February 4, 2015

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Olympians: Ares by George O'Connor

This post is part of a blog tour! Lots of folks getting together on their sites and discussing the same book. It's a great chance to see what others are thinking about a certain title, not just me. You can view the complete list of sites participating in the Ares tour here.

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

Ares and the Trojan War take center stage in the latest of George O'Connor's Olympians series, with arguably the best-known battle of ancient history serving as a backdrop for the God who seems to have all the worst traits of his parents, Zeus and Hera.

It's always a great day when I hear from First Second that there's a new book from O'Connor about the Greek Gods (all of my past reviews can be found here), and I was looking forward to this one for month. It didn't disappoint, and while the focus on the Trojan War does keep us away from other parts of Ares' story, overall this definitely one of the most thematically strong "issues" in the series, as O'Connor takes the time to make it clear that war is a terrible thing, bringing down all who are cursed by its bloody touch.

That's the challenge here, and O'Connor is more than up for the task. Sure, there's a lot of really awful things that the other gods do, but Ares' entire purpose is to create misery. Using the often-glorified Trojan War as a stage to show the massive toll of death is a perfect solution. Plus, who doesn't want their own chance to adapt Homer?

Of all the books in the series so far, this one felt like it had some of the strongest artistic themes to go along with the narrative. O'Connor's art on Olympians is always stellar, bringing an unabashed superhero style to the pages, making the actions of the gods feel like they are bold and epic in a way that echoes (but does not copy) the worlds built by Marvel, DC, and Valiant over the years, with interlocking stories, characters who "cross-over" and so on. There's even a scene that echoes the now very familiar cover image (going all the way back to Jack Kirby's X-Men 9*) of heroes on either side of a page, ready to forget themselves and attack their own.

An early example of framing heroes against heroes
George O'Connor using the Hero vs Hero imagery
But from start to finish, the layouts of the pages really work in harmony with the story O'Connor wishes to tell, doing so in a way that's even better than anything we've seen from him so far, I think. From the opening pages, which lay out the difference between Athena and her brother Ares, despite both being Gods of War, to the ending, in which Ares confronts Zeus about the true reason for not just the Trojan War, but the events leading up to it (making for a great potential character arc, in true superhero style), the structure of the pages and what we're shown hammer home exactly what O'Connor is going for, merging plot, art, and text into an incredible whole.

There's something really moving when you open with all the things people praise about war (strategy, training, duty, and adherence to orders) and literally rip it up with an unbelievable splash page that shows Ares leaping out from the upper corner of the page, blood lust in his eyes, with chaotic, insane Eris as his charioteer and his sons shown as ephemeral, The Scream-like visages, infecting anyone they touch.

Possibly my favorite splash from George O'Connor so far, from Ares
I mean, look at that image above. Linger over the details, look at the craftsmanship, and see a creator who is at the peak of his abilities. O'Connor knows the power of a splash page, and uses it to great effect here. Every time we see Ares on the battlefield, it's shown strongly that what he brings is nothing but death, and for all the talk of honor, there's nothing left for those who die. Grief is indirect, but it's clear in how O'Connor shows the dead being lifeless--and often dying in nameless waves--that he's letting any reader know that those who want to make War a thing to be honored are sorely mistaken.

This book also really shows just how little the gods think of humanity. While they play favorites, particularly with those who share some divine DNA, overall there is little concern other than seeing "their" side win. The dead are burned without a thought by Hephaistos to intimate another god, who was annoyed with bodies in his river. Ares sides with the Trojans (to satisfy his lover Aphrodite), even though his son was a Greek, who died by Trojan spear. The gods themselves look over the fields of Troy as if it were a tabletop war game--and for them, I guess it is.

What's interesting is just how quickly the gods' interest wanes. When their favorites are picked off, one by one, and Achilles disrespects all rules by taking out his own rage on the body of Hector (ironic, because Ares wanted to do the same thing), they begin to tune out, which O'Connor shows by splicing images of the gods departing with the ending elements of the Trojan War. It's appropriate here that instead of spending much of the time on the details of the war, O'Connor looks at how the gods played their roles in the conflict. It works perfectly at keeping the focus centered on the main characters in the drama playing out before the reader.

Not everything is dark, though much of this book is very dismal and somber--as it should be. When the gods face off, Marvel-style, the results of the fighting is often kinda comic, as certain members of Olympus decide they aren't quite so ready to back their side as they originally thought. Also, Athena gets some revenge on Aphrodite for her incessant needling about the virgin god's choice not to take a lover. Let's just say it's very JLI-esque, for those who get the reference.

Ares still remains an amazing all-ages book despite all the death, talk of war, and implied sexual themes. O'Connor doesn't get gory when humans die, and some of the more horrific elements are there but not dominant--Prium's infant gets tossed off the wall, but most readers might not even catch this, for example, unless they linger on the panel. The amorous affairs of the gods are mentioned, but also not lingered on, and none of it goes further than one might when explaining a divorce. This isn't an easy balance when you're trying to show just how bad these main characters can be, but I thought O'Connor handled it brilliantly. Ares may bring war, but George O'Connor brings great skill to his comics, and this one, as usual, is highly recommended.

*The concept probably pre-dates this cover, but all good comics websites never pass up a chance to use a King Kirby image. It's the law. Inks by Chick Stone on this one, by the way.