In the hands of Matt Fraction and Christian Ward, Ody-C is still the story of a rocky homeward voyage but Odysseus is now Odyssia, her crew is all women, and her ship is a C-shaped spacecraft. Fraction and Ward weave gender themes into their world-building but let Ody-C be a wild, muscular story about people.
Ward draws Odyssia as a broad-backed, white-haired military commander, and Fraction narrates her “waving her witch’s hand down like a mother who shushes her child.” There’s no contradiction, no question how strong that’s meant to be. Fraction wrote (in the back pages of one of the individual issues) that this gender inversion—and what it reveals socially and politically—is the core of the story’s thesis.
Fraction doesn’t just switch the genders in Ody-C—almost everyone is female. Zeus is female (mostly) and is still married to Hera, a goddess with a white beard. Zeus wiped out men to end human reproduction, then the goddess Promethene brought reproduction back with a womanly but intersex gender called sebex. Penelope still waits at home for Odyssia, but Odyssia also has a sebex mistress. Lesbianism is the default human pairing, female is the default human gender, and the story pulses with visceral female symbolism. You don’t have to care about any of that to enjoy the slap and smack of color against color, shape against shape, and word against word. Ward slams glittering hot pink against the rusty reds of battlefield carrion, the bright red of fresh arterial blood hitting the air, and darker reds of placentas, menses, and clotting. Fraction’s rhythmic words deepen the imagery with lines like, “the thick smell of wet coins, hot and heavy, hangs in the stifling air” and “her wolf in a cage on a farm in the stars.” When Hypnos gives Odyssia the idea for the Trojan Horse in a dream, Ward draws it as a fetal horse floating in concentric red circles.
At the helm of the Ody-C, she is “Witchjack Odyssia, womb-bound atop her bridge.” Across a whole page, Ward diagrams the space ship’s navigation in butterflied cutaways, like a living thing in vivisection. Its nested and interconnected chambers are arrayed in radial symmetry. Umbilical wetware connects Odyssia’s consciousness to her ship and her crew; the Ody-C only runs with mental harmony. Fraction calls the crew “mandala-women who keep the good Ody-C moving and well.” Some women are navigators and others are rigged up in amniotic pods, rowing with their whole bodies and thinking as one.
This is no matriarchal utopia, though. If the story has any message on gender, it’s the non-message that you could remove men and still have all the same problems. In Ody-C, sebex are as adjunct to the women as women are to men in other adventure tales. We don’t see a man with a speaking part until late in the story, but we catch uncomfortable glimpses of He (male analog to Helen of Troy) in bondage, and of Odyssia’s beautiful son who is kept like secret treasure. The story skips lightly over both representations. Meanwhile, the mostly-female gods read like bad, scary mothers—vengeful and unhinged when they aren’t seducing each other. At the center of all this is Odyssia, who isn’t sure she wants to go home to her wife. She punishes a disobedient crew-woman by throwing her out an airlock. She ditches her stoned lover with the Lotus Eaters. She almost ruins her crew’s escape from Cyclops with an impulsive act of vengeance. She is a threat to Zeus, but Zeus also refers to her as the little skin-bag. We recognize Odyssia’s imperfections, but we love her strength and bravery.
The male wizard Aeolus shows up near the end of this book, and the story bends around him and becomes more directly about gender issues—in a way that is unflipped and uninventive. The lone, powerful male has a harem of his own daughters. When they fail to produce his sons, he pitches them out into space. “Out here all girls are disposable,” one of them says. In another trusty fantasy trope, Odyssia escapes from Aeolus by distracting him with six crew-women. First there is an unnecessary nod to how open-minded Odyssia is about the women’s heterosexuality, which, of course, makes them the queers of their world. If Aeolus is a known creep and the women have been ordered to stay behind and sleep with him, does it really matter what their sexual orientation would be if they were in our culture instead of theirs? The idea that women are both powerless and powerful, but that both terminals pivot on women’s use in sex is the most blatantly gendered thing in Volume 1, and also the most business-as-usual. The Aeolus episode lands with a thud, familiar but out of place in a story we didn’t think was about a man’s world.
Near the end of Volume 1, when the Ody-C tears out of its moorings with a new Starheart (a magical engine) from Aeolus, we just see a rectilinear smear of distorted panels screaming to the right and down across the white space of two pages—more white space than we’ve seen in the story yet. There is no cooperation and this is no mandala. Odyssia’s mind and the ship are locked together, speeding like a bullet across space with no input from her crew. We see her teeth gritted, saliva flying out of the corner of her mouth—Odyssia doesn’t want to stop, slow down, share, or relinquish one ounce of her control. The sailors’ traditional way of navigating was polluted by the wizard’s Starheart, which he called “a key no lock can resist.”
Ody-C lets us see women as whole, complicated people. Odyssia isn’t just one tough tomboyish woman who manages to keep up with the men so we call her a “strong female character.” Odyssia and her top officers don’t just pass the Bechdel test when they are non-sexually naked during a hot tub war council. They obliterate the need for a Bechdel test, creating a world where women haven’t had to form an oppositional culture to men. For the space of time we are reading the book, we can lose the constant tension that comes from feeling everything refer back to and revolve around men. It de-queers queerness and makes it normal that masculine and feminine traits mix in different proportions in different people. And with all that in the background where it belongs, Fraction and Ward just let Ody-C be a story that breathes like a story and lives like a story. Ody-C explodes with color and is new and beautiful and exciting. The creators let Odyssia be the human being that smolders at the center of this bonkers display of their artistic and literary ability.
The fact that two men were the ones to feminize The Odyssey is all the better—it reminds us that stories about women are universal too. Despite the fresh take, Ody-C is about what the original was already about for thousands of years. It’s about how humans can be godlike but are also just gobbets of meat that can be snuffed out. It’s about adventure, heroism, fellowship, and letting yourself down sometimes. This story with all its blood and guts is a vessel, not a missile. The gender themes are not a message tied to an arrow or a brick smashed through the window. They are built into the hull of Odyssia’s ship and baked into the womb imagery of her world. And what could be more universal than wombs, shelter, heartbeat and oxygen? We all spent time in a womb. It’s where we became human.