Cartoonist George O'Connor: Bringing History to Life through Comics
George O’ Connor is a New York Times bestselling author of several children’s books, including Kapow, Sally and the Some-Thing, and Uncle Bigfoot. His first graphic novel, Journey Into Mohawk Country, uses the journal of 17th century Dutch trader Harmen Meyndertsz van den Bogaert as its sole text. This journal is one of the earliest accounts of the Iroquois people in the area of what is now known as New York.
O’ Connor’s current project is The Olympians, a New York Times Bestselling series of graphic novels retelling classic Greek myths in graphic novel form. We reviewed them here.
How did you first get involved with comics?
George O’Connor: Both of my parents were very comic-friendly, so I grew up with a lot of comics in the house. There were a lot of Marvel
comics and a lot of Archie,
stuff like that. Comic strips were also huge in my family. We were really into Calvin and Hobbes
Love Calvin and Hobbes! You’re working on The Olympians graphic novel series right now. What inspired you to recreate Greek myths in graphic novel format?
When I was in third grade we studied Greek mythology for the first time, and I really, really got into Greek mythology. I read everything I could find in the library that was age appropriate at that point.
I moved into other mythologies, and then when I was in about sixth grade I was home sick from school one day. My mom, as she would often do when I was sick, bought me a comic book to read. She bought me Mighty Thor
. It was during this one particular run by this guy Walt Simonson that was really very mythologically influenced, and that was one of the first comics where I was like, "Oh, check this out! This is mythology and comics all together!”
I think I drew my first comic then, which is actually a retelling of Ragnarok, the death of the Norse gods.
Some of it's online, but I did a comic called the Thunderers
, which was like Viking superheroes back in the day. But I was always more of a Greek mythology fan than Norse fan, so I eventually switched over to being a Greek mythology guy again.
The illustrations from The Olympians graphic novel series are incredible. Are you inspired by any classical art when you're creating them, or is it all from your imagination?
I decided early on I wanted Olympians
to be very...to have a lot of educational value. You're always going to come up with something better than what you could do with just your pure imagination if you do a bit of research. I kind of like that collective knowledge of everything that came before you.
I would read immense amounts when I was starting the series, but for each book I'll read every myth I can find. It has to be an original myth. It has to be something by somebody who was Greek or Roman, or otherwise believed in these gods. I try not to read other people's retellings because everybody puts a spin on it.
I purposely put spins on the stories too, but I don't want to accidentally steal somebody else's spin. I'll read everything. I'll make notes about any detail they would give about the appearance of the gods in the stories, which they're actually pretty loathe to do for the most part. It makes sense. They're shape-shifters.
True! Good point!
I'll build off of those descriptions. Like in my Poseidon
book I think a lot of people think of Poseidon as having a fishtail, white hair, and a beard. But he doesn't have a fishtail in any of the myths, and it's mentioned often that he has dark hair. They say it even looks like seaweed, so my Poseidon is a young hero looking guy. He's got seaweed hair, and he's got eyes the color of the sea because that's another detail they give about him.
He doesn't have a long beard because I discovered drawing the long seaweed beard on a guy makes him look gross. He's like a zombie one of the Duck Dynasty guys or something. Instead he just got this long seaweed mustache. He's a proud god. He likes the way he looks. He wouldn't have seaweed hanging off his face.
Ha! It seems a lot of your work like the Journey into Mohawk Country and the Olympians connect really well with social studies curriculum in middle schools and high schools. What role do you think graphic novels have in the classroom these days?
Man, I wouldn't have the career I have if it weren't for the fact that teachers have become enormously accepting of graphic novels, and librarians too. It's amazing. When I got out of college, I went into kids’ books first because I didn't want to spend my life drawing superhero comics. I wanted to be able to tell my stories, but there really wasn't a market yet. But schools and libraries have turned around, and they've realized what a valuable tool graphic novels can be.
My first big graphic novel was Journey into Mohawk Country
. I'd read this book by Russell Shorto called Island at the Center of the World
about Dutch Manhattan, or Dutch New York rather. It was really cool, and in the notes they have this bit about the journal of Harmen Meyndertsz van den Bogaert, the guy who wrote Journey into Mohawk Country
. So I read that, and I'm like this is such a cool first person document that is out there, has been out there for years, and nobody knows about it! I’m like, but if I do this as a graphic novel I think people would be tricked into reading it!
Yeah, absolutely! Do you think it makes some historical material more accessible to younger audiences when done in a graphic novel form?
Oh, definitely. Yeah, and not just younger audiences. Any audience, but especially younger audiences. One of the things that I love too about writing for young audiences with graphic novels is you don't have to speak down to them at all. I make no effort to simplify my language or anything like that because graphic novels are words and pictures working together in tandem.
You're really free to go pretty sophisticated in language because there will be so many clues in the artwork that a reader can pick up on. There’s pretty sophisticated vocabulary in all of my books. My editorial team and I’ve never made any efforts to “kid it down” because there's just no need to.
