First Second’s Tenth Year: George O’Connor’s Journey from ‘Mohawk Country’ to Mount Olympus [Interview]
As original graphic novel publisher First Second celebrates its tenth anniversary, we're talking to some of the cartoonists and creators associated with the publisher to reflect on their work over the last ten years.
Today we talk to George O'Connor, who has been working with First Second since shortly before there even was a First Second. O'Connor is best known for his sweeping Olympians series, which devotes a volume to each of the major gods of Greek mythology. The series is in many ways quintessentially First Second; it's at educational non-fiction, but compulsively readable, beautifully illustrated and, of course, all-ages. The irony is that it started life at a different publisher, as O'Connor explains.
Comics Alliance: When I think of your work, I immediately think of your Olympians series, but you actually had a few projects with First Second that pre-dated it. Before we get to those, I was wondering if you could tell us a little about where your career was before you started working with First Second. What were you doing a decade or so ago?
George O'Connor: The answer to this will read a little bit like the secret history of First Second. About a decade or so ago, I was being published as a picture book author and illustrator at Simon and Schuster. My big book there was a picture book called Kapow, about a little boy and his friends who imagine themselves as superheroes. It was my love letter to the comics I grew up on, filled with comic-book nerdery, and the designer for that book was none other than Mark Siegel, future founder of First Second. We were teamed up because my editor knew that we both loved comics.
CA: If I’ve got the dates right, Journey Into Mohawk Country was your first work with the publisher, and that was released in 2006, which would make it one of the earlier of First Second’s graphic novels. Can you tell us a little bit about how it came about? “An adaptation of a 17th century Dutch trader’s journal” doesn’t exactly scream commercial hit as far as an elevator pitch for a graphic novel might go.
GOC: Journey into Mohawk Country was my first real graphic novel --- I had done some indie comics work, and a couple of graphic novels for the scholastic market, but this was my big debut, as far as I’m concerned. Mark Siegel and I would talk a lot, and he had a dream to create a comics imprint at Simon and Schuster --- it sounded amazing, but it never materialized there.
Suddenly, through a mix of his hard work, kismet and weird alchemy, Mark was able to create the imprint of his dreams at another publisher — Roaring Brook. By this time, I was already publishing some picture books at Roaring Brook, and we were once again at the same house. Mark and I were having lunch one day, and he told me the big news, and said that he was looking for submission ideas — and if I had any non-fiction ideas, so much the better.
I had just finished reading Russell Shorto’s excellent The Island At The Center of the World, a history of Dutch Manhattan. One of the chapters told the story of Harmen Meyndertsz van den Bogaert, a 16th century Dutch barber/surgeon who singlehandedly lead an expedition 100 miles into the interior of the North American continent and brokered a trade deal with the Mohawk people. I had tracked down a translation of van den Bogaert’s diary and was amazed at what an incredible primary document it was. My pitch to Mark was simply that I illustrate what this guy wrote and saw.
CA: How difficult was it collaborating with a centuries-dead writer on a graphic novel like that?
GOC: There weren’t any hauntings, if that’s what you mean. On one hand, I didn’t have a micro-managing writer hovering above my back, but on the other hand, I didn’t have a writer to ask questions to about confusing spots of the text.
I spent many months researching the times and area van den Bogaert lived in, but it was tricky — both worlds, the Native American and Dutch, were in a period of such rapid change through cultural diffusion that a lot of what van den Bogaert recorded, well, there was little to no reference for it. I would have loved to have had Harmen as a resource, where I could just ask him, “What did the Mohawk battle armor you saw look like?”
CA: Your next work for First Second was Ball-Peen Hammer, set in an apocalyptic future rather than the past. That was a graphic novel you drew but didn’t script. How different was it working on a book in that capacity, versus adapting the journal for your previous book, or writing and drawing, as you would in your Olympians series? Do you have a preference for writing and drawing versus collaborating with a writer, or does each present its own challenges and rewards?
GOC: Adam Rapp was a great collaborator, an absolutely incredible writer, and he really let me have a lot of leeway in my adaption of Ball-Peen Hammer. Considering that he and Harmen are really the only two writers I’ve ever worked with, I can’t say that I have any complaints at all about working with a writer — every time I have, it’s been a wonderful experience.
That said, I’m fortunate enough that I have been able to write the majority of my projects myself, and that is an immensely satisfying feeling. I enjoy both writing and drawing, but writing is a bit harder for me, so when something I wrote comes together it’s very rewarding, personally.
CA: The Olympians series begins in 2010 with Zeus. Can you tell us a little bit about how the series came about? What was your inspiration for it, and was it a difficult pitch to make? It’s seems that, from the very beginning, First Second was sold on the idea of publishing it as a series, versus just doing Zeus and seeing how it went from there.
GOC: Olympians is unique among First Second books in that its primary editor operates from without First Second. I already mentioned that I was publishing picture books with Roaring Brook, the publisher that First Second is a division of. My editor there is the legendary Neal Porter, and one day we were both hanging around his apartment. He was relating a story to me about an encounter he had the night before with a mutual acquaintance of ours — this person had been kind of ranting and raving and Neal compared their behavior to Cerberus, the three headed hound of Hades. Neal hadn’t known I was a huge Greek mythology geek, and I made an equally geeky reply about Cyclopes or something. Neal fixed me with a look, pulled a book off his shelf and said, “What if you do a graphic novel on Greek mythology, about this size?”
