Review of the Day – Zeus: King of the Gods by George O’Connor
Girl walks into my library. I’m putting her age at around nine, maybe ten. Asks if I have any books on Ancient Greece. Turns out the kid is so into Greek mythology that she is willingly learning more about the true history behind that area of the world for her own personal knowledge. In other words, she is every children’s librarian’s dream patron. I show her what we have and then we get to talking about mythology. She’s a huge fan of the D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths so we start talking fiction. Has she read The Lightning Thief and other Rick Riordan titles? Roll of the eyes. Of course. Has she read Anne Ursu’s Cronus Chronicles starting with The Shadow Thieves? Double roll of the eyes. All right. Has she read the brand-spanking new Olympians series coming out via First Second, illustrated by George O’Connor, and reimagined as graphic novels? Not only had she not heard of it but she was practically clawing my eyes out when I informed her that I didn’t have a copy on the shelf at the moment. Kids love myths. Kids also love comics. Put the two together by a guy who actually knows how to turn a crazy myth into a comprehensible, even dramatic story, and you’ve got a natural pairing that is going to have your patrons, big and small, hungering for more. Buy in bulk.
“In the time before time, there was nothing, Kaos. From out of Kaos came Ge, or Gaea, our Mother Earth.” So begins a tale of how the Titans and, subsequently, the Greek Gods came to be. The world is formed, and the Titan Kronos eats each of his children as they are born. However, he misses Zeus, the youngest child, and as a result that particular god is able to grow up, free his siblings, and take arms against the Titans for control of the earth itself. In an exciting comic book style, George O’Connor accurately depicts the tale of Zeus, leaving off the story to continue with Athena, the next in the series, published as a separate book. Endmatter includes an Author’s Note, G(r)eek Notes as they apply to specific panels and pages, Greek myth character trading card-type pages, a Bibliography, recommended reads, amusing discussion questions (#1: “Zeus’s dad tries to eat him. Has your dad ever tried to eat you?”), and an accurate but complex Olympians Family Tree on the front cover that you’ll find yourself poring over again and again.
George O’Connor may be best known to some of us as the bloke behind Journey Into Mohawk Country and Adam Rapp’s Ball Peen Hammer. On the picture book side of things, he did Kapow (yet another comic-inspired title, and a popular one in my library at that). With this book he had one big hurdle to leap: Make the myths logical. The thing about the Greek myths is that you can read them on paper all you like but some things are just not gonna make a whole lot of sense. For example, we hear that Hestia has been so long on the stomach of Kronos that she has nearly been digested and barely has a form of her own. All right, smart guys. Go illustrate that. More difficult still is that if you’re making these myths into a single concrete understandable story, how do you explain Zeus falling in love with his sister? The author finds a way, and his words are not without their own rhythm and beauty. I liked little things, like Rhea feeding her husband a stone baby instead of Zeus and the consequent line, “If Lord Kronos noticed his newborn son had less warmth than the rest, he gave no sign.” On top of that, O’Connor tells the story with a structure that makes sense. The repeated line that “Mother Earth was still unhappy, for she loved all her children,” is what leads to the defeat of the Titans and the rise of the gods on the one hand, and perhaps the eventual destruction of the gods later on down the road.
The art is heavily inspired by O’Connor’s beloved comic books of yore. He explains in his Author’s Note his love of The Mighty Thor as a kid. “I remember staring at it, trying to comprehend whether I loved it or hated it. The story was full of all those enormous, bigger-than-life beasts I remembered from my copy of Edith Hamilton’s mythology.” If Greek gods are our original superheroes (or super villains) then it’s natural to draw them as such. We’ve already seen some children’s books do this (The Mighty 12: Superheroes of Greek Myth by Charles R. Smith, illustrated by P. Craig Russell comes instantly to mind), so it makes a certain amount of sense. One difference from comic books is the fact that while the men tend to go around shirtless and ripped, the ladies aren’t all that busty. Fair play to O’Connor, then. And I did enjoy the fact that comic book facts keep working their way into the notes at the end of this book. We’re told that the Adamantine that Kronos’s sickle is made out of is where Wolverine in X-Men get his adamantium claws. Or that the Cyclopes are like Cyclops the X-Men leader. Actually… thinking about it now, all the comic facts seem to be about X-Men. I suppose the Wonder Woman facts will have to wait for a later volume in the series when we finally meet the Amazons.
