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Interview: George O’Connor

Interview: George O’Connor

My background in Greek mythology was always very sparse. Then Rick Riordan’s The Lightning Thief came out… And shortly after, First Second released a new series called The Olympians. I watched as all those titles flew off my library shelves … and continue to do so! In 2010, as the first of a planned 12-volume series came out, I had the opportunity to interview George O’Connor. In the back of my mind, I had imagined doing a follow-up as the series culminated, but recently I noticed that George O’Connor was doing a critique of his work on social media. And though there is one more planned volume, I couldn’t wait and asked Mr. O’Connor a few questions.

Over the years, I’ve been watching as each new Olympian book is released and thinking, I was there when the first one was released. It doesn’t cease to amaze me that the books have stayed popular over the last ten years. What do you think contributed to the success of this series? Aside from the spectacular artwork and great storytelling.

George O’Connor: Ha, you make me blush! But seriously, there are many reasons I think that Olympians has done as well as it has. For instance, I’ve been very fortunate in that the series was launched just as we experienced an enormous resurgence in interest in mythology, spearheaded by Rick Riordan and others. But that’s not the only reason—basically, I think these stories, the original stories I’m adapting—they’re just amazing. Any story that’s endured as long as the Greek myths have has to be doing something right. Greek mythology literally forms the bedrock of western literature—in the whole way we even comprehend the idea of story itself—and I’m lucky to be in the right place at the right time to be the person who gets to adapt these incredible, awesome, weird stories into graphic novels just as comics are getting their day in the sun.

I noticed on Twitter and Instagram, you are doing a re-read of the series and giving yourself a public critique. Is this the first time you’ve re-read the series? What motivated you to go public with your self critique?

George O’Connor: It’s the first time I’ve read the entirety of the series produced thus far (11 volumes!) back to back, and I’ve been doing it in preparation for wrapping up Olympians—I want to make sure I tie up all the loose ends. Some of the volumes I’ve read more than others, and I feel like there are one or two I maybe haven’t revisited since completing them. I’m not sure exactly why I decided to go public with my self-critique. I think it’s because at many points in my reread, especially for the volumes that I am more removed from in time of their creation, I was often surprised at the storytelling and art choices I myself had made. If I was surprised, I thought other people might be interested in reading about those reactions as well.

What insights have you gained from your work in doing these critiques?

George O’Connor: Many things. I think a lot of creative types, and maybe especially cartoonists, are hard on themselves and their work to a point where it can become an almost parody of self-loathing. I was worried that, especially for the earlier volumes of Olympians, I might be so turned off by younger self’s writing and drawing that it would sour the whole experience for me… but it didn’t. I feel I’ve grown a lot, both as a writer and an artist, since I began, and many of the storytelling choices I made then are not necessarily the same I would make now, but it was really cool to see the differences. Surprising, like I said. I can almost see the alternate paths I could have evolved as a cartoonist in some of those pages. And sometimes I see a technique I used, or a story idea I planted that I didn’t follow up on, and I’m like, huh, maybe that’s something I should revisit.

A student once commented to me that it was so quick to read a comic. Like, 20 minutes, she said. And I countered that it took the artist months or years to draw it. In re-reading, I imagine it isn’t taking all that long to read. How does that make you feel, considering the months and years, you’ve labored over the project?

George O’Connor: I think that a comic—a good comic, at least—is something that should be read multiple times. There are two columns of storytelling present in most comics: the words and the pictures. And those two columns can combine in an alchemical mix to create a third column, of a perfect synthesis of words and pictures that convey story in a way that no other medium can. That’s a lot of info to absorb, and I don’t think anyone is going to take that all in in one reading. When I read a comic, usually my first pass is focused on the words, to quickly propel myself through the story and get a feel for the narrative. On my second read (and third, and forth, and so on…) I focus more on the art, the subtleties of expression and composition, the juxtaposition of text and images, everything. I can spend hours poring and re-poring over a comic that I especially like. So that said, I feel okay about how much time goes into making a comic because, for at least some people, they will spend a lot more time absorbing all that effort than just that initial 20-minute read-through.

I’m assuming you are working on the last of the series. Do you have plans for “after”? Did you work on any other projects while you worked on the Olympians?

