Monday, March 9, 2009

Getting Mythological with George O'Connor

“One of the best things to do in New York as a cartoonist is to get on the subway and draw,” George O’Connor said in his Gowanus, Brooklyn studio. It’s mid-day on a snow-blanketed Wednesday, and none of his studio mates are in. “Sometimes, not even if I’m drawing people but just the layouts, and I’m stuck. Whenever I have a moment of something I can’t work through on the story, I hop on the subway and go nowhere particular; something about it helps clear my head. You’ll meet characters and get some really cool feedback from people.

“Though, when I was on it the other day, some kid told me I was drawing some ugly-ass shit. I think she was like, twelve, and went ‘Oh, he’s just drawing some ugly ass shit!’ I was just drawing sketches,” he laughs.

The “ugly-ass shit” George was sketching for was The Olympians, his twelve-book series of god-like proportions that he’s working on for graphic novel publisher First Second. As we talk, he moves his brush about the penciled page, gradually crafting a foot, or a hand, or other details out with black ink from the lightly drawn grays of his pencils. The titanic battle between Greek God Zeus and the Titans is told in large panels cast with heavy blacks and an influence cocktail shaken and not stirred with Mignola and Kirby. The style is almost unrecognizable from O’Connor’s work on his prior graphic novel, Journey into Mohawk Country, which adapted a historical telling of a fur trader encountering Native Americans in the Manhattan of 1634.

“I love to read history, and am a big New York ethno-centrist,” George reflects as he dips his brush. “I’d read a book by Russel Shorto called The Island of the Center of the World, about the Dutch history of the island of New York. It’s a really great book, and one of the chapters mentions Harmen Bogaert, who wrote the text that I based off of for Mohawk Country.

“I went ‘Wow, that would be an awesome comic!’ People would never just go out to hunt out this really huge diary, but they could read this comic that told of this period of history that I’d never heard of, and I’m sure 99% of the people haven’t. About that time, Mark Siegel, who was the designer for two of my children’s book at Simon and Schuster, and was now editor at First Second, was looking for books and that non-fiction would be a plus. I immediately thought of Mohawk Country.”

Journey into Mohawk Country tells the story of Bogaert’s journey in clean lines and subtle tones, the art venturing into “cartoony” and appropriate for a younger audience. That O’Connor manages to keep the writings of a centuries-old document accessible and entertaining is no small feat. Unfortunately, coupled with his prior children’s books, Mohawk’s friendly and educational nature ran the risk of shoehorning O’Connor.

“The first time that I ever saw a copy of Mohawk Country, I had just gotten back from Rome and it was at The Strand in the kid’s section,” George recalls. I didn’t mean for it to be a kids’ book, though I did want it to be educational. I knew it would be in kids’ sections, too, but I didn’t think it would be pigeon-holed in that way.”

Fighting the typecasting, George focused on something extremely adult for his next project: Ball Peen Hammer, written by playwright and young adult novelist Adam Rapp.

“Mark Siegel said it’s the most disturbing book First Second is ever going to publish,” George notes while flipping through black and white printouts of the 130 finished pages. “It has child murderers, and all kind of fun stuff. It’s a very far departure, and probably not to where people can look at it and see this is the same guy who did Mohawk Country. It’s a good thing to have out there as a palette cleanser, though it’s probably not going to be very sweet tasting. It’s going to hopefully get people thinking of The Olympians as [not just for] all kids.”

Casting darker shadows and featuring a more violent ink line, Ball Peen seems like a natural visual bridge to the heavily blacked-in world of The Olympians. It’s just another step in O’Connor’s cleverly planned career path.

Within the next few years, there’s a distinct chance he’ll be casting longer shadows that stretch beyond the comic book and bookstores, and continue into classrooms and libraries. Which is appropriate, because he started with kids in mind…

“One of the reasons I turned my attention to kids’ books is that they were more reputable and had more of a business behind it at the time,” O’Connor says of his first children’s book, Kapow!, The New York Times bestseller that was conceived around 2000. “Marvel or DC, or some publisher who didn’t pay enough to live off of, seemed to be the only options with comics. Meanwhile, going through a children’s book publisher, there were so many companies publishing. Also, I was working at a children’s bookstore for years and had a lot of connections and met lots of editors.”

