If there’s any boom at all happening in the comics market right now, it seems to be occurring in the all-ages market, where publishers like First Second, Toon Books, Scholastic, and others have found, if not best-seller success, at least an eager audience.
To my mind one of the most interesting people working in the all-ages field right now is George O’Connor. For one thing, while he’s always been a fan of the medium, he came into the industry sideways, via a series of children’s books, starting off with the best-selling Kapow!
From there, he hooked up with Mark Siegel at First Second and produced Journey Into Mohawk Country, an adaptation of a centuries-old look at Iroquois life that’s perhaps most notable for the way O’Connor attempts to bring a modern sensibility to the story without corrupting the source text.
From there he switched over to the much darker Ball Peen Hammer, showing he was fully capable of producing work for a more adult audience without pandering. He’s currently in the midst of an ongoing series adapting Greek myths, The Olympians.
It’s the tension in O’Connor’s work — adapting his style, be it the loose cartoonishness of Mohawk or the sketchy grit of Hammer, to properly fit the material — that makes it so interesting. In the Olympians series, he’s clearly attempting to modernize these classic stories for a modern, all-ages audience, yet he just as clearly wants to hew as close to the original material as possible, even if that means refusing to shy away from more adult aspects of the myths. It’s a balancing act that gives the series some decided bite and keeps them from being yet another weak “Zeus = superhero” allusion that tends to dominate these sorts of projects.
I talked to O’Connor over e-mail over the past few months, about his career and the delicate artistic balancing act he frequently walks. I found him to be extremely forthcoming and thoughtful about his and am grateful for the time he spent answering my long-winded questions.
Let’s start with the usual biographical information. Where did you grow up and when did you first become interested in comics?
I grew up on Long Island, in a little town called Nesconset (part of a little township called Smithtown).
My household was always very comics friendly. My mom in particular had a bunch of old Superman and Jimmy Olsen comics. I read comics like Conan, Hulk, G.I. Joe, etc., but as for what I wanted to do when I grew up, I was more likely to think of myself doing comic strips or picture books (and in fact, I did break into picture books before comics). I was super into Calvin and Hobbes, Bloom County, The Far Side, Where the Wild Things Are — stuff like that.
When I was in fourth grade my class did an extended section on Greek mythology. I was always the kid who would be sitting in class, drawing muscle men fighting scary monsters in the margins of my paper instead of paying attention, and now, all of a sudden, I was studying muscle men fighting monsters. It ignited my love of mythology, and soon I’d read every age-appropriate book on Greek mythology in the library.
From there I spread out into reading about other mythologies, like Norse and Egyptian. A few years after that, maybe around 7th grade, I was home sick one day and my mom brought me a copy of Walt Simonson’s Mighty Thor. I remember just staring at that book for hours, trying to figure out whether I loved it or hated it. Eventually I came down on the side of loving it, not the least of which was because of the way it handled the mythology of Thor. He wasn’t just a superhero, he was a god right out of Edith Hamilton. After that, I started drawing lots of superheroes, and I decided I wanted to be a comic book artist (in addition to being a cartoonist and a children’s book author, of course).
How did you make the transition from fan to professional artist?
Some time in my junior high years I drew a long form comic called “The Thunderers” about a team of super-powered Vikings battling the supernatural forces of evil. As I was initially more of a newspaper comics fan, it was designed as a weekly Sunday type book, and I wore my influences very openly on my sleeve. Just the fact that it was about superhero Vikings shows that huge Simonson Thor influence on me, and as I recall, the big bad guy was a skull-head à la Skeletor from He-Man, and one of his lieutenants was a pretty blatant copy of Major Bludd from G.I. Joe. I was obviously a child of the ‘80s.
