The Greek gods — they're just like us in 'Lore Olympus'
If you tend to click on those trend pieces telling us what Gen Z is up to (heck, who doesn't?) you've probably heard that the kids today are very into nostalgia. We're told that twentysomethings are playing first-gen video games, reminiscing about Beanie Babies and decorating their apartments in grandmillenial style. If you needed further proof that a sentimental vibe is thrumming through the zeitgeist, you'll find it in the smash hit webcomic Lore Olympus. Racking up hundreds of millions of views since its debut in March 2018, Rachel Smythe's stylish creation has helped propel the Korean comics platform Webtoon to worldwide success practically overnight. Sure, aspects of Lore's style may look cutting-edge — it's obviously created entirely on a digital drawing app, for one thing, with no pen and paper in sight. But its inner heart is as backwards-looking as floral upholstery and reruns of Friends.
Lore Olympus is a retelling of Greek myths, particularly the myth of Persephone's abduction by Hades, king of the underworld. Persephone's story dominates this book, which collects episodes 1-25 (the webcomic is now on episode 178). But though the Persephone-Hades relationship is at its center, Smythe ponders and plays with virtually every other god and mortal we know from ancient mythology. As such, the unspoken theme that lurks in Lore — and, when you think about it, lurks in any work that updates a classic story — is a conservative one. It's the idea that, no matter how much society has changed, classic stories are still relevant. They still have plenty to tell us because we're not, at bottom, all that different from the people who dreamed them up hundreds of years ago. This contention seems to suggest a rather depressing corollary, though: Maybe those classic stories aren't just relevant, they're sufficient. Why do we need new stories at all? We're still the same people.
But Smythe's take on classic myth is anything but hidebound. These gods play the same interpersonal games that dominate today's sexually frank, cell-phone-mediated social world. The first time we see Persephone, she's planning to wear a toga-style robe to Zeus' big party. "You can't wear that!" her friend Artemis tells her. "You look like a relic." When the nymph Minthe wants to manipulate Hades, she ghosts his texts; Hades, meanwhile, ignores texts from Persephone because they're headed "User Unknown." Most importantly, Smythe's Hades doesn't kidnap Persephone at all. Instead, Aphrodite has Eros — a flighty guy with a shopping addiction — get Persephone drunk and hide the passed-out girl in the backseat of Hades' sports car. (Later in the book Persephone is roofied, however, so readers sensitive to depictions of sexual assault should steer clear.)
Lore's characters may be inspired by the original stories, but they act less like their millennia-old versions than like young people of today. Some of Smythe's updates are about what you'd expect, like when she casts the brothers Zeus, Poseidon and Hades as club-hopping party boys and has Artemis describe Persephone's mom Demeter as a "helicopter." But many of Smythe's choices establish her characters as decidedly of the now. Guilt-ridden over what he did to Persephone, Eros shows up at her and Artemis' apartment with "apology donuts." When Hermes and cool-guy Apollo stop by, the quartet play a board game and heat up dinner in a Crock-Pot.
At the same time, though, Smythe wants her readers to reflect on how the antiquated values that have shaped social relations since the time of myth persist in our modern era. This agenda appears most clearly in the book's art. Though she makes lavish use of all the showy visual effects that drawing apps put at artists' fingertips, she also uses shapes and images borrowed from cartoons created half a century ago. Her faces seem to be inspired by an unlikely forebear: They have the yearning eyes and pointy noses of Jules Feiffer's people. Sometimes she inserts deliberate anachronisms to remind the reader that this isn't just the modern world with gods in it, but a world that's both ancient and modern at once. At one point two gods call one another using corded phones. Another time, a god is seen reading an actual newspaper (the very notion!).
The sense of anachronism is particularly strong in Smythe's female characters, most of whom have absurdly exaggerated hourglass figures and dress in extremely revealing outfits and high heels. It's a choice Smythe seems to have made in order to point out how retrograde today's skimpy fashions are. With huge, innocent, heavily lined eyes and ridiculously bodacious curves, Persephone in particular looks like a mid-century male's fantasy of the ultimate submissive sex toy. Once she's tricked out in the barely-there dress Artemis finds to replace her toga, she bounces around like one of those nearly-naked women in LeRoy Neiman's old Playboy cartoons.
The diverse, subtle ways Smythe reiterates her central question — which can be summed up as something like, "How have we changed in the past two millennia? How have we stayed the same?" — make this book a great read for anyone who's thought about the stubbornness of human nature and the resilience of classic tropes. Such topics may not be of particular interest to that many of Lore's millions of fans. But anyone who's drawn into Smythe's world will appreciate its beauty and wit, and few will escape its seductive ambiguity.
Etelka Lehoczky has written about books for The Atlantic, The Los Angeles Review of Books and The New York Times. She tweets at @EtelkaL.
Images excerpted from LORE OLYMPUS: Volume One by Rachel Smythe, copyright 2021 by Rachel Smythe. Used by permission of Del Rey, an imprint of Random House Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.