: every character comes alive, and springs, three-dimensional and solid, from poet’s words. Even characters like Nausicaa, in her charm and courtesy, or the blind poet Demosthenes, who have but a few lines, form striking and definite images, as complex, realistic, and full of nuance as a real person.
Consider the passage where Priam comes to beg the body of his son for burial, kissing the hands of the man who slew him. It is very opposite of anything cartoonish or simplistic. Or contemplate the scene where young Hector’s son is frightened by his father’s plumed helm when Andromache comes to meet him at the gate.
Compare this with the general approach of ancient literature, such as the character of Roland in the French songs, or Irish or Iranian folk-heroes in their national epics. The humanity of Odysseus, who is offered even immortality if he stays with Callypso, but who weeps by the seashore of the edenic island where he is prisoned, his cunning, his soldierly spirit, his love for his home… essays could be written, and have been, about the depth and complexity of these characters, and poets have studied for centuries how to interpret and copy the Homeric effects.
And the interest shows no sign of waning. I just read a scene in Dan Simmons’ book OLYMPOS where a character convinces a suspicious Odysseus that he has a message from his wife, the steadfast Penelope, because he knows the secret of how their marriage bed was hewn and fashioned. No one is going to be writing sequels starring lovable rogue Han Solo two and a half thousand years after the present date: he does not have a life of his own independent of his creator. Odysseus is a real person.
“The criteria by which a book is judged have evolved over time.” Forgive me, but again I politely disagree, and again with an absolute disagreement. Evolved? By what process? Do the brains of men operate differently in the first century of the third millennium than they did in the Bronze Age? If so, it would be mere change, not improvement, and the songs of the ancient poets, instead of ringing with voices like godlike thunder down the ages, and igniting joy and wonder in the hearts of any with wit to hear them, would be merely incomprehensible, as Greek is to the uneducated. But I think we can understand the wrath of Achilles quite well, whenever we thing someone spurns or underestimates our worth. (Certainly I personally understand, and partake of, the garrulous nature of Nestor all too well.)
A standard that evolves is by definition not a standard, no more than a growing reed can be used as a yardstick to measure your children as they (and it) continue growing. The only thing that has “evolved” over time is a modern parochialism, that tends to disregard and downplay the achievements of the past. And, indeed, this is not an improvement, but a decrease of judgment, departing from objective standards to follow fashion. 
“I’m not sure its entirely legitimate to judge the greatness of all books by the same standard.”
Whatever is not being judged by the same standard is not being judged at all, for the act of judgment is the act of comparison to a standard. Having said that, I will say that a book can be good as science fiction and be bad as a book—most science fiction books are not (thank goodness) with art for art’s sake. Our genre is concerned with ideas and wonders, not the craft and cunning with which the story is told. Again, an epic poem and a lighthearted space opera are each judged by the standards proper to their genre. Lensmen can be rip-roaring good fun, without being a Great Book of the Western Cannon of Literature.
The question that started this whole thread was exactly this: what happens if we take the books that are among the best of SF (qua SF) and hold them up against the best of the Western Great Books (qua great literature).
Please see C.S. Lewis A NEW THEORY OF CRITICISM for more on this idea. Great books and good books are regarded differently, and exist for different purposes, by serious readers and casual readers. Science fiction is for casual reading, by and large. 
Science Fiction as a genre is meant to be fiction to contemplate change and evolution, the miracles of science, the new discoveries in space: the things in human nature that forever will stay the same come without our preview only when we challenge them. Great Literature is about the fact that men live mortal lives, and yet we live as if we are immortal. Science Fiction wonders what would happen if we had a death-reversing machine. Great Literature is about the war between the sexes, the eternal allure and puzzlement of the other sex, the temptations of Adam and Eve, the clash of wits of Penelope and Odysseus. Science Fiction wonders what life is like on planet Gethen, where there the humans have but one sex, or on planet Tormance, where there are three.