Monday, July 18, 2011

An interview with George O'Connor, author of the "Olympians" graphic novel series

What happened when George O'Connor, an author who writes graphic novels retelling Greek myths, was kind enough to sit down with a mythology fan like me? Pure geekery. We are way past "Did you know the Romans called Zeus Jupiter?" Syncretism, hubris, morality, mythology versus religion... oh my! But there's also Batman, Robin, Superman, the X-Men and, well, Team Hades. It's all here, folks.

What else is here? The latest installment in O'Connor's series, Hera: The Goddess And Her Glory. (By "here" I mean it's being released today at a bookstore or website near you, not actually "here" on my blog because... oh, let's just get to the interview.)

How old were you when you started reading the Greek myths, and what drew you to it?

I was in the fourth grade when my class did an extended unit studying the Greek gods, culminating in an oral report while dressed as your favorite god (I was Hermes). Prior to this pivotal event of my childhood, I had always been the kid who got in trouble for drawing musclemen fighting giant monsters instead of whatever we were supposed to be learning in class. Suddenly, for one glorious half-year, we actually were supposed to be drawing musclemen fighting giant monsters. It was a real game-changer for me.

Obviously, The Muses were speaking to you from an early age, you just didn't understand what they were saying before that.

I understood what they were saying in that I knew that monsters were cool. Learning about mythology really helped to give me a focus, and helped to fuel my love of story. I suppose the Muses could take the blame for that, all right.

What is it about the Greek myths that have kept you interested as an adult?

My love of comics grew out of my love for myths, so that helped me to carry that love into adulthood. As I got older, and kept revisiting theses stories, I found more and more that I didn’t understand when I first heard of them as a child. My adult self is kind of obsessed with reading the original stories, from sources written by ancient Greeks and Romans who actually believed these stories, and trying to figure out what they meant, what they tried to explain, and marveling at how… modern they seem. These stories really are the backbone of western literature, and it’s incredible to see how fully formed things were right out the gate, so to speak. Something like The Odyssey is a remarkably nuanced and sophisticated piece of storytelling, and some of the mental pictures it paints are incredible.

You’re not the first person to write a graphic novel with themes from mythology. What makes your work different?

Ooh, a chance to show off my hubris! There have been innumerable comics dealing with mythology (I might argue, for instance, that virtually all superhero comics are direct descendants of the myths) but I like to think mine are among a select group that treats the gods, heroes and monsters in a manner that is very true to the way that they might have been perceived in their heyday. Since I hearken back to the original sources as much as I do, I like to think that my versions of the gods are less… caricaturized than they might have been in other depictions. Not that anyone else’s version is less valid, mind you; this is just what I tried to bring to the table in my retellings. Hopefully I succeeded, and hopefully people like it.

Well, I'm not much of a comics buff (Archie doesn't have a lot of street cred, does he?), but I do know that Superman was based on a myth from the Torah or Bible, although I think it might be what we would now call "fan fiction" more than a re-telling.

It’s funny that you mentioned Archie, as I based the visual dynamic of Metis and Hera in Zeus: King of the Gods off of Betty and Veronica. Archie has more street cred than you might suppose—those comics were a big influence on one of my favorite artists, Jaime Hernandez of Love and Rockets fame. I read quite a bit of Archie comics too, though I kind of hated Archie himself. I was a Reggie fan.

The way I’ve heard the Superman story was that he as a deliberate combination of Samson and Heracles. Wonder Woman, Captain Marvel, they had obvious Greek mythology connections. One of my favorite characters is Namor the Sub-Mariner— the story about him was his creator, Bill Everett had been charged to create a new superhero. While he was at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, he saw a Roman statue of Mercury. With his winged ankles, Namor pretty much is Mercury. His name is just ‘Roman’ spelled backwards.

Hmm, I’ll assume by ‘good’, you might mean which Olympian I would most likely have an encounter with, and survive without being turned into a newt for some unintentional display of hubris (my word of the day, apparently). The ancient Greeks viewed him as the most kindly, so I would go with Hermes. Among the Olympians, he probably had the most day-to-day dealings with humanity, so my version of him has the most down-to-earth way of speaking, which drives my editor nuts. I like to think of Hermes as a bemused big brother to mortals. He’s maybe not intensely emotionally invested in us, but he at least seems to get a kick out of our shenanigans.

Funny you should say Hermes. When I was younger, I was fascinated with the dramatic or tragic deities such as Poseidon or Hephaestus, but as an adult, when you think about each god's sphere of influence, Hermes is the one that seems to be the most relevant to every day life. Games, arguing, writing, mischief, negotiation... conversation itself- it's all Hermes. I mean, how many of us are blacksmiths or sailors these days, you know?

Oh, man, Hermes totally won. If the Greek pantheon were still the principal religion today, Hermes would definitely be the top god. He’s all about travel and communication and writing and commerce. It’s interesting: when the Romans moved into other parts of Europe, who had their own gods, through the process known as syncretism, the Romans would assume that these new gods were the same gods they knew, just operating under different names. So in what would one day be Germany, reports came back that Mercury was the top god there, as Hermes was syncretized with the top god Odin. Zeus with his lightning bolts was syncretized with Thor instead. This happened all over Britain and Gaul as well. It might just be a coincidence, that he kept getting syncretized with other pantheon’s top gods, but a trickster like Hermes wouldn’t want it any other way, I’m sure.

