When I inherited the fall 2022 Poetry and Visual Art class from a departing professor, I was deeply intimidated: before that semester, I had mostly taught introductory creative writing courses. My first instinct was to believe I didn’t know enough about visual art to teach with confidence—especially over Zoom, since I would be teaching remotely. But then I remembered that, like students, the best teachers enter the classroom (even a virtual one) with curiosity over expertise, and the course started to build itself. I knew I wanted to teach ekphrastic poetry and William Blake and visual poems and Claudia Rankine’s Citizen and poetry comics—poetry comics! Of course!
Even if I didn’t have a background in fine art (though I ended up managing classical paintings just fine, I think), I had my prior experience as a teacher, my deep knowledge of poetry and poetics, and—duh!—my much-time-logged as a comic book reader.
From there, the most uniquely-Kate unit of ENGL204 took shape: epic poems adapted as graphic novels. I had recently read the mind-numbingly gorgeous adaptation of Paradise Lost by the Spanish artist Pablo Auladell, and I knew I had to teach it. But I needed something else to launch the unit, and so ODY-C—which I first read in single issues as a college student myself—found its way into my poetry course.
ODY-C, created by writer Matt Fraction and artist Christian Ward, is a sci-fi, gender-bent, and queer version of Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey. The first volume, which collects the first five issues, is gruesome and psychedelic, filled with violence and sex. The conceit, at first glance, isn’t all that complicated: what if The Odyssey were a space journey, and all the original story’s men were actually women?
What makes the text interesting is its conceptual complications: ODY-C follows its protagonist, Odyssia, captain of the ship ODY-C, as she makes her way across the violent universe to her wife Penelope and their son, Telem. The trick is that, in this world, all the men have been destroyed, making male characters a precious and endangered commodity. Instead of men, the gods—many of them with shifting gender presentations themselves—created a new kind of child-bearing human: the sebex, who have feminine (but alien-like) features and pronouns. ODY-C, then, centers the stories of women and genderqueer characters—especially our hero, Odyssia—as they experience the violence of different worlds, creatures, and the gods’ dangerous machinations.
“Tell me about a complicated man.” So goes the first line of Emily Wilson’s 2018 translation of Homer’s epic poem, The Odyssey. Wilson is the first woman to publish an English translation of the epic, which is widely considered one of the most influential works of Western literature. The Odyssey has influenced writers of all kinds, from John Milton to James Joyce, from Rick Riordan to Madeline Miller. Wilson’s translation is remarkable for how it uses plain language familiar to a 21st century audience, making the original poem accessible to contemporary readers without the trappings of adaptations. Her translation is attentive to sound, form, and traditional epic conventions—few others can make iambic pentameter sound as natural to the contemporary ear as Emily Wilson.
Before discussing excerpts from Wilson’s Odyssey translation, I first asked my students if they had ever encountered The Odyssey before. A few mentioned reading other translations during high school; a few more brought up the Percy Jackson middle-grade book series by Rick Riordan. But as we discussed the excerpts, it became clear that, even working from a few short passages, the class knew the basic scope of the epic’s story: Odysseus takes a long, meandering journey after the Trojan war, encountering friends and monsters as he makes his way back home to his wife, Penelope, and their son, Telemachus.
Myself and the students—many of whom were women and/or queer—didn’t make much of Emily Wilson’s status as “the first woman” during class. The class’ interest in a feminist reading of The Odyssey would emerge much more vigorously once we turned our attention to ODY-C. After reading the first volume, which collects issues #1-5, the students had one burning question: is ODY-C a feminist text? And in response, I had another question as their teacher: does that even matter?
For most of my students, ODY-C was their first encounter with contemporary comics, especially outside of the superhero genre. And what a strange first encounter it must have been! A lot of students reported in discussion that they struggled, at first, with figuring out how to actually read this text: how to balance the language with the image, and then how to make sense of the “sequential” part of “sequential art.” Beyond that, the material itself isn’t particularly easy; between the violence, the nudity, the sci-fi elements, and the experimental narration style, I feel safe in saying the first volume of ODY-C was (and still is) unlike anything my undergraduate students had ever seen or read before.
That was certainly the case when I first read ODY-C back when it was still coming out in single issues. The first issue hit stands in the fall of 2014; I was in the midst of my sophomore year of college, wondering if I could keep justifying all the time and money I spent on comics when I had essays and novels and poems and tutoring and my bleak future as an English major to focus on instead. But then I picked up ODY-C, and comics captured me again.
