Smash Pages Q&A: George O’Connor

The creator of the ‘Olympians’ series discusses his work on ‘Unrig: How To Fix Our Broken Democracy,’ the first book released under First Second’s World Citizen Comics publishing line.

George O’Connor is the acclaimed cartoonist behind the Olympians series of graphic novels retelling the Greek myths. Readers may know him for his earlier comics like Journey into Mohawk Country and Ball Peen Hammer, but his new book, Unrig, is something of a departure for him. 

Unrig: How To Fix Our Broken Democracy is the first volume of a new publishing line at First Second Books called World Citizen Comics. O’Connor worked with Daniel Newman, the president and co-founder of Maplight, a nonprofit that reveals the influence of money on politics. The book looks at how money has influenced American politics, how people and organizations with money have changed the system, and how individuals and local organizations have been fighting back. It’s an important book for many reasons, and I reached out to talk with George about the challenges of the project and what he learned from working on the book.

Unrig is an important book, and it’s a very different project for you, and one that required a very different approach to cartooning. How did you end up drawing the book?

As you know, I’m published a lot by First Second, and I’m good friends with the editorial director Mark Siegel, who started this new line, World Citizen Comics. This was going to be the first book, and he wanted someone he had worked with before, that he knew was fast, that he knew could meet deadlines. He also knew, as he put it, that my head was in the right spot.

We went out of our way to be as unbiased as possible in this. Dan Newman, the author, prides himself on being the head of a nonpartisan organization. I was doing what a lot of us did where I would post on social media and scream into the ether. Mark had seen enough to know that I want change and – I don’t know, but he called me up and I said, yes.

The funny thing is that I was doing a mini-tour of California schools when he gave me the call in 2018, and he called as my girlfriend and I were pulling into the parking lot of a school. As it turns out, that was Dan Newman’s daughter’s school. Mark asked me, and it would mean delaying the last volume of the Olympians, but I thought it was really important, especially before the election. I feel like there was a bit of kismet. I think the short answer is that I was fated to do the book.

So by tight deadline, do you mean a year? Less?

Less than a year. At the time I said yes, Dan hadn’t written a text. Unlike a lot of the books in the series, which are adaptations of previous books, this was the first time he wrote this. I received the script one chapter at a time. I started in October and finished in April. I was averaging 3-5 pages a day. 

So what did Dan send you?

Dan had never written for graphic novels before, so the first pieces of writing were more like essays. It was very similar to what you see, but you know how in an essay at the end, you bring yourself back to the beginning and encapsulate it? He was doing a lot of that.

We talked and I said, “That’s going to be tricky to adapt. I want you to understand that will either be repetitive or it will mean me having to work twice as hard to come up with a way to interpret this visually twice in two different ways.” In short order, Dan learned how to write for graphic novels.

The first chapter I got was chapter one, where he talks about running for office, and I used the fairly obvious metaphor of two people running an actual race. I think him seeing that and seeing how much weight the images could hold as far as carrying the actual story made him realize how to write.

I was going to ask about that because just to pick a random page – 23 – I’m sure thinking about how to take these ideas and find a visual metaphor or representation to help present them was a big challenge for both of you

I think so. If you turn the page to 24, on the third panel, whenever you see little word balloons with that hand writing, that’s me adding to it as a way of facilitating meaning. I was doing it almost like little asides in a Pat Olyphant cartoon. Or sometimes Dan would have suggestions.

Dan is a really concise and clear writer at finding the best way for it to make sense visually. A lot of times there were instances where I called him and said, “I don’t know what to do for this.” He would draw these hilarious drawings sometimes. We would bring in Mark or other people on the staff. But for the most part we got into a pretty good rhythm because he does write very clearly, and he has a real gift for putting things in a way that makes it easy to communicate. We were talking on the phone almost every single day while I was working on this.

I would think on a project like this, and on a tight deadline like this, you would almost have to communicate a lot.

The deadline for this was brutal. It meant that for many months I was in a weird place emotionally. One of the last chapters we did was “The Wealth Hoarders” chapter. That was a big section Dan was building up to. I should add that Dan got everything vetted nine ways to Sunday, not just by people at First Second, but using his political contacts, so these pages had been gone over by so many experts so many times. I was on a very tight deadline and that was easily the bleakest chapter of the book.

Dan is really good at wherever there’s something upsetting, he gives examples where people have combated it, but in the wealth hoarders section, the victories are so small and there was so much that came before it, that was really grueling. As my friends will attest, on page 201, that figure yelling “Nihilism!” – that’s not quite a self portrait, but that’s what I was feeling at the time. 

There is so much in here that is deeply depressing. For whatever reason I keep thinking about Senator Orrin Hatch, who helped create CHIP and a few years later tries to destroy it.

It’s crazy. That’s in the section about the takeover of the Republican Party. We tried to be as bipartisan as possible. The problem with politics is that both sides are beholden to whoever gives them money. There’s been a much more organized group of people that have seized control of the Republican Party. Hatch created CHIP and then went and tried to destroy it. He was bought and sold by his political donors. It’s upsetting and scary to see.

It’s interesting that you had such a tight deadline because flipping through the pages, there’s so much going on and so much variation to the pages and the designs.

There’s a couple big tricks. Having Dan being the “on camera” narrator was a great way of eating up space and do a lot of info dumps. You mentioned likenesses and that was my favorite part to draw. I haven’t drawn a lot of likenesses, but I felt like I was pretty good at it. There’s not a huge amount of backgrounds.

