Zeus: King of the Gods by George O’Connor
If you are even slightly interested in mythology, you need to order immediately George O’Connor’s Olympians Series of graphic novels. The first six books that are out so far are stellar, and though you can read them in any order, it’s best to start with Zeus: King of the Gods. Books two through six are best if read in this order: Athena, Hera, Hades, Poseidon, and Aphrodite. I like these so much that I read them once by myself and once with my eight-year-old; I talked my eleven-year-old into reading one of them, and she devoured the rest of them without any more pushing on my part; I talked several parents into getting them for their children; and I strongly recommended to several librarians that they add the set to their collections as soon as they can.
These volumes have already become my favorite introductory books to Greek mythology. As an English professor, I’ve been compelled to seek out good books on mythology over and over again throughout the years as I read novels, plays, and particularly poetry that alludes to these myths. But after reading a poem alluding to Zeus or Athena, every single book I’ve found on mythology has paled in comparison, as if the gods had been brought down by the deadliest weapon possible — dry reference books. And I mean DRY reference books, not reference books, because I actually love reference books. But I have never found the reference book on mythology that satisfies me.
I remember as a kid I was given books on mythology with pictures — but I remember these being bland books as well. Bland pictures. Bland information. Now I know there MUST be some great books on mythology out there for kids (and for adults), but I just haven’t found them. The books either try to give so much information that the beauty of narrative or poetry is lost or the stories are watered down so much they cease to be of interest to anyone.
There are some exceptions, however: I think Rick Riordan has done a good job of making mythology fun and interesting to a younger generation, and he does so without sounding didactic or losing his focus on storytelling, but unlike O’Connor his books are not focused solely on the gods themselves. While Riordan creates his own fictional characters who interact with the gods, O’Connor writes solely of the characters from myth.
George O’Connor focuses on the gods for several reasons: He does so first for artistic reasons, and I think that’s why his books are so good. But he also has an educational goal to introduce young people (and even adults) to the Olympians: He includes excellent supplementary material that makes this educational purpose clear. Most importantly, however, he does not water down his story of Zeus. He does not speak down to his audience, but at the same time, he doesn’t lose his audience with too much information about Zeus. The best compliment I can give O’Connor’s Zeus is that it is simply a great graphic novel with a compelling narrative and beautiful, first-rate art.
The writing is as good as the artwork: The storytelling is precise and poetic. I don’t know how O’Connor managed to pick out just the right threads of Zeus’s story, but he did. When I heard about this book, I assumed the panels would be very text-heavy given the amount of information about Zeus that would need to be conveyed. But the author made a wonderful decision: He focused on telling a coherent story of Zeus and left much out. Anything he felt compelled to discuss but believed would bog down the story, he mentioned in the supplementary material. That method works brilliantly in Zeus and throughout the rest of the books in the series.
This supplementary material starts with “An Olympian Family Tree” on the inside cover of the book (which gets more complex with each book). Then in the back are the “G(r)eek Notes,” which give much more detailed information based on page and panel. There’s also an important “Author’s Note” in the back in which O’Connor explains why he made certain choices about the way he told the story. His notes are extremely important for getting us beyond the initial story, for understanding and enjoying the complexity of mythology. My eight-year-old and I will probably read each story several times more, but eventually, I hope to read him some (or all) of the author’s note once he understands the basic story. Only then can he appreciate the subtleties anyway. I look forward to that, so for me, we aren’t even close to being finished with these books.
For teachers and librarians, the “G(r)eek Notes” and “Author’s Note” will be much appreciated, but they will also really like the discussion questions and selective annotated bibliography. Perhaps especially useful are the recommendations given by O’Connor: They are broken down into two sections — “For Younger Readers” and “For Older Readers.” One of the librarians I showed this section to was particularly excited about having other good books on mythology recommended so that he could order them for the school along with O’Connor’s series.
Finally, the supplementary material is enhanced by a few one-page artistic pieces showing off the “stars” of the book and listing key information about that key character. In this first volume, we see Zeus, of course, as well as Cyclopes, Metis, and Kronos. These are great pages to look at, and if I taught younger kids, I’d probably want to cut them out and display them on the walls of the classroom. But you’d have to be careful how you did so or the book might fall apart. I wonder if the publisher (First Second) has made these and other related materials available to teachers? I would imagine they’d be in high demand.
Even if this book weren’t well-written, I’d still want to buy the book for the top-notch art. The coloring in particular really makes O’Connor’s drawing work for me. However, there is one thing about these books that I don’t love: Most of the covers. I don’t know exactly why the covers are not favorites of mine, but they just don’t work for me. I think that O’Connor’s art inside the book really springs to life because there is a contrast between the frequently darkish artwork and the white lines between the panels — this contrast really makes the art appear crisp. I know that seems to be a small detail, but I cannot find any other explanation for why I love the art inside the book but don’t respond as warmly to roughly the same art on the cover. I only mention this minor point because I don’t want anyone else to not buy the books because of a similar response to the covers.
As a forty-three-year-old college professor, I loved reading these books for my own sense of pleasure. And I recommend these books to other adults for their own libraries, even if there are no kids in the house. But if you do have kids in your life with whom you share books, you need to put these books at the top of your purchasing list. Zeus, and the entire Olympians Series, rate an easy five stars.