In high school, well, I guess superhero comics just weren’t as cool, because I drifted over to my newspaper influences more. I did this very egotistical comic for my high school newspaper called “The Deranged Artist”, starring me, and I would draw a lot of silly little comics for and about my friends, as well as a few children’s books that are now (probably fortunately) lost. But throughout it all, I knew that using some combo of pictures and words to tell stories was how I wanted to spend the rest of my life, and after graduation I went to school at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn for illustration.
Like a lot of people, I made the transition from fan to pro very gradually. My first couple of summers while a student at Pratt I worked drawing comics for this company on Long Island called Revolution Comics. It was mostly biographical comics of the celebrity of the day, and also some really terrible porn comics. I did a lot of this stuff under pseudonyms I no longer remember, though I do recall getting one book into print under the name Benjamin Dover. Funny!
While at Pratt I got a job working at Books of Wonder, a children’s bookstore in Manhattan (it was the basis for Meg Ryan’s bookstore in You’ve Got Mail). Books of Wonder was great in that working there was almost like a paid internship to learn about the kids book industry. I got to meet and talk to tons of published authors and illustrators and editors, but I was young and insecure, and even though I had far better connections in the kids book world, I kept trying to break into comics because that seemed like it would be easier. I did illustrations for a few small-press kids books, but I kept cranking out samples for Marvel and DC that went nowhere. The stuff I was drawing in my samples for the Big Two was just so different from what was being published at the time that it’s no wonder that I never broke in. I was drawing these weird Namor and Spider-Woman samples (ironically, both those characters are really popular now, but at the time, not so much) and sending them off, but I really lacked the basic confidence to properly follow through on potential jobs. In the few instances when I would get an editor interested in my stuff, it seemed like they would be fired shortly thereafter. This was in the nineties, and I had been disgorged from college just in time for the big ‘90s comics bust.
Finally, I was like, “Screw you, comics! All I like anymore is Love and Rockets anyways!” I spent a few years just honing my drawing and not submitting much of anything. I worked on an idea for a syndicated newspaper strip, just in time for newspaper comics to die, and finally, finally I had the idea to try breaking into kids books. After some years away, I had recently returned to working at Books of Wonder and noticed that there was a dearth of good picture books about superheroes. I wrote Kapow! and sold it to Simon & Schuster in the early 2000s.
You mentioned Love and Rockets. Were there any other comics that were influencing you at this particular point in time? Had you become exposed to the alt-comix scene at this point?
I dabbled in the alt comics scene here and there, but the only comic book I read regularly through this period beside Love and Rockets was Sandman, and even that ended in the mid-nineties. I should mention that a big part of the reason that I cut back on so much comics was financial — as a struggling bookseller/illustrator living in the city, I didn’t have a lot of extra cash to blow. Toward the end of the nineties and early 2000s I started picking up comics more regularly again. A friend introduced me to Planetary, which was probably the first new book I had gotten into for awhile. I remember a lot of the stuff that Marvel began putting out early in the Joe Quesada era, particularly Spider-Man’s Tangled Web, was very appealing to me, and I finally got into Hellboy a little late.
As I recall, Kapow! got a pretty strong and positive reception. What was it like to get that sort of acclaim right out of the gate? What did the success of that book lead to for you?
Kapow! did have a pretty good reception—It hit the New York Times bestseller list for picture books, and that was pretty cool. If nothing else, I get to add “New York Times Bestselling Author” to the front of my name for the rest of my life. That being said, I think being on the Times bestseller list in the picture book category is a far cry from being on the list for, say, novels. For starters, the numbers actually sold were not all that high, really, and the amount of attention is similarly scaled down—it got me some notice in picture book circles, but not much beyond that, especially, to my surprise at the time, in comics circles. I had thought that the comics community would be more … appreciative of this picture book that was essentially a love letter to good old-fashioned superhero comics. Heck, I even dedicated it to all the old Golden and Silver Age comics creators whose characters I drew on, but it seems very few people in comics ever heard of Kapow!
