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ODY-C by Matt Fraction and Christian Ward, Image Comics
The independent comic book industry is full of experimentation and variety both in art and narrative, and despite the current prevalence of them in our TV shows and films, it does not often get the credit it deserves.
Image Comics in particular has been producing an incredible quantity of great content in recent years. It’s a popular publisher for many comic book writers and artists because it is entirely independent from Marvel and DC, and entirely creator-owned, which means that if you release a comic with them, you keep creative rights to that character. Marvel and DC, however, keep the rights to anything you write with them; they could make a billion dollar movie out of your book and you wouldn’t get a penny. While this is understandably irksome to many writers (go look up the infamous Howard the Duck heist, for example), the most important advantage that an independent comic book publisher offers a writer is creative freedom: no fictional universe to squash your characters into, no gratuitous cameos from bigger heroes to improve readership, and no limit to how creative you can be. The only way a book like ODY-C could ever be printed is by an independent publisher.
ODY-C is one of the most insane premises for a comic book I’ve ever seen. Wired put it best: “A trippy, gender-flipped version of Homer’s Odyssey, ODY-C is an epic poem hurtling through space on psychedelic, science fiction wings.” As in the original, it begins in the aftermath of the Trojan (here, Troiian) war. The society they live in is totally alien to us and to its mythological origins; Zeus, having defeated the titans, killed Man eons ago in order to prevent the birth of any children who could challenge her. Life has only continued thanks to Promethene, who (in a reinvention of the mythological creation of fire) created a third sex capable of bearing children with women. There are almost no men in the comic at all, but for some gods, and the odd, mysterious exceptions to this divine ruling. In this strange, beyond-matriarchal society, Odyssia and her crew begin their 10-year journey home across space, encountering obstacles and challenges more nightmarish than the battles they leave behind. It is a dizzying, fantastical concept, and it’s realised in dizzying, fantastical style; Christian Ward’s art on the comic is what I imagine tripping, in space, in a room full of mirrors would feel like. Everything about it is beautiful – the lines, the colouring, even how it is set out on the page. But its complexity can mean it is unclear and difficult to decipher, and often feels like it totally eclipses the words on the page. I would pay money to get a look inside that particular pitch.
There is only one reason I can imagine why this was greenlit, and that is on the basis of its writer’s reputation. Matt Fraction is one of the rising stars of comics from the last 5 years. His work on the 2012-16 Hawkeye run at Marvel has received huge critical acclaim, as well as his ongoing Image series Sex Criminals. Matt Fraction is a draw for many in and of himself; he has a good enough reputation that many of his own fans will follow him, picking up the book simply because of his name on the cover.
I am myself a huge fan of Matt Fraction’s work, and it gave me a level of confidence in the book when I picked it up that I would not have had otherwise. But I can’t deny being drawn in first by the bonkers concept. Homer’s Odyssey is perfect for comic book adaptation: a series of episodic tales, full of action and monsters and feats of inhuman strength and ability. Exotic locations, and a cast of characters ripe for some of the incredible character design that comic book artists are known for. And to Fraction’s credit, he was not content to simply adapt the story – one format, one genre, to another. ODY-C not only exists within its sci-fi reimagining, but engages with it and all the themes around gender and war that it raises. Not to mention the highly ambitious attempt to write it in verse as well; in case that puts you off, I don’t mean verse in the sense of a poem set out next to the panels, perhaps with some forced attempt at rhyming. The writing in this is lyrical, rhythmic and fluid, scattered across the page as narration and speech, so that it interacts with Ward’s art in fascinating ways. As I mentioned before, Fraction has gained a reputation for being a good writer, but the mind boggles at the length to which he has gone to stay true to his concept.
This book is not easy reading by a long shot, but I cannot pick it up without finding myself sucked into its beautiful writing and artwork. I would encourage anyone else with an interest in it to do the same.