Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Olympians 4: Hades

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

Journey with your nameless narrator as he (or she) takes you down the road to Hades and back, telling a story about the Lord of the Underworld, why Hades has so many names, some secrets of the afterlife, and how it's never easy to grow up, especially if you are an immortal girl.  It's time once again to venture into the land of the Greek gods, as we move into the fourth book of George O'Connor's Olympians.

I've been looking forward to this book for a long time, and I was super-excited to get to read it.  I even made it my first comic of 2012.  O'Connor did not disappoint, as this book, which concentrates on one story and has a message that is sure to resound with young adult readers, might be my favorite so far.

For those who have never reader any of the other books in the series, O'Connor's Olympians is an attempt to view the Greek gods through the lens of a superhero comic.  Each of the books features a different prominent member of the Greek Pantheon and tells a story or stories related to their legends, which O'Connor researches from sources beyond the usual suspects.  I love that he is not afraid to look beyond the usual mythology books in order to find a story that not only might be different from the one we are familiar with, but has an angle that might more easily resonate for younger readers.

In this case, O'Connor starts off with a tour of Hades, giving us a sense of the ancient Greeks' view of the afterlife.  This part is rather familiar, and I like how the tour includes some of the most exquisite tortures ever put into literature, without any of them feeling inappropriate for a younger audience.  O'Connor's drawing skills are key to this section of the book, especially when drawing large, lifeless groups.  The souls we see in Hades look lost and empty, but never once evoke zombies.  A great touch.

The bulk of the book tells the story of Kore, who most readers, including me, know better as Persephone.  In this way, O'Connor can show how the Greek gods work in a shared universe, with Hermes, Demeter, Zeus, and others in various supporting roles.  (If you want to think of them as cameo appearances to keep up the allusion to superhero books, go right ahead.)  This is another key to the success of these books, in my opinion.  While other writers and artists have tried to write comics with the gods to various degrees of success, they do not give the feel of an organic world where the gods walked and interacted with each other as though it was perfectly normal.  Everything in those books felt artificial to me.  With O'Connor, when Demeter goes through the Olympian Universe he's made, it feels as natural as when Peter Parker asks to have coffee with Matt Murdock.  Just as in a comic book world, there are references to past "issues" (in this cases, legends that O'Connor has told in the prior books or plans to tell later) and you can feel a continuity of legend.

We are blessed with a wealth of Greek myths that make up a story tapestry that is almost as rich as anything a modern writer can create.  O'Connor uses that to perfect effect in this series, and particularly in this book. When we learn that Zeus has had a hand in Kore's abduction, it's not a shock, because we know he's slime. I love how that works, and I think that any young reader who's been reared on movies with sequels, young adult novels with series that take up a bookshelf, and maybe even a comic or two will appreciate it and be looking for that in a book.

The most interesting dynamic in this book is that O'Connor portrays Persephone as a young woman who lives under a domineering mother and the expectations of others who is then kidnapped by powerful men for their own purposes.  Rather than allow her to be strictly a victim, however, O'Connor shows that maybe Persephone wants to make her own decisions, even under these circumstances.  It's an interesting take that almost flirts with Stockholm syndrome, but ultimately shows that she is her own person by carefully changing one crucial part of the myth.  This is not the first time O'Connor has used his own spin on the myth, but I think it works better here than in Hera, because it fosters a relation between the young woman and an audience made up of teens who are busy being told to do things while trying to form their own identity.  I think a lot of young adults (and maybe some older adults) will relate to the idea of creating a new persona for yourself.

Obviously, the circumstances are not ideal, but rather than sugarcoat the myth, O'Connor leaves it intact and does his best to empower the main female character.  I think that's a great way to look at the story of Persephone, even if I would prefer that O'Connor not refer to what is obviously meant to be goth culture as a "dark side."

Though Hades is the man on the cover, this is really the story of a daughter who wants her own life and a mother determined not to let even Zeus himself interfere with her life.  It's the story of the changing of the seasons and of eternal punishment and pleasure.  O'Connor uses a zest for life to contrast the realm of the dead, and manages to tell multiple stories of Greek legend within one overarching plot.  Filled with great illustrations that show the emotions of the characters and makes great use of visual angles, facial expressions, and color schemes, Hades is an excellent addition to the pantheon of Olympian books by O'Connor.  This is a great book and a solid series for any young adult interested in exciting stories that can springboard them into a world of literature.  Hades is not only a comic I think you should visit--it also should be on your bookshelf and stay there!

Olympians 4 Hades will be available on January 31st, 2012.  A big thanks to First Second for providing me with a review copy.  If you are interested in having me review your comic, please get in touch with me at trebro@gmail.com.

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