Long before comic books and superheroes, people would share stories of intrepid adventure with brave warriors and conniving villains. Sometimes the characters were ancestors, sometimes mythical beings. For the Greeks, many of them were gods, and while people may no longer hold these stories as theological facts, the tales still hold a captivating quality.
It's these timeless elements that fuel George O' Conner's graphic novel series Olympians, with each volume focusing on a different god from the ancient Greek pantheon. Having previously covered the king of the gods Zues and the warrior goddess Athena, he turns to a gentler side of Mount Olympus with Hera: The Goddess and Her Glory (978-1-596434-330-2, $9.99), released by First Second.
Diamond spoke with George O'Conner about the latest Olympians volume, the extensive research he puts into the series, and using the graphic novels in classrooms.
What started your interest in Greek mythology? What was it about these gods that inspired you to create this series?
I always used to be the kid who sat in class drawing muscle men fighting monsters instead of learning fractions or whatever. In fourth grade my class did an extended segment studying Greek mythology, and suddenly, it was okay to sit in class and draw muscle men fighting monsters. In fact, I was supposed to. That started a lifelong love for Greek mythology in me. I read every book I could find in the library about mythology, Greek or otherwise, and that in turn eventually got me into comics (through books like The Mighty Thor and others). There was something about the gods—bigger than life, with all sorts of powers and abilities, yet still very, very human—that I just love to read about.
How much research is put into the Olympians series?
Quite a lot. One of the things I decided upon very early in working on Olympians was that I would only use ancient sources as the basis for my versions—no modern retellings. If an ancient Greek or Roman person didn't write it, it was off the table. Of course, that being decided, I had to read a lot of ancient material. I'm glad I did, because there are so many weird and wonderful touches in the old stories that have informed my retellings. I'd say that the first month or two of working on a particular volume of Olympians is just spent researching.
What can you tell readers about Hera: The Goddess and Her Glory?
Hera: The Goddess and Her Glory is in large part about the queen of the gods and her relationship with Zeus's son, Heracles. Heracles (that's his Greek name—the Romans called him Hercules) was the greatest of all the Greek heroes, but, in a weird way, he owes it all to Hera, his stepmother and arguably his greatest enemy. The title of the book is a reference to their complicated relationship—Heracles translates as "The Glory of Hera". Aside from that, I would be remiss if I didn't mention that Hera is my favorite goddess. There's a lot of fun stuff in this book, from the wedding of Zeus and Hera, to the story of Io, to the twelve labors of Heracles.
How can you describe Queen Hera?
Elegant, regal, and a far more sympathetic character than you might have read about elsewhere. She's definitely got a mean streak, but in her defense, she has the worst husband of all time-- it only makes sense that she's going to act out some. My favorite part of this book was exploring the relationship between her and Zeus—they obviously have some serious problems, but they also clearly really like each other. She's the only god or goddess who can even begin to keep him in line, through a combination of attraction, subtle machinations and outright fear.
Why did you decide to divide the series into twelve books?
It became pretty obvious that in order for one graphic novel to do justice to the vast body of Greek mythology it would have to be hundreds of pages long and prohibitively expensive. The canonical number of Olympians is twelve (though, really, there were actually more), so that seemed like a good number to shoot for. In twelve volumes, I can cover a pretty good amount of the corpus of mythology, and yet, as each volume stands alone, you can only buy the ones you really want. Of course, I want people to want them all...
How do you choose which Greek gods or goddesses to feature? And is their order in the series relevant?
For the most part, I went with the big twelve Olympians, with a little cheating. For instance, book 4, Hades: Lord of the Dead, well, Hades isn't really an Olympian. He is one of the great gods, but he never lived on Olympus, so technically, he's not an Olympian. He's taking Demeter's slot for that book, just like Dionysos will technically be taking Hestia's slot for book 12.
When I first decided to make this series 12 volumes, I sat down and created an enormous spreadsheet of which myths I wanted to tell, and in which god's book those myths would fit best under. I knew I had to start out with Zeus, because, well, he's Zeus, and his story was the whole origin of the Greek cosmogony. I knew book 2 had to be about Athena, because it directly continued some story elements from Zeus (specifically, the fate of Athena's mother Metis) and because Athena is such a kick-butt female protagonist. From there, I used the spread-sheet as a road map; like, for instance, I knew that Aphrodite, which will retell the Judgement of Paris, which lead to the Trojan War, needed to come before Ares, which will tell the story of Achilles. I also took some care to spread out my favorites to keep my interest piqued—that's why Hermes, my favorite god, doesn't get his own book until #10. There are a few running plotlines that run throughout the books of the series as well, wrapping up in book 12.
How would you describe the design and art of the series?
Tricky question—hopefully really good? I guess I'd say it's a synthesis of superhero-type comic book illustration, with a classical flair, and some of my own odd sensibilities thrown if for good measure. Honestly, this is the sort of question I'd like to see asked of other people—I may be a bit too close to my own work to analyze it like that. I've heard comparisons to the work of P. Craig Russell, which is, of course, immensely flattering.
What should readers expect from the next installment in the series, Hades?
Hades mainly concerns itself with the story of the Abduction of Persephone, including revealing what Persephone herself though about it. Along the way we see the world-ending grief of her mother, Demeter, and the age-old question of what happens to you when you die is finally answered. And ultimately, we maybe get to learn a little more about the Lord of the Dead himself.
You've included teachers' guides on the Olympians web site. What was the inspiration for this? Do you know of teachers who are using the Olympians in school?
As I mentioned earlier, my first exposure to the Greek gods came through school, so it only made sense to try and make Olympians a useful tool for the classroom. So far I've gotten a lot of feedback from teachers who have the first two books in their classrooms and are eagerly awaiting the next volumes. Hopefully one day every classroom will have a complete set of Olympians on their shelves.
Read a preview of Hera: The Goddess and Her Glory