Monday, February 3, 2014

A Visit From the Myth Maker

Graphic novelist George O’Connor is crazy about mythology, and by the end of his recent program at my library, the roomful of participants – many of them kids – were totally caught up in his enthusiasm.

To be fair, most of those present already were fans of mythology, but they still were riveted by George’s hilarious, energetic presentation of how he creates his award-winning “Olympians” graphic novel series on Greek gods and goddesses. (George’s presentation was part of our series of programs co-hosted with Politics & Prose Bookstore, an independent bookstore in Washington, D.C.

George began his program by showing a self-portrait in which his head is exploding. “That’s how I feel on the days when I know I have to write,” George laughed, noting that he feels much more confident as an artist. “In the fourth grade,” he said, “I was the guy who likes to draw and the guy who likes to write. I especially liked to draw when the teacher was trying to teach us math!

 Once George discovered mythology, he couldn’t get enough of it. “I read every book of mythology I could get my hands on,” he said. George also developed an early love of comics, something he shares with his parents who, he says, “have always liked comic books.” George published his first graphic novel, for adults, in 2006. Titled “Journey Into Mohawk Country,” it was based on the 1634 journal of explorer Harmen Meyndertsz van den Bogaert. "Journey" drew critical praise, and a feature in The New York Times on how George developed the artwork. That book was followed in 2009 by “Ball Preen Hammer,” written by playwright Adam Rapp and featuring George’s artwork.

In 2010, George finally got to combine his two loves – mythology and comics – with his debut graphic novel for kids with “Zeus,” the first of his projected 12-book series on the Greek gods, “The Olympians,” published by the award-winning comics publisher First Second. My colleague Dave Burbank, our library’s resident graphic novel expert, says that, while George remains faithful to mythology in the books, he “nevertheless finds new angles to tell these stories, often from the perspective of the gods themselves.”

“Aphrodite,” the sixth book in the series was just published, and once again won kudos from professional library journals, with School Library Journal calling it “another strong addition to a great series.” But the main point is my young patrons love these books. Some kids are drawn to them because of they’re fans of the mythology-fueled “Percy Jackson” books written by Rick Riordan, while others mainly are mythology lovers, who really dig into the additional information and references that George includes in each volume. In addition, the graphic novel format of the books, especially the action-packed scenes that George draws so well, appeals to our reluctant readers, the kids who normally aren’t much interested in books.

 In person, George is kinetic, jumping around to make a point about how Poseidon, for example, suddenly transforms from a “super cool dude to a terrifying guy in 20 seconds. George readily connects with his young fans, and they were rapt as he talked about his decision to eschew the typical vision of Zeus as an old man and instead pictures the god as a cross between actor Liam Neeson and “a 21-year-old cool surfer dude from California.” The kids laughed when George said that “Aphrodite” was his favorite book to draw so far “because I drew nothing but pretty ladies all the time.”

George also tested the kids' knowledge of Greek mythology by quizzing them on who was who in a new "family portrait" that he's drawn of the Greek gods and goddesses. The kids passed the test with flying colors, something that impressed but didn't surprise George, who does a lot of school and library visits and sees mythology fans everywhere. The kids (and adults), meanwhile, were fascinated by George's presentation on how he creates the illustrations for the books, beginning with a "scribble scrabble mess" and ending with superbly drawn and colored artwork.

Besides “Zeus” and “Aphrodite,” the books in the series include “Athena,” “Hera,” “Hades,” and “Poseidon.” George says he’s just completed his seventh book in the series, “Ares,” in which he pictures the god of war as a “blood-dripping Ares.” That book likely will be published later this year, George said, adding that he’ll begin work next on “Apollo.”

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