The commonality between the Greek heroes and gods of myth and the twentieth century comic book superheroes has been noticed, expressed and remarked upon so many times that it has long since become a cliché.
It therefore shouldn’t come as much of a surprise how at home the Olympians are in the native medium of the superheroes, and yet George O’Connor’s Zeus: King of the Gods (First Second), is an amazingly graceful story. It may technically be an adaptation, but it reads like an original work.
Part of that may simply be a matter of the Zeus and company being comic book superheroes before there were comic books or superheroes, but much of it has to do with O’Connor’s execution, the choices he made while making the book—many of them risky, most of them very smart.
This is the first of a planned twelve-graphic novel cycle, each covering a different Olympian, and O’Connor starts with Zeus, giving him an opening for the ancient Greek creation myth, and the chance to present Zeus in a far different light than the one he’s usually seen in.
We’re most familiar with the character as a behind-the-scenes power, a supporting character in the stories of others (And only very rarely is the portrayal he’s given a flattering one). Here he is very much in the hero role; this is really his coming of age story. We learn of his origin, see him go on a quest and finally prevail against overwhelming odds.
O’Connor begins the story “In the time before time,” when the universe was nothing, just the white space of an un-illustrated comics page. Upon this is a circle, and the lettering reads “From out of Kaos, came Ge, or Gaia, our mother earth.”
The design of the cosmic entities become more an more human-like with each generation, from geometric shapes, to the mildly anthropomorphized horizons to, at the time of the Titans, mildly abstracted giants with clouds for heads, to the human-looking Olympians.
O’Connor spends the early part of the book on the creation of earth and the early family drama of Kronos and life in pre-history. Once Zeus is a young man and reveals himself to his father, the Titans and Olympians go to war, and Zeus must seek out his uncles the Cyclopes and claim the gifts he and his brothers need to defeat the Titans.
O’Connor’s art, which seems to vary from project to project, is here perfectly pared down to a level of detail in which there’s no wasted visual information; every shape and line is necessary, and there’s little in the way of filigree. It’s bold and simplified, but still dramatic and effective.
And then there are those choices.
Here’s his Atlas and some of the Titans, giants whose features are mostly hidden in shadow:
Here’s one of his Cyclopes, which probably look a lot different than the Cyclops you picture in your mind’s eye when you hear the word:
The fifty-headed, hundred-handed Hekatonchieres are similarly distinct in their design.
The story itself is followed by about ten pages of back matter, including Who’s Who/Marvel Handbook-style profiles of some of the players, recommended reading and footnotes.
All in all, it’s an all-ages book in the very best sense of the word—whether you’re reading these stories for the first time or the one hundredth, whether you’re a jaded grown-up or a wide-eyed youth, a comics lifer or a comics newcomer, there are a great many pleasures to be had here.