The success of Kapow! did lead to my almost immediately doing a sequel, Ker-Splash! (which unfortunately didn’t do as well). While I was at Simon & Schuster I was still very new and green to the business, and they have such an enormous list of books, that I had a hard time getting noticed there. I, like a lot of first time authors, didn’t realize how much I still had to work it. I was a small fish in an enormous pond. I jumped publishers to Roaring Brook where I published Sally and the Some-Thing and Uncle Bigfoot, and that was a much better fit for me. I was still a pretty small fish, but the pond had shrunk considerably as well.
How did you become involved with First Second?
While I was still at S&S, the designer who had been attached to my books was Mark Siegel. He was known as the comic-book guy around their office, and since I was the comic-book picture-book guy, they put us together, and we hit it off immensely. Around that time, Mark had pitched an idea for a graphic novel imprint to S&S that they ultimately passed on, but since he had already done the work for it, he had this entire pitch ready to go, and in a fun bit of serendipity, he ended up finding a home for it at Roaring Brook, who was the same publisher I recently had switched to for my picture books. That imprint, after a million other names that didn’t catch, eventually became First Second, and knowing my comic-book proclivities Mark asked me to pitch something. “Non-Fiction would be great,” he said.
OK, so how did that lead to the creation of Journey into Mowhawk Country? How did you come across the original text and what made you decide to try to adapt it into comics? What did you hope your adaptation would bring to the story?
When I’m reading for my own amusement I tend to read nonfiction stuff. At the time, I had recently read Russell Shorto’s excellent history of the Dutch period of New York history called The Island at the Center of the World, and in it he had mentioned the account of Harmen Meyndertsz van den Bogaert. For those who don’t know, van den Bogaert was a 23-year-old barber/surgeon living in what is now Albany, who made an expedition 100 miles into the interior of the country in 1634 and, to cut to the chase, basically insured that New York City would exist as we know it by working out a trade deal with the Mohawk and Oneida Indians. Among other things, it’s one of the earliest accounts we have of the Iroquois people, save for a few brief mentions elsewhere. Shorto’s encapsulation of it sounded very interesting, so I hunted down a copy of his journal, a translation by Charles Gehring and William Starna published by Syracuse University Press.
I read it and loved it. It was this amazing view into a vanished world and it was virtually unknown here by virtue of originally being written in Dutch. In this country we tend to gloss over the whole Dutch period of colonization, and focus almost entirely on the British. When Mark Siegel mentioned that he was looking for nonfiction graphic novel pitches, I immediately thought, “Hey, here’s this primary historical document, full of imagery and action and drama. I bet I could trick people into reading this if I make it into a graphic novel. The text was even the right length—without having to cut a word, it was just the right length to become a 140-page graphic novel. Which of course, it did.
Aside from making a primary historical source a more palatable read, I hoped that my interpretation of Journey into Mohawk Country would help people to envision what it was like when these two worlds, these two civilizations, first met each other. I researched the heck out of that book, filling sketchbooks with any pre-Columbian Iroquois artifacts I could find, reading as many contemporary sources as I could find (or near contemporary—like I mentioned, Mohawk Country is pretty much the earliest account we have), researching Dutch costuming from the time—I strove to make it as accurate as possible. There’s a lot going on in the backgrounds that’s not mentioned in the text that would have actually been happening in Mohawk and Oneida villages of the period. But even the stuff that van den Bogaert mentioned specifically posed some challenges.
For example, one of the book’s big set pieces occurs when van den Bogaert and his companions enter into a village and some of the inhabitants put on a mock battle for them, complete with a sort of wicker Mohawk armor. This armor, and the whole style of fighting that accompanied it, disappeared almost immediately after European contact, as it couldn’t stop a musket ball. As a result, there was almost no reference for this armor — there are like two drawings and some brief descriptions: that’s all that’s survived. I had to piece together what it might have looked like from the scanty info I had, and conjecture based on some of the basket weaving of the period. That’s partially why I went with such a cartoony style for Mohawk Country — a photo-realistic style just wouldn’t have been feasible for a time before photos. Occasionally, I would have to fudge the fine details, and cartoony [art] is much more forgiving for that. Additionally, I went cartoony to help illustrate that my interpretation of the events of van den Bogaert’s journal were just that: an interpretation. A well-researched, highly probable interpretation, but an interpretation nonetheless.
