George O’Connor was best known as a writer and illustrator of picture books when his first graphic novel “Journey Into Mohawk Country” became one of the initial comic releases by First Second Books. An adaptation of the journal of seventeenth century Dutch explorer, Harmen Meyndertsz von den Bogaert, it was very different from his next project being released, “Ball Peen Hammer,” which he has collaborated on with playwright and novelist Adam Rapp.
O’Connor’s latest graphic novel is “Zeus: King of the Gods,” the first of a twelve book series about the Olympian gods. O’Connor spoke briefly about the project last year when CBR News spoke with him about “Ball Peen Hammer.” Now, we talk with O’Connor about his approach to the Greek gods and what it means for him to be taking on such a longterm project which will continue this May with “Athena: Grey-Eyed Goddess.”
CBR News: The decision to create a book of the Greek myths is a daunting one. How did you decide on the format being twelve books of this length, each one focusing on one of the Olympians?
George O’Connor:My children’s book editor and I had been sitting around his apartment, when he referred to a mutual acquaintance of ours as being like Cerberus, the three-headed dog of Hades. I said something equally nerdy back to him about Cyclops or something, and he kind of looked at me, pulled a picture book off his shelf and said, “What if you do a graphic novel version of the Greek myths, at about this size?”
This was such an unbelievable “eureka” moment for me, as I’ve been absolutely obsessed with Greek mythology since pretty much forever. Very soon into the process, I knew that in order to do justice to the vast body of myths, I was looking at an extremely large project. I came up with the idea of making twelve books, each with one of the Olympian gods as its focus. Not every story would necessarily have to be starring the featured god, but might focus on their attributes and domain; for instance, the Aphrodite book may feature love stories, or the Ares book, stories about war.
The scale of the project is huge and will obviouly take years to complete, and it seems as if one of the big challenges is deciding what to exclude from the books. Would that be the biggest issue you face, trimming things away so that the stories will fit into your format?
One of the first things I did was to make a list of all the stories I wanted to tell in this series, and then I made a big spreadsheet of which stories would be told in which books. Luckily, 12 books contain an awful lot of real estate, so there wasn’t that much I had to exclude due to space. Some stories, like Jason and the Argonauts, or Zeus and Io, will play out through several books in the series, whereas other myths will be completely told in one volume.
Something I’m very proud of is the all-ages nature of the series. “Olympians” can be read and enjoyed by adults and children alike. Now, of course, a lot of the myths deal with some very adult subject matter, but I tell it in a way that will go over kids’ heads. In Zeus, when the Titan Kronos castrates his father Ouranos, the Sky, with a sickle, I illustrate it with an image of Kronos slicing open the sky. The accompanying text reads “Ouranos was wounded and rendered impotent. His powers seeped away into his sons”. It’s true to the original story without me coming out and saying “Kronos cut off his dad’s ding dong”. Writing for all ages is probably the single most challenging aspect of this series, but at the same time, very rewarding. It helps me to hone my skills.
The one myth I haven’t been able to find a place for yet that I really want to do is about Zeus, Hera and Tiresias. It’s a great one, very illuminating for all characters involved, but a little too adult for me to make it all-ages appropriate and still be remotely relevant to its original meaning. Maybe I’ll adapt it online someday…
In “Zeus,” you used the father of the gods’ tale to really establish the realm of the Greek gods and tell the story that creates the world that the myths are set in. So many of the stories are Zeus as a middle-aged philanderer that it’s easy to forget that he’s just as complex a character as anyone in the myths. Was the plan always to set up the series with this book, and what was the thinking behind it?
I never bought the idea of the middle-aged looking Zeus. The Olympians are immortal, right? Why would someone who never got older look middle-aged? Zeus is the original eternal child.
There’s this really wonderful book by Roberto Calasso called “The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony” that any enthusiastic mythophile owes it to themselves to read. He has this one line in there that totally influenced my take on Zeus. “Zeus is never ridiculous, because his dignity is of no concern to him”. That’s pretty astute. Zeus may do some crazy or ridiculous things, but he’s so beyond the concept of dignity, it doesn’t even apply to him. I like that in a supreme being. Even though he’s in charge of everything, he still knows how to have a good time. Maybe ironically, for a god, it makes him a more human character. Very relatable, a great lead character. That’s Zeus.
