In Part I of this article, “Not All-Men: On the Subject of “He” in Matt Fraction and Christian Ward’s ODY-C,” we looked at the presence and purpose of men and male characters in an almost completely female intergalactic version of The Odyssey. And, in Part II, we will now look at a sector of space still populated and ruled by men and what they and masculinity might mean and lead into in ODY-C.
Q’af is a moral parable, and not just because it is modelled after the Middle-East as illustrated in One Thousand and One Nights. It’s as though through Issues #6 to #10 Matt Fraction and Christian Ward took Egypt – which Menelaus and Helen visit in The Odyssey – and Mesopotamian mythology, mixed it with the aforementioned tales of Scheherazade, and painted it with the bright rainbow colours, lurid reds, and skeletal white horizons of a brutal and futuristic patriarchal dystopia with a little bit of Roman founding myth for good measure.
It is in Q’af that we temporarily move away from male characters and potential protagonists to examine a reality dominated, at least on the surface, by a mythos of toxic masculinity itself. In Issue #6, ODY-C’s gender-bent analogues to Menelaus and Helen, Ene and He, find themselves in this sector of space after the conclusion of the Troiian War. The problem is that they can’t escape it. Ever since the sector’s twin kings Hryar and Zhaman slaughtered Poseidon’s son the giant Humbabaddon, as I mentioned before their sector had been sealed away from the rest of the universe: with the added barrier of the mad god Proteus hunting attempted spacefarers on the periphery.
Between He’s reading of history, as the man reads stories and lore in his spare time when no one is watching or particularly cares about what he is doing, his subsequent encounters with the brothers and their own galactic order from Issue #7 onward, and Ene’s own time with other male travellers from the region it becomes clear that the brothers are the result of rape: their father being Herakles and their mother the humanoid Wolf. This in itself means little, save for their ancestry, and you can see the parallels here between the two brothers and Remus and Romulus of Roman mythology. They are further combined with Sumerian mythology through the slaying of the ODY-C equivalent of Humbaba the ogre: so in this the brothers are also analogues of the hero king Gilgamesh and his powerful companion Enkidu.
This conflation of different mythologies and deities is no new thing, of course. From Herodotus and perhaps even earlier than Homer himself, the ancient Greeks and perhaps other cultures of that time looked at their deities and considered them to be simply another country’s version of their own gods. But it is when we move past Greco-Roman and Mesopotamian mythology right into One Thousand and One Nights territory that things become truly horrific.
As it turns out, as the brothers were attempting to keep order in the empire that they had created once the gods had sealed them away from the rest of the cosmos, they had neglected their spouses whom, in their absence, began a series of affairs. These liaisons and orgies were discovered by the brother kings and ultimately led to them slaughtering their spouses and everyone else that attended them. As a result of that bloody night, the brothers began a ritual. They would marry any man, woman, or child in their empire and, after tiring of them, execute them and let their blood run down their pyramid: commemorating the pleasure of the flesh and preventing betrayal by remembering and punishing everyone for it. Through the warping of their masculinity – symbolized by their swords as phalluses, as twisted versions of penises destroying those in unsanctioned sexual acts and making brutal stratified substitutes in response – they instigated and perpetuate the ultimate pattern of violence and control: the real force that traps everyone within it.
This has been the status of Q’af: a space punished by the hubris of the brothers and tainting their reign with perpetual violence. It is a place without Sebex and where men are all too common. What is even worse, for He, is that Ene ends up leaving him behind in Q’af so that she can find a way to leave. It is here that He, trained his own whole life to believe he was special because he was one of the few men in existence, realizes he is even more redundant: until he finds a young boy who he grows to protect from the predatory society around him and eventually the kings that marry them whom he attempts to mollify with…. stories.
But what is truly fascinating is looking at He and another male character during this particular arc: an old man who follows Ene on her mission to confront Proteus and get herself out of the region. Throughout almost all of ODY-C, the captions for all the mortal characters are ruled by a dummy hexameter instead of the usual dialogue bubbles and free-verse speech. It always feels like there is a narrator, an omniscient narrative voice, telling the story not unlike Homer does in The Odyssey.
Homer was always said to be a blind old man who eventually wrote down the tales told to him to make what we know as The Iliad and The Odyssey. In One Thousand and One Nights, Scheherazade researches books and libraries that contain the lore of kings to prepare herself for telling the king stories. He has always read books that have pages and panels of illustrations: not unlike comics. The old man and his compatriots are the ones, however, that tell Ene another story in addition to that of the twin kings.
The old man tells her about a world, one they are seeking, where a group of men raped and killed a goddess. It was only after their buried her out of shame of what they did, that another curse took effect. It is a counterpoint to the continued slaughter of the two kings, only stopped by He’s stories, where the men that killed that woman dug up her bones only to find that they had spread and multiplied. From that day on, they had dug and built upon those bones: spreading them across their planet, adding them, and making a planet dedicated to rape and rapine.
