First in Space original graphic novel
Writer/Artist/Cover artist: James Vining
Letters: Douglas E. Sherwood
Editor: Randal C. Jarrell
Publisher: Oni Press
Price: $9.95 US
I really didn’t know much about this graphic novel before I delved into the preview copy I was sent, but when it’s got the Oni Press logo on it, I trust I’m in for a solid reading experience. Based on the cover image, I expected something of a cute story about astronaut animals or something, maybe something with a talking chimp. It turns out that First in Space isn’t a comedy, but a piece of historical fiction, with a greater emphasis on the history rather than the fiction. With this Xeric grant-winning project, creator James Vining manages to bring out the down-to-earth, human, emotional side of the space race by focusing on animal-test subjects (and their trainers). Vining presents up a surprisingly touching story, and though the opportunities present themselves, he offers no judgments about ethics or history. The art is a surprise as well, as Vining’s simple, cartoony style is remarkably effective at capturing a realistic tone throughout the book.
In the late 1950s, after the Soviets launched Sputnik 2 with the first-ever live passenger in a space vehicle, a dog named Laika. That sparked the race to send man into space, and before that could be achieved, both sides strived to be the first to launch an animal subject into the great beyond and then retrieve it alive. In the United States, a throng of chimpanzees, captured in Africa, are put through a series of tests and training exercises to find a candidate to be the first living thing on Earth to be launched into space and to return. One of the most promising candidates among the test subjects is Ham, whose easy-going attitude and keen mind help him to excel in the tests. But as he’s treated kindly in his off-time by his human handles, Ham dreams of a life of freedom among his own kind, but images from his new life begin to intrude on those dreams.
Vining’s art could be compared to that of such industry cartoonists as Dean (American Splendor) Haspiel and Scott (Northwest Passage) Chantler. Unlike Haspiel but like Chantler, Vining boasts a cartoony style that’s nevertheless realistic. The simpler side of the linework and designs make for more emotive characters, effective in conveying extreme reactions and subtler feelings. The softer leanings in his art also make for more sympathetic characters, especially when it comes to the human characters. Vining brings a great level of detail to bear, though, when it comes to the technology of the 1960s and the burgeoning U.S. space program. He also conveys the majesty, power and wonder of a space launch with seeming ease.
When one thinks of the history of space travel, names such as Armstrong and Aldrin come to mind, to a lesser degree Lovell and the afore-mentioned canine Laika. Such mission names as Apollo, Sputnik and Mercury are well known too. But Vining delves here into a little known corner of the history. At first, I thought this was fiction, through and through, but a quick scan of Vining’s bibliography and web resources reveals there’s a lot of truth to this story. Vining’s research is apparently meticulous, but despite the strength of his hard facts, he doesn’t sacrifice the emotion that really fuels the story.
One of the things that struck me the most about this book is how little I paid attention to the human characters. I enjoyed the fact that Vining didn’t portray the human characters as heartless or indifferent to the chimps’ feelings. In fact, the majority of the military men and scientists in the story, while they go about their jobs as ordered, also treat the animals with kindness. But the emphasis on Ham and company is so strong, that after I finished the book, it occurred to me I really didn’t recall the names of any of the human players in the story (save for the well-known historical figures who turn up in the story).
Perhaps Vining’s greatest accomplishment with this book is how he manages to instill personality in the chimp characters without personifying them. The characterization is powerful and effective. We really get to know Ham and some of his chimp colleagues, and there’s anthropormorphication of the animals. The writer/artist conveys Ham’s intelligence and his primal nature quite well; it’s a balanced approach and a solid one. Ham turns out to be a sympathetic figure and an admirable one. Is he brave? I don’t know, but I sensed trust in how Vining depicts his behavior and reactions. 9/10