There’s a debate going on now about whether Young Adult and even Middle Grade books are too “dark” or mature. It was kicked up last month by the Wall Street Journal, but it’s not a new conversation. As soon as I started really thinking about, I immediately thought of the morally murky characters that inhabit Olympus, and yet I think most people would consider mythology a great choice for young readers. You clearly see the value in the stories, but what do you think is the advantage for a young reader?

Unlike some other mythologies, there’s very little moralizing in the Greek myths. Murdering people is probably not so good, but after that there’s very little that seems to get the overt nod from on high as ‘bad’. That being said, I think that somehow frees up the characters to behave in a way that places them above morality. Some terrible things can happen in these stories, but somehow, maybe it’s the unreality of it, or the broadness of themes, I find it hard to feel the sense of outrage over them I might in a story that doesn’t feature Titans and Cyclopes. I think a young reader will see it the same way. They’re free to read the stories and be like “wow, that guy was a jerk just then” and realize that they’re allowed to think he was a jerk. It’s a self-applied morality, I suppose.

Is there room for moralizing when the gods act with- or on- mortals? Or what about a story that's mostly about mortals? I'm thinking to some extent about the gods finding consorts- Zeus and Europa or more to the point Semele, as well as Eos and Tithonus and Selene and Endymion- but also about the myths of Procne and Philomena, Tantalos and Pelops and, well, the entire House of Atreus.

I actually do tell the story of Tantalos and Pelops in Hades: Lord of the Dead, and well, yeah, I guess there is some moralizing there, as Zeus blows up Tantalos real good for what he did. A lot of the more human heavy stories I’ll be dodging in Olympians, as they just fall too far afield of the god-centric mandate of the series. Semele will get her story in Dionysos’s book, and some of the later members of the Atreides will be at least getting a mention in Ares. If plans hold, we’ll be seeing Selene and Endymion at some point, too. It’s tricky— the best bet when dealing with the gods is to not be noticed, I suppose. These stories seldom end happily for the mortals.

Along those lines, it’s a bit of a chestnut that our protagonists have to be sympathetic but imperfect with, well, human motivations and reactions. I think the Olympian gods and the Greek heroes supply one but not necessarily the other. Zeus is really difficult to sympathize with after a certain point in his story. How hard was it to write to that?

Wow, good question. While I was writing the first book in Olympians, Zeus: King of the Gods, I was almost simultaneously writing the second volume Athena: Grey Eyed Goddess. Now, in the first book, Zeus is definitely our hero— it’s our intro to this world, which is really Zeus’s world, and the whole story is structured as his hero’s journey. I tried, and I think I succeeded, in making Zeus a very likeable protagonist for his own story, but I was very cognizant of the fact that as soon as his book ended, he was going to take one heck of a heel turn— he swallows Athena’s mother, Metis, alive. Personally, it wasn’t that hard for me to write— I take the tack that Zeus, and the gods in general, are so beyond us in so many ways that morality doesn’t apply, and a careful reading of Zeus will show a lot of hints as to his faults so it shouldn’t come out of left field. I also use the technique of showing the goofy side of Zeus, even while he’s engaging in adultery on a cosmic scale. My retelling of the story Io from the soon-to-be-released Hera: The Goddess and her Glory is, in my opinion, one of the funniest things I’ve ever written. Ultimately, Zeus is Zeus is Zeus. He’s probably a lot more like what most of us would be given supreme power than we would like to admit.

Okay... so let's say the gods are the original superheroes. I think everyone who reads them likes to imagine themselves with infinite power. (I certainly did.) I'm thinking now about some of the early successful comic book heroes, like Batman and Superman. Popular with adults, but also very popular with kids, and they really wanted to see themselves in those stories. That's part of why we have Robin, but that's also why we have the X-Men and Spider Man. Do you think that desire for young readers to see themselves in the stories is why Greek myth fan fiction like Percy Jackson has become so popular?

I do… now. Seriously, that was kind of my whole idea behind the ‘young Zeus’ of Zeus: King of the Gods. Robin, and the other teen sidekicks, like Bucky or Speedy or Kid Flash or whoever, they were definitely placed in those stories to give kids someone to identify with. But I tell you, every Halloween, I see a lot more Batmen than Robins, you know? Later characters, like Spider-Man and X-Men got it better, where the teen characters weren’t the sidekicks to the more experienced hero, they were the heroes themselves. Rick Riordan had a great idea with his new generation of demi-gods. Kids reading could hope, could pretend that maybe one of their parents was an Olympian and imparted some awesome powers to them as well. The Muses were definitely talking to him.

Athena, in contrast to Zeus, is much more sympathetic and even heroic at times- except when she’s not, particularly with Medusa and Arachne. Was she easier to write for because of that?

