Each week, Big Issues focuses on newly released comic books of significance. This week, they’re Ody-C #8 by writer Matt Fraction (Sex Criminals, Hawkeye) and artist Christian Ward (The Infinite Vacation, Olympus) and Casanova: Acedia Vol. 1 by writers Matt Fraction and Michael Chabon (The Amazing Adventures Of Kavalier & Clay, Wonder Boys), artists Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá (Daytripper, Two Brothers), and color artist Cris Peter (Bitch Planet, The Names). These two books end a month of exceptional new Image Comics releases from Fraction, who has evolved dramatically since committing to his creator-owned material. (Note: This review reveals major plot points.)
In 2008, Matt Fraction left Image Comics to build a career as a superhero writer at Marvel Comics, an extremely fruitful relationship that saw Fraction establish a huge fan base with runs on characters like Iron Fist, Punisher, the X-Men, Iron Man, Thor, Fantastic Four and, most significantly, Hawkeye. He moved his creator-owned series Casanova from Image to Marvel’s Icon imprint to satisfy the urge to work on more personal material, but for five years, Fraction was deeply entrenched in the world of corporate comics. That period provided him financial stability, but superhero comics became less creatively fulfilling over time, and in 2013, Fraction took his first steps away from Marvel by launching two new titles at Image: Satellite Sam with artist Howard Chaykin, and Sex Criminals with artist Chip Zdarsky.
Thus began a transitional period where Fraction continued to pursue new original Image projects while still being tethered to Marvel by Hawkeye, debuting Ody-C with artist Christian Ward and bringing Casanova back to its original home with a new miniseries featuring backup stories written by Pulitzer Prize-winner Michael Chabon. This surge of independent work contributed to Hawkeye’s increasingly lengthy delays as it wound down, but with the release of Hawkeye #22 this past July, Fraction finished his superhero obligation and completed his metamorphosis into an creator-owned comics superstar that could survive and thrive on the strength of his own ideas.
Sex Criminals has gotten the most attention of Fraction’s Image series, partially because it’s a smart, funny, sex-positive comic, and partially because it’s in development as a television series for Universal. The book was already popular before the TV news and the awards recognition, and this month’s Sex Criminals #13 is a great example of why Fraction and Zdarsky’s title has resonated with such a large audience. The issue is a deep exploration of asexuality, and the creative team’s willingness to embrace the full range of sexual identities from an introspective, non-judgmental point of view makes for a very thoughtful, engaging read.
Sex is a major element of all of Fraction’s creator-owned work, although some books emphasize it more than others. Satellite Sam was the first of Fraction’s new Image series to debut and the first to finish (it will be getting a second volume in the future), and it immediately established the creator’s focus on sexuality with a 1950s murder mystery revolving around a dead TV star’s penchant for erotic photography. The entire first volume of Satellite Sam is collected this month in a handsome oversized hardcover edition, and while it’s a worthwhile read for anyone interested in the sexual politics of the ’50s, it’s also a captivating story about addiction, PTSD, and the early days of television. Like Sex Criminals, Satellite Sam is a project that is perfectly suited to the strengths of its artist, and Howard Chaykin’s stark black-and-white artwork captures both the grit and glamour of New York City’s booming television industry.
All of Fraction’s image titles have their own unique identities, spotlighting his versatility as a writer and his wisdom in picking artistic collaborators that can best realize his ideas. Christian Ward’s psychedelic, free-flowing artwork heightens the spectacular fantasy of Ody-C, an ethereal cosmic sci-fi epic that reinterprets classical mythology in a bold new context, and this week’s issue #8 is a stunning showcase of his imaginative composition and expressive coloring. Paying homage to the oral tradition that kept myths alive before the proliferation of the printed word, Ody-C is entirely narrated, forgoing speech bubbles and presenting all dialogue in caption boxes that letterer Chris Eliopoulos colors differently depending on the character. This creates an interesting distance between the text and the visuals, with the lettering hovering over the art instead of blending in with it. That gap gives Ward extra freedom to experiment with his layouts, and he does beautiful things with the page design in this week’s issue.
Originally conceived as a distaff sci-fi take on Homer’s The Odyssey, Ody-C has expanded its scope in its second arc, incorporating elements of Moby Dick, the Jataka tales, the legends of Gilgamesh and Romulus and Remus, and One Thousand And One Nights. The Arabic classic’s King Shahryar and his brother Shah Zaman are represented in Fraction’s story by the siblings Hyrar and Zhaman, who the writer uses to further his examination of gender politics by highlighting the history of sexual violence in folklore. Issue #8 details the bloody incident that births the brothers’ nightly tradition of wedding, bedding, and murdering the sons and daughters of their land, and it’s a grisly, unsettling chapter given incredible visual impact by Ward’s artwork.