George O’Connor: Yes, I’m currently writing the last volume of Olympians, Dionysos: The Yet To Be Subtitled. I have a lot of plans for projects following Olympians, most of which I shouldn’t really mention right now until things are finalized. Something I haven’t made a secret of is that I would love to follow up Olympians with a four-book series in the same vein but on Norse mythology called Asgardians. And after that? Well, I still love Greek mythology, and there are still a zillion more Greek myths I haven’t told yet, especially ones that don’t have a direct connection to one of the twelve Olympians. Maybe an ongoing series of books exploring those stories…

In an interview I did with you in 2010, you said that Hermes is your favorite Greek god. Does that still hold true? Even after all the research and work on the series?

George O’Connor: Hermes is still my fave, with Hera being a close second—I think my own personality, deep down, is a combo of those two. Some of the other gods that I didn’t have a particular affinity for before, or even a dislike for– like Ares, and especially Apollo—have become favorites for me now that I’ve had the opportunity to really explore the way they think.

What was your greatest challenge in selecting, writing, and putting out these stories for young readers?

George O’Connor: Honestly, I don’t think it’s been that difficult. I don’t show any overt sex or nudity, and I tend to leave the more egregious instances of violence implied off-panel where, honestly, they have more impact conjured up in the imaginations of my readers than if I drew them in all their gory glory. But really, I never write down to my younger readers—they’re way too smart for that. The hardest part has just been editing for length—there’s so much I want to say about each goddess or god and I only have 80 pages to do so. A lot of myths have to get left on the cutting-room floor, so to speak.

If you re-wound time and were sitting with your editor with the knowledge you have now, would you do this project again?

George O’Connor: Oh yes, absolutely, a million times yes. Olympians really is my dream project. I’m so fortunate.

I know that asking you to pick a favorite is like asking a parent to pick a favorite child, but I’m going to ask: Do you have a favorite volume? Why is it your favorite?

George O’Connor: Man, that is a hard question. In the past I would have said Hera: The Goddess and Her Glory, because that’s the volume of Olympians during which I felt I grew the most as a writer (not to mention she’s one of my favorite gods). Now… hmm, that is hard! Maybe Hermes: Tales of The Trickster? Or Poseidon: Earth Shaker? Or Artemis: Wild Goddess of the Hunt? I guess I can’t actually choose. Let’s stick with Hera.

When do you expect to release the last volume of the Olympian series? Are you nervous or excited for the project to end?

George O’Connor: We’ve pushed back Dionysos a season while I work on a new project for adults, called Unrig. It’s written by Dan Newman and is an exploration of the many ways money corrupts and distorts our political system. It’s part of the new World Citizen Comics initiative from First Second. All that is my fancy way of saying I’m not actually one hundred percent sure when Dionysos will be coming out.

I heard you have a number of events coming up in the New York City-area. Can you tell us more?

George O’Connor: Yeah! My good buddy Mike Cavallaro has a new book that just came out from First Second called Nico Bravo and the Hound of Hades—Nico Bravo is a young boy who works in Vulcan’s Celestial Supply Shop, your one stop-shop for everything a goddess or god may need. And Vulcan, the owner of the shop? That’s the Roman name of Hephasistos—the same Hephaistos that’s the star of my latest volume of Olympians. So essentially, First Second had two different books about the same god come out in the same season, and on top of it, Mike and I are great friends. What are the odds of that? Pretty amazing, I think. So Mike and I decided to celebrate by doing a bunch of appearances together. We’re calling it the Forged in Fire: Mike Cavallaro Vs George O’Connor tour. We’re signing at a whole bunch of terrific independent bookstores in New York and New Jersey. You can see the full schedule at my website www.georgeoconnorbooks.com.

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Esther Keller About Esther Keller

Esther Keller is the librarian at JHS 278, Marine Park in Brooklyn, NY. There she started the library's first graphic novel collection and strongly advocated for using comics in the classroom. Her collection is also the model for all middle school libraries in NYC. She started her career at the Brooklyn Public Library, and later jumped ship to the school system so she could have summer vacation and a job that would align with a growing family's schedule. On the side, she is a mother of 4 and regularly reviews for SLJ and School Library Connection (formerly LMC). In her past life, she served on the Great Graphic Novels for Teens Committee where she solidified her love and dedication to comics.

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