Tell me a little bit more about the research you did. Where did you go for information/help beyond Van den Bogaert’s text? Did you have specific people or libraries or other resources you consulted?
Well, the first place I went to was the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian right here in the old customs building in lower Manhattan. Unfortunately, none of the exhibits they had at the time were relevant to the Iroquois cultures spotlighted in Mohawk Country. Their library was a bit more helpful, although as a testament to the overlooked nature of his story, they did not own a copy of Van den Bogaert’s journal.
The American Museum of Natural History was a more useful resource—many of the artifacts on display there can be glimpsed in the backgrounds of Mohawk Country. I found some interesting materials at the Brooklyn Museum, and I made a road trip upstate, both to sketch the lay of the land and to visit many small museums and history centers, to sketch more artifacts.
Aside from that, there were many, many dusty old books and periodicals with some fascinating overlooked materials. The excellent library at my alma mater, the Pratt Institute, was surprisingly helpful. Charles Gehring and William Staarna, the translators of Van den Bogaert’s journal, helped me in some matters, though frankly, I was too shy to bother them as much as I would have liked.
Finally, there was a book, In Mohawk Country: Early Narratives of a Native People (The Iroquois and Their Neighbors), which was edited by those same two gentlemen and Dean Snow, which contained many other illuminating (though slightly more recent) first-hand accounts of the Mohawk and Oneida people. Good stuff.
Since Van den Bogaert’s text is pretty straightforward, you add a considerable amount of emotion (and at times comedy) to the story through your visuals. Can you describe the thought process behind what you added to the story in terms of character development, etc., and did you have any concerns about putting going too far in that direction so that you were taking the spotlight away from the original text?
Wow, good question. I think in the earliest drafts of Mohawk Country, I was a little more dry and factual in my presentation of things. Spending a lot of time with that text helped me to pick out a lot of interesting details that spoke to a more complete image of the man who wrote it. For instance, as a barber/surgeon, van den Bogaert always seems to record the instances where he views Indian healing rituals with a little more interest.
Additionally, there is a scene where he comes to a village, about 100 miles into the interior of the continent. In this village they keep a tame bear in an enclosure, and van den Bogaert attempts (unsuccessfully) to buy it. That was the real eureka moment fro me, when I kind of ‘got’ the character of van den Bogaert — a kind of goofy guy, well out of his element and sort of a dreamer, who wanted to buy a tame bear while he was a hundred miles from home. What would he have done? Ride it?
With this realization, and through working with my editor Mark Siegel, we decided to bring this subjective human side to the fore of Mohawk Country. Mark in particular was very keen on my pushing the comedic side of van den Bogaert’s Dutch companions in the book, Willem Thommasen and Jeronimus St Croix. Willem fared the better of the two — he got an Indian (not specifically mentioned in the text, but very common for Dutchmen of the period) girlfriend; Jeronimus just got fatter. Mark’s rally cry for Jeronimus was, “Fatter, sweatier!” Poor guy might have been very svelte in life. I suppose it’s his fault for not leaving behind any portraits.
Let’s segue over to your next book, Ball Peen Hammer. How did this collaboration come about? Had you met writer Adam Rapp beforehand or were you familiar with his writing at all? What made you decide to work on something considerably darker and more “adult?”
Truth be told, I hadn’t heard of Adam Rapp before our collaboration. It was one of those instances, though, where as soon as I did, he was everywhere. Shortly after I started working on Ball Peen, for instance, he was on the cover of Time Out NY, as one of their New York 40. I assume he was being mentioned all around me all along and that I just never registered it, the same way that, say, you might never notice that there is a dry cleaner in your neighborhood until the time you need it. I was too involved in my own little world to see the larger culture around me.
