SUNDAY SLUGFEST: Spaceman #1A comic review article by: Nick Hanover, Danny Djeljosevic
Orson is a humanoid being genetically engineered to go to Mars, but instead lives his life making ends meet and spending the rest on cybersex and futuredrugs. But when a popular actor/philanthropist couple loses one of their many children... ellipsis!
You'd think that the New 52 liberally borrowing from the tone and focus of Vertigo would put a little dent in the imprint's future plans and yet, as 2011 is winding down, Vertigo as a line appears to be freshly inspired. New series are being launched (even as longstanding ones like Northlanders are unfortunately closing down) and their anthologies are getting better, with this month's The Unexpected a contender for year's best honors in that category. Interestingly enough, quite a lot of hope for the line is resting on Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso's new series Spaceman, which was first previewed in The Unexpected's middling predecessor from earlier this year, Strange Adventures.
At the heart of the high expectations for the series is its pedigree, with Azzarello and Risso the proud parents of one of Vertigo's greatest hits, 100 Bullets. Spaceman at first glance appears to be a series that doesn't quite have the same immediacy of 100 Bullets, which had a concept so great it could be sold to new readers with a single sentence plot description: people who have been wronged in some way are handed a gun with untraceable ammunition and all the evidence they need for revenge. That series eventually built up into a conspiracy tale of X-Files proportions but that hook was always there. Spaceman, however, seems to be a totally different beast, with the first issue not doing much to reveal the overall plan.
Instead, the first issue is devoted to setting up the overall tone of the series, establishing the world it's set in and giving just enough of a plot to indicate direction will be forthcoming. It's a big gamble, but since this is hard sci-fi, Azzarello and Risso aren't wrong to assume that readers already intimate with the genre will be more patient with reveals. The trouble is that Vertigo as an imprint isn't really associated with that kind of sci-fi, and it remains to be seen whether traditional Vertigo readers will be as willing to wait for crucial plot information.
Which is why Risso may just have the most important role in this series. Not to diminish Azzarello's writing or inventive use of dialogue, but Risso's pencils are what will make or break this series and in the first issue he handles that job exceptionally well. Spaceman retains trace elements of Risso's unique style-- the jagged lines and menacing shading, the urban decay-- but this is quite a departure for the artist. Just as Azzarello's plotting has picked up notable Philip K. Dick, William Gibson and Robert Heinlein influences (particularly in its The Moon is a Harsh Mistress dialogue), Risso is liberally borrowing from the likes of Paul Pope and Jamie Hewlett to deconstruct this pessimistic future.
That style goes a long way towards making an otherwise unassuming story work, especially since currently Azzarello seems to be content to let his own futurism happen with the dialogue and character origins rather than with real content. The gist of it all is that the protagonist, Orson, was genetically bred in a lab specifically to function as a perfect spaceman for Mars exploration. But that didn't pan out, and now he's living like a more urban version of Neuromancer's Henry Dorsett Case, hooked on virtual reality sex and chems. In the background, sarcastic future analogues of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie have created a reality show where kids compete to be adopted by them and one of the lead contenders has been kidnapped. Their paths inevitably cross.
It's an unfortunately bland tale that pretty much could have been dropped directly into 100 Bullets with minimal editing and it's largely a disservice to Risso's art...but that's assuming that the story is as it seems, and that it won't morph in the same way that series did. Granted, Azzarello only has nine issues to make it happen instead of a hundred, but it seems likely that Azzarello has something up his sleeve. It's quite possible that Azzarello is using the cliche, hard boiled plot to ease traditional Vertigo readers into a story that will only get more heady and truer to its sci-fi setting. Even so, it's a little disappointing that Azzarello is so far sticking to easy satirical targets and overplayed story elements.
And yet, even if the story never really goes anywhere exciting, this issue more than justifies its dollar price tag due to Risso's art, which is doubtlessly only going to get better as the series continues and he's able to become more comfortable with the setting and tone. Vertigo has been offering these dollar first issues for a while, but this may be the perfect example of why they should be an industry standard-- at $3.99 this comic would be the epitome of a letdown, but with $3 shaved off that cost, readers and critics alike can be more lenient. After all, if DC had done the same with their "all-new all-exciting!" Justice League I probably would given more than not a single fuck about that series.
