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'ODY-C' writer Matt Fraction talks about creating a comic epic

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Think of Homer’s classic tale, The Odyssey. Now think of The Odyssey, but re-imagined as a gender-bent sci-fi space adventure—and in comic form. Sound intriguing? That’s the premise of Image Comics’ Ody-C, from writer Matt Fraction and artist Christian Ward.

As the Eisner Award winning genius behind acclaimed titles such as Sex Criminals, Hawkeye and The Invincible Iron Man, Fraction is no stranger to crafting narratives that are as smart as the are compelling. But gender-bending one of the most complicated classics ever written? Well, that’s an entirely new challenge altogether.

In advance of the comic’s debut next week, EW spoke with Fraction about bringing ODY-C to life, a little book called Sex Criminals, and that darn half-marathon he just ran.

EW: I obviously don’t have to tell you how crazy this year has been—Sex Criminals and Hawkeye winning Eisner Awards, Sex Criminals landing on the New York Times Bestseller list, and now the release of Just The Tips and ODY-C. Not to mention the fact that ODY-C has had buzz surrounding it from pretty much the moment it was announced back at January’s Image Expo. Have you had a moment yet to kind of sit back and reflect on everything?

MATT FRACTION: No—no, god, no. It’s been one astonishing thing after the next. Chip [Zdarsky] and I have repeatedly turned to one another and said, “Well, that’s it, right? Surely this is the top. Surely it gets no better than now,” and then something else amazing happens and our thick little heads just spin. There’s a metaphor there, with the half-marathon and the year we’ve had. Just keep moving. It’ll suck some times, it’ll be awesome some times, just keep moving and breathing and moving and moving and don’t look back. Look down but not back. I dunno. I’m very tired.

People tend to forget about how much teamwork goes into creating comics. And maybe it’s some secret power I don’t know about, but you have a knack of continually knocking it out of the park when it comes to artist collaboration. Obviously, Christian Ward is no exception. Now that you’re deep into the creative process, can you talk a little bit about what it’s been like to work with Christian and how his art influences your writing, or vice versa?

Well, you’re kind. My first, uh, my goal, my career goal has always been to try and write to the strength of my partners—and I want partners, not employees, y’know?—and I suspect that comes from my years of art school damage and knowing, at least a little bit, what that side of the table is like. I put down my pencil for a keyboard but haven’t forgotten that world and so when I’m writing for someone I’m really trying to write what, in my opinion, would yield the ultimate ____ comic, whether it’s Chip Zdarsky or Christian Ward of David Aja or Howard Chaykin or Terry Dodson.

So I actually knew Ward’s stuff from my years in the design world; I knew his work as a fine artist, designer, and illustrator. That was my first exposure to him; then when Infinite Vacation (written by Nick Spencer) came out I realized he was into the idea of making comics. Eventually we met on twitter and started to talk and one thing led to the next.

And basically… well, I wouldn’t write ODY-C for anyone other than Christian; it’s me, as a fan of the guy, trying to write the greatest Christian Ward comic that Could Ever Be. Everything about ODY-C, from the conceit to the way I’m writing it to the scale and expanse of stuff, is all about me trying to write for this guy of whom I am a huge fan. Which is a very long way of saying without his art there would be no writing. Y’know?

Regarding ODY-C, I’m really curious about your process of scripting this. I know that you researched and prepared by reading Homer’s book, but how is the process of writing something like this different than, say, writing issues of Hawkeye or Sex Criminals? Because I’d imagine adapting a story like The Odyssey (not to mention gender-bending the characters) is an entire 360 from creating your own material.

Oh lordy. So much reading. It’s more akin to Satellite Sam, where there was a lot of research, versus Hawkeye or Sex Criminals which, believe it or not, is much less based in fact and/or history. It…well, the joke I’ve made is that the outline is killer but that’s really obfuscating how difficult the writing actually is. So much of The Odyssey doesn’t parse into fiction the way we think of fiction, the way we read fiction. Who are these people? Why do they do the things they do? Logically, realistically, emotionally, how do you believably tell the story of a patriarch (or matriarch as the case may be) taking ten years to return home from a ten year war?

I have the skeleton of the plot. They leave Troy (Troiia-VII), they find a barbarian tribe and attack, the barbarian reinforcements send them off their trail, they find the Lotus Eaters and take shore leave, they get blown off course into the path of the Cyclops, etc. The story itself is so archtypical that it’s easy to…at least it’s easy for me to just go with it, to not question or think about it, just take what is given and roll along. For me the effort comes in trying to make any of that believable, relatable. I’m a parent. I am trying to imagine how, short of incarceration, anything could keep me away from my wife and children for ten years. So how do I walk the line between narrative fidelity and anything remotely relatable to human beings alive today (as opposed to idealized god-like legends — remember, Odysseus is either the grandson of Zeus or great-grandson of Hermes, depending on who you read, and so, to Homer, the story of Odysseus is the story of a man touched by the divine…I don’t know if any of this makes any sense. Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad was revelatory to me.

You’ve said ODY-C is going to be 24 chapters (issues) long, and I know the first issue will include an eight-page foldout. Can we expect you to attempt to break the printer with any other “super-sized” chapters?

Oh christ I have no idea how long it’s gonna be anymore. It’ll tell the story of The Odyssey, The Oresteia, and then some of One Thousand and One Nights, sort of, a little bit. The story is all god-sized. Even the fonts the gods use are a little bigger. Who knows anything about what those wily jerks will demand of us.

I remember reading in previous interviews that one of the reasons you were so interested in pursuing ODY-C was because it gave you a chance to give your daughter someone she could look up to: a strong female warrior. Combined with your interest in mythology, was that more or less the ultimate push behind the thought of “I really want to take this and turn it on its head”?