I had been out of the country for an extended period when Mohawk Country came out, and upon my return the first place I ever saw it was in the children’s section of a bookstore. I was a little taken aback at this — I thought, naively perhaps, that Journey into Mohawk Country would be a true all-ages book, something that might get shelved in the history section or something, or at the very least the normal graphic novel section. It made sense, I suppose, that Mohawk Country would be shelved as a kid’s book, given my previous work, but still, it bothered me.
Shortly after, I was talking to Mark Siegel about the perception that my work was strictly for kids, and how to maybe expand my audience into an older crowd. He kind of fixed me with this funny look, reached into his desk and pulled out the script for Ball Peen Hammer. He warned me it was very, very dark, but that my sensibilities might bring something unexpected to it—why not give it a read and see what I thought. I took it home and read it like three times. It was amazing, so well-written. Incredibly dark, yes, but not pointlessly so, and it contained so many opportunities to do some real serious acting with my pencil. The final acid test was when I asked my girlfriend to read it, and see what she thought. She’s very squeamish about stuff like this, but she read it and said, “It made me sick, but it’s great. I think you should do it.”
Did you collaborate or consult with Rapp at all while drawing the book, or did you just forge ahead and avoid talking to him?
I had a few communications with Adam through the editorial offices at First Second, but for the most part we had very little interaction. A lot of that was Mark’s idea, he wanted to get an unvarnished interpretation from me of the script of Ball Peen, and I’m glad he did.
What was the biggest challenge of interpreting Rapp’s script?
There were a lot of challenges that I really enjoyed with the script—such as conveying so much emotion with my drawings, or having so much of the action of the book confined to two small spaces. Those were great challenges, and I feel I did a good job of meeting them, so I don’t know if they’re the “biggest”… Adam’s script was just very good, and there was so much from me to work with. I suppose what comes to my mind the most from that period was just the general darkness of working on that book. Every night for months I would fall asleep with that script on my chest as I digested it. It was kind of hairy in general, as there were a couple of deaths in my family at the same time. I drew a lot of ugly stuff for that book, it was a relief when I got to draw the female lead Exley, as she’s virtually the only character who isn’t just ruined by that world. She still maintained some genuine goodness.
Did you find yourself having to rewrite or replot certain scenes or scenarios in order to make it work better as comics?
Ball Peen Hammer was originally written as a stage play, and I think Adam decided to try it as a comic because, well, it would have been a very difficult play to stage, especially in the case of the character of the feral child Horlick. As a result, there were a few scenes in Ball Peen that would have worked in a stage production, but that wouldn’t have worked as well in a comic. So in those instances, I cut and shifted some scenes, and combined a few others. There was one sequence, in the opening act, that is the first meeting between two of the main characters, Welton and Underjohn, and it all takes place with each character on either side of a locked door, unable to see each other. As written, the sequence would have stretched for at least twelve pages, which would have been just too long for a printed comic. It would have made for some very gripping theater, though, and all the immediacy that entails. But for comics, it would have stopped the story cold. I cut the door sequence down to about four pages, and moved the dialogue that was originally spoken there to a little bit later in the story, because it was all too good to lose. For the most part, that was the extent of most of the changes I made, but I added a few incidental sound effects and hmms and grunts and such.
