When did democracy begin? For the purposes of the following it was possibly when Alecos Papadatos sat down in front of the computer a few years ago to help his six-year-old daughter with her homework.

“The homework was about Pericles,” Papadatos tells me on an August morning. His English is perfect but his accent is thickly, sweetly Greek.

Pericles was, of course, a statesman and general of Athens during the city’s Golden Age (you knew that, didn’t you?), and one of the names we associate with the birth of modern Greece. But perhaps not the key one, as Papadatos discovered.

“I found myself in front of a screen which said: ‘Cleisthenes is considered the founder of democracy’, and I said ‘wow, this is not possible. There is a person who is considered the founder of democracy?’”

Papadatos, who’s 56, draws for a living and can normally be found in Athens (though he is originally from Thessaloniki), and admits he didn’t know much about Cleisthenes back then. It’s possible that not many Greeks know much about Cleisthenes even now. There is no statue to him after all, no images of him that have been passed down the centuries. True, he does turn up in Herodotus’s history of ancient Greece but even then the historian doesn’t bother giving us a description.

But Papadatos was suitably intrigued, especially when he then read Persian Fire, Tom Holland’s rip-roaring narrative history of fifth-century Greece’s battles against the Persian Empire. Cleisthenes turned up in that too.

Who was he, this Greek aristocrat who spoke up for democratic reform; perhaps for his own reasons, perhaps for the principle of the thing (historians can’t decide)? And more importantly, what was the world he lived in like? What was Greece like before it became the Greece of the golden age of philosophers and the Acropolis?

Maybe, Papadatos thought, there’s a book in this. He was right. Democracy – a graphic novel in this case, not the political concept – is the result.

Papadatos called in fellow graphic novel enthusiast Abraham Kawa to provide the words and help polish the story he had come up with and long-time associate Annie Di Donna to do the colouring.

The result is hugely ambitious, but Papadatos is used to that. After all, he has previously worked with the writers Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos Papadimitriou on Logicomix which itself didn’t aim low.

Logicomix attempted – and succeeded – in not only offering an account of the life of the late Bertrand Russell, but also an outline of the development of Russell’s thinking on the field of mathematical logic. And not just his. The Wittgenstein at war sequence is a particular triumph.

But Papadatos sees his work as part of a continuity. He is just following in the footsteps of Art Spiegelman, who gave us Maus, and Marjane Satrapi, the creator of Persepolis, both of whom tackled big themes – the Holocaust and the Islamic Revolution in Iran, respectively – in comic form.

“I love also the work of Joe Sacco. All these creators have in common big formats with complex plots inspiring heavy thoughts. They are books that can be read more than one time.”

Democracy fits into that model too. Like Logicomix, Democracy is also about an idea. But it’s wrapped up in a story. A violent, romantic historical fiction about a boy called Leander who lives in a time of tyrants and sees his family caught up in the violence of the times. Along the way he meets the Goddess Athena who tells him to keep painting and Cleisthenes, of course, who gives him a lesson in democratic principles.

Papadatos and Kawa also throw in love and death, riots and revolts. And it’s all tricked out in Papadatos’s lean-limbed, sweet-and-savoury cartoon-coloured art. (He’s particularly good at facial expressions. That comes from his years as an animator, he says. Because animation is “full of grimaces”.)

Kawa, who’s 43 and originally from Athens but currently resident in Volos, a port city to the north of the capital, became involved in the project in 2009. “Alecos had already been working on it for a long time before that,” he tells me when we speak.

The writer had long been a student of the graphic novel form and had worked on a couple of smaller projects. When it came to Democracy, Kawa says, “I basically copied the best techniques of the best comic scriptwriters I could get my hands on. I got my hands on everything that Alan Moore had written or Neil Gaiman or Grant Morrison, and basically went from there.”

He’s also following in the footsteps of Herodotus too, of course. That must be just a little bit intimidating, surely? “It is intimidating,” he admits, “but it’s also freeing as well. If you see the passages in Herodotus where he actually describes the assassination of Hipparchus the tyrant, he only dedicates something like three phrases to that. And a paragraph to the whole situation around it. So it would actually give you the nitty gritty of what happened with no flourishes. And then you could actually add things, helped by contemporary historians.”

Ah yes, contemporaneity. It’s difficult, to be honest, to read Democracy and not seek allusions to Greece’s recent history in the ancient past. Can we read the runes to Greece’s current parlous state in the pages of Democracy?

Papadatos isn’t keen to run with the comparison. “Listen, apart from the fact that we show these people in this city called Athens taking care of their own institutions which have been, let’s say, violated by totalitarian forces, we cannot say that their revolt has something to do with today’s crisis in Athens.

“It should only be a reminder that people should care about their civic problems more than the political parties because today Greeks are divided into many little political parties that hate each other. And this does not help the country develop.”

Kawa is a little more receptive to comparisons between then and now. “The thing is, we didn’t consciously try to create something that would resonate with what’s happening in Greece today. But there are so many things that probably haven’t changed. It becomes sort of timeless. The political system, political corruption within the system, the struggle for power. All of these are universal themes and they have been going on throughout history.

“There were a couple of times where we felt we were almost reporting what was going on outside our homes. But it wasn’t conscious.”

Conscious or not, it’s encouraging that we can now look for such depth in a graphic novel without even questioning the idea. It’s a reflection of the profundity that is possible in the form. “It’s a very intricate thing,” Papadatos suggests. “But it’s very tiring to do, very money-wasting.”

Well, indeed. That’s why he needs a team mate. “One cannot do it alone in a couple of years. Maus took nine years with Art Spiegelman working alone.”

But the effort is worth it. It’s possible, Papadatos adds, to present readers with depths to swim in beneath the gloss surface.

As for Kawa, he has the bug. He wants to write more graphic novels. He loves the form. “It’s almost like a personal cinema. You can use almost everything that the cinema can do minus sound effects. And there’s ways around that as well. And you have an unlimited budget.

“And as the reader you are able to pause and stop everything and reread your favourite bits and get into them and study them. It’s almost like pausing a Blu-Ray or something.”

Come to think of it, that’s a form of democracy right there.

Democracy, by Alecos Papadatos and Abraham Kawa and Annie Di Donna is published by Bloomsbury, priced £18.99.