I love that line about Zeus being above dignity. What’s interesting is that, by retelling the theogeny, you let Zeus have an arc, which most retellings of the Greek myths don’t. Zeus usually has a limited range of behavior when compared with most of the other gods, which makes him the less relatable, more middle aged figure he’s often portrayed as.
Researching Zeus, I was surprised to see how closely the story of the Theogony, the whole ascension of Zeus and the Olympians, matched the classic arc of a hero. Zeus even makes a trip to the underworld. The weird thing is, I think the ancients themselves forgot that Zeus was a hero at first. That’s the burden of leadership, or supreme deity-ship. As Zeus’ influence, religiously speaking, grew in the ancient world, it became harder and harder to see his original character. Euripedes, who wrote, like, maybe 400 years after Hesiod, already laments “Zeus, whoever you may be, power beyond our knowledge”. That being said, I think Zeus will turn out to be the most interesting character in the whole series. I’m having a blast defining his relationship with Hera. And it was all there, in the myths. I just had to scratch the surface.
The book design, especially the glossary pages, the pages for the characters with their strengths and attributes, reminded me of those comics specials or Dungeon and Dragons guides. Was that in your original conception of the book?
Oh, yeah, when I pitched this series, I brought in some of my old copies of the “Handbook of the Marvel Universe.” I loooved those books as a kid. My friends and I would pore through them, looking up stats, like where was Iron Man born, and who was stronger, The Thing or the Hulk. Kids love factoids, so I knew we had to include the bio pinups. I also knew, from a publishing standpoint, that some of our best friends would be librarians and teachers. I wanted these books to be chock-full of useful information, like the recommended reading and the Geek Notes, to increase their value in the classroom.
“Athena: Grey-Eyed Goddess,” which comes out this spring, is a very different book, just as she’s a very different character from Zeus. Was it your plan to approach each book from unique angles?
Definitely. With Zeus, I basically told one big story. More or less, it’s Hesiod’s Theogeny, the birth of the gods, with a few bits and pieces from other myths thrown in to flesh out the proceedings. I told that story with dramatic, from-on-high omniscient narration, alternating with an almost day-to-day, vernacular quality of dialogue when dealing with the adventures of young Zeus himself.
In Athena, I told several different myths of the warrior goddess, as narrated by the three Fates, who are weaving a portrait of the warrior goddess. Athena’s book is all the concept of fate, and whether or not one can escape it; that, coupled with Athena’s role as the goddess of weaving made the Fates a logical choice as narrators.
The third book in the series is “The Glory of Hera,” which is more similar in structure to “Athena” in that it covers a lot of myths, whereas the fourth book, “Hades: The Wealthy One,” is more similar to “Zeus” in that it primarily tells one big story, the abduction of Persephone. Changing up like this helps keep it interesting for me and, hopefully, the readers too.
How did you decide on the order of the books?
Well, starting with Zeus, and the rise of the Olympian order seemed to be a no-brainer for book 1. I knew right off the bat that I wanted Athena to be the star of book 2. She’s such a strong, interesting character, and a great female lead to boot. I also knew I wanted to wrap up the whole series with Dionysos in book 12, because he was the youngest of the Olympians and he’s representative of a new type of god. The rest were a matter of building off the chronology of my series. I skip around in mythological time quite a bit, but I knew that, for example, since I’m telling the story of the Judgement of Paris in Aphrodite’s book, it made sense for that book to come out before Ares’, wherein I’ll be telling the story of the Trojan War. Likewise, it made sense for the return of Odysseus from Troy in Poseidon’s book to follow Ares’. I also was careful to space out my faves – my favorite god is Hermes, and his book isn’t slated until number 10. Keeps me engaged.
Does the fact that the myths have been constantly reinterpreted over the centuries make it easier or harder in terms of designing the characters?
I was, of course, very aware that these stories had been told and retold hundreds of times throughout history. Heck, in large part they form the backbone of Western literature. That was one of the main reasons I decided to go back to ancient Greek and Roman sources for my retellings. Even though I’m sure there are numerous subconscious influences from more modern retellings in my versions (everything from “D’Aulaires Book of Greek Myths” to “Clash of the Titans”), I tried to hearken back to the originals as much as I could, with my own twists and inventions, of course. I consider it the duty of the storyteller to put their own stamp on the proceedings, to connect two threads that may not have been apparent before. It’s part of an ancient tradition going back the traveling bards of Homer and Hesiod’s day.
