“You are my density.”
That was pretty much my response to the first reading of Matt Fraction and Christian Ward’s ODY-C. And my second reading as well. This is a dense, idea-filled very “inside baseball” comic book. Fraction ventures into Alan Moore country with this one, stuffing a comic full of literature and mythology references and all the while offering little in the way of narrative “help” to the reader. The writers know what’s going on here. The characters seem to as well. As for the reader… well, third time through I started to get it.
This book resembles something from the glory days of 2000AD, particularly a story like Moore’s The Ballad of Halo Jones. The female-oriented story and the lack of an obvious patriarchal setting is only the most superficial of similarities. ODY-C takes after the ambition of a book like Halo, fearlessly creating an original world using psychedelic techniques mean to overwhelm and derange the senses (particularly one’s sense of colour) and totally immerse the reader in a completely unfamiliar environment. For the most part, it works.
It’s difficult to tell how well it works, honestly, judging from only one issue. This is one of the conundrum us comics reviewers sometimes face. Imagine having to review Star Wars based on only the first 15 minutes. (All right, those first 15 are pretty cool in Star Wars.) With a world this dense and unfamiliar, one can really only judge the tone at this point, and the word that keeps coming to mind is… dense.
ODY-C is essentially a science fiction/fantasy re-telling of The Odyssey, except with an all-female cast and scrambled sexual politics. It follows the basic story from Homer quite closely, once you dig through all the “futurespeak” and day-glo visuals. Odyssia, one of “Achaea’s Great Conqueror-Queens”, having just sacked the world of “Troiia”, is heading home. She meets with her two sister-Queens “Gamem” and “Ene” for a celebration of their victory. As part of that celebration, they have the hero of Troiia (“Troiia’s Proud Man”) kept as a pet in full bondage gear, on a leash, being led around on his hands and knees. I suppose this is meant to be a funny little aside – an amusing bit of “revenge” humiliation. I couldn’t help thinking of what the reaction to this book would be were the genders reversed. (Feminism does not equal cruelty or revenge porn.)
In any case, the three Sister Queens celebrate and with the very Matt Fraction-esque declaration “Fuck the war” mixed up with extremely stuffy and formal dialogue, they’re off. Fraction’s style shines through, as does his subversive and irreverent sense of humour. This extends even to the visuals, where Odyssia’s ships look like nothing so much as used sanitary napkins, and the occasional bursts of succinct, vulgar dialogue mixed in with the refined and classical style.
This first issue is primarily concerned with showing us how the world works. On this design, Fraction is very clever in the way he integrates the ancient and the science fiction, having ships “rowed” by “slaves”, just as in the Greek myth, but in this case the slaves are all female and their “rowing” consists of being kept in a tank of some sort of fluid, influencing the ship with their minds. (This is termed “swimsleeping”.) Odyssia encounters some raiders and dispatches them with quick, brutal violence.
It’s in the almost obligatory post-battle “bedroom” scene that we see a bit more of Odyssia’s character and the door opens to a deeper emotional story for Fraction to tell in future issues. Odyssia’s lover is called a “Sebex”, named “Ero”, a person of indeterminate gender but who is clearly the romantic companion of the Captain. It is to Ero that Odyssia reveals that she’s homesick, dreaming of “Ithicaa” and the baby she had to leave behind. It’s the regret of the person who travels professionally, who enjoys success but at the cost of a regular family experience. It’s certainly a universal sentiment, one Homer himself understood, and Fraction and Ward supply Odyssia with the correct emotional tone. Odyssia, as we see later in this issue, is more humane than many of her colleagues, and tries to stop the execution of a crewmember who one of the Captains decides is not up to snuff. This ambivalence about violence seems destined to be a recurring theme.
Christian Ward’s art, heavy on the pinks and the blues, give this book an almost overwhelming visual sensibility. It reminds me of why those old 2000AD books worked well in black and white. Colour would almost be one step too far, and here it almost is.
But one thing about ODY-C: It’s never dumb, and it’s never boring. For that reason alone, it’s probably worth sticking with this creative title.