Since the advent of Superman back in 1938, it’s often been said that comic book superheroes and their fantastic adventures are modern culture’s closest equivalent to the tales told long ago of Greek gods, their heroic progeny. Considering the popularity of superhero comics with the general public and invested fans alike, why not present those tales of yore in a graphic form that is both accessible and comics-reader-friendly?
Drawing upon such venerable sources for teaching the classics as works by Edith Hamilton, Bulfinch and the D’Aulaires, that question is answered in grand style by cartoonist George O’Connor with his Olympians series of graphic novels from First Second Books. Starting with the currently available first volume, Zeus: King of the Gods, which is focused on the origins of the early Greek gods and the rise of Zeus as their ruler, O’Connor interprets the ages-old stories for today’s reader with the exacting eye and deft hand of a comics illustrator who knows of what he depicts—complete with the god’s names rendered in un-Anglicized Greek.
To give us the lowdown on this ongoing project, O’Connor spoke with PWCW about his fascination with Greek mythology and his plans for return trips to the mythological wellspring. And readers can look for Athena: Grey-Eyed Goddess, the next volume in The Olympians series, which is due out from First Second Books in April.
PW Comics Week: Could you give our readers a brief summary of what got you interested in mythology, specifically the Greek material?
George O’Connor: When I was in the fourth grade, my class did a lengthy segment on Greek mythology and we read the stories, presented oral reports while dressed as the gods—I was Hermes, paper wings taped to sneakers, wearing a bedsheet toga—and drew pictures of the myths. That was what did it for me—I was drawing muscley men and beautiful scantily clad women fighting scary monsters, and that was my actual assignment! Normally, that’s what I would’ve been yelled at for drawing, rather than paying attention to math or something. After that I read everything in the library on Greek myths, and once I exhausted that subject, I turned my attention to other mythologies, notably the Norse. A few years later, while I was sick, someone gave me a copy of one of Walt Simonson’s Thor issues from Marvel. That lead to my really getting into comic books, and from there, it was all a road to Olympians.
PWCW: What inspired your visual approach to the retelling of these stories, especially for today's audience?
GO: I really wanted the artwork to feel both contemporary and timeless, to best capture the grandeur and scale of the myths. Some of my biggest influences on this series have been the work of Mike Mignola and P. Craig Russell, two of my favorite artists working today. Another huge influence, one that had to be pointed out to me actually, was the old Calvin and Hobbes strip where Calvin imagines himself to be a vengeful old god.
Bill Watterson in general was a huge influence on me. I see a lot of my Titans in that strip. Some of the character designs are things I worked out in my childhood, like the Cyclopes. And I tried to pull a lot from the art and the descriptions of the ancient Greeks themselves. It’s amazing how contemporary some of these texts, thousand of years old, can read.
PWCW: How do you feel about the oft-espoused theory that the majority of American comics could be considered a modern-day analog to the old school tales of gods, heroes and monsters? And can Athena's combination of wisdom and martial aspects be seen as a template for Wonder Woman?
GO: As far as I’m concerned, almost all of our superheroes share common ancestors in mythology. It’s really fun to play match-up. Like you mentioned, Wonder Woman is totally Athena. Superman is Heracles; otherworldly son with great powers come to Earth and does great deeds and all that. Hermes has a number of doppelgangers, like the Flash and Quicksilver, and also Namor (though he’s got a bit of the Poseidon in there as well). I’m tempted to say Aquaman is also in the Poseidon category, but I’m afraid I’ll be hit by a vengeful Tsunami. And I haven’t even mentioned the characters who are straight-up imports from myth, like Marvel’s Thor, Hercules and Ares, to name a few.
PWCW: Humanity’s need for these kinds of heroic tales has been around since Day One and still persists in many media forms, so what does that say about us?
GO: Well, part of the human condition is the difficulty, even impossibility, we as humans have in comprehending it. Myths, be they Grecian or otherwise, seem to help bridge that gap of incomprehension by telling stories that are both true and not true. By that I mean, while there may not be gods and monsters, the stories about them speak to a deeper level of our understanding of the world around us. There’s something very primal and… correct-seeming about these stories.
PWCW: How difficult was it to handle some of the stories' more potentially offensive elements when presenting these tales in today's politically correct climate, elements such as incest among the gods, graphic violence, and ancient Greek cultural nonchalance about homosexuality? And have you at any point considered illustrating the version of Aphrodite's origin where she rose from the sea foam generated by the severed genitals of Zeus?
GO: The incest of the gods thing, well, I just kind of tell it like it is. You really can’t maneuver around it. The way I look at it, and there’s a line in Zeus: King of the Gods to this effect, Zeus and his siblings were the first of a new race of gods. Additionally, as gods, even such humanized ones as the Olympians, they are operating on a much different plane than we mere mortals. There are hints in the myths that they are more than they seem, more than just beautiful, powerful people. When Hera tricks Semele, Dionysos’s mom, into wanting to see Zeus’s true form, Semele is instantly incinerated. Obviously, we’re not dealing with simple humanoid genetics here. As for the violence, we as a culture have always been more comfortable with that than the sexy stuff.
Early on, I even expressed some reservations about the depiction of the violence to Roaring Brook publisher Simon Boughton; he was like “No, some blood’s okay. We have to have blood!” A lot of the tricky stuff I’m just careful with in the wording, so that it goes over kids’ heads, but the adult fan will still understand. Hylas (look him up) is mentioned in the upcoming The Glory of Hera as being a youth Heracles is “particularly fond of,” and Aphrodite will absolutely be rising from the severed genitals of Ouranos. It’s already been set up in Zeus: King of the Gods. The castration is told with the following text: “(Kronos) cut open the sky. Ouranos was wounded and rendered impotent; his powers seeped away into his sons…Some of the essence of Ouranos flowed to the sea, where it created a bright pink froth. What came from that is a tale for another day.”
PWCW: Do you see the success of [Frank Miller’s graphic and the subsequent hit film] 300 as kicking off a possible resurgence of audience interest in tales of ancient heroes? That very 300-looking Clash of the Titans remake is looming, as well as the kids' film Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief, so could we possibly see something along the lines of the Italian peplum avalanche of the late-1950's through the mid-1960's?
GO: That’s an interesting idea—I hadn’t thought of 300 as being the source of the current resurgence in myths, but you may be right. It was probably a combo of many things—like Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series as well, that seem to be contributing to the Greek myth zeitgeist. I am looking forward to the Percy Jackson movie, and the new Clash of the Titans as well. An Olympians movie would be pretty awesome as well, I think. As long as it’s all good stuff, I say bring it on.
PWCW: After you've covered the principal gods of the pantheon, will you tackle book-length retellings of the exploits of the demigods and heroes, such as Jason and the Argonauts or an in-depth examination of the labors of Heracles?
GO: If Olympians takes off, I do have a lot of plans going forward. It’s funny you mentioned both Heracles and Jason and the Argonauts. I’m currently working on book #3, The Glory of Hera. Aside from being the story of Hera, it covers Heracles and his Twelve Labors (he was named for Hera, so in a sense the book is even named after him). Also, in this book I introduce Jason and the creation of the Argonauts, as Hera was Jason’s patron goddess. The Argonauts are going to be a continuing thread that weaves in and out of several volumes of Olympians—you’ll see some of them in Aphrodite’s book, as well as Hepahiastos’s, among others. If Olympians is a major success, I have a plan in the wings I’m working on with some studio mates for a companion book that goes more in depth to some of the heroes. Considering he stars in about a zillion myths, Heracles would play a significant role in this book as well. But this is all very unofficial so far, not even on the radar stuff.