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Olympians: Zeus, King of the Gods
Written and Illustrated by George O’Connor
First Second; $9.99
When I was putting together my picks for What Looks Good for April last week, I left out a book. I probably left out a bunch of them – that’s the nature of that kind of column – but one that I know I left out was First Second’s Olympians, Athena: The Grey-Eyed Goddess. I hadn’t started reading Zeus, King of the Gods yet and didn’t know what to expect from the sequel. Should’ve known, because it’s First Second and I’ve never disliked anything they’ve published, but I erred on the side of caution and left it out. And err I did. Having read Zeus now, I can’t wait for Athena.
At the end of last year, I talked about how Demons of Sherwood revived my love for medieval adventure. There’ve been a few projects like that lately that have reminded me why I used to love something as a kid. George O’Connor’s Zeus has done that for Greek Mythology. It perfectly walks the microbe-thin line between faithfully retelling the myths and embellishing them for the sake of entertainment. As much as I appreciate books like Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, they’re pretty dry accounts of these stories and rely on the inherent adventure in the tales for most of the excitement. At the other end of the spectrum are countless books and movies that just take the characters and tell new stories with them without any regard for the originals. Those are fun, but they’re not mythology, you know?
Taking most of its material from Hesiod’s Theogony, O’Connor’s account tells the story of Zeus up to his overthrow of his father Kronos and the foundation of the Pantheon on Olympus. Zeus actually begins much earlier than that though, starting with the creation of Gaea, the world, and following her creation of her mate, Ouranos, the sky, and the birth of their children, the Titans, including Kronos. I’ve always glossed over this story in my readings of the Greek myths. It’s too big; too epic. The characters – the earth, sky, and time itself – are too inhuman. I always skipped ahead to Zeus’ arrival. A lightning-hurling, shape-changing king of all the gods … that I was interested in.
The redemption of Time and Cyclops after the break.
But O’Connor makes the first part interesting too. He forms the narrative in an fun way – majestic, but not stodgy – but most of the work is done through the illustrations. I think a big part of my lack of interest in Kronos and Company in the past was in trying to visualize them. I mean, really, why even put forth the effort when they’re onstage for such a short period of time? Kronos is Time, so just imagine him as an old man in a toga holding a sickle and you’re done. Boring, but efficient.
O’Connor spends more time on it than that so you don’t have to. Kronos is an enormous, shadowy figure with skin the color of dark clay. His hair is made of billowing, rust-colored clouds. When he opens his eyes and mouth, you can see the stars. His sickle isn’t a farming tool, it’s a moon-shaped weapon. I don’t know what all the symbolism is – or even if there is any in every detail – but boy it’s fun to look at.
Same with the Cyclopes. These are usually my least-favorite monsters, and only partly because of their association with that tedious Scott Summers. It’s hard to make giant, one-eyed men look anything but ridiculous, but O’Connor does it. They look like aliens from a ‘50s sci-fi movie, only scary and threatening. They’re definitely guys you’re relieved to have on your side.
Likewise the hundred-handed, fifty-headed Hekatonchieres. That design could have been a ludicrous disaster, but O’Connor makes it disturbing and fearsome. Throughout the book, he creates just the right look to evoke just the right feeling we’re supposed to have about these creatures and characters and it all feels fresh.
Hera isn’t instantly unlikable and shrewish. She’s beautiful and – though we don’t spend a lot of time with her just yet – kind of charming. Gaea is the earth, so O’Connor doesn’t personify her. She speaks from cracks in the ground, just like she did for the oracles at Delphi. Zeus isn’t another old man with a long, white beard. He’s a young, handsome, blonde with a goatee. He’s also funny, brave, and quick. We can see why so many women wanted to have sex with him.
That’s what’s so amazing about the book. Thanks to O’Connor’s artistic chops and storytelling skills, it’s faithful to the mythology, but puts the reader right there in the action. You witness how clever Zeus is and how that and his control over his shape-changing make him a powerful leader even before – in a thrilling, memorably dramatic moment – he receives his command over lightning. His final battle with Kronos is awesome and earth-shattering, literally and figuratively.
Like any good, educational book, Zeus also has lots of back-up material like Notes, a Bibliography, and a Discussion Guide. Even these are fun. Notes include useful facts like the choices O’Connor made in name-spellings as well as further teasing hints at future stories (just what was that pink foam that Ouranos created in the sea?) and geeky tidbits like the connection between Kronos’ sickle and Wolverine’s claws. The Discussion Guide has serious, thought-provoking questions alongside ones like, “Zeus’ dad tries to eat him. Has your dad ever tried to eat you?”
The whole thing is a blast and a pleasure to read. And best of all, there are eleven more volumes coming.
Five out of five giant, one-eyed monsters