'Olympians' creator George O'Connor draws battle lines in 'Ares'

Mythology is the intellectual gateway that's gotten many readers interested in becoming a writer or artist. But few are as passionate about the subject as George O'Connor, creator of Olympians, the 12-book series from First Second recounting the Greek myths. This month, he releases one of the volumes he's clearly looked forward to since first embarking on the project: Ares: Bringer of War.

Ahead of the book's release, O'Connor spoke with ROBOT 6 on what appeals to him about mythology and these characters in particular, and the challenges of adaptation. He also recounts how became friends with Age of Bronze creator Eric Shanower not through their shared fondness for classical mythology, but rather a mutual appreciation of Oz.

Tim O'Shea: You've been an avid mythophile since your grade-school days. What is it about mythology that fascinates you and enriches your creative interests all these years later?

George O'Connor: Initially, Greek mythology entered my life in the third grade, at a period of my life when, like many kids, I was obsessed with drawing monsters and musclemen. Discovering mythology in school kind of legitimized my drawings of monsters while simultaneously enriching and expanding the little worlds I drew. Maybe it’s because I encountered them first, maybe it’s because so much of our culture draws on them, or maybe it’s just because Greek myths are so freakin’ awesome that I still love them more than just about anything. A huge, sexy superpowered family having insane adventures in love and monster-fighting? What’s not to love?

How satisfying is it that you've been able to pass on your love of mythology onto others through your own storytelling efforts?

At my loftiest moments, I like to envision myself as another link in the long chain of storytellers who have told and retold these stories for thousands of years, each one of us passing these tales along and adding our own unique spin. It’s a great pleasure to meet all these people in the world for whom mythology, Greek or otherwise, played a vital part in shaping their likes and interests now. Most comics fans I meet, it seems, at least went through an intense period of mythological love. It’s like a secret language we mythophiles can whip out and converse in.

What thought process went into your decision which of the Olympians to tackle and when (given that you have 12 books planned) with Book 7: Ares set for this month?

While the old stories detail many more gods making their homes on Olympus, the idea of a canonical 12 Olympians dates back to classical times. There’s a little bit of disagreement from source to source as to whom the 12 are, exactly, but I chose my 12 from what I consider to be the most prevalent view, with two exceptions: I replaced Demeter with Hades (who is not considered an Olympian due to his not living on Olympus) and I will be focusing on Dionysos over Hestia. As far as the order in which to tackle them, while I've designed each volume of Olympians to stand alone, there are several over-arching themes and storylines that progress throughout the series that helped decide in which order I tell the stories. Ares: Bringer of War, which you mentioned, tells the story of the Trojan War, which is a real turning point for the gods and their relationship to humankind, so I always knew that book would be the mid-point for the series. Sometimes it’s as simple a decision as making sure I space out my favorite deities to keep up my interest — I’m saving Hermes, my absolute favorite, for Book 10, for instance.

Speaking of Ares, how intimidating was it tell the story of the Iliad in the context of Ares' story?

There were several time during the creation of Ares where I was worried that I had bitten off too much to chew — what sort of insane quest is it to distill 15,695 lines of an epic poem into a 66-page comic? What was I thinking? There were so many exciting things to depict, but I had to keep honing and condensing until I found just the core of what my story was going to be. My mission statement of Olympians is to find the familiar, human core of the gods, and in Ares, I decided to focus on Ares’ grief over the death of his mortal son in the battle, and his … prickly relationship with his father Zeus and the rest of the Olympians. All the familiar notes of the Iliad are still there, but they serve more as a backdrop for the drama of the gods of Olympus. The series is called Olympians, after all.

Of the myriad characters you work into Ares, who were you most pleased to include?

She’s only in it for a few panels, but I was so happy to be able to feature Eris, goddess of discord in Ares. My depiction of Eris first appeared in Olympians Vol. 6, Aphrodite: Goddess of Love and quickly became one my favorites to draw — she’s like a more insane version of young Hopey from Love and Rockets. Early on in the development of Ares: Bringer of War, I even tried to install her as the narrator, but ultimately I felt that was too far a deviation from Homer. Besides, talk about an unreliable narrator.