The actual art in this book has all kinds of small details as well. Kronos cut open his father the sky, so his eyes and mouth show only the cosmos. His wife, Rhea, is also the daughter of the sky and the earth, but her pupils are crescent moons, blue on blue. Baby Zeus, meanwhile, is raised in a cave and in one panel looks out at the sky. One cannot help but notice that the stalactites lining the image look like teeth, reminding you of Kronos who has eaten Zeus’s kin. So without a word you are reminded that Zeus has temporarily exchanged one mouth for another.
Admittedly, there is zippo racial diversity in the images here. O’Connor isn’t challenging any preconceived notions of what one god or another looks like. By the end Zeus even has a white beard. The closest you get to a change is a brown-haired Aphrodite. I suppose the argument for keeping them white was that Greek gods are generally pretty scummy people, and would you really want to diversify their flaws? Still, in this day and age it’s hard to do an all-white cast for anything, even a children’s graphic novel.
Greek myths are many things, but child friendly? I think all of us can remember hearing one myth or another as a child that didn’t quite make sense. Apollo chased a girl to get a kiss and she was so freaked out she asked to be turned into a tree. Huh? And how exactly did Zeus turning into a swan lead to Leda giving birth anyway? And don’t even get me started on the changes Disney made to that lamentable Hercules! Hera is Hercules’ loving mom? Puh-leeze. In this first Olympian title, O’Connor therefore has the unenviable job of telling a story straight without making it, uh, explicit. Zeus, after all, is the original letch. So you do see him chasing girls without seeing them get caught. That’s how O’Connor plays it, and it works pretty well. Admittedly he pokes fun at the material sometimes, and there is a line in Zeus that adults will raise an eyebrow at, but kids won’t get at all. At one point Zeus says that as a kid he used to think he could reach into the sky and take the moon. Metis informs him that Selene, the moon, is much bigger than he is. His response? “I don’t know… I can grow pretty big.” You don’t need to even see Metis’s “Heh” in response to get that one. Accurate characters and personalities. Still pretty kid-friendly in the end.
What I love about this is that not only is O’Connor releasing one book per god, but he’s doing it so that the story from one book carries on into the next. This must have taken a fair bit of wrangling and shifting on his part. I’m sure O’Connor’s natural inclination was to place Hera after Zeus, but for reasons that we will learn soon enough he made Athena #2. It will probably have something to do with the fact that Athena’s mother, Metis, has a relatively large role in this book, and that storyline has not been wrapped up yet.
When she was quizzing me on this new series, my young patron asked desperately, “I love Hestia. No one ever pays any attention to Hestia. Will there be a book about Hestia?” There will be, I assured her. There will be a book on each of the twelve gods and kids will be allowed to find their favorites instantly. Comics aren’t for everyone, and there are plenty of folks content with what the D’Aulaires have to offer, but definitely keep an eye out for O’Connor’s series just the same. Exciting, accurate, and intense, it’s bound to be instantly beloved of kids, all thanks to its classic comic inspirations.
On shelves now.
Source: Final copy sent for review from publisher.
Other Online Reviews: Shelf Awareness
Interviews: Graphic NYC
- I don’t always link to author’s websites, but due to the fact that O’Connor created one especially for this book called Olympians, I think you’d better run on over. Aside from the usual, there are portions from Zeus and from Athena, activities (reader’s theater, games, make-your-own-comics, etc.), a teachers section that includes teacher’s guides and reading group guides, a really fun interactive family tree, a section on O’Connor’s process, a Bibliography, and Links (phew!).
- There’s also a ten-page exerpt available over at Graphic Novel Reporter for your viewing pleasure.
- N.S. Gill’s Ancient History Blog pinpoints O’Connor’s literary sources, taking time to compare this book to the original text.
- Comic Book Resources reports on both this book and Ball Peen Hammer.
- And finally, O’Connor discusses the problems he had with drawing Aphrodite, and how they were rooted in . . . er . . . her roots.
Filed under: Best Books of 2010
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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