One of the most innovative and beautiful comics of the past year has been Matt Fraction and Christian Ward’s Ody-C (Image Comics): a gender-swapped, psychedelic revisiting of the Odyssey in space — although, of course, it’s also much more than that. I talked to Christian Ward about reinterpreting myth, divine psychedelia, and the individuality of female heroes.
What immediately jumps out about Ody-C is that because it’s gender-swapped, it’s got a lot of women in it with a lot of different body types and skin colors, although because of the colors you use we’re not necessarily talking about standard human skin colors.
Yeah, there is a bit of fluidity with the skin colors. I mean, there definitely is a variety of skin colors and different sorts of people that I’m trying to represent, and having diverse body types, and more importantly realistic body types, is incredibly important in Ody-C. And one of the reasons why it is so important is we’re doing a book that’s about female empowerment – it’s about taking one of the kind of classic male heroes and the archetype of what it is to be a hero, and actually making him a her. Matt wanted to write a book where he was giving his daughter someone to look up to, and I wanted to show realistic body types, because obviously if we didn’t do that there’d be something wrong somewhere. But even from a storytelling point of view, it’s important because we have this very fantastic, very surreal world, and so we have to sort of have that element of realism so that it’s almost like an easier buy. So we can engage with those people because they – hopefully – feel like real people and they look like they could be real people. Even though it’s very stylized, not everything is completely fanciful; there’s an element of it that is grounded in reality.
Did Matt give you any hints as to how he pictured the characters or was it just, “Here’s the characters – go crazy”?
It’s very much been based on what I’ve wanted to do. I mean, I think the only note he gave me for the characters was that he was very specific about Odyssia being of very mixed heritage, kind of quite neutral, so she could be black or she could be Asian, or she could be white, so she represents almost everybody – nobody would read her and think, “Oh, she’s not for me,” or “She’s not my hero.” And that’s been a very conscious decision; even though she has got quite dark skin, it’s quite hard to pin down her ethnicity. But with her body type — she’s a warrior! So she’s got to look badass and she’s got to look strong. If she’s really slim and skinny, she’s not going to have that strength to her.
There’s a very psychedelic quality to the art – and that word gets overused a lot, but I feel like for Ody-C it’s very fitting. Is that because of the subject matter or is there something else to that?
Well, the psychedelic quality is the gods; it’s the gods’ influence on the story. And so what you’ll find is that when the gods aren’t really at play and it’s just women on a planet somewhere, it’s less psychedelic. And when the gods are about, it’s more psychedelic, and when space is involved it’s more psychedelic. That psychedelic quality is a signal that there are gods involved, so if you like it’s the visual interference of the gods.
Although this is a gender-swapped version of the Odyssey, it’s also very much its own story – not only is it in space, but there’s a whole new character in Sebex, who’s also a third gender (neither male nor female). How much would you say your approach to the art is a reaction to this being a retelling, and how much is it a reaction to the elements of it that are new?
Well, it’s both – I mean, it was important to me and Matt that it was its own thing. So the Odyssey is our seed, but we’re growing the tree and we’re letting it flourish and become what it wants to be, hence the introduction of the Sebex and the dramatic in-narrative reason why there are no men. It’s not just a binary swap, and as we go on, that’s going to play into it more and more. So it has to stand up on its own two feet. It cannot just be the Odyssey in space – it’s got to be Ody-C.
Was that narrative decision there from the beginning to have no men, or did that evolve as the series was planned out?
The original idea was a straight binary swap when we first started talking about it, even to the point where there were character designs of female characters [in the Odyssey]as male characters. Then Matt came up with the “no men” and the Sebex and brought in the Prometheus myth, where instead of stealing the fire she’s stealing sex and birth. We’ve allowed it to become its own thing, because I think when you’re creating a story or when you’re creating art, if you’re too rigid and think you know what it’s going to be, you’re not really going to let it be what it should be.
If you hadn’t done it in space, or if it had remained closer to the Odyssey in terms of being a classic of dudely literature, do you think you’d have been able to do it?
It wouldn’t have been what we wanted to do, but you absolutely could. I mean, what drew us both to it was our shared love of 60s-70s Euro sci-fi. That’s what we wanted to do initially: what would our Barbarella be? And it was thinking about what our Barbarella would be that led us on to Ody-C.
What is it about 60s-70s Euro sci-fi that connects to Ody-C (besides, for example, Barbarella being about a woman having adventures in space)?
It’s the aesthetics. I love the aesthetics of 60s-70s Euro sci-fi. To me, American sci-fi is very about technology – “What will this technology do?”, “Where will this technology take us?”, “How might this technology go wrong?” Whereas Euro sci-fi is far more organic, and it’s about alien life and alien experiences and alien emotions and states of being, which is far more existential. A lot of what I’m interested in is on that sort of wavelength, much more than just technology.
There are a lot of non-straight, meandering, flowing lines in Ody-C; is there a relationship between that aesthetic and the fact that none of the human characters in the comic are male?
Yeah, I wanted to create a female aesthetic, which is why all the spaceships are based on female reproductive organs rather than the traditional phallic spaceships, and I wanted to have a kind of softness to the lines. And again, like I was saying with the psychedelia, the panel structure becomes curved and is altered by the presence of the gods. If we think about the Odyssey, that’s the story of a man, a sailor, a warrior trying to travel across the sea and Poseidon controlling the sea to stop him. And so I wanted that sort of nudge and wink towards water and the sea, so that we’re respecting the DNA of what came before. Even to the point where I do space in the book, I want that to almost be underwater – it has that kind of liquid quality.
Last question: I don’t know if this is something you’re allowed to tell us, but if you are –
It’s all a dream!
You heard it here first, WWACers. But one reading of the Odyssey is that during his journey, the various people that Odysseus encounters are representations of female power. During the Trojan War, he’s hanging around with a bunch of guys, but in the Odyssey he has to deal with Circe and Calypso. Are we going to see something similar in the future for Odyssia and her crew, or is it going to remain an all-women (and Sebex) series?
…No…comment. Like I say, we will be playing with – it’s not going to be a straight binary swap, so some of the characters you mention may or may not be male and some of them may or may not be female. There will be some male characters, but some of the characters you mentioned aren’t going to be male. We are still going to look at relationships and how those relationships play out, but it will be based far more on human relationships than on female-male relationships. We’re going to look at Odyssia as a person and what her motivations are, rather than, “Oh, she’s a woman and these are what women’s motivations are” – they’re her motivations. And she’s also not necessarily always going to be represented as a “good” woman.
Odysseus is not a good man.
Exactly. I mean, we already know that she has a son back home, and weirdly, she’s not that quick to want to get home. Even though we want to create a strong woman and obviously I’m not going to say how the story ends, along the way she’s not necessarily going to be a role model as such. She’s going to be flawed, interesting – hopefully – but a very strong, real character.