January 14, 2014

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Olympians: Aphrodite

Written and Ilustrated by George O'Connor
Published by First Second

From the very fabric of the universe, the avatar of love appears! She is Aphrodite, and all who see her cannot help but be affected by her presence. In this next book in his Olympians series, George O'Connor tells her story, including her role in beginning the Trojan War and an origin that's not what you might think.

I'm always excited when a new Olympians book hits because I love how George O'Connor combines meticulously researched information with the idea of the Greek Gods and their world being a kind of superhero universe where heroes and villains fight out the battles that fate decrees for them.

By this point, now that we're in the 6th book, he has quite the back material to reference. O'Connor uses that to good effect here, taking us back to the days of the Titans to posit the claim--a new one to me--that Aphrodite sprouted from the same beginnings as the Titans, making her the oldest of the Greek Gods. There is a source for this origin, and as he did with Hera, O'Connor makes sure we can look it up for ourselves.

In order to mesh things with what most stories use, we get a later scene where Zeus names her a daughter, possibly as a power play. (After all, who better than the Wilt Chamberlin of Gods to recognize the power of love?) This idea fits with the theme O'Connor has for Zeus in this book--a man who fears the power of the women around him.

When we get to the Golden Apple this comes into play again. Zeus is shown to be a manipulative jerk who uses Eris, Paris, Aphrodite, Hera, and Athena to take the mortals down a peg by having them engage in a lengthy, costly war. He moves it away from the idea of being jealous over who is prettier (noting in the after material that the idea of Athena caring about beauty is questionable at best) to the idea that the owner of that Apple is higher up on the power scale.

That's typical of the more feminist view of the myths that O'Connor takes. While I am not sure how historically accurate such an approach is--I sense that the story of the apples was designed to show how petty women are--myths are meant to be shaped by the tellers. And since O'Connor is the teller of the tale, he gets to spin things how he wishes.

In addition, when creating a mythology for the 21st Century, there is a very good reason to re-work some of the stories while keeping the original basis intact: Inclusion of a wider audience. O'Connor's books are aimed at a young adult readership, and that means both boys and girls. If O'Connor doesn't try to make these stories something both genders can relate to in a positive manner, then he's failing his audience and perpetuating stereotypes. Just as coloring the gods and their companions in different shades (Aphodite is light brown, for instance, which is such a great and amazing decision) allows young readers of color to imagine themselves as part of the story, giving the women emotions beyond trying to impress the boys is important if O'Connor wants this to be a book for all genders.

Now that doesn't mean the gods look particularly good. They make petty jokes ("Awkward!" shouts one when all three reach for the apple), scheme behind each other's backs, and cause trouble, particularly the youngest among them, like Aphrodite's "son," Eros (aka Cupid). O'Connor has the really tough task of dealing with the fact that Aphrodite's antics are frequently what we'd call NSFW on the internet, but I think he manages it well. We get hints at her unfaithfulness and he draws heavily from the 1970s Marvel playbook when it comes to referencing sex but not actually talking about it.

The nature of Aphrodite also posed a visual challenge for O'Connor. He can't draw her naked, of course, because this is book that needs to go in school libraries. Again, taking a cue from the superhero books that he's emulating, O'Connor uses some strategic hair placements and poses to make it clear that sensuality and desire oozes from the pores of this new arrival. This Aphrodite has curves everywhere and O'Connor dresses her to emphasize them. She is absolutely gorgeous, ready to walk out on any runway and blow the other fashion models out of the water.

This contrasts nicely with the stern look of Hera, with her modest cloak and pulled back hair or Athena, whom Aphrodite teases by comparing her to a man. Just as the male gods get appearances to match their powers and mythology, Aphrodite is every bit the Goddess of Love.

Moving out a bit from the main character, O'Connor's linework once again makes this feel very much like a superhero comic book. We have a set of narrators who bring Aphrodite to us. There are pictures of things on a cosmic scale. The Cyclopses loom like mindless monsters when we see them in cameo roles. We get Kirby close-ups, angled panels that throw the reader's eye off balance, and characters as positioned in a way to make things feel as dramatic as possible, no matter what the occasion. So much is said by the art just by reading the body language of the gods as they react to what is being said or shown to them. The reaction shots at crucial moments nail the heightened tension. A rolled eye or a smirking lip does more than page upon pages of dialogue could. (My favorite might be following Thetis' line of sight when she tells Zeus she was thinking of him!)

Extremely detailed clothing and backgrounds (even in crowd shots, folks look and dress differently) also play a large role. Even minor characters have touches (one of the Charities wears an earring) to give them their own personality. The look and feel of the book makes this a fleshed out world, with bright coloring and contrasts. This might actually be the best yet in terms of doing so, though I've been impressed with this every time I've read one of the Olympians books.

My only minor complaint about this one is that because of the long set-up origin, the emphasis on the Apple, and fitting in some of Eros' tricks, Aphrodite's own exploits are done via a montage for the most part. I feel like we missed out on something by not seeing more of Narcissus in particular, because of how famous that story is. As O'Connor makes his world larger and more complex while keeping the size of these entries roughly the same, it's getting harder and harder to take it all in without omitting things. Overall, I think he's done a great job, but it will be interesting to see how this balance works as we move forward.

That's a really minor thing, though. These books are amazing, and I wish they'd have existed when I was the target age group. Much as I enjoy them now, 12 year old me would have read and re-read them, made up his own stories, and possibly tried to draw them. (And both 12 and 36 me approve of the pun on the famous song in the profile materials. Well played, Mr. O'Connor.) The Olympians is a great series that only gets better with time, and this belongs on your shelf with the rest.