As if the Ancient Greeks aren’t responsible for enough innovations that still influence modern art, music, sports, philosophy, and science, George O’Connor’s OLYMPIANS series is here to remind us that they also invented the comic book hero.
The series, which is now up to eight books, features myths from a different god or goddess in each volume. They feel simultaneously ancient and modern. Rather than take a page from Rick Riordan and create mythology-inspired fusions, O’Connor sticks to the tried and true traditional stories. This series is not only entertaining, but also useful as a teaching tool for elementary and middle school mythology units. Students can read these books in any order without losing value or meaning. In addition, the author’s notes and bibliography at the back of the book allow readers to dive more deeply into mythology after this series is complete.
In Apollo: The Brilliant One, the muses take turns telling stories about Apollo as a way of giving thanks to a statue in his likeness. This framing device allows for easy mini-chapter breaks and allows readers to see where one story ends and another begins. The muses also add an interpretive flair: the muses of comedy and tragedy argue whether a story of Apollo skinning a human for thinking he may be a better musician than Apollo is a cautionary tale or a case of dark humor.
The artwork here is mostly solids in muted colors, giving these stories a contemporary dark fantasy feel not unlike Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. O’Connor is a bit of a minimalist when it comes to setting, which works to his advantage when it comes to drawing non-existent places. The muses, in the frame story, are placed in a covered walkway against the stars that inspires a sense of vastness and awe in the readers.
O’Connor is also wise to keep his fight scenes simple. I have a tendency to skip fight scenes completely if I have a hard time tracking who is doing what, but when Apollo fought against the python I found myself slowing down because I was busy cheering for him. When the python is rising up to eat Apollo, we see almost nothing else aside from his huge, dark, body and his bright green mouth. Where’s Apollo? He’s a small speck off in the corner. But don’t worry too much, he’ll find a way to kill the python.
Apollo is at his best when he’s slaying beasts. But Greek mythology has a lot to say about Apollo when he is not at his best, that is, when he’s looking for love. O’Connor doesn’t stop to provide commentary on some of these troubling stories, but his art allows readers to pause and make their own interpretations. For example, he is in hot pursuit of a nymph named Daphne, who has declared herself to a life of being single. Apollo comes down to try to grab her as his bride, and the ferocity with which she grimaces, attempts to run away, and, when those tactics don’t work, pleas to Mother Earth shows that Apollo isn’t getting the message that no means no. However, as much as O’Connor squarely places my sympathy with Daphne, a victim of unwanted sexual advances, I also have to wonder about Apollo. What made him think his hot pursuit of her was acceptable behavior? Okay, I know he’s a god and all, but I’m still asking this question today when I read about stories of rape.
At the end of the stories, the nymphs close out the volume by commenting on Apollo: “And through it all, no matter what, he remains unbowed, unchanged, eternal. There is a sort of heroism in that.” The same could be said for the power of myths—even the stories that are problematic and upsetting have lasted thousands of years and deserve to be told and retold, though they are not beyond contemporary criticisms.
OLYMPIANS, vol. 8: Apollo: The Brilliant One
by George O’Connor
First Second, 2016
Publisher Age Rating: 8-12