This planetary boneyard, dedicated to Proteus and identified as a male god, is most likely made from the analogue to his daughter Eidothea due to how she shapeshifted after her murder, is a very effective metaphor: a place perpetuated, worshipped like onto a pedestal of sharpened bones and angles, and entrapping its perpetrators. On the surface, it looks like a blatant metaphor for patriarchy taken to its inevitable extreme and reflecting how most civilizations in our world have been created. But what gets me is the end of the arc, in Issue #10, for a few reasons.
It is in Issue #10 that the power of stories become prevalent. And the world of bones is a narrative. Like I said, it is a cage that traps its inhabits in a cycle of ravenous violence and a foundation for more twisted things. When Queen Ene finds Proteus, a terrible truth is revealed to her. The truth is that even though most men have been gone from her home for aeons, this brutal place of Q’af and its sector represents a wider presence in her society. Even if you strip the trappings of toxic masculinity away, they are still affected specifically by its underpinnings: by kyriarchy as a stratified system of class, oppression, rape and rapine symbolized by the Troiian War and how Ene and others have treated He. You can even see this in Issue #4 where Odyssia calls herself “All Men” and blinds the warped caricature of femininity that is the Cyclops: prompting the latter to reveal Fraction and Ward’s long-building punchline and wink at the current popular and Internet culture as the monster tells Poseidon her mother that the person who “rendered me thus” — in perhaps a nice double entendre for patriarchal society’s view of the aggressive feminine as monstrous – was “All Men.”
But as for Ene herself, she has internalized the cycle of violence. Even though she didn’t do it for glory, she followed this cycle almost unconsciously, unquestioningly: and that it is ingrained in her to that extent only makes it worse. In addition, there is the fact that if we, again, go by the fate of her male analogue Menelaus and his wife the two have children and, it is possible that Ene herself is a “breeder woman.” While there is nothing to particularly corroborate it in the narrative of the comics, there is Odyssia’s reaction to the “breeder girls” in her crew to consider: that while she accepts them, she doesn’t necessarily relate to their potential sexuality, and that may be an attitude representative of their society at large. Also, while it might be socially acceptable to sleep with and produce children with a man, even if Ene also has female and Sebex partners, Achaean society may always look askance at her for being married to a man.
As such, Ene constantly feels the need to assert her dominant femininity, her homosocial nature, not unlike how the ancient men before the extinction most likely enforced their concept of masculinity on their partners and society. So when it comes down to it, she is trapped in Q’af because, perhaps now, she realizes that she is a part of it, part of the rape culture that never died, still caged by the boneyard. After all, it’s no coincidence that the cover of ODYC #10 shows her surrounded by and completely soaked in what looks like an ocean of blood. And in the end, even though she may continue to pursue and struggle with Proteus like Melville’s demonized white whale, Ene deserves to be there.
As for the old man, he loses an eye from the encounter with Proteus but just like Odin losing his own eye he has gained an understanding. The story ends with him finishing off an entry, a narrative caption, with his pen in a book. It made me realize that it is entirely possible that this man is ODY-C’s Homer: that he is the one that wrote all those captions in dummy hexameter. It is particularly telling that, Issues #11 and #12 are in an entirely different form of writing, a Vaudevillian verse, once He and Ene’s arc is complete.
It can be argued that the boneyard in the sector of Q’af still underlies the rest of the universe, even Achaean Space. The lack of men has not stopped this: this sprawling skeletal necropolis of rape culture. In fact, the absence of them leaves a presence that many factions have explored in a variety of ways. Even Proteus, who is identified as male by Q’af’s inhabitants and the people of the temple of violation, but still sexually fluid like the other gods seems to represent the madness inherent in this cycle: perhaps an embodiment of Poseidon’s curse also trapped in Q’af due to the actions of the kings oozing down in frenzied resonance into the souls of all the sector’s inhabitants. This is what Ene will have to wrestle through, this deified and gendered concept of violence shifting from one state to another, and she has already lost a leg for it. Perhaps she might have better luck with the poisoned arrows that the goddess Innana dipped in her blood to kill her rapist Herakles in He’s story back in Issue #10.
Ironically, it is through such stories and these words that He and the old man explore their surroundings and attempt to make meaning from this seeming mess created by gods and mortals. It is stories that make people more than property and machines of violence.
Perhaps Matt Fraction and Christian Ward use “He” as more than just a Helen analogue, but more like a concept that poetry and hallucinogenic aesthetics force us to look at from a different perspective: that make us look at the world from another point of view. What do men mean, and what does masculinity become in a world where heterosexual procreation and old gender roles are redundant? What does this do to male characters? How does this change their universe? What happens when masculinity embraces empathy in hardship? What new stories can be made when the stereotypical gender is the Other in a female-centred reality? And if women in some elements of ancient Greek philosophy might represent sophia or wisdom, might not men in ODY-C be seen to symbolize sophia if you take Athena as Mentor into account, or idealized beauty, or something else: like mythologia, like stories? Maybe, in this world He and the old man are representative of a different perspective or gaze in a female-dominated society, much like how stories about female characters can provide a different point of view in our own paradigm.
Certainly it is rather telling that He – as part of a gender generally associated with it – is the only one, so far, to resolve conflict without resorting to violence. Perhaps Odyssia, maybe Orestes, and perchance Telem might give us some new narratives to follow in the continuing saga of Matt Fraction and Christian Ward’s ODY-C.