It is funny, because in your question, you even pointed out instances where she herself was less-than-nice, but somehow we don’t really hold it against Athena. Maybe because she doesn’t share her father’s adulterous attitudes, it helps to keep her more of a good guy? Honestly, Athena was actually a little trickier to write than Zeus because there is that feeling that you have to keep her ‘good’, even in a book where at least half the stories have her acting out in a ‘bad’ way. Zeus is huge in so many ways, all charisma and bravado and flash, which allow him to slip into the role of clown far easier than Athena, who is very reserved, except when she’s in battle. And it’s easier to forgive a clown, I think. With Athena, I had to get you on her side with her tragic childhood stories and keep you there, even when she’s punishing some hapless mortal. Zeus, well, he’s flexible enough to bounce back and forth.

I enjoyed your treatment of Athena. She's the "smart one" of the Pantheon, but she- like most of them- always came off cold. In your version she's kicking ass and taking names... if you're lucky.

I’m glad to hear you say that. I tried my best to round out her character, but I read a couple of reviews that complained that she was still a little distant. I think that’s just in her nature.

Your next release is about Hera. She’s the goddess of marriage, but her own may be the prototypical marriage from Hell (or Hades). Like Zeus, she also doesn’t age well, so to speak- she’s definitely known more for the pain she causes than what good she does. How are you able to tell the story of a character like that?

Poor Hera, she gets such a bad rep. I ought to mention that, while Hermes is my favorite god, Hera is my favorite goddess. Part of that is I love a good underdog, and like I mentioned, she gets a bad rep. The other part is, while I was researching this series, I travelled all over Europe, wherever there was a good collection of art, or an old temple, I tried to go there. Something I noticed after a while, if you were in an old town, the oldest temple would often have been built to Hera. A lot of times, in the same town, the second oldest temple would also have been built to Hera. She was this amazingly beloved and important goddess to the ancients, who, through the process of caricaturization I mentioned earlier, has come to be known to us now as this witchy shrew.

With Zeus as her foil, I think it was relatively easy to get readers on Hera’s side. She’s married to the most famous philanderer in mythology; I think she’s entitled to act out now and then. More over, reading the old sources revealed some threads of a more subtle and nuanced relationship to Heracles than most retellings commit to. I don’t want to give away too much of Hera, but I will say this—the name Heracles translates as “The Glory of Hera”. There’s a lot more to their relationship than just outright antagonism.

I did know that his name meant "Glory of Hera", but it never made sense in any of the stories I've ever read. And if she isn't a shrew, sign me up!

She’s definitely no shrew, but I certainly wouldn’t mess with her.

I love that you are coming out with a book about Hades next year. However, his biggest claim to fame is the Persephone myth. Without giving anything away, what more is there to say about him?

Well, truth to tell, I do spend the bulk of Hades: Lord of the Dead on the myth of the Abduction of Persephone. But on that framework of the story I do manage to hang a few bits about what it might be like to be the god of the Underworld. Just like Hera, Hades gets a bad rep, much of it through being conflated with the Christian devil. He’s not really all that bad a guy, once you get past the whole kidnapping of Persephone thing. He’s maybe just a little emo. And he certainly has his charm.

Hades the Emo! George, if I see young women walking around next year in T-shirts that read "Team Hades", we're going to have to have a talk.

Several female cartoonists who I know have told me that they think my Hades is hot. But Hades could totally whup Edward. Not even a contest.

What’s after the Hades book in this series? Are you planning on doing a book for each Olympian? Do you have any plans to write for any of the heroes?

I’m working on Poseidon right now, with Aphrodite being the next scheduled volume after that. Sales willing, Olympians will run for 12 volumes, one for each of the Olympians. I cheat a little, with Hades taking the slot of Demeter, and Dionysos taking the place of Hestia, though.

Hmm... Hades and Demeter I can see, but Hestia and Dionysos?

It’s kind of an Alpha/Omega thing— she’s the first Olympian, he’s the last. Also, there’s that one story, of his ascension to Olympus, and how Hestia gives him her throne, because she’d rather be tending her hearth anyway. I wish I could do a whole book just for Hestia but there’s really just not enough mythic material for her. She has, like, two stories. She was such an amazingly important figure, religion-wise, but mythologically speaking, she’s hardly there.

I think you’ll see when Hera: The Goddess and Her Glory comes out that the 12 Labors of Heracles are pretty well-covered in that book—the plan is to tell the biggest stories of the heroes in the book of the god that most represents them, like the way Perseus was told in Athena. That being said, I do have a proposal at my publisher for an Olympians spin-off called Heroes and Monsters, should the main series sell well-enough. If you’d like to see that, everyone should barrage my publisher with letters asking for it, and, of course, buy many, many copies of Olympians ;-)

Well, obviously, we're going to the barrage the publishers! How else are we going to get the full treatment of The Trojan War and The Odyssey?

Well, you’ll be getting some Odyssey in Poseidon, but please barrage away! And tell them I sent you!

Thanks to George for a fun interview, and thanks to all of you for reading. For more on the Olympians series, check out Olympians and the Olympians Blog.