Back then, when I was too busy grappling with the fraught poetic legacy of Ezra Pound (and my fraught essays about his literally incomprehensible poetry), I didn’t give a shit if ODY-C was potentially “problematic:” a gender-bent and lightly erotic Odyssey adapted by two cis white men. What did I care? It was a comic book about a poem, a comic book with a colorfully swirling cosmos, a comic book with sapphic, violent women at its center. In 2014, especially as I was just beginning to dip my toes into the world of indie comics, ODY-C felt transgressive and, honestly, like it was made just for me. I wanted to love it, and so I chose to love it.
Nearly ten years later, if I had introduced my students to any sort of slightly-left-of-mainstream independent comic from the 2010s, I could still claim that hypothetical comic would be unlike anything they had read before. Despite what I felt in 2014, it’s not like ODY-C is the only comic set in deep-space, or the only comic featuring women and genderqueer characters, or the only comic with Christian Ward’s psychedelic art, or the only comic with erotic and even fetishistic imagery and themes. What actually sets ODY-C apart from other comics nominally like it is its qualities as an adaptation of an epic poem—and not just any epic poem.
Western culture remembers The Odyssey for its iconic story and the episodes therein, but it’s also a repository of epic conventions still used by contemporary poets. From massive catalogs to sprawling epic similes, to study The Odyssey is to study the epic as a poetic form. If read with a close eye (and ear) and with the right context in mind, a new layer to ODY-C emerges, one concerned just as much with poetry as it is with science-fiction and gender.
From the first pages, Fraction’s writing attends closely to classic epic conventions, even when skewing them sci-fi for ODY-C’s specific purposes. The first issue opens, after a massive fold out featuring various maps, chronologies, and Ward’s depiction of the violent war that precedes Odyssia’s journey, on a black page with white text at its center:
SING IN US, MUSE
WITCHJACK AND WANDERER
WARLESS AT LAST
Like Wilson’s translation, Fraction has “translated” the poem’s invocation to the muse into a new language: English, yes, but also the highly lyrical, metrical, and occasionally vulgar narration unique to this reimagined version. What’s important here is that this page is an invocation to the muse, one of the key conventions of classic epics. The writer literally “invokes” the muse—a figure important especially to the ancient Greeks—so the muse will then help tell the story.
“SING IN US, MUSE.”
“Tell me about a complicated man.”
Though some of my students did focus on these epic and poetic elements during discussion—I will forever be impressed by one undergrad who pointed out how the narration is written in dactylic hexameter before I could even bring it up—they surprised me, as I always hope they do, by turning the class’s attention to a much broader concern: ODY-C’s treatment of gender and this comic book’s status as a “feminist” text.
We read and discussed ODY-C over the course of two 75-minute classes during the fifth week of the fall semester. The class met at 10:30 am—early enough in the day that a Zoom discussion is sometimes hard to wrangle out of reticent undergrads—and up until that week, the students were often quiet. Something about ODY-C, though, unleashed them; maybe it was the comic’s brashness, its unapologetic weirdness. In any case, the students were baffled by it at first, but baffled enough to share their bafflement. I was beyond delighted—I was over the goddamn moon as their little Zoom boxes filled with unprompted raised hands. Finally: they were eager to talk, and to talk about the assigned reading at that.
I try to begin each discussion, no matter the material, by asking students what they noticed about the text at hand, and our ODY-C classes were no different. I expected the students to focus on what they noticed about the text’s language—everything I pointed out above, perhaps centering my own interests a little too much in my expectations—but their noticings were all pretty much about Ward’s art.
This shouldn’t have surprised me so much, given that comics were a completely new medium for most of them, and this mature science-fiction comic in particular doesn’t pull any artistic punches. Some students made note of the focus on female genitalia (like the many-breasted cyclops that Odyssia and her crew battle), others the disembodied mouths that appeared throughout Ward’s cosmic layouts.
A few astute students noticed that many of the pages in ODY-C’s first volume are colored in pinks and purples, which, these same students pointed out, are colors associated with femininity. In issue one, for example, much of the swirling cosmos—as well as the interior of Odyssia’s personal chambers—are painted in different shades of pink and purple. Why, the class asked, would a text that aims to upend gender roles in an iconic epic poem reinforce gendered expectations using coloring? And, at that, why focus so strongly on feminine genitalia and other body parts?
Asking “why” and “how” questions of a text—especially when using a gender-forward or feminist lens—generally wields nuanced answers that reveal more about the text and its cultural context. But when words like “good” or “bad” enter the conversation, results get a little dicier.
The gist of the new question being asked by the class, however, was this: “is ODY-C a ‘good’ feminist text, or is it a ‘bad’ feminist text?” In other words: are these gendered elements (like the coloring) being used to uplift women and genderqueer characters, or are they over-simplified and derogatory?