If anything I feel like kids have a greater natural ability to understand polysyllabic names at that age. Kids are so much better at rattling off the Greek names or dinosaur names than adults are. It's something about that at that age they can really glom onto.
Totally. I've often wondered why the Greek names aren't more popular in modern culture. Why we don't see more people named after these characters?
I meet quite a few at my signings. I guess it's just those type of people who will be the ones more interested. I wish I had a name like that. George is so boring. I would like Dionysus.
Yes! My daughter’s actually named after a character from Greek mythology. Her name is Nephele.
She was a cloud nymph who was made by Zeus from a cloud in the likeness of Hera.
Oh, yeah! The ones to fool Ixion!
She’s really into comics and a challenge for me has been able to find comics that are age-appropriate because sometimes something looks like it might be, and then you really dig into it and it's a little bit above her age-level. I know you published some bestselling picture books like Kapow and Uncle Bigfoot. What was it like trying to write for a really young audience in a comic format?
Honestly in a way that is harder for me. Picture books, they have to be...a lot of people don't realize this, but virtually every picture book is thirty-two pages, including the front and back cover.
They could go up in increments of eight pages because of paper signatures, but essentially you have to tell an entire story, make it have an arc, make it interesting, and make it age-appropriate in thirty-two pages.
And you don't really have thirty-two pages. At most you have thirty pages. It's really hard. Also the age with which kids read picture books, adults have been steadily shrinking that for years, because there's kind of a badge of honor in having your kid read harder books. “My eight-year-old read Harry Potter!” There's such a short period of time where they can enjoy picture books.
You're creating these picture books and you’re competing with some real stellar classics that have been out there forever. Picture books, in general, is just a very tricky art form. It's very related to comics. It's the only other one that is really such a close synthesis of words and pictures.
They're remarkably sophisticated. To really do it well is a really hard thing. I've got to say I think I have an easier time writing the graphic novels for older kids where there's not quite so many limitations. I'm able to go off into little digressions and have a little bit more room to breathe, whereas with a picture book - every word and every word line has to count.
What kind of advice would you give to kids or teenagers who are interested in writing comics and graphic novels?
Oh, I've got a lot of advice. One thing is to get a dedicated sketch book to draw in. Don't just draw in your math notebook or your writing notebook. Get a dedicated comics notebook and write or draw in it everyday, even if it's only for a few minutes just so you never go cold.
Never be embarrassed about what's in it. I really want to emphasize it's a sketchbook and not a "perfect work of art book". Draw in it, write in it, jot down anything. Draw it quickly and if you screw it up, just draw it quickly again because you'll do better the second time. Never be embarrassed or pressured about your work, especially when you're in high school because you're still learning.
My sketchbook is a hot mess. I'll draw the same drawing six times sometimes before I get it to the point where I will like it. That would be my biggest advice. Carry something with you to draw in, do it every day, and never be embarrassed to make a mistake or share with people because that's just the way you're going to learn.
Earlier you mentioned how the market changed when teachers and librarians really started bringing comics and graphic novels into the classroom. Where do you see the comic book industry heading next?
The subject matter of it is just going to keep expanding outwards and outwards. If you go back fifteen years ago there wasn't nearly as wide a breadth of different subjects being covered in comics. Every year there's just more and more different subjects being covered, and there's so much room for it to grow still. For so many years, the comic industry was just superheroes. Now it's so much more than that.
Another thing that you're already seeing happening is there are more and more female creators. Comics were very much a boy's club for many years, again superhero ages, but I used to teach comics. Right from the beginning I had as many female students as male students, and at the end I had way more female students than male students. Women have come into the industry in a huge way, and that's going to transform it even further.
Any future projects on the horizon?
Work continues on Olympians
. I'm just finishing up the last bit of coloring on the eighth volume, which is about Apollo. That one's really fun. It's a bunch of short stories about Apollo telling different aspects of his personality, different myths. Each of them is narrated by one of the nine muses, and it's narrated in the form of art associated with that muse. One story's written in iambic pentameter, one story's acted out in mime. It's a real mind bender for me to get behind, but I'm having a lot of fun with this story.
And after that I'm working on Artemis, his twin sister.
I'm so glad I came across The Olympians. They’re perfect for the middle school classroom and could be used at the high school level for teachers using Homer’s Illiad or Odyssey. I find that the graphic novels are also great for English Language Learners. They often don’t study Greek mythology or ancient Greece in their earlier education, so I find that graphic novels can really help them to have that background information and get the allusions when we jump into The Odyssey in ninth grade. I'm so excited to come across your work.
That's really cool. I didn't even mention that, but when I first started working on this series I moved to Italy for a little bit and I didn't speak Italian at all, but I taught myself to read Italian by reading Italian comic books.
Comics are such a great tool in America for ELL students because there are so many cues in the artwork about what's going on, that you can really piece it together. If there are words you don't know, you can figure out through context much easier than you could just through text.
Well, this was so fun to nerd out on Greek mythology. I don't get to do that very often with other adults.
I feel like I nerded out pretty hard. I hope you can use some of my jibber jabber.