Your coloring style for battle scenes make the action quite vivid. Care to discuss your coloring approach for those scenes?

I’m pleased you noticed that! I don’t think I’m a very great colorist in many ways, but I do feel like I use color effectively to convey emotion. As I work on each book in Olympians I have a color palette in mind for that book. If you look at the rest of the series preceding it, you’ll notice that I use red very sparingly -- that’s because I knew Ares was going to be a very red book, and I wanted to really pop when you saw it. I wanted each panel of this book, on the battlefield, to be red and fierce and bursting with violent color — contrasted with the scenes on Olympus, aloof and above the fray, to be dominated by serene, cool blues.

I love that your books feature "G(r)eek Notes," a kind of DVD commentary for your work. How early (and why) did you realize you wanted to offer that for readers?

I think that was part of my initial pitch. I enjoy DVD commentaries a lot, and I’m always packing my books with tons of little homages and geeky tips of the hat that nobody would ever notice unless I pointed them out. I wanted to be able to share a little of my creative process and sense of humor while maybe dropping some interesting factoids at the same time.

In the back of the book you also recommend other books for younger and older readers along the lines of your work. One of the recommendations for older readers was Eric Shanower's The Age of Bronze. Have you and Shanower ever had a chance to meet and discuss your mutual love of mythology?

I’ve known Eric for years, but actually the first thing we ever connected over was our love of the Oz novels. Eric is, like, king of Oz. He knows so much Oziana, and has done so much Oz-related work. Early on in my career I illustrated a few Wizard of Oz-related books, so that’s how we met. I like to think of Ares as a companion to the amazing work Eric is doing on Age of Bronze. He’s depicting the very researched, very accurate human side of the war, whereas I focused almost entirely on what the gods were doing, with Diomedes, Achilles, Helen, Hector and the rest being relegated to almost cameo appearances.

In researching your career, I was struck that one of your influences is Walt Simonson's Mighty Thor. What is about Simonson's storytelling from that era that resonated with you?

It was so big and grand and resonant of all the mythology I grew up reading. I can’t think of any other comic that has so captured the feel of mythology writ large. Both in the way he contrasted bombastic, elevated speech in his writing with quotidian snippets of everyday life to the amazing grace and power he brought to his compositions and action scenes. Simonson’s battle between Thor and Jormungand, the World Serpent was a huge influence on my depiction of the battle between Zeus and his father Kronos in the first volume of Olympians.

In one of your "G(r)eek Notes," you reference the Avengers and X-Men. At present you clearly have your hands full with the Olympians series, but any chance you would ever want to tackle the superhero mythological world -- either at Marvel, DC or elsewhere?

I’ve got a Thor story or two rattling about in my head, for sure. One of the first comics I ever drew, in sixth grade, was a Mighty Thor-influenced retelling of Ragnarok, the death of the Norse gods. I have a few Wonder Woman ideas, too. Marvel’s version of Hercules is a ton of fun, and very mythologically accurate in his depiction. I could see myself having a good time with him.

I am impressed with the depth and quality of the Olympians website, in terms of the resources for students and teachers. What is your level of involvement on the website's great content?

First off, lots of props to First Second marketing guru Gina Gagliano who oversaw the creation of the site. I contributed a lot, in terms of illustrations, writing and just what I wanted to see featured, but she’s the one who wrangled it all together and made it happen.

What are you most proud of, or pleased with, about your Olympians series?

Hard question! With the recent release of the boxed set of the first six volumes, just seeing that beautiful brick of all my work together in one place just makes me beam inside every time. I’m also very proud in particular of Olympians Volume 3, Hera: The Goddess and Her Glory. Hera is my favorite goddess, and I set out to make her a likeable and sympathetic deity in that book. I think I nailed it.

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