Hey everyone, my apologies for not having posted a museum review in a while. You see, I’ve been interning at the Nashville Zoo and haven’t had a chance to scope out to other institutions. The good news is that in the downtime between interviewing visitors, I’ve managed to read some awesome books and comics about science, so that’s what we’re going to talk about today.
Writer: James Vining
Artist: James Vining
Publisher: Oni Press
$9.95/96 pages/Black and White
All summer long I’d been hearing about chimpanzees in the media, so now that the weather’s changing, it seemed fitting to close out the season with one of the greatest chimp stories of all time. As one might expect from a book titled “First in Space“, this is the tale of the first living being in space, a chimpanzee with the rather unassuming name “Ham”. I know, I know, just one letter off… In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the United States was lagging behind the USSR in the Space Race. The Soviets had already launched Laika (a story also available in comic form) into earth orbit, and the Americans were looking to jump ahead by successfully launching a creature into space — and successfully recovering the live specimen.
Quick aside: Earlier this summer, I read Ottaviani, Cannon & Cannon’s fabulous T-Minus: the Race to the Moon, which does for the Space Race what Evolution: The Story of Life on Earth did for evolutionary biology, or Bone Sharps, Cowboys and Thunder Lizards did for Gilded Age of paleontology. It’s hard not to want to compare First in Space to T-Minus, but it would be unfair to do so. For one thing, First in Space is a one-man production, and it came out before T-Minus. For another, Ottaviani and the two Cannons (potential band name?) had an incredible array of resources and interviews to pull from. Finally, the ultimate difference between the two comics is the scope of the narrative: Vining focuses on one specific facet of the Space Race as opposed to an overview. Once I kept these differences in mind, I was able to enjoy First in Space on its own merits.
Now, onto the comic itself. If you’re looking for a plot-centric comic, this is not it. The title and cover tell you everything essential (sorry, spoiler-haters). But with that out of the way, you can enjoy the book for what it is — a glance at part of the Space Race that few people ever really think about. For me at least, the value of this comic was that it made me try to imagine what it must have been like for this chimpanzee to train and go into space, without really knowing the scientific and political aspects of what was happening. Similarly, what was it like for the handlers who grew attached to their charges, but who were also part of the most cutting-edge human endeavor of all time?
The portrayal of chimpanzees can be somewhat of a sensitive topic. You don’t want to anthropomorphize them, because no matter how they resemble us, they’re their own species, with their own outlook on the world that we’ll never understand. Yet at the same time, they share 98% of our genes, so shouldn’t we allow them some sort of special status? Certainly documentaries like Project Nim and blockbusters like Rise of the Planet of the Apes have made us consider what it is to be in human in relation to what it means to be chimpanzee. Vining’s work straddles the fine line of our dual relationship with these creatures: Ham is at once a guinea pig in a larger project, and a protagonist in his own right. He remembers the forest, but is the first creature to see the earth from space.
Vining’s storytelling and artwork reinforced for me this tension and fascination we often feel about apes, where we want them to be more human, but would also find it disconcerting if they ever did become more like us. Sometimes I found myself wishing Ham were drawn with more detailed expressions, or that there were more panels from his point of view, because I wanted to know what was going on in his mind. At other times, I would have found it forced and off-putting if he’d had recognizably human reactions and emotions. Vining hints at but doesn’t fully commit to either portrayal. In other words, Ham is neither a subject from Gombe Stream, nor is he Ceasar.
Ham, Enos, Minnie, and the other chimps are drawn in a simple, cartoonish way, but so are the humans. At first glance, it’s hard to tell the humans apart, and hard to tell the chimps apart. On closer examination though, each person is subtly yet recognizably different, and so are the chimps. Vining’s drawing style is deceptively simple, which comes in handy for rendering complex machinery in a way that won’t overwhelm the non-techy reader but will still satisfy astronauts and enginerds. At times this style makes it difficult to understand what exactly is going on in the frame, but in the end, the mechanics of space flight are not the point. The point is to get the reader to think about the role chimpanzees have played in our history, and how we treat them in return.
Oddly enough, this point only becomes clear at the end of the comic, in an extremely unsettling epilogue. I certainly wanted to check out the relevant links at the end, but I did feel vaguely duped, like the story I was reading had morphed into another tale at the last second, and then ended without any resolution. When it comes to social policies and history, I suppose nothing’s ever resolved, but in a comic book format I suppose I still expect a more traditional narrative structure.
In some ways, a comic might be considered more successful if it leaves you pondering about the topic for a long time, rather than contented with the denoument. I now have many more questions about chimpanzees in the ’60s, such as “was there ever an incident where a chimp bit an astronaut’s face off?” and “how much equipment did the test chimps accidentally destroy?”
I don’t want to leave this post on a depressing note, so I’ll simply end with this observation: a chimpanzee in a space suit is quite possibly the cutest thing I’ve seen in a long time. I submit to you my evidence: