The legends of the Greek gods have informed a significant portion of Western storytelling traditions and mythologies, yet these ancient stories are themselves not fully understood by most modern readers. Stemming from oral traditions that pre-date the written word, the myths have been manipulated and spindled over generations long before they were recorded, and even since their first transcription, the legends have again be altered countless times to fit each storyteller’s needs and biases.
Enter cartoonist George O’Connor and Olympians, a series of graphic novels from First Second Books that attempts to use the oldest sources available to create something approximating the early legends of the Greek pantheon.
The first book in Olympians, Zeus: King of the Gods, recently arrived in stores, and the second book in the series, Athena: Grey-Eyed Goddess, is scheduled for mid-April release.
We spoke with O’Connor about finding early versions of these oft-told stories and their importance to modern mythologies, including today’s superheroes.
Newsarama: George, what made the legends of the Olympians the right project for you? How many Olympians do you plan to profile?
George O’Connor: The plans are for there to be twelve books in total, one for each Olympian. I’m actually cheating a little—Demeter is going to be covered in Book Four, Hades: The Wealthy One, and Hestia is going to be covered in Dionysos’s book, which will be Book Twelve. As for why the myths are the right project for me, well, all I can say is I have been an enormous mythology buff since I was a little kid (me and just about everyone else who ever read comics). I’ve been drawing these characters all my life. In fact, some of the designs, like the Cyclopes, for example, date back to my childhood.
Nrama: As you explain in the afterword to both Zeus and Athena, the stories of Olympian gods are older than written language. How difficult is it to find early sources that get back to something that – might – approximate the original versions?
O’Connor: It depends on what you might mean by the original version. These stories are so, so old, and since they existed for so long before they were written down, there’s thousands of years of mutability incorporated into their telling. Sometimes there’s tantalizing little hints of earlier versions of the stories that survive in almost vestigial traces in the myths as we know them. I’m dealing with some of those right now as I work on Book Three, The Glory of Hera. That title is a translation of the name of Heracles—which was actually more a title than a name, he was born Alcides. We all know Hera as the great persecutor of Heracles, but the title suggests – and there are some lesser-known myths that seem to reflect this – that at one point he was a hero who was an actual champion of Hera. I try to bring some of that to light in my Hera book.
Basically, I’ve decided that for my purposes, any story written in classical antiquity, be it from Greek or Roman sources, is fair game for the retelling. I’m avoiding any later retellings—I want to go back to original sources as much as possible. Luckily, there’s a wealth of material available, both in print and online, for me to chose from. Each book contains a bibliography (and the website does as well) for those who want to go back and read the myths as originally recorded.
Nrama: Since these stories have evolved to suit the society telling them (right up to the incorporation of these characters into superhero comics today!), how important is it to document earlier versions that reflect the archaic world that created them?
O’Connor: I feel it’s very important—that’s why I’ve avoided using other modern retellings in my research. For example, a retelling from the 1950s will, at least subconsciously, reflect the attitudes of the time period of the retellers. My own versions will reflect my own attitudes and experiences growing up when I did as well – it’s unavoidable, and frankly, part of the storyteller’s job, to add their own twists and emphases. But by going back to the ancient sources, I assimilate only the “original” versions, and give them my own spin. To me, at least, it feels more genuine that way.
Nrama: The first book in the series, Zeus, is heavy with back story dealing with Gaea, the Titans and Zeus’s rise to power. Yet there are many stories of Zeus after taking the throne of Olympus. How do you choose what to focus on with each god?
O’Connor: Normally the back story of any character can be a chore to tell, but luckily the whole Zeus-against-the-Titans thing is very gripping and exciting. It just made sense to begin with the Titan war, to explain the Ancient Greek view of the world and how it was created. With a character like Zeus, he features in virtually every myth to some degree or another. He’s very much a, if not the, central character of the whole series. He will feature heavily in pretty much all the books going forward.
One of the deciding factors as to what stories would go in which books was determined in part by how heavily each god is featured in each myth. The story of the birth of Athena is very much a Zeus story, for instance, but I thought would be better told in her own book. Also, a story may end up in a certain book if it reflects the province of a god. Expect love stories in Aphrodite’s book, or war stories in Ares. When I first came up with the idea for this series I created this huge spreadsheet of all the stories I wanted to tell, and broke them down, book by book. I was certain to space out some of my faves as well, to give me things to look forward to. My favorite god is Hermes, and his starring book isn’t until the tenth volume.
Nrama: Athena’s story is much more episodic, in comparison to Zeus’s build to its title character’s ascension. Did you have any difficulty building a consistent story, considering how many myths, often contradictory ones, have sprung up around these characters?
