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Graphic novelist O'Connor turns ancient gods and goddesses into modern superheroes

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

George O'Connor spent the last 12 years writing and illustrating 12 graphic novels inspired by Greek mythology. His bestsellers make the Olympian gods and goddesses feel like modern-day superheroes, with his latest focusing on the patron of wine and theater, Dionysos. NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: George O'Connor's illustrations are bursting with color, action, humor and lots of details - gruesome monsters, razor-sharp swords. His gods and goddesses are fierce, voluptuous, mischievous, even snarky.

GEORGE O'CONNOR: My whole method for treating all of these characters was looking at them as an abstraction of a family and then figuring what their actual personalities were. And there's an amazing consistency that you can notice when you read the corpus of Greek myth and you read all these stories. There's certain personality traits that come to the fore.

BLAIR: Take Zeus. O'Connor thinks a lot of the exalted depictions of the king of gods are just wrong.

O'CONNOR: He's not a dignified, old gray-beard. Like, you know, he's not Sir Laurence Olivier or Liam Neeson.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CLASH OF THE TITANS")

LIAM NEESON: (As Zeus) Release the Kraken.

O'CONNOR: He'd be, like, you know, this 21-year-old surfer dude from California with, like, sick abs.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CATCH A WAVE")

THE BEACH BOYS: (Singing) Catch a wave and you're sittin' on top of the world.

BLAIR: A surfer dude on top of the world who's kind of a playboy.

O'CONNOR: Every Zeus myth is chasing around after, you know, the people he's attracted to. This guy, also - as a god, he can look like anything he wants. He wouldn't ever be the old, dignified man. That's not Zeus.

ARI: (Reading) Hey, Hera.

AZANIA: (Reading) Oh, Zeus, you frightened me.

BLAIR: That's Azania and Ari, two fourth graders from Brent Elementary School in Washington, D.C., reading from George O'Connor's graphic novel on Zeus' wife, Hera.

ARI: (Reading) You look beautiful today, Hera - as beautiful as the day I first saw you. Come with me, Hera. Be my queen.

AZANIA: (Reading) Oh, please spare me. I've seen you Zeus. I've seen you with so many others. Why should I wish to just be another name on that list?

O'CONNOR: My favorite goddess is Hera, who often - in, like, kind of, like, a mini retelling, she gets cast very simply as a bad guy, casting her as the jealous shrew of a wife, not taking into account that Zeus is the worst husband imaginable. And my Hera is full of, like, quiet grace and dignity.

BLAIR: O'Connor says he's been interested in Greek mythology since he was a kid growing up on Long Island. He got hooked on drawing because it was something he did with his parents.

O'CONNOR: My parents - they still were in connection with it to whatever degree, whatever that thing is that makes people create that way, at least in drawing, that they would just draw. And I would sit there and draw with them. And, of course, they were way better than me. And it was, like, a real thing for me to measure myself up against.

BLAIR: While they drew human figures, young George drew monsters, like the one-eyed Cyclops.

O'CONNOR: For instance, my drawings of the Cyclopes - that's based on a drawing I did with my dad when I was about 6 years old.

BLAIR: O'Connor says "The Olympians" are the kind of comic books he wishes he had had when he was growing up. And he doesn't sanitize the stories. For Brent Elementary School fourth-grade teacher Caitlin Arbuckle, that's refreshing.

CAITLIN ARBUCKLE: A lot of times when you're reading Greek myths stories that are, like, geared towards kids, they're kind of filtered a little bit.

BLAIR: Dionysos, for example, is the god of wine, who was born female and then becomes male.

ARBUCKLE: He doesn't shy away from the gender aspects. He doesn't shy away from the fact that Dionysos enjoys a lot of wine - like, some more adult things. But these kids are - you know, by the time they're in fourth grade, a lot of them - they do have that maturity, and they know about the world (laughter).

EASTON: We would call him, like, a party animal.

BLAIR: When I asked fourth graders Easton (ph), Azania and Ari what they noticed about Dionysos, they don't mention his gender transition but rather how he was born from Zeus' thigh.

EASTON: Yeah.

ARI: Yeah.

AZANIA: Born out of Zeus' thigh (laughter).

ARI: Yeah.

AZANIA: Yeah.

ARI: He was born out - because Zeus was like, oh, no, it's a baby, and his mom just died. And it's not ready to be born. So he put it in his thigh, and...

EASTON: (Laughter).

AZANIA: Some reason.

ARI: ...Wham, bam, he's alive.

O'CONNOR: Myths are stories that, I think, we can all admit probably never really occurred. But they speak to, like, greater human truths.

BLAIR: O'Connor does not talk down to his young audience.

O'CONNOR: Greek mythology is filled with stuff that people would clutch their pearls at and be like, but the children. I try not to clean up any of that. The world is filled with things that maybe upset your particular worldview. But they exist, and they're things that children are going to encounter. So why not encounter them in story?

BLAIR: Next up for George O'Connor - Norse mythology. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.