I want to give a shout out to my colorist Frank Reynoso. He’s one of my studio mates, so we were working next to each. He did a great job of tying this together. We wanted the text to be easy for people to read and absorb, so having the pages and panels be open like that, I think really helped. It wouldn’t be such a visually dense page that someone would look at it and think, I can’t read that. There was a lot of white space and simple color fields which made it easier for people to dive into.

Similar to having a blank or simple character that people can imprint on.

Yeah. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen Dan, but my drawing resembles him but it’s a simplified everyman version of him. It’s funny. I can draw Dan from memory now. [laughs] 

When did you have the idea of Dan being narrator and physically on the page?

Almost immediately. You see it reflected in the text. He speaks from the heart a lot. He inserted himself and talks about his own experiences. 

When you initially agreed to do this, did you have a model you were thinking of?

Obviously Scott McCloud. I also thought of Bob Sikoryak’s Apple Manual.

I should give you a little background on me because people know me for Olympians, but back in the day I used to work at Books of Wonder in Manhattan. My thing was I would make these quick comics all day and give them to my friends. Things happening in the store, making fun of them, things about books. I would probably make five to six of these comics a day. This came out of things I would draw in high school and before, just these quick silly cartoons. I’m always drawing these quick cartoons and Unrig was a way of tapping into that, a quick way to convey information.

I’m not reinventing the wheel but I can see how people who know me for my other published work sees this as a departure, but it’s actually drawing on stuff I’ve been doing all my life.

This looks so different from Olympians or Ball Peen Hammer or Journey into Mohawk Country

Some of it is the medium. Ball Peen Hammer was the first book I ever drew with a nib pen. I wanted it to look scratchy and weird. Olympians is mostly drawn with a nib and some brushes. Journey into Mohawk Country was all brushes. This was the first comic – though I drew some short comics for anthologies and some kids books – entirely digitally.

I drew it in Clip Studio. I have a Cintiq here and another in my studio and because it was such a tight deadline I bought an iPad so I could draw on the road. This is my first fully digital comic. This entire thing as dawn digitally and there’s a slickness to that. Drawing on paper the paper catches the ink, there’s a very tactical sensation to it. This made it easier to give it that loose cartoony style. Or at least how I interpreted loose and cartoony.

Doing it so quickly means that you almost don’t have time to overthink or reflect too much.

I also set for myself some weird rules. There gets to be this trap working digitally because you can zoom in infinitely and I set myself only a certain amount of zooms and only a certain amount of re-dos – because that Control-Z can be your worst enemy. I’ve seen one of my studio mates work digitally and redraw one whole panel all day. I can’t do that.

I’m sure some people think of my comics as sloppily drawn, but I like to think of comics and drawing as performative. It has to feel good for me as I do it. If it gets to a point where I’m erasing too much, there’s a point where the entire page feels tainted to me and I’ll start over. I’m in the middle of moving and I can’t believe how many pages were like that that I saved. I have almost completed pages – or even completed pages – of Olympians where I rejected them and looking at them now, sometimes I can’t tell what the problem was. But it has to flow and feel really good as you’re doing it. 

And drawing Unrig digitally felt good?

It really did. Once I was in that zone, you’re not feeling anything. I’d get to my studio by 10 or 11 a.m., sit down and start drawing. I was making a page every couple hours. I had sketches, but I was drawing as quickly as possible. I broke it down and didn’t think about it.

Besides the occasional bought of nihilism, part of making this was you wanting to do something productive and be glad it was a positive artistic experience, as well.

It was also nice to learn a lot. The book really explains that if you have frustrations with the way the government is run, you read the book and there’s so much back matter to show why things don’t work. Even though there’s a lot that needs to be done to unrig the system, having that understanding of how the system works makes more sense.

It’s not surprising that it comes down to money, since everything in the world comes down to money, but it’s money screwing up the system. The part that was really surprising for me was learning that there are people doing this on purpose. That they’re interested in the government not functioning. It’s not a side effect. They want the government to fail because they don’t want regulations and that was hard for me to wrap my head around. 

By the time you finished the book, did you walk away feeling less nihilistic?

Absolutely. The nihilism was a brief phase. Seeing so many of the things that were spelled out and that were being changed really gave me hope. I was lucky enough to get this opportunity to try to do something. I’m not going to be so hubristic as to say that Unrig is going to change the world – though it would be nice if it did – but to put something out there that’s a constructive use of my abilities and Dan’s abilities and First Second’s that will hopefully open a few eyes and start some dialogue and get people working on things. Now it’s interesting trying to get people to notice a book right now.

I know another one is out before end of year, with more books planned next year.

I spoke to Mark recently, and I believe there are 12 books under contract for the series. This was a real passion project for him. Mark is very politically minded and very thoughtful. I would dare say this is his main focus at First Second right now. He said, “This is important and we need to get these books out now.”

There’s some unparalleled stuff going on right now and that’s the whole point of this entire line. It’s a way to be a better citizen. There are crises happening in governments the world over. It’s a hard time, and education and critical thinking is the way forward. It’s so easy to find bad information out there and here’s a book which is easy to digest and has a lot of resources and information for people who want to learn more. I know not everyone will. Hopefully books like this will make people more open. 

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