One of the things I love most about finishing books is having the chance to talk about them with other people who have read (and finished) the same book. It’s even better when I have the chance to discuss books with people who read with their brains engaged. (You may not realize how rare this can be.) So when my fellow GC4K bloggers agreed to join an online book club with me, I was thrilled.
After tossing ideas around for a bit, we came up with some ground rules. First, we’ll try to choose discussable books, not necessarily books we’ll all enjoy, but books that have enough meat to chew on. Second, we’ll begin every discussion by focusing on what we like about the book, giving everyone a chance to comment before diving into what we don’t like or have difficulties with. (If this second rule sounds familiar, it comes from the CCBC Book Discussion Guidelines. And third, since the focus of this blog is good comics for kids, we’ll discuss whether or not the book has kid- or teen-reader appeal. It’s fine for a bunch of adults who are soldiering on toward our golden years to like the book, but will kids?
Now, pour yourself a glass of cheap white wine, grab a copy of the book, and get ready to discuss. As with any good book club, we reserve the right to talk about any member who didn’t make the meeting. If you don’t want that person to be you, join in the discussion in the comments section below.
Zeus: King of the Gods
First Second, January 2010, ISBN 978-1-59643-431-8
80 pages, $9.99
Many thanks to First Second for providing enough review copies to go around.
From the back cover: “Here’s where it all starts: the beginning of everything—the world, the gods, and even humanity. Mighty Kronos, the most terrifying of all the Titans, reigns as the unchallenged tyrant of the cosmos…until his son, the god Zeus, stands up and takes on his own father in a battle intense enough to shatter the universe! Who will emerge triumphant?”
Eva: The Greek myths surrounding the origin of the universe have been told countless times and in countless ways, including in the sequential art format. But instead of a dry, storybook-style retelling, or even a straight-up homage to the classic book by the D’Aulaires, author/illustrator George O’Connor has chosen to tell the story of Zeus’s birth and rise to power as an adventure/superhero story. Does his approach work?
Esther: I’m so excited to join the book club. I don’t have too many adults to discuss the comics I read with!
To answer your first question, Eva, I believe that O’Connors’ approach absolutely does work! I never studied Greek Mythology when I was in school and was only introduced to it, briefly, through social studies. But as it conflicted with many religious beliefs, it was only glossed over.
I guess that’s why I never got into any Greek Mythology. While I knew Zeus would be a good book to read, I didn’t expect to be mesmerized. I couldn’t put it down (even though I had to put it down because of other commitments). There’s something in the language O’Connor chose that had me devouring the book. And the illustrations are magnificent. I wanted to look at it over and over again.
Another reason I know it worked is because this book is already flying off my library shelves. I gave it to one of my students who loved the Rick Riordan books, but isn’t much of a comics fan. She’s now reading the PDF of Athena (on my computer) that I received from First Second before I interviewed George O’Connor.
Kate: In response to your question, Eva, yes, it’s great to see Greek mythology get a superhero makeover, as it allows kids to discover parallels between the two genres on their own. I could see a teacher leading a lively classroom discussion on the topic, asking students to compare Zeus’s powers with, say, Superman’s, or asking students to contrast Zeus’ “origin” story with that of their favorite superheroes. The superhero-myth connection also seems like a great hook for kids who aren’t big readers but have a strong attachment to characters such as Batman, Superman, or Wonder Woman.
The other thing that I liked about O’Connor’s approach: his artwork makes the stories immediate and exciting, more like watching a movie than reading a chapter in The Tanglewood Tales. (Not that I’m knocking Nathaniel Hawthorne!) All of the mythology books from my childhood had very stylized, static artwork that often tried to capture the feeling of Hellenic friezes or sculptures — a sophisticated approach, to be sure, but not one that really draws in a young reader.
Lori: O’Connor’s approach to Zeus’s origin works perfectly. Zeus’s tale is already one of adventure, with monsters to fight and nymphs and goddesses to save. In so many ways he is like the first superhero. I particularly liked the self confident attitude and brashness of character with which he portrayed Zeus. Zeus is like the a rogue, flirting with the nymphs and and being flippant toward Kampe, the guardian of Tartarus. I loved it. I also really enjoyed the short references to other myths, which were hinted at with the line “…that is a tale for another day.” This is a great tease for future stories and/or books.
Eva: I love the use of color in this book and I was particularly struck by the difference in how the Titans are portrayed versus the Olympians. The Titans are shown as dark and monolithic, with lots of blacks, oranges, and purples being used, whereas the Olympians are drawn in a much more familiar comic book style. With all the different yellows and pale lavenders being used for the Olympians, even when the scene takes place in the shadows they seem to glow on the page. These differences, along with the colloquial expressions used between the Olympians, make Zeus and his siblings much easier to identify and sympathize with.