Page from ZEUSO’Connor: Interesting question, because dealing with the contradictory nature of myths was one of the main focuses of Athena: Grey-Eyed Goddess. For instance, in my research, I found several different stories by the Greeks as to why she was referred to as Pallas Athena. The Fates narrate her book as a type of character sketch of the goddess, and they even remark at one point that who is to say one story is more true than another. Ancient Greece wasn’t one homogenous country—it was hundreds of separate city-states with a shared lingual and cultural identity. With no “bible,” so to speak, or any form of mass communication, endless variations of the stories popped up.
Some books in the Olympians will be episodic, like Athena and Hera, and others will focus more on one big story, like Zeus and Hades. I find it keeps things interesting, for both myself and the reader, to switch things up from book to book. I haven’t done a book yet that features first person narration from a god—I think I may have to try that.
Nrama: The old myths are full of characters who you sympathize with at times, but they’re also capable of supremely petty or selfish acts. That’s certainly the case with both Zeus and Athena. In that way, they’re more human than many characters in fiction; do you think that’s part of the continued appeal in these ancient myths? What keeps them relevant to people across literally tens of thousands of years?
Page from ZEUSO’Connor: Going back to these ancient sources, it’s remarkable how “modern” these characters are. There’s a great line in Roberto Calasso’s wonderful book The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony about the gods: “The twelve gods of Olympus agreed to appear as entirely human. It was the first time a group of divinities had renounced abstraction and animal heads.” I think that nails what it is about the Olympians. At heart, they’re one big family, with all the infighting and squabbling and such that entails. It makes them much more relatable than some distant, vaguely personified diety.
With Zeus, in the first book, he’s unquestionably the hero—the guy you’re rooting for. But I was careful to sew the seeds of his future d-baggery. He certainly takes a bit of a heel turn in Athena, and that continues into Hera. But, all his faults, they’re also the core of his appeal. Take away all else, and Zeus is a fun-loving guy. There’s worse things for a nigh all-powerful being to be.
Nrama: I love your art in both titles. You really capture the scale of the Titans and the energetic nature of the stories. It’s a much huger scale than your work on Ball Peen Hammer and Journey into Mohawk Country. Did you have to put yourself in a different mental place to approach this type of story?
O’Connor: Thank you so much. As for where I’m coming from mentally for the Olympians, well, let’s just say it’s a much more pleasant mental space than the one I found myself in for Ball Peen Hammer. But, seriously I’m channeling my inner kid for Olympians. It’s the approach that all the great superhero comics I grew up reading took—making it accessible to both kids and adults. So much superhero stuff that’s being produced today is just not appropriate for kids. I think Olympians is all-ages in the truest sense of the word, and I got there by drawing stuff that the child George would have wanted to read.
Page from ZEUSNrama: How does work on these books differ from your previous graphic novels? You used a journal for the narrative of Mohawk Country and worked with a writer, Adam Rapp, on Ball Peen Hammer? This time, you’re writing yourself, but reinterpreting hundreds of variations of told and retold stories.
O’Connor: Well, they’re really all different types of adaptations, really. With both Journey into Mohawk Country and Ball Peen Hammer, I was working with someone else’s words, but how I interpreted them, the imagery I created to accompany them, was left up to me. And there’s a lot you can do, story wise, with just the pictures. Combine them with the words, and it’s a whole different experience than just pictures, or vice versa.
With Olympians, I’m creating the words as well, but the stories themselves, the structure, are being adapted from these ancient stories. It’s like having a nice framework that I can build my own things onto. I would venture so far as to say, that so many of the Greek myths are so central to our literary history, they form such basic building blocks of story, that many, many non-mythology books (and modern comics) are, at some level, retelling the myths.
Page from ZEUSNrama: Zeus and Athena come out only three months apart (and Ball Peen Hammer was just last year). How quickly do you draw anyway?
O’Connor: Ha! I’m pretty quick, I guess. It helps that I ink myself. My pencils are so loose that they’re pretty much just layouts—I do all the real drawing directly in ink. I can, on average, bust out about two pages, pencil and inks, a day. At deadline time, I’ve been able to do up to five, but, man, that’s not a pleasant thing to do.
Nrama: With Zeus and Athena in the can, which of the Olympians is next for you? Are you working on anything in addition to Olympians books?
O’Connor: I’m hard at work right now on Book Three, The Glory of Hera, with Hades: The Wealthy One up next. Additionally, I’ve been doing a lot of work recently for the Olympians website, www.olympiansrule.com. There are a few smaller things I’m working on right now, but honestly, nothing I can mention right now until things are all firmed up. If all goes well, telling the stories of the gods will keep me very busy for years to come.
Book One of Olympians, Zeus: King of the Gods, is currently available from First Second Books, and Athena: Grey-Eyed Goddess ships in April, 2010. George O’Connor is online at http://geooco.blogspot.com/.