Described as his “Kirby for kids”, Kapow! follows the playtime of a pair of children, a boy who fantasizes being “American Eagle”, and a little girl who’s playing “Bug Lady”. The book flips between their actual playtime, drawn as cartoony kids, and their fantasy world, where they see themselves as ideal superheroes.

“It’s the language of comics with word bubbles and sound effects,” George says as an inked hand emerges from his Olympians page. “I was hoping this would turn kids onto comics, but of course kids’ books and comics have nothing to do with each other. I don’t know why, but it seems the kids’ book people don’t know how to get into the comic book people’s heads. Maybe now it’s different because, this is something that they could capitalize on more.”

George had moved to New York in ’95, and then briefly returned to his childhood home in Long Island for a year and a half, a move that he feels set his career back a bit. He moved back to New York in time to sell Kapow!. By the time all dozen of The Olympians books are finished, it’ll be roughly 800 pages and several years of George’s time. It’s a bold project, and one that comes back full circle to his childhood.

“Greek Mythology, in a very large way, turned me onto comics,” George notes. “I grew up in a very comics friendly household, where there was always old Superman. And Namor was also big in my house. I was already familiar with comic book characters when, in fourth grade, we did a lesson on Greek Mythology and I got really into it. I read all the books that they had in the library and, after reading all of the Greek ones, I got into Norse mythology and read all of those.

“And I remember getting this issue of Walt Simonson’s Thor and not knowing what to make of it, or how to wrap my head around it. That happens a lot when I meet something that I’m either going to love or hate, and it fell into the love category for this one. That was when Walt Simonson first came on and did the dragon Fafnir, and I got into the idea of comics and mythology. I think that, looking at the Olympians pages you can see how Walt Simonson was an influence.”

The Olympians is the classic high school comics/fantasy/mythology geek dream come true on steroids. O’Connor balances the ancient telling of the mythology with a modern and expressionistic art style, wrapping it in a package with a mass appeal to students, casual comics readers, and teachers and librarians.

“The classroom is great,” George says. “Kind of like with librarians, it helps to get the right teachers on your side. There’s so much you can make cool for the kids with comics. I’ve gone to a lot of schools for both my comics and kids’ books, and it’s so nice to go in there and talk to the kids and see what they’re about. They’re so into mythology. Once I mention The Olympians and show them the sketches, that’s all they want to talk about the whole time.”

O’Connor’s hitting at the right point with The Olympians. Since he first pitched Kapow!, the public perception of comics and “graphic novels” has reached an all-time high, with the format finally gaining the recognition it deserves as a storytelling medium. His ambitious series of a dozen books each follow a member of the Greek Pantheon, starting with Zeus, with about 68 pages of comics and non-fiction back-up material for the rest. O’Connor, however, is creating a package that is considered “appropriate” for the classroom.

“I’m being a little careful on how we approach some of Zeus’ sexual exploits,” George admits. “One of the things I can point out is a scene, early in the book, where Cronus castrates his father, the sky, Uranus. Rather than showing a castration, there’s a scene where he’s cutting open the sky, and it say that Uranus is ‘powerless and impotent’. It’s in there if you’re an adult, and you know.”

While Ball Peen Hammer is due out this October, and with Olympians, Volume I: Zeus coming out next Spring, George O’Connor has his hands more than full. With the exception of Ball Peen, his entire career has focused on creating material that kids could pick up (even if angled towards an older audience, as well).

“I like kids, but I don’t intend to have any, which makes people go ‘Huh?’, but I point out that Dr. Seuss didn’t have any children, either,” the soft-spoken O’Connor reveals.

“My father remarried and adopted three little girls, and that came at the age when I would’ve been feeling the urge, but I think that being around it so much cured me of it. My brother and sister, too, none of us have kids. It’s a joke in the family that the O’Connor line is dying off. I love kids, but I like to be able to sleep a full night through,” he laughs as his brush builds up one more line along Zeus’ powerful figure.

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