Robin: To chime in, first I want to say that yes, the superhero origin style storyline definitely worked for me. I’ve always loved origin stories, and this one is no different.
I also definitely agree about the artwork! The colors are rich, and I was very keen on how huge the Titans seemed. Kate is right—too often these figures are drawn to replicate the cool beauty of Greek statuary and friezes. The Titans should be terrifying and enormous, and he manages to create that sense very well. I also love the visual links, like the field of stars in the eyes of both Kronos and Zeus when they both become convinced of their own invincibility.
O’Connor nailed the mythic tone at the beginning of the book, when describing the origin of Gaea and Ouranos, but quickly infuses the title with humor and familiar language when Zeus and Thetis begin to flirt. He deftly makes the Titans towering and cryptic while the gods are relatable, fallible, and charming. This was always the key to the Greek deities—they were just as weak as humans, in terms of emotional entanglements, jealousy, and bouts of anger. O’Connor sets the stage nicely for the future volumes, as well, as we get to learn more about the various gods and goddesses. I’m very keen to see which tales he pulls out for the individual volumes on Hera, Hades and Athena. Personally, I went to a college (Bryn Mawr) where Athena was our patron goddess, and we left offerings to her for success in battle (or, well, exams and life in general), so I’m very excited to see that volume!
I wanted to ask: Who do you guys think this book is for? Kids? Teens? Anybody interested in Greek Mythology? I ask because I’ve heard of a few children’s librarians decide it’s “too much” for their collection. Do you think it’s too much? I felt like it was pretty tame considering the original myths, and yet gets across the content it needs to. I feel a bit like I need to go flip through my old D’Aulaire’s myth books—I know they avoided the more violent and sexual parts of the myths, but I seem to recall that they were about the same as these in terms of explicitness level.
Esther: I see it as a perfect middle school read. Here in NYC, Greek Mythology correlates with the 6th grade Social Studies curriculum. It’s not “too dark” or “too violent” for 11-12-year-olds. I didn’t hesitate adding it to my collection or handing it off as a read before I put it in the collection to any of the 6th, 7th or 8th graders I work with. I’m scratching my head a bit as to why someone would hesitate adding this to their Children’s collection. (Unless they serve only until 4th or 5th grade.) Did they read this in its entirety?
Kate: I agree with Esther—I think it’s appropriate for middle-school students. In fact, I’d argue that O’Connor’s fidelity to the source material is one of the things that makes his take on Zeus so refreshing. Many of the Greek myths I read as a kid were so heavily sanitized that I was genuinely shocked when I read The Iliad as a college freshman: I didn’t remember the gods as being so blood-thirsty.
The other thing to say about Zeus is that none of the violence is gratuitous, gory, or titillating; it serves a clear dramatic purpose, and has obvious moral consequences that young readers can grasp on their own. Robin is right on the money here: O’Connor shows what he needs to show without crossing that line of explicitness that would make this, say, a fifteen-plus read.
Robin: I’m not sure what caused the issue in terms of age appropriateness—I didn’t get a chance to ask what the concerns were. I think you’re right on the money—I think 6th grade is a great time for this title since so many students are getting into mythology. Now I’m getting excited about other potential mythologies—Norse, etc. I always did like Norse myths. I was a giant mythology geek as a kid. The first book I bought for myself was D’Aulaire’s Greek Myths, and then the next year I bought myself their Norse myths. The breadth of what those books covered is what has me excited to see what else O’Connor does with the series—what stories he picks for Athena, or Hera (who is indeed much maligned), although we can all guess which main story Hades will have, with Demeter and Persephone in the mix.
Scott: I enjoyed Zeus, especially having been a huge mythology geek as a kid, too. I remember taking out D’Aulaires Book of Greek Myths so many times that the library eventually had to tape and bind the book back together. I think the book is great for middle-schools but could definitely skew even a bit younger. I think adults tend to not give kids enough credit in regards to what they can and cannot ‘take’. There’s very little in this book that should raise some discerning eyebrows. In fact, I agree that the superhero/action-adventure approach is a really great way to introduce new readers to Greek mythology and also get those Percy Jackson fans to read more. As Esther mentioned above…they will be coming in droves for this series.
I also want to make note of all the great ‘extras’ in the back of the book including an author’s note and lists for further reading, both print and online sources. I think more and more, kids are interested in the process of writing and creating books and especially graphic novels and I think O’Connor’s note and footnotes really give kids a glimpse into his writing process. I also LOVE the Greek mythology character files (for Zeus, the Cyclopes, Metis and Kronos) that are almost like baseball cards for mythological characters. Definitely looking forward to seeing other books in this series.
