How I Became a Feminist: Matt Fraction and Christian Ward Talk ODY-C

odyc3ODY-C, from Matt Fraction and Christian Ward (by way of Image Comics), initially tells the story of Odysseia, a warrior returning home to her family in far Ithacaa, victorious following a years-long war. Sound familiar? The series sets the events of Homer’s ages-old epic in space—and eliminates males from the story almost entirely—while retaining the key plot points of the ancient Greek myth, as well as the poetic meter of the text. It’s utterly mad, but also fascinating, and beautifully designed and drawn. December sees a deluxe hardcover edition of the modern epic’s first cycle hit stores, and we were fortunate to have a wide-ranging chat with its two creators about Homer, the sad history of women in western lit, dactylic hexameter, and Gloria Estefan.

Did ODY-C begin with Homer? With you wanting to do a take on The Odyssey? Or was there another story you wanted to tell that fit into the mold?

Matt: There were two seperate strands that work together. The first was wanting to work with Christian. Coming together, we sort’ve had key words; a vibe: Barbarella! Jodorowsky! Heavy Metal comics, the ’70s, Cirque du Soleil/Crazy Horse-style colors and bodies and space stuff. And then I wanted to write Wonder Woman for my daughter; and then I thought about The Odyssey as the foundational story of western literature. My daughter adores her mother, and I knew she’d adore a story about a mother trying to get back to her daughter. So it was like: I’ll re-write The Odyssey! For kids! And then I started to realize how wildly inappropriate for children that is. And then as Christian started to draw, we got into a race to see who could go crazier first.

It’s got a crazy vibe. It took me several pages to get into the rhythm and get a feel for how to approach it as a reader.

Matt: Once we started our homework, the formalism of the piece started to present itself. If there were a true making of ODY-C chapter, it’d have to contain 80 different emails and 400 pages of drawings and 9 notebooks and 73 reference books. It’s almost a comic that’s created by creative collage. But, the ancient Homeric Greek had a rhythm. A patter. So, what if we wrote it like that? And what if there’s no dialogue? Because of the meter, all these rules presented themselves. As Christian started to draw and produce pages, we’d figure it our more and more.

ODYC 5How deep did the research go? We all know the basic plot points from third grade. As far as language, setting, all that, how much further did you go?

At this point, Matt points out a shelf and a half on his office bookshelf.

Matt: …and a lot of it’s ongoing. We decided that it’s really about three queens, not just Odysseia. But I get to buy and read a lot of books. Things like: trying to figure out the English version of dactylic hexameter. Ancient Greek had long and short syllables—we don’t have that, but we have stressed and un-stressed. Da-duh-da, da-duh-da, da-duh-da.

The text has that pounding rhythm. It feels a little like you’re being hit with it. It’s kind of a neat trick. 

Matt: Gloria Estefan and her Sound Machine taught us that the rhythm is gonna getcha.

So true. Christian, in coming up with the visuals, was that sort of historical research part of your thinking, too? Or were you looking to do something completely different?

Christian: It had to have a starting point with the original, with The Odyssey. If that’s not where it started, then there wouldn’t be any truth to it. So I came to it from a different place than Matt, because they don’t teach The Iliad or The Odyssey in schools in the UK.

Matt: Really?

Christian: Yeah, I know. At least not my school. So I knew it, because it’s within our culture, but I wasn’t a slave to it. I just sort of knew the archetypes. So really it was just a case of looking at those archetypes and researching—for instance, with the gods: Did they have a symbol? What were they known for? Looking at the personalities and then trying to visualize that. I was trying to honor those characters and what they represented, rather than honoring what they initially looked like. Simple things, like I knew I wanted space to look like water, because in the original story he was travelling across the sea. I knew I wanted Poseidon to have a reference to water. It was callbacks, but it very quickly became its own thing. The story that me and Matt wanted to tell—Barbarella, etc. It was just throwing everything in: from fetish stuff to high fashion to 70s funk and just sort of mixing it all together. Each issue, there’ll be one or two character or gods that I’ll have to create, and I think I’ve got the visual patter down now, so I kind of know what looks like ODY-C and what doesn’t look like ODY-C. It’s a lot of tension between very contemporary things and very un-contemporary things.

ODYC 6Matt: I do a book called Casanova with two twins from Brazil (Gabriel Ba and Fabio Moon), and I’ll make a ton of references to American stuff that they simply don’t know, so they don’t have the baggage that goes along. They can just Google stuff and see it, but come at it totally fresh with a totally new take, removed from cultural baggage.

A lot of times, the temptation is to play to the pastiche rather than the original idea.

Matt: Yeah. It can’t be an homage if you don’t know what you’re homaging.

I have a lot of questions about the gender angles of the books, because that’s certainly one of the most interesting angles. So, when you were both designing stuff, were you thinking about the gender angle with every single piece? Am I reading too much in when I see Odysseia’s ship, and it’s curvy and a little less like a more phallic ship piercing the ocean?

Matt: That was all Ward, man. That level of…it’s called yonic design, rather than phallic design. “Maybe they should be circles,” I think was maybe my note in the script, and Christian was like: “Maybe they’re uteri!”

Christian: Yeah, because I think originally I had a design for one of the ships, and I was trying to make it one of the very classic designs with the face on the front. And I think Matt said we need it to be more iconic. And it was just like a lightbulb.

Matt: There’s an amazing story about James Cameron, the first time he was working for Roger Corman. And they were doing a Star Wars knock-off…they didn’t know what that film’s Millenium Falcon was going to be. Roger Corman liked boobs…so he basically made flying boobs, and that was the ship that Corman picked. Cameron got a promotion. Flying t— in space!

