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This morning over at Kirkus, I take a look at two picture book debuts. These are debuts in the sense that they come from two illustrators who previously have not written their own books. Yup, they’re branching out on their own now, both writing and illustrating for the first time, and I happen to think the results are good. The link is here this morning.
Last week, I posted an abbreviated Q & A with George O’Connor, the creator of the Olympians series from First Second Books. These are graphic novels about the gods and goddesses of Greek mythology, and O’Connor loads ’em up with vibrant art, snappy dialogue, and rip-roarin’ action.
Below is the full interview (and just below here is George at his computer, “trying to look busy,” he says), complete with some illustrations and sketches. I thank George for stopping by.
Jules: I’ve read in more than one review that these Olympians titles are great for so-called reluctant readers. Your thoughts on that?
George: I think that’s great. The combination of pictures and words makes for an incredibly valuable teaching tool. From my own experience, I grew up reading comics strips, like Bloom County and Calvin and Hobbes, that used some immensely sophisticated vocabulary that could have gone way over my head, but the combo of pictures and context helped me to read well above the level I would have been capable of otherwise.
I think a lot of readers who might look at a block of written text will dismiss it as too difficult to read, but might read the exact same text spread out over a graphic novel—that was kind of the whole idea behind my first graphic novel, Journey into Mohawk Country, which used as its sole text the complete journal of Harmen Meyndertsz van den Bogaert, a 17th century Dutch explorer. His text was always out there—anyone could find it and read it—but I think a lot more people have read it as a graphic novel than would have otherwise.
Jules: How do you feel about the resurgence in the past several years of graphic novel titles, which seem to be more popular than ever?
George: I’m not sure “resurgence” is the term I’d use — it makes it sound as if graphic novels had previously reached this level and retreated. Like you said, they seem to be more popular than ever. They’ve moved into uncharted territory regarding their mainstream popularity and acceptance, particularly by librarians and teachers. Is “surgence” a word?
So, with that being said, I love it. I grew up always wanting to be a creator of both comics and picture books, but when the time came to try and break in to the business, I went for picture books first, because comics as a medium seemed to have a hard time being taken seriously. For so many years, the only way to make a viable living at it was to draw superhero books. (Not that there’s anything wrong with them.) Now, in incredibly short order (and I credit this largely to the teachers and librarians coming aboard), comics have blossomed into this amazing field that just a few years ago would have seemed impossible. I feel very fortunate to be making comics at this point of time, when such a wide variety of subjects and styles are being explored and published. It’s a new golden age, comics-wise.
Jules: I love all the source notes at the close of each Olympians title (the “G
reek Notes”), and School Library Journal even wrote about Athena: “The author’s affection for his subject is evident in a chatty note.” Are they as fun to write as they look?
George: Wow, that can really depend. At heart, there is probably nothing in this world I love more than writing and drawing about the Greek myths. I, like many little boys, had always loved to draw pictures of muscle men fighting monsters, and when I was first introduced to the myths in fourth grade, they, by default, became my favorite thing to draw — and have pretty much remained that way until now. I’m also like the geekiest guy you’ll ever meet (and I mean that in a good way) and I just love hiding all these little Easter eggs in my books to reward the careful readers. There’s a lot more stuff in each volume of Olympians than is even spelled out in my “G
reek Notes.” If I listed everything I included in a book, the G reek Notes would be, like, twice as long at least.
However, trying to distill these old, wonderful stories into approximately 65 pages of comics—with a point-of-view, and a story arc, and relatable characters, etc., etc.—well, sometimes, that is incredibly difficult. When the story flows out of me easily, like it did when I wrote Zeus: King of the Gods, it’s indescribably wonderful — there’s a sort of magic in it. I can feel the story come together. Connections form between the threads of these old tales that I didn’t realize were to be found going in, and it strengthens the whole story.
Page (without text) from Zeus: King of the Gods (First Second, 2010)
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On the other hand, other times that magic is harder to find. I’m experiencing a bit of that right now as I work on the fifth Olympians book, Poseidon: The Yet to be Subtitled. Just yesterday, with pretty much the whole book laid out in thumbnails, I came to the long overdue realization that the story just wasn’t where I wanted it to be. I had to make some brutal cuts, jettisoning a few sequences THAT I REALLY WANTED TO DRAW, DARN IT, repurposing some other parts, and totally changing the narrator. I think it’s going to work better now, but it’s maybe too soon to tell. Writing is the hardest part of the whole bookmaking experience for me, no doubt.
Jules: What is your research like for each title?
George: At the beginning of a new book, I spend like a month or two just reading all the original sources I can that pertain to the god or goddess in question. I am very well versed in Greek mythology in general, but there’s always new things to learn or old misconceptions to clear up by reading the original writings. A lot of what we think we know about the Greek gods has been caricaturized by later retellings of the myths — these characters are some much bigger, so much more expansive when you read about them in the context of the societies that really believed in them.
After all that reading, I spend another couple of months doodling key scenes and writing snippets of script until something approaching a cohesive story starts to materialize out of the jumble. I really like to let my books steep for a long time in the stew of research.
Jules: Tell me about your medium-of-choice on these Olympians titles.
George: I have a healthy mix of old-school and new technology coming together to create the artwork for Olympians. All of the original artwork is drawn in pencil and then inked with pens and brushes on Bristol plate. The size of the original artwork is maybe 10” by 15” or so and includes hand-drawn dialogue bubbles but not panel borders. I scan this artwork and add the colors and panel borders (as well as correct any glaring artwork errors) in Photoshop. I give these files, and First Second designer Colleen Venable lays the text into the hand drawn bubbles, and it’s done.
and exchanged their vows.”
(First Second, July 2011)
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Jules: What’s next for you? Will there be more Olympians titles after Hades? Any more picture books or (non-Olympians) graphic novels in the works for you?
George: Well, if all goes according to plan, there will be twelve total books in the Olympians series. As I already mentioned, I’m hard at work on book 5, Poseidon, to be followed up by Aphrodite. I also have a couple of picture books coming out from Candlewick Press, If I Had a Triceratops and If I Had a Raptor, that both play on my other great childhood obsession, dinosaurs, and that I’m very excited about. The first of those is supposed to be coming out some time next year.
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All images are copyright © George O’Connor and reproduced with his permission. All OLYMPIANS titles published by First Second Books, New York.