Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Superheroes of Olympus

When Guys Lit Wire came into being, my pledge to all the fine contributors to this blog---and its readers---was to cover those picture books that are really aimed at older readers, and today's spotlighted book is one of the year's best examples of this: a picture book best geared at pre-teen readers and up. Teens who are fans of graphic novels will be particularly attracted to the title, Charles R. Smith Jr.'s The Mighty Twelve: Superheroes of Greek Myth (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, March 2008), illustrated by American comic book writer, artist, and illustrator P. Craig Russell, best known (arguably) for his collaborations with writer Neil Gaiman. It's an introduction to Greek mythology with poems and comic-book-style illustrations, an innovative blend of the ancient and modern-day. It's the gods and goddesses of Olympus---in all their impressive, superhuman glory---depicted as "muscle-bound Greek gods...heroes and villains with flowing hair, ripped bods and strategically draped togas—or, in Zeus's case, a well-placed eagle's wing" (straight from Publishers Weekly's mixed review of the title).

Smith welcomes us to Olympus before Zeus even appears:

"Welcome to the world
of immortal men and women,
the gods and goddesses of Greece
who rule their dominion
from high on Olympus,
their eternal home,
above Grecian mountaintops
and clouds where each throne
and shines
and puts on display
the personality of all
Olympians while they
or play,
cause chaos
or say
wicked words that
lead many astray."

We then meet Zeus, Poseidon, Hades, Cerberus, Hermes, Apollo, Artemis, Ares, Aphrodite, Hephaestus, Athena, Medusa, Hera, and...whew, Dionysus -- all followed by a "Who's Who" (complete with fun facts and listings of each god's or goddess' Special Powers/Weapons/Tools) and a bibliography for further reading.

I think there are some flaws in this one: The meter in many of the verses is sometimes a bit off, too forced or structured awkwardly, as the School Library Journal review noted, and "confusingly verbose" -- though, Kirkus writes,
"{s}till, an emphatic, beat-heavy read-aloud of the verses may provide the more memorable experience here for young audiences." In fact, at Smith's site, readers can hear him read some of the poems in just this manner.

But this book still packs a punch in many ways, primarily its success in making Greek mythology accessible to more reluctant readers who may otherwise turn away from the topic -- and even very eager ones who enjoy their comic books. (In a detailed May '08 interview with Kelly Fineman at Writing and Ruminating, Smith shared, "{w}ith so many books out there about the Gods and Goddesses, I knew that {analogizing them to superheroes} would help it stand out, but also reflect what the poems talked about. The idea came from my love of comic books as a teen and my interest in Greek mythology.") With Russell giving them the ripped bodies and long, flowing, wind-swept hair of the superheroes many comic book readers can't get enough of, there will be those who argue the superficiality of it all. But (and, to be sure, I'm simplifying matters), there will always be those students who can read but don't---or at least prefer their graphically-sequenced novels or comic books over straight-up novels or thick, verbose non-fiction titles---who are going to favor Smith and Russell's contemporary take on Greek mythology to, well...Edith Hamilton.

Or, in the words of Publishers Weekly again, "Smith and Russell make the pairing of classical material and a comics-like format look completely natural, with a gee-why-didn't-we-think-of-that simplicity." Gee, I am glad they thought of that. Recommended for comic book lovers everywhere.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the shout-out, Jules! (Kind of a double shout-out, since I'm linked to somewhere on P. Craig Russell's site for my review of the Coraline GN.)

Little Willow said...

I agree that this book has crossover potential. I agree with your notes about its flaws, especially in the meter and in the selection of characters, because those who don't read the closing notes and such won't realize which heroes were left out and which included characters are not truly regarded as Greek heroes.

Kyle said...

In my third grade class boys are fighting over who gets to read it next, and my boys from last year are lining up with envy wiating for their turn.