Interview: George O’Connor
This January, First Second released the first in a 12 part series by George O’Connor. The series, The Olympians, comes at the heels of the Percy Jackson series, which has caused middle-schoolers all over the country to rediscover Greek Mythology. I had the opportunity to interview George O’Connor to discuss the series and the release of the first volume: Zeus: King of the Gods.
Esther: Congratulations, on your new release. I’m not exactly a fan of Greek Mythology, so I wasn’t expecting to enjoy the book as much as I did. As one of my colleagues noted, the art work is outstanding and the text is gripping. How did this project come about?
George: Thank you so much! It’s particularly gratifying to hear a non-mythology buff enjoyed Zeus. I must be doing something right!
It’s a funny story, the genesis of Olympians. My children’s book editor and I, Neal Porter, were sitting around his apartment one day when he referred to a mutual acquaintance of ours as being like Cerberus. For those of you who don’t know, Cerberus is the giant, drooling three-headed dog that guards the Greek underworld. I said something Greek-ish back, about Cyclopes, I believe, and Neal gave me this funny look. He reached over to his shelf, pulled off a picture book and said, “What if you do a graphic novel on the Greek myths, about this size?” I went home, and in about two weeks I had written most of Zeus: King of the Gods, and had plans for eleven more books. In retrospect, it’s almost hilarious that it took Neal to suggest it to me—in so many ways, Olympians feels like the series I was born to create.
Esther: In your author’s note you write about devouring Greek Mythology when you were in middle school. When and how did you discover Greek Mythology? What were some of your favorite reads back then?
George: I actually discovered the myths a few years earlier, when I was in the fourth grade. My class did a long section on Greek mythology, a couple of months long. We studied the stories, presented oral reports while dressed as the gods, drew pictures of the myths. That was what initially grabbed me, I think—I was in school, drawing muscle men fighting scary monsters, and that was the assignment! It sure beat doing math. I’ve always been the type of guy who reads up more on something when I really like it, and I just read everything we had in my local library. My favorite book back then was D’Aulaires Book of Greek Myths—it’s kind of the masterwork of Greek mythology for that age. A few years later, when I really got into comic books, I immediately noticed the similarities between superheroes and the gods and heroes of Greek Myth.
Esther: It’s hard not to mention the Percy Jackson series. Have you read them? What do you think of them?
George: I don’t think I had actually heard of them until I was already working on Zeus. I was doing a comics presentation at a school on the upper west side, and as I often do, I shared a little of my upcoming projects with the students. As soon as I mentioned Zeus, that’s all any kid wanted to talk about. They all knew so much, and it soon became obvious they had been getting their mythology news from the same source. One of the parents lent me Lightning Thief, which I read and enjoyed immensely. I’m very grateful to Rick Riordan for helping push Greek mythology into the spotlight again. I’ve actually held off on reading the rest of his series for now so that it wouldn’t subconsciously influence how I tell my own stories. Something to look forward to when I’m done with Olympians!
Esther: Do you have a favorite Greek god? A favorite myth to share with our readers?
George: My favorite of the gods (the one I dressed up as in 4th grade!) is Hermes, best known as the messenger of the gods. In reality, he’s the god of everything from gambling to shepherds to gymnasiums to public speaking. He was also the god who brought you your dreams at night, and was the one who brought you over to the other side when you died. On top of all that, Hermes was the trickster god, the Olympian who seemed to be having the most fun doing his (many) jobs. He was able to walk and talk as soon as he was born. One of his first acts, as a newborn infant, was to sneak over to his half-brother Apollo’s herd of cattle and steal them. To disguise their tracks, not only did he train them to walk backward, but he tied slippers to their feet and brooms to their tails. Despite all of Hermes’s hard work, Helios the sun told Apollo who the culprit was, and when Apollo confronts him, Hermes gives him a lyre (an ancient Greek musical instrument), which he had just invented that morning. And that was all on the day he was born.
Esther: In your author’s note there’s a picture of you standing near a statue. Give us the story behind the picture. Where was it taken? What is the statue?
George: That picture was taken by the talented photographer Seth Kushner who is working on a book called Graphic NYC, which is all about comic artists who live and work in the New York City area. That photo was actually taken in the back of the Brooklyn Museum, where they have all these old sculptural elements from old buildings that have been torn down now. I think those Pegasi were from part of the old Penn Station, as I recall. It was crazy cold that day, I remember, but we had a great time taking those photos.
Esther: This afternoon, I gave Zeus to one of my students. She read it during her lunch period and liked the book a lot. When I asked for her thoughts, she asked, “What happened to Metis?” I had to go re-read, but now I’m left with the same question. Wasn’t Metis supposed to be Zeus’s queen? Where did she go after the clash?
George: Ooh, good question. I’m going to borrow a line from the text that I repeat a few times, “that is a tale for another day.” I will tell you this—the next book in Olympians, Athena: Grey-Eyed Goddess, opens up with the story of what happens to Metis. Here’s a hint—she is the mother of Athena, the goddess of wisdom.
Esther: You’ve also written and illustrated picture books. How is that different (or the same) than writing and illustrating a comic? Do you prefer one over the other?
George: I love doing both. On one hand, I really love the simplicity and format of doing a picture book—done correctly, it can be a simple little perfect gem. However, after a while I find I like to go into a subject with a little more depth, and that’s what’s great about a graphic novel—there’s more room to play around in, and they’re intended for an older audience, so you can be a bit more sophisticated in the way you tell things. Right now, I’m enjoying comics more, but I am feeling the itch to do some new picture books.
Esther: I’ve been poking my way around the webpage that’s tied to this book. It’s marvelous and full of great details. What role did you play in its development?
George: Thank you! I worked very closely, hand-in-hand with Gina Gagliano, First Second’s marketer extraordinaire, to make the website. I knew that I wanted to have a website to help increase the educational value of the books—I was very careful, in making Olympians, to have the books be fun, but to also have them be very educational. After all, school is where I first learned about the myths. There’s a lot of exclusive content on Olympiansrule.com, tons of artwork and writing created just for it. My favorites are probably the downloadable Olympians masks, and the Olympians blog. Gina even went the extra distance and wrote a series of “Myth Manners” for the blog. Check them out, they’re hilarious.
Esther: What projects do you have on the horizon?
George: Olympians, Olympians and more Olympians. I’m hard at work creating the final artwork for book 3, The Glory of Hera (my favorite goddess), and next up on the docket is Book 4, Hades: The Wealthy One. If all goes well, Olympians is projected to be a twelve book series—I work very fast, but that should keep even me busy for a very long time. Also, like I said, I’ve got the itch to do some picture books as well, but nothing’s concrete on that front, and I even have plans for a companion series to Olympians, if there’s enough demand. But first, I’m putting most of my attention to Olympians.
Esther: Thanks George for the great interview.
About Esther Keller
Esther Keller is the librarian at JHS 278, Marine Park in Brooklyn, NY. There she started the library's first graphic novel collection and strongly advocated for using comics in the classroom. She also curates the Graphic Novel collection for the NYC DOE Citywide Digital Library. She started her career at the Brooklyn Public Library and later jumped ship to the school system so she could have summer vacation and a job that would align with a growing family's schedule. On the side, she is a mother of 4 and regularly reviews for SLJ and School Library Connection (formerly LMC). In her past life, she served on the Great Graphic Novels for Teens Committee where she solidified her love and dedication to comics.
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