When the two brothers discover that their spouses have been engaged in hedonistic sexual activity with each other (and many others), they fall into a jealous, murderous rage, killing everyone involved in the extramarital orgy and establishing a twisted relationship between sex and violence in their minds. After the massacre, they decide to guarantee their future spouses’ fidelity by killing them immediately after consummating their marriage, because in a patriarchal society like Q’Af, murder is a justifiable response to the shame of infidelity. While the victims of Fraction’s story are both male and female, he’s specifically commenting on the sexual possession of women in folklore, which he reinforces in the issue’s epilogue about a girl who is raped and murdered and whose bones become the foundation for an entire city housing the men who ruined her. Just as the blood trickles from the top of the brother’s palace after each nightly killing, the attitude of the rulers trickles down to the common people and corrupts the entire culture.
Ward’s art in this issue is a study in contrasts, using different color combinations to create a specific mood on the page. The orgy is depicted with a page laid out on a hectic 35-panel grid of five columns and seven rows, and while there’s strong contrast in Ward’s use of red and blue on the overall page, there’s no contrast in the individual panels. There are two opposing extremes in the coloring, but the tension doesn’t find its way into the panels, making each moment hot or cool and unifying different panels with a dominant hue. Once the brothers witness their spouses’ infidelity, that tension enters each panel, and as the massacre becomes more chaotic, the contrast becomes even more intense.
The height of their rage is depicted in a two-page spread of 32 panels showing snapshots of brutal violence interspersed with images of the royal garden’s plants, and the tension between that natural beauty and the ugliness of the brothers’ behavior is accentuated by the addition of neon green and pink to the color palette. By the end of the slaughter, the green, pink, and blue disappear from the page, replaced by the overwhelming red of the blood the brothers have spilt. The red continues to define the pair as they put their fatal nightly ritual into action, and the two-page spread showing the children next in line to be married/murdered features the brothers’ profiles emerging from the stream of red in the background. The blood they’ve shed is now an essential part of their identity, but knowing the story that inspired the characters, there may be a storyteller waiting in the wings that can change their ways.
Ody-C allows Fraction to go as big and crazy as he wants, something he used to use Casanova for until this newest miniseries, Acedia, which has a collection of the first four issues hitting stands this week. The title has a history of visiting alternate universes, and this current storyline finds an amnesiac Casanova Quinn in the “real” world, living in Los Angeles and working as the majordomo for another man trying to piece together his past. It’s much less madcap than previous Casanova stories, which may explain why Michael Chabon’s backups with artist Gabriel Bá double down on the zaniness, but the grounded perspective is a welcome change of pace that brings out a new side of the character. Quentin Cassaday doesn’t have the same bravado as Casanova Quinn, and his memory loss gives him a pensive quality that changes the priorities of Fraction’s script.
While Casanova: Acedia still features moments of kinetic action and supernatural strangeness, the changes in pacing and tone make it feel like a fresh start for the series. A major difference in the creative process for Acedia is that Fraction and artists Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá (who draws the main story in the flashback fourth issue) are working “Marvel style,” meaning the artists draw the issues from a plot breakdown, and then Fraction writes the final scripts based on the artwork he receives. It places more storytelling responsibility in the hands of the artists, and considering the immense talent of Moon and Bá (see: their graphic novel Two Brothers released by Dark Horse this month), going “Marvel style” is a smart decision that takes fuller advantage of what these artists can do.
Cris Peter’s high-contrast, minimally textured coloring draws attention to the intricacy of Moon and Bá’s linework, and using a limited palette makes any variations in her coloring more striking. The very first issues of Casanova were monochromatic, but bringing Peter on board with later volumes has brought more clarity to the artwork without moving too far away from the book’s established visual aesthetic. The writing, line art, coloring, and hand-lettering by cartoonist Dustin Harbin all come together in a beautifully harmonious union, making Casanova: Acedia a sterling example of creative chemistry that has only become stronger with time.
At Image Comics, Fraction can build up more of these creative relationships without worrying about satisfying corporate masters. Unlike his Marvel work, most of which featured rotating art teams in order to meet monthly deadlines, his Image series allow him to stick with a specific artist (or artists in the case of Casanova), and if Fraction or his collaborators need some extra time, they have the option to delay issues or take extended breaks between arcs to accommodate. It’s the best situation for Fraction, who is taking on more responsibility running the Milkfed Criminal Masterminds production company with his wife and fellow comics creator Kelly Sue DeConnick, and the freedom afforded to him by Image Comics has allowed him to expand his Hollywood profile while turning out excellent creator-owned comics that he’s genuinely passionate about with artists that he fully trusts.