ODYC 9Christian, to your credit, I think your stuff is a little more subtle.

Christian: It does have some unsubtle parts to it. The ship does have a vagina at one point.

So, Odyssey with almost no boys…in space. What does changing the gender mix do for you? Does it bend it? Does it break it? Does it just work somehow? And I guess it’s a two-part question: what does putting it in space do?

Matt: I had to take the text as given. As ur-text. They say this thing happened, it happened. It’s verbatim. To read The Odyssey like that now is ridiculous, right? It’s full of fantasy elements. So to avoid that kind of disconnect…as a science fiction piece, the fantastic and the impossible are in the mix. It doesn’t necessarily break your suspension of disbelief because it’s a crazy outer space story. Also, it just looks cooler. I’ve always liked space more than fantasy. The minute an elf shows up, I fall asleep. But put a green guy in a space ship, and I’m in.

The gender break-edness of it, for me, makes it a piece about the way men have treated women in literature literally since we started writing things down. The three most influential things I’ve read about The Odyssey were Odysseus in America by Dr. Jonathan Shay, which is a view of The Odyssey as a portrait of post-traumatic stress disorder. Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad, which is a retelling from Penelope’s perspective. And Herodotus’ The Histories, which is the first time someone decided to write something down so that we’d remember it. And literally the fourth paragraph, in the first time that somebody decided we should write down human history, blames Helen for her own abduction. “No woman never gets kidnapped who doesn’t kinda want it.” I think it transcends misogyny and just goes straight into gynophobia.

It’s baked into the cake of the stories we tell, and have been telling since the beginning of our telling stories. And men, especially white men, especially straight white men, aren’t asked to cross-identify. When you put a princess in a tower and a prince comes to get her, it’s a hero’s quest. Put the prince in the tower, and the princess comes to get him: it’s farce. Or parody. So to really explode that structure means taking it all the way. And not just making the boys girls and the girls boys, but killing all men and really exploding things and showing how different literature looks when you invert traditional gender politics. It’s been a learning experience for me, just as a reader. I’ve not been often asked to cross-identify. And isn’t that interesting? When you extend it through, what does it do?

We had this amazing email thread: if you dress a man the way you dress women to advertise sexual potency and virility, what would you design a man’s outfit to be? Genital ornamentation for length and girth. Lots of thrusting power emphasized. Chaps, things that emphasize glutes. Face doesn’t matter…make him look like  a bull. What does slave boy Leia look like? As we call her in my house: Jabba-killing Leia. We’re not taught to think like that. This is what you’re simplifying a woman to, so what happens when you simplify a man in a  similar way, and why does it feel like ridiculous parody?

ODYC 8
That seems like metaphor for this book. You can put a guy in the slave Leia outfit, it’s not the same thing as making a male version of that. But they both wind up feeling ridiculous depending on how you’re looking at it. 

Matt: And it reduces someone to sexual availability and fertility.

So, this is a dumb question at this point: But, you don’t find any secret feminist subtext in The Odyssey that you needed to pull out?

Matt: It started out with me wanting to tell an adventure story for my daughter. And The Odyssey wildly inappropriate for children for all sorts of reasons, not the least of which is the gender politics. I was taught The Iliad and The Odyssey by a brilliant man, and at no point did we talk about how f—ed up the gender politics were. A bunch of guys just hanging around to have sex with Penelope so they can get her money. For ten years she fed them, and she’s just a safety-deposit box key. [Have sex] with her and the money falls out. “How I became a feminist.” That’ll look great on the website.

ODYC 4 We’ll make it the pull quote. I’m just thinking about learning the thing in school, and it was all about the scary monsters.

Matt: Were they sirens? Or was it a whorehouse? Were the lotus eaters? Or was it an opium den? It’s more fun to be messed up with your buddies and out partying, having sex with prostitutes than coming home and being a father. I started asking how I could be away from my family for ten years. Of the ten years away, nine and a half were spent holed up with Calypso.

And he chose to go away in the first place.

Matt: Looking at Odysseus as both a portrait of post traumatic stress disorder, and also as a character who didn’t want to not have a mission. That unlocked the character for me. He’s a guy who’s going to put everything in front of himself to keep himself on duty.

With Odysseia, making that character a woman. What changed for you in terms of the personality? What are some differences? 

Matt: The point is that there aren’t key differences. The whole point is to not separate Odysseus from Odysseia. Yes, Odysseia is a woman, but her actions are the same as Odysseus. And what does that mean? How do we view a woman that does that versus a man? She leaves a lover behind on the lotus world who spoke truth to her. The point is in studying our reaction to seeing a woman behave like a man in historical literature. When it’s a woman, suddenly we go “wait a sec…” Or maybe it’s just me. Why do I feel different about it when it’s a woman?

odyc1

What kind of feedback have you guys gotten? Social media can be really…interesting when it comes to female-centric material.

Christian: I don’t remember getting any negative. It didn’t work for some people. But I’ve not been aware of any backlash at all.

Matt: And I quite honestly don’t pay any attention to it. It doesn’t help in the production of a thing. But the people who love it LOVE it. And there’s a ferocious loyalty and a zealotry. It feels like such a weird baby. It’s in verse, and it’s in space, and it’s a hard read. And there are these people that love reading it, and they’re amazing.

Anything coming up next? Other projects or the future of ODY-C?

Matt: Cycle 2 will pick up later in the year. It’ll echo the shape of the first cycle. We’re gonna do five issues with Odysseia, five issues with He and Gamem, and then two issues following the fall of the house of Atreus.

ODY-C: Cycle One is available on December 13.

Follow B&N Sci-Fi & Fantasy