Eva: Let’s talk a little bit about those extras. I wouldn’t have even noticed the web address on the back cover of the book if Esther hadn’t pointed it out in her interview with George O’Connor. But I’m from a time when a book ended when you turned the last page.
More and more we’re seeing authors and publishers adding content to books by extending the story onto the internet. How important is the website to the book? Do you think kids expect to see online content for their favorite books or is this just an unexpected added bonus? What do you find more useful, the author’s note and G(r)eek Notes in the back of the book or the online content?
Kate: I spent some time surfing www.olympiansrule.com, and thought it was a good resource for elementary and middle-school teachers who want to use Zeus in the classroom. Not only does the teacher guide provide discussion questions, it also helps teachers deal with Zeus as a graphic novel; there are succinct definitions of important sequential art terms, followed by guidelines for leading the class in a conversation about the art-text relationship. The suggested activities, too, seemed like a good complement to O’Connor’s book. In particular, I could see students enjoying the opportunity to re-write the script (one exercise provides artwork and word balloons, but no text) and act out scenes from the myths.
I’m not sure that kids will find much of interest at the website. The profiles of the gods are identical to the ones found in the back of the book, and there isn’t much else at the site that’s aimed at the under-twelve crowd. Though the materials in the back of Zeus are thoughtfully composed, they don’t add much to a younger reader’s experience of the book; like the website, the notes and bibliographies seem more useful to teachers than tweens.
Esther: I actually used the website today with students who were researching the Greek gods. They’re doing a project for their English class and needed some information. They were quite happy with the content of the website. So, the website can also be used to lure students to the book.
Lori: The extras were well done. Presenting them in a trading card style really works for kids who read and trade them everyday. It’s too bad they don’t have actual trading cards for these characters. It would be fun to watch kids trading for different Greek gods. I’m sure Zeus would be a popular one. I think kids would enjoy going to the website, too. They can satisfy their curiosity about the characters or add their own writing and art. The fact that it’s interactive as well as informative makes it a great resource.
Robin: I didn’t really go and look at the extras until prompted. I tend not to seek out websites for books, mainly because I don’t have a need to, although I did go through all of the end content in the book itself. Most of the time my readers aren’t asking me to lead them there. However, I certainly see all the uses many of you point to, and why they’re especially useful for students. I admit I was especially tickled that the first discussion question was, “Zeus’s dad tries to eat him. Has your dad ever tried to eat you?” Ha!
The only thing I might have changed, and this is me, is that I’d love to see more stories. There are so many surrounding each god or goddess, and I think there could be a whole, long-running set beyond the planned twelve. Then again, I’m sure Mr. O’Connor would also like to do other comics someday too, so I’m pleased with what I’m getting, at least so far.
Scott: Did anyone notice the overt sexual innuendo between Metis and Zeus on page 19? I know Zeus has always been portrayed as a bit of an insatiable ladies man but his facial expression and “I can grow pretty big” comment was quite sexually charged. Any thoughts?
Robin: I did indeed note the sexual innuendo, but I decided it didn’t bother me, nor did it seem too overt for the title. The exchange reminded me of the sexual comments in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (i.e. “Is that a rabbit in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?”) At the time I first saw that film, as a kid, I had no idea what all those innuendoes were about, or what they referenced. When I re-watched it as a teen, I suddenly got all the references, and was a bit shocked but mostly amused. I do think that this example of innuendo gets across the point of Zeus’s general randiness without getting into detail that kids would understand. If you know what they’re implying, you get it, but if you don’t, it won’t cause readers to pause. What does everyone else think?
Esther: While I definitely felt that the scene with Metis and Zeus on the beach was flirtatious, I did not pick up on the sexual innuendoes until now. And now, I can’t get the image out of my head. *sigh* I don’t think think the kids will pick up on it. Though… you never know. Middle Schoolers are quite perceptive.
Lori: I see no reason for middle schoolers not to be able to read this book. It has all the action and adventure they love sprinkled with the promise of romance later. I completely missed the innuendo in the flirting scene between Zeus and Metis. I’m sure most middle schoolers will, too.
Eva: For the most part, this book club meeting has been a love-fest. Does anyone have any comments on how the book falls short or have areas where the book would have been different had you been in charge?
Esther: I really can’t find anything negative to say. I think O’Connor set out to do what he wanted to do and was successful. I’m sure someone with a more critical eye can find something, but overall, I think this was fun and exciting. I think this series will have the potential to interest a lot of young readers into the world of Greek Mythology. I certainly had no interest in the stories before and find myself wanting to check D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths out of my library.
Lori: I tried to find something I didn’t like or needed improvement and I couldn’t. This is an excellent book just the way it stands.