It was a real "eureka" moment for me. I had previously put together a different sort of Greek-mythology-themed pitch for First Second that they had been cool on, but this was so simple and, in retrospect, obvious. I went home and wrote and laid out Zeus in a burst of creativity. And right from the beginning I had it pegged as a twelve book series, there was just too much material to ever put it in one graphic novel. When I presented Neal with my first cover sketch, right on the cover it said "1 of 12." And because the idea generated with Neal, and because First Second was part of the same company, he moved over to be editor of the series.
CA: One of the things that struck me about Zeus, particularly when I was reading the creation story sequence, was that, from a creator’s perspective, re-telling the tales of the Olympians must be somewhat daunting based on the simple fact that there is just so much material. Not only in the stories themselves, but in the various tellings of those same stories over the centuries, in various media. Given your pace on these books, you obviously haven’t been paralyzed by that aspect of the subject matter, and have a system down. Can you tell us a little bit about how you find your version of the characters’ stories, and compress them into single graphic novels?
GOC: I can see how the sheer amount of material to be adapted could be intimidating, but I realized early on that I couldn’t tell the entirety of Greek myth in Olympians. It would be thousands of pages long, not to mention all the contradictory material. Also, only a mad person would read it.
I try to read all the potentially relevant mythology I can find, and sift and distill it down to a few key stories that illustrate what I think is the core concept of the god or goddess being featured. I’ve also established a hierarchy of ancient writers — like for instance, Hesiod’s account of a myth will trump, say Homer’s. It’s almost a form of cherry-picking, I go through this enormous corpus of stories and choose the best sampling I can to impart the flavor of the whole.
CA: I’m going to have to use both hands to count at his point, but I believe you’ve now done… seven gods and goddesses? Do you have a planned cycle of a dozen, or is it more open-ended? One imagines that it wouldn’t be too difficult to slide from the Olympians to related characters from Greek mythology, or even tackling a new pantheon in the coming years.
GOC: Actually, it’s eight books now, with Apollo: The Brilliant One having been released last month. As it stands, the plan is for Olympians to be a twelve-book series. I had a proposal in at First Second for a companion series that would have told the stories of heroes and minor gods whose tales weren’t covered in the core twelve books, but that seems to not be happening. If anyone reading this would like to see that, I recommend they harangue First Second on social media about it.
If I were to tackle another pantheon, it would probably be the Norse. I love me some Loki.
CA: I was pleasantly surprised to find Hermes showing up repeatedly in First Second’s Fables Comics anthology. Was it fun to tell such bite-sized, one-page Olympian stories? When you eventually get to Hermes, will the more cartoony style of these, with the cute version of the character delivering the morals, be reflected, or was that something you chose to do to address the younger audience of the anthology?
GOC: I had such a great time doing the Hermes fables in Fables Comics — Hermes is my favorite god, he’s the Bugs Bunny of Mount Olympus. I really dig trickster gods. I was also pleased to have the opportunity to include the cute chibi design of Hermes to illustrate the morals of the fables. I had designed a whole slew of ‘Lil Olympians’ a while back (Check out my twitter page at @GeorgetheMighty to see the whole crew) and this seemed like a great place to use them in an official capacity somewhere. Maybe some day I’ll do another project with the chibi versions of the Olympians for a younger audience.
My plans for the upcoming Hermes volume of Olympians have been changed somewhat by my doing the Hermes fable in Fables Comics — at least one of those stories was originally going to be in the proper Hermes book. Maybe I will work in L'il Hermes again as a nod to Fables Comics.
CA: Obviously First Second has published plenty of books in your bibliography at this point, but, as a reader or industry observer rather than someone who’s worked with them, how do you perceive the publisher’s place in the industry and the medium? How do you think they’ve evolved in the past decade?
GOC: Boy, that’s hard to say. First Second has published me so many times, since they first began, that it’s hard for me to divorce myself from them, and to perceive them as just a fan.
That said, I feel like there are many First Seconds — different flavors of comics they publish that reflect the ideas and tastes of the different editors who work there. I look at their list, and I see books that reflect Mark Siegel’s sensibilities, I see other books that hearken more to [editor] Calista Brill’s tastes, and some mysterious books that don’t match what I perceive to be either of their sensibilities. My own Olympians series, I think, falls in that last category — to my mind at least, it’s kind of its own thing, and is pretty dissimilar to anything else that they publish.
CA: Do you have a favorite First Second book, other than any of those you’ve worked on?
GOC: I have quite a few, actually. Off the top of my head, I really dig Nick Abadzis’s Laika (In my opinion, their first true classic), the Astronaut Academy books by Dave Roman, and Sara Varon’s Robot Dreams. Three Shadows by Cyril Pedrosa is a heartbreaking masterpiece, and Garage Band by Gipi is so well drawn it infuriates me, in a good way. I’m almost certainly forgetting a whole bunch of others.
CA: Finally, who is the next Olympian we can expect to see starring in a graphic novel from you?
GOC: I am just putting the finishing touches on Artemis as we type. I’m really excited about this one, it’s going to be great, if I do say so myself.