When he's not writing about the cape and spandex set, Nick Hanover is a book, film and music critic for Spectrum Culture and a staff writer for No Tofu Magazine. He also translates for "Partytime" Lukash's Panel Panopticon.
It's been a while since we heard about Spaceman -- didn't the Strange Adventures one-shot come out in June? -- but in case you forgot about it, Vertigo's released the inaugural issue of the new RissAzz joint for a single buck (or a penny less if you took to ComiXology like I did), so there's no reason for any self-respecting comics reader not to pick it up. Sure, Brian Azzarello doing sci-fi might raise a few eyebrows the same way that Azz doing Superman did, but keep in mind that this is the writer creating his own futuristic world to play in rather than having to wrangle some stupid superhero property he doesn't give a shit about.
The result is the kind of future-story that provides a mirror-image of our world, with the declining value of the dollar, cheap stimulation and a space program in shambles. Our protagonist, the would-be Mars explorer Orson, is every single American of any talent -- college grad, high school star athlete, expert salesman -- who must contend with bullshit drudgery instead of, y'know, putting their abilities to good use. Meanwhile, orphans must compete on reality television to be adopted by celebs.
Spaceman, with all its future-grime posting as rubbish modern life, feels like Paul Pope was behind the mixing board on this record. Even the colors by Patricia Mulvihill and Giulia Brusco look like what comes up in the mind reading Pope's black and white THB (if you can find them). You could probably read Spaceman back-to-back with 100% and write a very nice comparative essay (which we won't be doing today).
Of course, this is still an Azzarello comic, and so there's some police investigation (rubble-noir!) and the writer gives the lowly members of society (including Orson) a slurred dialect as if they learned English from radios with bad reception --
-- which doesn't have the staggering learning curve that Anthony Burgess' "Nadsat" had, but can prove a stumbling block on first read. Azzarello loves to play with dialect, which can be awkward for some readers. It's hard to judge because, well, are you having a problem because it's not good or because reading it goes against the English you're used to reading? Here Azz is trying to predict how casual language will evolve, which sensibly includes out-loud use of the phrase "LOL," which I am guilty of doing as a flesh and blood adult male.
And with Risso drawing, you certainly get a cleaner style than Paul Pope's noise-rock. His design of science horror spaceman Orson (サイエンスホラー宇宙人オーソン) is particularly smart, simultaneously bringing to mind astronaut test monkeys and Frankenstein. His layouts, meanwhile, are rarely separated by the usual white gutters, a style that never ceases to remind me of multiple web pages on a computer screen -- probably a clever move for a story set in the future (and something I also loved about Frank Miller's Dark Knight Strikes Again -- cue hatemail). For a weird monster, there's something inherently lovable about Orson.
The main plot of the book doesn't really get started until the end of the issue, but this opening issue establishes a lot of necessary world-building while avoiding that feel of boring first chapter setup, thanks to things like proper good art and interesting characters. It feels like it's gotten started, but it's a nine-issue affair and this shit isn't going to matter when it's all collected.
I'm pretty stoked that Spaceman is off to a good start, because Vertigo was seeming like less and less of a vital piece of the comics puzzle (and oh, is it puzzling). After the transplanting of several of their characters back into the regular DC Universe, the impending loss of Northlanders and the crashing and burning of some of their more interesting titles (Air, Greek Street), I figured it'd be time to just reduce the line to Fables and Fables-related spinoffs. But with Spaceman I feel like maybe Vertigo isn't down for the count.
Danny Djeljosevic is a comic book creator, award-winning filmmaker (assuming you have absolutely no follow-up questions), film/music critic for Spectrum Culture and Co-Managing Editor of Comics Bulletin. Follow him on Twitter at @djeljosevic or find him somewhere in San Diego, often wearing a hat. Read his newest comic, "Sgt. Death and his Metachromatic Men," over at Champion City Comics.