March 9, 2010

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Olympians Vol 1: Zeus: King of the Gods

Written by George O'Connor
Illustrated by George O'Connor
First Second

"Hey, look! It's another graphic adaptation of the Greek myths! I bet Rob plans to read it."

Now, that quotation never happened, either at First Second or my local library, but they might as well have, because I am sucker for trying any and all attempts to bring the Greek myths to life in comic book form. My Mom read them to me from almost as far back as I can remember and I've loved them ever since.

This time it's George O'Connor at the center of the fire, telling the origin of the main pantheon of Greek gods through the prism of Zeus's origin. Now I've quite literally seen this tens of times before, so what makes me say that this one may be the best so far?

The answer is in the approach. Rather than try to educate first and entertain second, O'Connor takes the opposite tack. His story follows the path of a comic book, using the Greek Gods as superheroes. His art style and plotting resemble a Marvel-like take on the myths, which he refers to in the afterward as the "original superhero stories." (We even get Marvel Handbook-like entries on some of the characters in the story as part of the end material.)

Thus, he is worried less with making sure the reader knows every single fact or family relationship and concentrates more on showing how the Greek mythos has a distinct origin story, like any set of comic book characters, filled with conflict, jealousy, monsters, and love. Plus, removed from all but the loose continuity of the original myths themselves, O'Connor is able to make these characters his own.

In fact, since no one agrees 100% on which version of the myths is correct, he even has the freedom to adapt the story as needed, merging characters to keep things together and possibly downplaying the roles of others.

The story itself starts with the creation of the universe, the birth of the titans and their monstrous kin, and Gaea's constant unhappiness with whomever is in charge. The link between the Titans and their father, and subsequently Zeus himself, is strongly drawn. Other gods appear as well, but the primary focus is on Zeus and his father, Kronos. Their war will change the very nature of the earth itself.

I absolutely love how O'Connor adapts the story to fit a superhero narrative. It makes perfect sense when you think about it, as Stan Lee and Jack Kirby knew from doing the same thing with the Norse Gods. Thus Zeus and his brothers and sisters become like a Justice League that must band together to fight the evil of their parents' generation. The idea of Zeus having to find his way to become of the King of the Gods is also a nice touch. O'Connor even takes time to show how the humans of the world were affected by the conflict, merging their story wit the Greek explanations for why the world worked as it did.

His dialog, too, evokes not a dusty textbook but a 1960s comic. Kronus says, "So that is Gaea's gift to you--now have a taste of mine," while swinging his scythe at a now lightning-powered Zeus. It may not be period accurate, but it gets the point across in a way that any reader wil be intrigued to see what happens in this great battle.

O'Conner's art is extremely good. He's got all the tricks of the capes trade nailed well, using varied panels, camera angles, and characters fully in motion to accompany his updated text. His sense of scale, showing Kronos and his brothers towering over Zeus is amazing. I like how the Titans are mostly defined in shadow, sometimes to the point of abstract.

The character designs might be the best part of the book. Zeus looks like an action hero, and so do does his family. The monsters inhabiting this world are creepy and act accordingly. (I'd hate to meet a Hekatonchieres in a dark alley!) The nymphs are slippery, as befits them. You can tell that O'Conner worked hard to create characters that have the familiar feel of the gods we know and yet were distinctive of themselves.

I don't normally mention coloring in a review, but if O'Connor did that work himself, it's gorgeous. From cover to back pages, it's a book with sharp contrasts from the vibrancy of Zeus and company to the dark, brooding orange and brown of all the Titans. His use of light and shadow is impressive throughout and works well with the line art of the book.

This series is clearly written for a younger audience, but like Marvel Adventures, it can be enjoyed by anyone. O'Connor gives further reading and his references for both levels of readers, which I thought was a nice touch. The book does avoid some of the harsher aspects of the Greek myths, at least so far, but I certainly didn't miss them.

After finishing this book, I was happy to hear that it's going to be a whole series. I would have loved having these as a child, but I'm still eager to read them as an adult. I heartily recommend Zeus, and can't wait to read more in the series. This is yet another great book from First Second and I definitely want to find more of George O'Connor's other works!