A story I like to share about Ball Peen is that Adam came back with a rewrite late in the process, after I had already begun drawing finished pages. I made a few changes to accommodate his new draft, a few other things we decided to forgo, but the one thing that Adam really insisted on was the Relief Peaches. In the original draft, Welton had been surviving by eating cans of Beanie Weenies, y’know franks and beans. I had already drawn all the cans with a funny little cartoon hotdog wearing a beanie on his head, and a word bubble that said, “I’m good for your heart.” But Adam wanted them changed to Relief Peaches. With all the other changes we made, the Beanie Weenie/Relief Peach cans ended up being the only thing Adam really insisted we change. I kind of love that term—Relief Peaches—it sounds so desperate, and just eating that for days is so horrible sounding. I always mean to ask Adam what was the deal with the Relief Peaches. I like to imagine it’s some sort of private joke with him. I think it would be an excellent name for a band.
Echoing what Siegel said to you, what do you think your sensibilities and style brought to the work?
Well, that’s hard for me to answer; I’m a little close to it. But what Mark once said to me was that I brought a little oxygen to the book. No one is going to come away from Ball Peen Hammer thinking it was a laugh-a-minute riot, but I have a tendency toward (sometimes) unintentional comic touches that may have helped lift the mood slightly without ruining the overall tone we were going for.
OK, let’s move on to your current project, Olympians. What made you want to retell these classic Greek myths?
Like I mentioned earlier, I got the mythology bug when I was in the fourth grade and we studied it in school, and that in large part lead to my getting interested in comics. Still, even with that background, I still didn’t come up with the idea of retelling myths in Olympians on my own.
I spent some time working on a pitch about the Olympians in modern times that wasn’t coming together. After filling up many, many sketchbooks with ideas, I shelved the concept, putting It back into my ideas file. Around that time, I was hanging out at the apartment of my picture book editor at Roaring Brook, a man named Neal Porter. We were talking about a mutual acquaintance of ours, a kind of unpleasant guy, and Neal referred to him a slobbering like Cerberus. I replied with some sort of comment about Cyclops or something, and Neal fixed me with a look, pulled a picture book off of his shelf and said, “What if you were to do a book, about this size, retelling the Greek myth in comic form?” It was a total eureka moment, one of those times where, in hindsight, it is like how on earth did I not think of that myself? Of course I should do a comic retelling the Greek myths, it’s only been one of my principle inspirations since childhood!
I went home from that meeting and set to work. In about two weeks, which is crazy fast, especially for me, I had the first 2/3 of Zeus thumbnailed out, and plans for eleven more books. We had a few meetings hashing out particulars, and that was the beginning of Olympians.
Tell me a little about the research you do for this series? Do you have one major source you rely upon near-exclusively or are you drawing upon a variety of material?
I pull from different sources depending on which book. For example, Zeus, which is essentially one long story, used Hesiod’s Theogony as its main source, with a few bits sprinkled in from other documents to give it some flavor, or to flesh out a sparse area. For books like Athena or Hera, which are composed of a bunch of shorter stories that I’ve strung together into one narrative, I’ll read a bunch of old sources — ancient Greek, Roman, whatever I can find. There’s this tremendous website, Theoi, that’s been incredibly helpful in my writing of this series. It’s an online catalog of mythological personages’ appearances in ancient sources, with footnotes. You look up, say, Aphrodite and there’s an index of myths she’s appeared in, who wrote it, who published it, etc. Very handy, though unfortunately it was never completed and seems to have been abandoned now.
One of the challenges in adapting this material is that a lot of the stories deal with sexuality or violence in a rather frank manner. A couple of times in the books I think I’ve seen you edge up close to some of this kind of stuff (particularly with Zeus and his relations with various women) without trying to go too far over the line for an all-ages book. Do you find that a tricky road to walk?
I actually really enjoy the challenge of writing for all-ages. I feel like a lot of the comics I read growing up were very good at doing that — they talked about very adult things but did so in a way that I, as a child, didn’t quite get. Some stuff just went over my head.