To my mostly-Gen-Z students, the “good vs. bad” debate must feel essential—no one wants to get caught enjoying “bad” or “problematic” media on social media, where we might get torn to pieces for expressing the wrong kind of opinion. I understand that, and I’ve seen it happen, and I’ve felt it myself—I’m not that much older than my undergrads. I grew up on the Internet, too—but maybe a weirder, more accepting-of-strangeness kind of Internet, or maybe the right teachers got to me at the right moment, because while I agree with my students that ODY-C is deeply interested in depicting and problematizing gender in the epic tradition, I don’t think it matters if it’s deemed a “good” or “right” feminist text. The far more rewarding task is to question how gender functions in a given text, and so to ask what that function reveals about the text’s own ideologies.
Some of my students ended up hating this book because they felt its depictions of feminine gender expressions are patronizing and even too traditional—all that focus on pinks and purples and breasts. Still others found these elements to be empowering—a reclamation of the feminine in a truly violent and erotic context. Even after our week reading this poetic adaptation ended, I read more than one midterm essay arguing one way or the other—ODY-C is patronizing, ODY-C is a reclamation—and I’m still, honestly, thrilled that we spent an entire week engaged in a challenging discussion about a challenging text. For what it’s worth, though, I don’t think we actually arrived at an answer for the primary question: what does ODY-C actually have to say about gender, and how does it do the saying? How does gender function in Matt Fraction and Christian Ward’s ODY-C?
I can only give my own answer—different from my students’, likely different from yours. But I’m thinking about how invested the comic is in epic conventions and the actual history of The Odyssey; and I’m thinking about issue 2, where Odyssia abandons her sebex lover with the Lotus Eaters because she dared imply Odyssia didn’t actually want to return home (“Mother of Telem Odyssia halts not her furious stride after that”); and I’m thinking about how Odyssia brutally maims and manipulates the cyclops in issue four, just as Odysseus himself does in Book 9 of The Odyssey.
At its core, the original epic poem is a story about a man journeying home, at any cost, to his wife and child. At its core, and even beyond its use of meter and epithets and invocations, ODY-C wants to honor its ur-text—it, too, is a story about a woman journeying home, at any cost, to her wife and child. The flipped genders are practically inconsequential to that core story: the genderqueer and non-conforming gods are still selfish and manipulative, the battles are still violent (even when depicted in traditionally feminine color palettes), the desire to go home is still the protagonist’s defining feature. If anything, ODY-C seems to claim that gender and all its false constructs is secondary to the extremely human desire to reunite with our loved ones, no matter the bloody sacrifices needed.
For that reason, I still find ODY-C a transgressive reading experience, even almost ten years after the first time I opened the first issue’s cover. I certainly don’t find its treatment of gender patronizing, though I respect my students who did, and I understand the frustration: it’s not like I don’t want more comics about queer women written and drawn by queer women. Despite that, I almost find ODY-C even more fascinating because it was created by men—because I don’t feel as though this is a particularly empowering tale, either. I don’t feel better about being a woman, personally, after reading this book.
Instead, I feel an intense compassion for terrible “wolfclever” Odyssia and her space-faring crew, and I feel that compassion bleed through in Fraction’s poetry and Ward’s attention to minute facial expressions and frank, sometimes visceral nudity. I feel that compassion for O, and still I don’t much like her violence or her cruelty, and I definitely wouldn’t want to be stuck on a spaceship with her. But that’s not the point, is it? At least, it isn’t for me.
Odyssia is a terrible, selfish woman, and this is a story filled with terrible, selfish women. I can’t help but think: well, duh. Isn’t that the point? Doesn’t war make us all terrible, even the women? And don’t women and genderqueer characters deserve to be terrible, too? Even when they’re colored in pinks and purples?
I hope so, for my sake. Otherwise I’ll never be able to write bitchy little margin notes in my favorite pink pen ever again. Just like I’ve been doing since college. Just like I do now, teaching college students.
I’m teaching ODY-C again, this time in an advanced course specifically about poetry and comics, not just the broadly-termed “visual art.” I’m eager to give this book another whirl in the classroom, if only because I know the kind of impact it can have on students—even those who had a strong negative reaction to it had a strong reaction, which is far more exciting to me than dead-eyed disinterest. And while I’m also eager to center Fraction’s use of epic conventions in the coming course, I’m just as curious to see if the same questions about gender and Ward’s artistic choices will come up.
Actually, I’m practically positive they will. Maybe it’s better to say that I’m curious to see how I’ve learned to navigate those questions and so learned to help guide students to a more nuanced perspective on what a complex gender-forward lens might reveal about a comic as strange, bombastic, and truly poetic as this one.