Monday, March 14, 2011

The Panel: George O'Connor

George O'Connor is one of the most talented and prolific cartoonists working today. He's the author and illustrator of four children's books, including the New York Times best seller Kapow!  He also has five graphic novels under his belt, including three in his twelve book series on the Olympians. In addition to all this, George also teaches a comics course at Pratt. I had a chat with the incredibly busy O'Connor over twitter.

NS: Let's talk Olympians. How do you take literally the oldest story in western civilization and put a new take on it?

GOC: Man, in my opinion, for many years, ALL of western civilization has been telling and retelling these stories over and over-----ESPECIALLY superhero comics. This is just me doing my personal take, filtered thru a childhood of superheroes, on myths. I should mention, the stories are so rich, it really makes my job easier.

NS: But how do you differentiate your take from all the media that already exist about the Greek Gods?

GOC: I'm a big research guy, and my take on the Olympians is pretty accurate, in its way, to what the ancients thought.

NS: Knowing myself, I just don't know how I wouldn't remake Clash of the Titans.

GOC: The old Clash of the Titans has its charms, but, man the Kraken drives me nuts...and the new one was just an abomination. Worst movie I saw last year. Here's an image of a  more accurate sea monster, Cetus, rather than the Kraken in Clash of the Titans.

Cetus means whale, in fact. We call whales cetaceans after this monster, Kraken is norse, yo.

NS: Norse? wtf.

GOC:  I've avoided all modern retellings, and only used ancient sources to construct my stories. That way, I find a lot of these hidden gems, things that have always been there, that I unearth for a new audience.

NS: Could you give a specific example of one of those gems, something current media tends to leave out?

GOC: well, my upcoming third book, Hera: The Goddess and her Glory, is sort if my Hera reclamation project. We all think of Hera as a mega-bitch, but she was an incredibly important and beloved religious figure in ancient Greece. The book ends up being an exploration of her relationship to Heracles, whose name literally means "the glory of hera."

NS: You mentioned superheroes - how are the Greek gods different from the typical American superhero?

GOC: Easy answer-- they could kick any superheroes ass. Tougher answer-- they don't have those distinctly american ideals. A Greek god is not interested in making the world a better place, necessarily. They just look out for themselves.
It's probabaly better just to avoid their attention in general, really. 1 of the themes of Olympians book 4, Hades, is all about the Greek tradition of using euphemistic names like Pluto (the wealthy one) to escape his notice.

NS:  The size of the battles and characters is staggering. How do you achieve that epic level of scale?

GOC:  Thanks! In part, I guess I've been conditioned, having grown up reading old superhero comics, like the FF against Galactus. Nothing screams EPIC like a good mismatch of scale-- tiny gods against HUGE TITANS. Also? Lots and lots of lightning bolts.

NS: Lightening fixes everything. Who's your favorite Olympian First Second would never let you make a book out of?

GOC: I would dearly love to sneak Priapus, the god of erections, into Hermes's book somewhere. I think I can do it, tastefully.

NS: So how do you deal with the constraints you have when writing for kids? Greek myths aren't rated PG.

GOC:   I try writing on two different levels. My favorite example is this-- in the first book, Zeus's dad, Kronos, overthrows his father, Ouranos, by castrating him with a sickle. that's a little intense for kids. So, in my artwork, I did not personify Ouranos, i depicted him as the sky (what his name means, in ancient Greek), so Kronos just slices open the sky, not specifically castrating his father. the text reads:

"Ouranos was rendered impotent, powerless. His strength bled away into his sons"

adults will get it, and kids won't realize they just read about a guy getting his ding-dong chopped off. All the sex & violence is there in Olympians, you just have to look for it a little.

NS: You went from the bleak, adult Ball Peen Hammer to books for kids. Does your subject matter affect your mindset?

GOC: I started doing picture books first, then the adult stuff. It was a rough time, working on Ball-Peen Hammer, not the least of which was some stuff happening in my personal life, but yeah, a book like BPH can cloud your sunny day.

NS: How do you deal with it? Do you embrace the gloom and put it into the book, or compartmentalize it somehow?

GOC: Good question. I think I project it into the book. That's kind of like a diary for what I was feeling that only I can read.

NS: What else do you have on your plate besides Olympians these days? I hear you're starting a webcomic...

GOC:  I'm trying to get a bunch under my belt, so I can post it in 12 big chunks. Watch Twitter for a big announcemant regarding this.

NS: What's it about? Is it similar to Olympians, or is it a big departure, a chance to do something new?

GOC: it's a kind of meditation on infinity, and infinite beings. in that way, I suppose it's like Olympians. it's going to be called Alpha Boy Ī©mega, and it is the least Olympiansy thing I've ever done.

Also, I'm working on book 5 of Olympians, about Poseidon, and a new series of kids books at Simon & Schuster that I'm illustrating.

NS: You sound awfully busy. Is diversifying a business or creative strategy?

GOC: Both. I just finished 4 Olymapians graphic novels in a row, and wanted to try something new, and at the same time, I wanted to increase my publishing footprint. Also, multi-tasking is good for the soul.

NS:  I always want to know how other artists do thumbnails. What's your process, pre-page? Do you have a script?

GOC: First thing I do is draw key scenes in my sketchbook. I'll jot down bits of text next to them too, then i assemble those key scenes into a blueprint of a page, my thumbnails. this is the hardest part of my process. Then I blow these thumbnails into rough sketches, about 6 by 8 inches, so I can actually make sense of it later.

NS: On a good day, how many pages can you pencil and ink?

GOC:  My personal record is 5. I am pretty darn fast. Since I ink my own stuff, my pencils are so loose as to just be layouts. I average 2 or 3, though.

NS: Are you just *that* quick? Or do you make conscious choices that let you turn out high quality work efficiently?

GOC: Some of its quickness, but mostly it's my style-- I call it deceptively simple-- i look at guys like Mike Mignola and Jaime Hernandez a lot for that sort of inspiration, they're both masters.

NS: What kind of media do you consume? Do you read current comics?

GOC: Not so much lately. I've been reading a lot of Sherlock Holmes recently, partially in prep for another project idea. Also a lot of history books. Not too much comics though.

NS: Name two cartoonists you'd put in your pantheon with very different styles. Example: Mike Allred and Dave McKean.

GOC:  Hmm, I'll say P. Craig Russell & Bill Watterson, since I already mentioned Mignola & Hernandez. They're all in my pantheon.

NS:  Besides making comics, you also teach comics at Pratt. What kind of trends are you noticing in your students?

GOC:  Actually, whereas in the past, the kids would be manga manga manga, but now the novelty of manga has worn off, and it seems the kids have assimilated manga into their styles, rather than aping it outright. It's pretty exciting, actually - kind of a glimpse at the styles of the future.

NS: What's your take on comics' future? Seems lately people have been grumbling more than usual about the industry.

GOC: The future's so bright, i gotta wear shades. I try not to predict it, really, I'll just be wrong, and any attempt to guess it will steer my awry. I just have faith in my ability to weather what may come.

Visit George O'Connor's website, and follow him on Twitter!

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