The, uh…the impetus that got me moving isn’t necessarily what keeps me going on ODY-C; the map isn’t what gets you in the car, necessarily, y’know? It started as, how would I write Wonder Woman for Ward but it’s grown and changed and turned in to…well, it’s turned into ODY-C. It’s not appropriate for a four year old (neither is The Odyssey, or at least for my four year old) anymore. But it’ll be appropriate for a fourteen year old. And if it hooks people into the scope, scale, possibility, and potential of myths and how we can reframe and refocus and relearn those myths for a modern age, that’s just gravy. Creating the book has certainly been that to me anyway.

In that same respect, your kids are obviously a huge part of your life. Have you found that they’ve had influences on your work, or on the projects you’re drawn to? Or how you shape your characters and stories? I guess it’s the question of “has being a father” changed you, even though I know your kids aren’t babies anymore.

Yes. I did Fantastic Four and FF so I could write something I could read to them at bed time (as up until then, my stuff either at Marvel or the original stuff I’d done wasn’t appropriate). And yes; my empathy and world-view and perspective and I hope humanity has exploded and expanded in the wake of my marriage and their births. It’s embarrassing and humbling to come to terms with not being a fully-formed human from jump street and just as embarrassing and humbling to grow up in public but it’s what’s happened to me. My patience and zen and compassion has grown; my grey hairs have, too. I am old now. I will be dead soon. So I should start making it all count.

Given the amount of people who are eagerly awaiting the release of ODY-C, are you excited for people to meet Odyssia and connect with her? Because I wouldn’t be surprised if you saw your first cosplayers as early as next year. In fact, I’m going to go on record and predict it now.

I am, I guess, if nothing else, because I can’t wait for people to see what Christian can do? And I have the…I don’t know that I’d call it excitement but there’s that, that, that eagerness that comes right before Show and Tell, that… opening night jitters? I just want it out, I want it done, I want it a thing that lives in the world and not just in our heads anymore.

Be honest—you timed the release of Just The Tips so people like me would have something to read when they got bored at the Thanksgiving table, right? At what point did you and Chip start to look at the Letter Daddies column and realize that there was something more you could do with it?

Well, I really liked the tagline “Coming down your chimney this Christmas” so, yeah, no, of course. And Chip and I knew “Letter Daddies” was a thing the first time we opened the mailbox. It was instant. It was remarkable.

Be honest about this as well – how proud were you when Just The Tips proved so dirty, it was rejected from one of the printers?

Like I said—“Surely this is the top.”

Sex Criminals celebrated its first anniversary last month, and has amassed a steady following of fans. (And of course, critical acclaim.) Does it still overwhelm you to think about the success surrounding this book? Or, more to the point, do you still get nervous opening the letter email account every month?

Yes, and yes. I have to do the Letter Daddies for issue #9 right after this, so you’ll notice these answers are maybe a little more verbose than one would expect…

You recently traveled to Columbus with Chip to do a talk about “Crafting Your Hustle” at Columbus College of Art and Design. What was that experience like, sitting in front of students and talking about your work and your inspirations? Would you consider doing something like that again in the future?

Surreal? We are the two worst people to address art school students as our academic careers are both scandalous at best and shameful at worst. And I’d love to do it again in the future. Teaching, talking to students—every time I’ve done something like that, I’ve come away recharged and energetic.

Although Sex Criminals is only eight issues in, we’ve really been taken on an intimate journey with Jon and Suzie. Going forward, what can we expect to see from our favorite couple? Speaking of, those “Running Is Bulls***” T-shirts are in the works, right? Because I need one.

I just ran 13.1 miles cursing our names that we didn’t have it ready. So yes, soon. And going forward: The relationship deepens and complicates some. The honeymoon ends and the relationship begins. And Jon and Suzie take on the Sex Police with a little help.

Let’s talk about what’s coming up in the next few months, because since sleep is clearly important, you don’t show any signs of slowing down—we’ve got more Sex Criminals on the way, not to mention the final acts of Hawkeye and the collected editions of Casanova and more Satellite Sam. But I know you love being busy, so I’m just going to tell you to keep cranking out all these comics so I have things to keep spending my paycheck on.  

There’s two more Hawkeye issues left then David and I bow out; Sex Criminals goes on break after issue 10 so we can get our shipping-ducks in a row for volume three (we are victims of our own success, optimism, and lives, I’m afraid, and a zero-margin-for-error strategy was, it turns out, real real dumb); Satellite Sam is back with issue #11 that’ll run through #15 and then we’re done (at least for now); ODY-C starts in November; Casanova in January. And then there’s all the stuff I can’t talk about yet.

You’re someone that always wants to learn more, grow more, and become better at the things that you’re already good at. Given everything that’s happened in the past year, how do you think you’ve changed as a comic writer? And with all that you’ve accomplished, how else do you see yourself changing and growing moving forward?

I’ve no idea how I’ve changed as a writer, or at least, no idea how to quantify it. I know I’m different because I know I’ve done it every day for like seven years now and that’s bound to change you but I don’t quite know how. I’m tired a lot more. I’m getting older. My hair will get more grey I bet. That midsection doesn’t rebound from a binge-eat like it used to. My stuff hurts all the time. I’d like to keep running in all ways metaphorical and literal.

Below, check out a special cover of ODY-C‘s first issue from Fraction’s Sex Criminals partner-in-crime, Chip Zdarsky. ODY-C is out Nov. 26 from Image Comics. Just The Tips, also from Image, is out Nov. 26 in comic shops and Dec. 2 in stores.

For more Sex Criminals fun (and dating advice) check out our interview with Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky from New York Comic Con.