Last time I waxed a little lyrical about my recent adventures in delivering comics based goodness to the ever wonderful young people at my school. It was, to be honest some of the most fun I’ve had – inside or outside my place of work – in some considerable time, and I’m pretty keen to do it again soon.
But I did also allude to the other obsession I have – the one that has been taking up so much of my time at school of late and preventing me from doing the whole comics thing quite as much as I used to.
Well, rockets and space in general, to be honest.
I might be an English teacher, but that doesn’t mean I don’t love Science too, there is something really compelling about Space, and everything that goes with it. Science Fact or Science Fiction, there’s something about the sheer limitlessness of it that is just irresistible to me. I well remember running home from school, aged just nine, on April 12th 1981 to see Shuttle Columbia take to the sky for the first time.
I missed it.
But more was launched on that Spring afternoon than NASA’s Shuttle programme. My completely irrational, obsessive and unconditional love of spaceflight took off too. Something in my imagination was hooked, and it remains dangling on that same line to this very day.
Don’t get me wrong – it’s not like I wasn’t already a space nut at that point, I was a nine year old kid for goodness sake, but prior to that first Shuttle launch it was just the normal obsession that all small boys have. It goes hand in hand with a love of Dinosaurs, and most boys grow out of both around about the same time they discover girls and beer.
But that space itch remains unscratched – and it strikes me as odd that comics don’t really help.
I mean, you’d really think that comics, steeped in the whole SF/Fantasy genre as they are would be just the thing for your average middle aged space sick geek. But no. There really is precious little “real space” in the comics. What have we had? I mean, there was Larry Young (and friends) wonderful Astonauts in Trouble, Warren Ellis’s equally astonishing Ministry of Space and Orbiter. But really, what the hell else have we Space Nuts had in the last few years?
I mean OK, Ministry of Space did a fantastic job of imagining a British space programme using designs that really resonated with the technology of the forties and fifties and pushed pretty much every single retro geek button I’ve got, and Orbiter was a truly poignant hymn to the wonder and waste of the Shuttle, and I love them both*. Oh, and of course there’s Nick Abadzis’ Laika, the story of the first living creature to enter space (and subsequently the first space bourne fatality) which comes highly recommended. But seriously. Is that it?
There really isn’t that much “proper” Science Fiction** in comics any more. Obviously, those great S/F characters of yore, Dan Dare and Flash Gordon have recently made a comeback and Markosia are doing a fine job with Starship Troopers, but there’s not much else out there really, is there?*** And you know what? There really should be.
There are so many stories begging to be told that are science fact, that I would’ve thought writers would be queuing up to spice them up a little**** and get them into glorious four colour print. Besides that, if I slip my educator’s hat on here for a second, comics could be doing so much more than they are to inspire their readers to investigate Science and engineering than they do at the moment.
Now, before you say anything, I know I’m on slightly slippy ground here. I hate the view that everything kids read should be in some what “educational”, and however much I love Brainiac (the TV Show rather than the villain, obviously) I’m not a really big fan of “edutainment” either. But at the same time, when you’ve finished reading this, go and check out the “centrefold cutaways” from old Eagle comics that can be found at DanDare.org and tell me that however educational they might be, they’re not also very cool indeed.
I spent part of my week this week at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory just outside Oxford***** planning my school’s contribution to a national “Space Schools” project****** and that involved a fair bit of chatting with people who do interesting things like build satellites. It was striking how many men (and I confess that it was mostly men who said this) of a certain age cited those Eagle cutaways and the adventures of Dan Dare in the fifties as a major influence on their ultimate choice of career.
Seems to me that modern comics don’t inspire people to do much other than write comics*******, and while that’s a perfectly reasonable thing to do I can’t help but think that as a industry and a medium we’re missing a bit of a trick here and under-using a power to do some good. So. Here’s a call to arms for every writer with even a passing interest in science. Space is cool. Honestly, it really is. Every kid in the world is obsessed with Space and Dinosaurs, and while the Dinosaurs ain’t coming back, Space is a mere 100km away.
So, let’s have some decent space stories! Let’s not just entertain, let’s inspire too. At the moment the only person carrying this particular baton is Warren Ellis, so come on people – let’s not leave it all to one guy!
*Mention should be made here of Colleen Doran’s beautifully understated art on Orbiter. She captured the spirit of the book perfectly and complimented Ellis’s script with sensitivity and grace.
**Super Heroes don’t count.
***And, incidentally, it’s worth pointing out that of those three, only one, that stalwart of the hero of the Interplanetary Space Fleet, Manchester’s own Dan Dare is actually a true comics character. Flash didn’t appear in comics originally, and Starship Troopers obviously began life in prose, rather than comics. The same point would obviously also apply to Star Trek (from TV) and Star Wars (from Film) comics too.
****Not that most of them need all that much spice – there are things the Americans did during the Apollo project that would make your hair curl, and don’t even get me started on the Russians, who come over all efficient and businesslike now, but back in the day were frankly insane in the risks they took.
*****That’s why I’m late this week, in fact. Spending time away from the classroom puts you rather behind schedule with teaching stuff and increases your workload to a quite stupid degree. As a consequence when I haven’t been at school this week I’ve been pretty much asleep…
******Apart from two mathematicians, I was the only non-science specialist there. By the end of the event I’d been sort of adopted as their pet arts graduate, which was fun, but also kind of a shame. I mean, why wouldn’t arts graduates be interested in Space Science? Nobody thinks it odd when a scientist picks up a novel, and I fail to see the difference. Whatever your choice of career, cool stuff is cool stuff.
*******Or draw comics. You know what I mean.