My parents used to talk all the time about the moon landing, in the same hushed tones they used to talk about the deaths of John F. Kennedy and of my maternal grandfather, who passed away a decade before I was born. Both the moon landing and the death of Kennedy were totems, secular relics, rallying cries for their innate belief in American exceptionalism. Grandpa Jack Kramer’s death was a rallying cry for my family’s blissful middle-class life, but that’s a story for a different essay.
Of course, in the five decades since Armstrong and Aldin set booted foot on our nearest celestial object, the thrill of that moment has passed into distant history. The moon landing, in retrospect, seems a quaint and vaguely cool event that happened long before technology became our ubiquitous frenemy. If my friends and I ever discuss the moon landing these days, it’s with incredulity. “Can you believe they sent a man to the moon with less technology than I have on my iPhone?” we ask, marveling at the incredible industriousness of the Greatest Generation scientists who built NASA.
Apollo, the new graphic novel from SelfMadeHero and authors Matt Fitch and Chris Baker and artist Mike Collins, aims to bring readers return some of the astonishment my parents felt about the moon landing.
Fitch, Baker and Collins try valiantly to bring the events to life in an almost mythological manner, showing a panorama of reactions to the astronauts’ journey. We see the scenes we might expect of the astronauts’ nervous wives, pacing and smoking with worry about their brave spouses lost in the netherworld. We witness the smallmindedness of Richard Nixon and his pathetic resentment that the moon landing reflects on his enemy Kennedy instead of himself. We witness the reaction of soldiers stationed in Vietnam, and how the event changes their lives. We also witness the strange vision of a hippie messiah and his very strange reactions to space travel.
These scenes have an effect similar to the crowd reaction scenes in Ron Howard’s film Apollo 13, providing today’s jaded readers a perspective on the innocent joy of space travel. They help explain my parents’ overwhelming sense of wonder about the moon landing. These scenes, though brief, work nicely as an attempt to add verve and intensity to the graphic novel. And though Sharon and Elliott Sacks never actually appear in the story, I could imagine their reactions on these pages.
We also witness surreal scenes from inside the scientists’ heads, dreams or worries that present their anxieties about this unprecedented moment. I found these scenes the hardest to read simply because they felt out of place in this fact-based narrative. They felt like intrusions of fiction upon this moment that needed no real embellishment.
In fact, my favorite scenes in the book are the ones that feel the most like documentary moments. The extraordinary detail of the creative team is on display in those scenes, as we get a sense of the astronauts’ sense of mission and they dream coming true to live these moments.
Those documentary scenes are held in place wonderfully by Mike Collins’s artwork, full of realistic faces and well-drawn technology. His work is colored in a smartly created hodgepodge of 1960s comic styling, with BenDay dots and a limited palette, crossed with a modern sensibility. I was delighted by how well he drew the astronauts’ equipment and how smartly he used panel distribution to heighten the drama.
The creators of Apollo worked hard to be respectful of the memories my parents and many others had of these events. It’s wonderful to see old Walter Cronkite appear for a brief cameo in a moment my parents spoke about often. In the end, however, that respect falls a bit short of making this a compelling dramatic story. The external elements of the tale draw drama away from the simple majestic power of the moon landing. An event this big doesn’t require mythologizing.