Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Review - ODY-C, Volume 1: Off to Far Ithicaa by Matt Fraction and Christian Ward

Short review: The war against Troiia is over, and now Odyssia must make the long journey home to Ithicaa in the star ship ODY-C, braving dangers along the way as the Olympian gods work both to help and hinder her.

After the long war
Intrigues of gods and women
Comes the long journey

Full review: The various blurbs on the cover of ODY-C: Off to Far Ithicaa describe it as a gender-bent version of The Odyssey told as a psychedelic space opera. That is all true, and yet that description seems to suggest that the book is somewhat less than it actually is. It is gender-bent, at least to the extent that all of the characters are female, or at least non-male, but the change isn't merely a shift to have a twist, but rather an integral element of the story. The story is a space opera, and in some ways it is almost a transhuman space opera, but it doesn't seem to really be psychedelic other than in the art style. But what sets ODY-C apart from the norm is that it isn't so much a retelling of The Odyssey as it is an almost entirely new edifice built using the previous work as a foundation.

The story of ODY-C follows The Odyssey in broad strokes. The central character is Odyssia, one of the victorious captains in the lengthy war against Troiia, who begins the book due to set out for her home in distant Ithicaa to return to her family in the star ship ODY-C. Her journey is aided by some of the Olympian gods, and hindered by others, leading to a series of adventures starting with Lotusworld, then the Cyclops, and finally Aeolus, covering the early portions of the original epic poem. Intermixed among these adventures are the maneuverings of the various Olympian gods as they weave intrigues against one another that affect the crew of ODY-C both to advance their personal agendas and also to serve as entertainment. But the story follows Homer's version only in a very loose sense, with the specifics having been changed and many of those details that did migrate from the original to this version taking on an entirely different significance than they previously had.

Given that this is a retelling of Homer's epic poem, it is probably quite helpful for the reader to have some familiarity with The Odyssey, at the very least so as to be able to see the references to the original, and appreciate how the various elements have been changed. One important note is that the format of the story is not the usual for most graphic novels, with speech bubbles and individual dialogue. Instead, the story is presented as an illustrated epic poem, with the text presented with the appropriate formality, complete with numbered stanzas. This means of formatting the story serves to give it a legendary, almost mythic, feel, but it also serves to make the story seem distant and alien at times. It is also an unusual means of telling a story, and if one is not prepared for a story told in this manner, it could possibly be off-putting, as it presents the characters and plot using rhythms that are not commonly used in most modern fiction.

While the reversed genders of many of the major characters from The Odyssey is the most apparent change on the surface, the alterations run much deeper, and in much more interesting ways. Early in the book the reader is briefly introduced to He, the reason that Odyssia and the rest of the Achaea laid siege to Troiia, described as a once proud man brought low to serve as a pet for Ene. The lack of male characters is explained in the text as being the result of a decree by Zeus who feared that she would be supplanted by one of her children. To prevent this, Zeus destroyed all (or at least almost all) men, and declared that no woman could bear any new ones. In this light, the war over He, apparently one of the very few men left alive, takes on larger significance, as does the existence of Telem, Odyssia's long-neglected son left behind in Ithicaa.

Against this backdrop, casting Promethene as a genetic engineer inspired by the Lotus plant to develop the sebex, a new gender capable of pulling an ovum from a woman and carrying it to term, birthing either a woman or a sebex. Thus Zeus' decree is followed to the letter, but violated in spirit, allowing for the creation of new generations of children, much to Zeus' dismay. In this vision, Promethene doesn't bring fire to humankind, but rather the ability to reproduce after Zeus tried to take it from them, a subtle but significant change to the original myth. Aeolus also sees change in this version of the story, taking the form of an engineer who specializes in star ship engines, but also turning out to be a man obsessed with breeding a male heir, and served by his multitudinous female progeny. This reveals one of the somewhat hidden costs of Zeus' elimination of men: In addition to the lack of male children, those women whose tastes don't incline towards other women, or even to sebex, are denied intimate affection. In a violent world, Zeus' actions seem to have had the effect of making things more violent and unstable, paradoxically rendering her more vulnerable.

Oddly, despite it being the most famous section of the story, Odyssia's encounter with the Cyclops is probably the least interesting passage in the book. Perhaps because of the familiarity with it, the story of how Odyssia is trapped by the Cyclops and then blinds the creature before escaping with the remnants of her crew is simply not particularly compelling, despite the grotesque depiction of the monster, and the harsh and bloody portrayal of the conflict. The only truly interesting thing about this encounter is the switch from the original story: Where Odysseus fooled the cyclops Polyphemus by telling it that his name was "Noman", in this version Odyssia informs the creature that her name is "All-Men", presaging her taking symbolic retribution against the gods by blinding Poseidon's descendant. For all of the cruelty displayed by the cyclops, the impact just isn't as great as that provided by the harshness displayed by Odyssia herself in other sections, such as when dealing with the wayward crew woman Xylot, or the desperate sebex Ero. Dismembering and eating women in blood-soaked scene of cannibalistic mayhem is shocking, but not as emotionally hard-hitting as passing grim and unyielding judgment upon one's closest companions.

The violence depicted in the graphic novel is not limited to the story line with the cyclops. The level of death and dismemberment presented by the artwork is appropriate to the Homeric source material, which is to say that the violence is pervasive, brutal, and often gory. Even something as distant from warfare as the scene involving the birth of Apollo results in a bloody mass of viscera spread across the panel. As one might guess, this is not a graphic novel aimed at children, or possibly even younger teens. In addition to the unwavering gaze directed at the ruthless savagery of the gods and heroes, there is a fair amount of sex and nudity as well. Although this element is is not depicted nearly as graphically as some of the violence, it is not particularly subtle either. Despite, or possibly because of, the gore and nudity, this is a beautifully illustrated book, with at times surrealistic depictions of its fictional world rendered in bold, bright colors.

ODY-C: Off to Far Ithicaa is a beautiful and disturbing work. This is not so much a retelling of The Odyssey as it is a recasting of it, using the framework provided by the previous work to tell a story that contains a collection of characters and scenes that will be familiar to those who have read the original, but using them in ways to tell a tale that is thematically very different. Although much attention has been paid to the gender-bending nature of the story, it isn't so much that gender has been bent, but that the entire narrative has been bent to make an entirely new story that is at once reminiscent of the original, and yet a new creation as well. ODY-C is, in the end, a lushly illustrated epic poem full of bravery, cruelty, love, lust, intrigue, vengeance, and beauty.

Potential 2016 Hugo Nominees

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  1. I agree, this was a beautiful book. The art was spectacular! They should really specific that it's not quite so gender bent, since going into it I was expecting some very different things. I do love how the lack of male characters really adds to the plot and changes things in a unique way. Great review!

    1. @Sam Frost: Saying that ODY-C is gender bent Homer is both completely accurate and seems woefully inadequate. The book does so many things that it is hard to actually describe it. And I agree: It is beautifully illustrated.