The example I like to use of the sort of thing I’m striving for here occurs in Zeus, when I’m retelling the origins of the Titans. There’s the very famous scene where Kronos the Titan castrates his father Ouranos with a sickle and assumes his role as the Lord of the Universe. Now, depicting that scene as one guy hitting his dad in the crotch with a sickle is one way to show that. It doesn’t leave much to the imagination, though, and certainly isn’t appropriate for an-all ages book. Maybe if you went full comedy, maybe you could pull it off, but that was definitely not the tone I was going for. Firstly, I’ve always been bothered by artistic depictions of Ouranos as a humanoid—he’s the sky, for crying out loud. He’s a very abstract character, so I decided to not anthropomorphize him at all. Whenever Ouranos appears, he’s a field of stars—so instantly, no groin to depict getting sliced. I was instead able to draw a very dramatic image of Kronos literally slicing open the sky with his sickle, which ended up being one of my favorite pieces in the book. And I wrote the accompanying text to read something like, “Ouranos was wounded, and rendered impotent. All of his power bled away into his sons.” I don’t have a copy of Zeus with me right now, so it might be a word or two off, but that’s pretty much it. No kid is ever going to understand that a castration just occurred, but an adult who was already familiar with the original story will certainly get it.
There’s another scene I’m very pleased with in Zeus, where we come upon young Zeus just after he’s had a frolic with some nymphs, including Metis, the eventual mother of Athena. Zeus and Metis are talking, and we can see the two other women sleeping in the background. Zeus is talking about having to confront his father, Kronos. The problem of overcoming Kronos’s Titanic stature comes up, and Zeus shoots Metis a look and says, “I don’t know—I can grow pretty big,” and she shoots him a sideways grin and a simple “heh.” Not obvious what’s happened there, and in fact, some reviewers missed it completely, but I was pleased I got it in. It really captured the sort of Zeus I was setting out to portray.
Though the titles of the books focus on the individual gods and goddesses, you often use them as a jumping point to talk about some of the mortal Greek heroes. Hera, for instance, spends a good deal of focus on Hercules. What made you decide to combine the stories in this fashion, instead of, say, doing a separate book about Hercules?
Well, in ancient Greek religion the Olympians themselves were kind of the center of everything. What I mean by that is, a character like Odysseus, for example, fell under the general protective umbrella of Athena. It’s very rare to find a hero or heroine who was not closely associated with a patron deity, or who at least had a god or goddess play an important role in their most famous exploits. Each Olympian god is like a very broad archetype under which to tell all kinds of stories—stories of the god or goddess themselves, stories of their associated heroes or subservient gods, stories that fall under their general area of expertise (you haven’t seen much of this in Olympians yet, but you will, like war stories in Ares, or love stories in Aphrodite).
I get the “why not a separate book for Heracles?” question a lot, especially because so much of Hera’s book is spent retelling his story, but I feel the focus is done in a way where you’re made to better understand both the characters of Hera and Heracles much better through their interaction. Those two figures are so heavily intertwined, and Hera’s role as the “bad guy” in the story of Heracles has done so much to define her for modern audiences that I felt I needed to address the two simultaneously. If sales warrant, I do have a proposal in with my publisher for a spin-off series called Heroes and Monsters, which will tell more extensive stories of the heroes, including other tales of Heracles. Keep your fingers crossed I get to do that series as well.
You mention in the notes for Hera that you see the book as a “restoration project” of a sort. Do you feel that way about the project in general? Do you feel in a sense you are trying to bring fresh eyes to some classic stories?
I do feel that way, yes. When I was researching Olympians, not just reading the ancient sources, but also traveling around Greece and Italy and other places where people had worshiped the gods, I began to get a much different version of how the gods should be depicted and perceived. We have a very caricatured vision of the gods, who were these incredibly complex characters, responsible for a myriad of roles and functions throughout ancient Greek and Roman society, and we’ve distilled them down to one-line synopses, like Hermes, messenger of the gods, or Hera, Zeus’s bitchy wife. That really doesn’t even begin to cover the literary richness of what these characters have to offer us. By shining some light on these very old stories, hopefully I’ll help to expand our understanding of these old gods.