Take us through the twelve Olympians, if you would. Where did you, as an artist, begin in terms of what they should look like and how they should be portrayed?
Even though twelve is the canonical number of Olympians, there are actually more. For my purposes, I’ve narrowed them down to fourteen: in the first generation of Olympians we have Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, Demeter, Hades and Hestia, and in the second generation, comprised largely of the children of Zeus (with Hera or otherwise), we have Athena, Ares, Hephaistos, Apollo, Artemis, Hermes, Aphrodite and Dionysos. For the purpose of Olympians, Demeter’s story is told in Book 4, Hades: The Wealthy One, and Hestia’s tale will be told in Dionysos’ book, which will be the twelfth.
As for the design of what the gods would look like, it will be apparent to anyone reading that I approached their looks with an eye to the superheroes of today. The first line of my pitch to First Second was “The Greek Gods were the first Superheroes,” and that’s completely true. I wanted to present them in the visual language of superheroes to illustrate that connection, but also to preserve the ancients’ ideas of how these gods looked. I have extensive pictorial reference from Classical sources for each of the gods and tried to incorporate that as much as possible. In some instances, I used the design of the characters to reveal further ideas about them, Like Hestia, for instance, the goddess of the hearth and fire, who was an enormously important character in Greek religion, and yet is pretty much a non-entity in myths. As a nod to her barely defined personality, I chose to depict her as a column of flame in the rough shape of a woman.
Truth be told, some of my favorite designs in the series are from non-Olympian characters. My drawings of the Cyclopes, with just one huge eye and no other facial features, those hearken back to drawings I did as a child. And The Hekatonchieres, which are these monsters with 50 heads and 100 arms, are one of the designs I’m most pleased with. I tried drawing a creature with 50 pairs of arms sticking out of each shoulder, and it just looked silly and unwieldy. I came up with the idea, then, of ten sets of arms, and each of the fingers on the hands were themselves arms. I thought that looked pretty cool.
If the design of the Olympians is somewhat modeled on superheroes, the older gods are of a very different nature. Many have a humanoid shape, but they’re not relatable or familiar in the same way as the Olympians. Was it an intentional choice to emphasize the alien-ness of them and this period of time?
Very astute. The desire to keep the generations before the Olympians remote and unrelatable was one of the big influences on their designs. I was also illustrating a progression, an evolution of the deities. It all begins with Gaea, who, although she has a voice, is physically the least anthropomorphized – there’s nothing human-like about her appearance. She’s just the planet. She begats Ouranos, the sky, and he only barely takes a humanoid form, like, in one panel. Together, they produce the Titans, Cyclopes and Hekatonchieres, who are humanoid, but colossal, or monstrous. Each generation is a quantum shift. With the Olympians, we finally get the “human” gods, the ones that look and act the most like us.
Many of the gods have iconic characteristics, like Poseiden and Hermes, but others like Hera or Hades, don’t. You mentioned what you did with Hestia, which was a great solution, but did you find it more of a challenge to really get to go crazy and do whatever you could imagine, or did you find it better to have to some requirements and restrictions and design around that?
I think I like to have a few requirements, just to help keep it true to the ancient sources. I like the way you put that – some of the gods have iconic characteristics. You draw anyone holding a trident, or a lightning bolt, or wearing winged sandals and it doesn’t matter what they look like. You instantly have Poseidon, Zeus and Hermes. I still had to finesse the details with the iconic-characteristic gods, to discover and bring out the personality I wanted to portray for them. I mean, I could have drawn a big fat guy, put some grapes in his hair, and, whammo, instant Dionysos, but that’s really not an accurate depiction of his character in ancient myth.
For the characters with less-iconic attributes, I still went back to the well for inspiration, even if it’s not as obvious. I already mentioned Hestia, but for Hera, her sacred bird was the peacock. If you look at my designs of Hera, I gave her a regal looking bun of hair, tied back high on her head. But I also designed it to be evocative of a peacock’s head, with the plume of feathers on top. A subtle thing, that probably nobody but me would ever notice, but it helped create a starting point for my design.