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Zeus, King Of The Gods
posted April 21, 2010


Creator: George O'Connor
Publishing Information: First Second, softcover, 80 pages, January 2010, $9.99
Ordering Numbers: 9781596434318 (ISBN13) 1596434317 (ISBN10)

Although the former film has performed respectably, neither Clash Of The Titans nor Percy Jackson made enough money at the box office to ignite a wave of renewed enthusiasm for entertainment based on the childhood perennial of Greek myths. That doesn't mean we should despair for First Second's Olympians book series, the various Marvel Comics starring Hercules or even Eddie Campbell's magnificently clever Bacchus, the last still a year away. Perennials become perennials based on solid performance across decades and corresponding year-in and year-out levels of interest; there's no pressure on any of the comics projects to make $300 million dollars. As far as I can tell, no one's re-shooting the Deadface mini-series to make it 3D.

imageThe first Olympians book, Zeus, King Of The Gods, reminded me mostly of a solid effort in the mainstream European album tradition. It's a fairly straight-forward, craft-conscious, and ultimately satisfying on its own limited terms presentation of how Zeus and other members of the pantheon scrambled their way to their initial perches atop Mount Olympus. There is a slight distinction to this volume in that the Zeus back story in the myths is filled with straight-up proto-literary madness, starting and certainly not ending with a ruling Titan that eats his children whole as they're born so as not to have an obvious challenger to his throne. Most adaptations deal with this stuff in terms of a few panels, something relatively small and shrugged-shouldered in the ongoing scheme of things, the way families deal with stories from the 80-year-old men at the dinner table about playing football without a facemask or listening to the Cardinals on the radio. Zeus puts those stories center stage, providing them with structure and facilitating their semi-lengthy meditation on what it means to establish order the second time around. I much prefer the latter approach.

The greatest strength that O'Connor brings to this material is a clever sense of design. It does nearly all the work for him. His Greek Gods look like members of the Legion Of Superheroes: idealized, modern bodies and a physical hint of their powers and territory covered. While initially grating -- eight-year-old me might never have come back after reading about how cute Zeus was -- this actually proves to be smart. The super-heroic qualities of the Gods gives the modern comic reader an in. That design choice also becomes short hand for the differences in the relationship between these gods and more normal humans, one of degree and appetite and power, and the relationship these beautiful people have with the first powers of earth, which is one of grappling with madness and abstraction -- beings as tall as the sky, smoke emanating from mouth and hair, hands that bear the fruit of even more hands, one-eyed beings of raw power rather than their being ugly, shirtless guys that have no depth perception. The visual contrast between god and monster provides a much better evocation of that initial act of bringing human civilization out of chaos than almost any other treatment of that material I've seen. Something about it fundamentally worked for me despite the books' other, more ordinary, qualities, and I think I would have really dug it at about age eight, cute Zeus or no cute Zeus. It definitely falls on the positive side of the "something to it"/"why did they bother" new mainstream kids' comics fence, at least for the moment, and I look forward to see how well publisher and cartoonist keep it up.