Story Arc Review: Spaceman #1-5 (of 9)A comic review article by: Keith Silva
''The white line, abruptly, has stopped its climb. That would be fuel cutoff, end of burning, what's their word … Brennschluss. We don't have one. Or else it's classified.'' - Thomas Pynchon, Gravity's Rainbow
A rocket reaches Brennschluss at the moment its fuel burns out or cuts off; gravity brings it on home. Brennschluss marks change and the beginning of return. The fifth issue of Spaceman denotes the halfway point in this nine-issue limited series. Writer Brian Azzarello and penciler Eduardo Risso pilot the reader across a drowned world, a landscape of oppositions, half-assed perceptions and talk, talk, talk. When this series debuted in late October, 2011 much was made of its $1 cover price. What frugal fans and long-time Risso and Azzarello aficionados alike read was... weird. Characters speak an alien argot with words like ''realtee'' and ''earin,'' slang stand-ins for reality and hearing, respectively. The supposed spaceman turns out to be a pseudo-simian, Orson -- the words ''burn out'' and ''cut off'' are apt – who whiles away his days with interactive porn, drugs and hunting for reclaimed scrap. He floats not in space, but across the rising tide of an ocean that has come to claim the land, a world rife in rust, refuse and ruin. The stars -- Mars, to be more specific -- were Orson's destination, but there was a change of plans, maybe, or maybe not, nobody who knows is saying. Into this soggy world is thrown a celebrity, a kidnapped child named Tara -- something else Orson must try to salvage.
The scaffold that surrounds Spaceman is built from a patchwork of genres: crime, science-fiction and post-apocalypse. Azzarello and Risso shuffle off the shackles of these conventions by giving readers characters to care about and a compelling story. Orson is a big kid, a genetically engineered space traveler in a state of arrested development. His only friends are three children, gutterpunks who can argue against the existence of God while trafficking in designer drugs -- survivors all. The fuel that fires this conventional vehicle -- to continue the metaphor -- mixes the liquidity of language with binary oppositions and questions about perception and meaning. Spaceman requires a slow approach, a controlled burn, if you will -- a story that rewards rereading and reads as well forwards as backwards. For all its pretend palaver, grimy crime and (maybe-maybe-not) mock Mars mission, Spaceman is a very human story about trying to find a way to fit in when one is cut-off or burnt-out or both.
Mars … Maybe
The blink-and-you'll-miss-it image that opens Spaceman #1 embodies its narrative and flips convention the bird: a raggedy bend-but-don't-break American flag foregrounds an ominous oxblood-on-aubergine Martian sky riven with lightning. A sight gag akin to Bulwer-Lytton's hackneyed ''it was a dark and stormy night,'' Risso drafts a vision of grubby defiance in an inhospitable atmosphere. As imagined by Azzarello, Mars is a place where being poor, nasty, brutish and short*, for once, is an advantage. The four spacemen that call Mars home (Orson, Ottershaw, Carter and Spender) are not intrepid explorers or brave pioneers, they're labor, genetically-engineered hired hands. As the story opens, Orson volunteers to repair a malfunction in the greenhouse. Out in the elements he's hit with rocks and debris. Before he can reach his goal he hears, ''May Day May Day.'' It's not clear where the call is coming from, but Orson pushes on. Within an arm's reach of the door the words and the setting abruptly change, ''May'' is replaced with ''new,'' and a radio distress call becomes a radio alarm clock set to the refrain, ''New Day New Day New Day.'' Throughout the series, Azzarello uses overlapping dialogue to transition from one setting to the next. In Spaceman, words are the conduits; the slippery threads of semantics and linguistics that wind their way across space and time. With one exception (a single page of nine text messages) in issue #5, every word of the script is some form of spoken language, which creates an ever-present nattering narrative of information that can only be taken at face value, context matters, yes, but even then meaning is muddy.
It's unclear if Orson's mission to Mars is a case of total recall or if it is all an illusion; the truth lies somewhere or nowhere. Either way, Orson's not saying. History is written by the victors (or the writers) and Orson is neither a winner nor a storyteller, only a survivor. In the first three issues, each of Orson's trips to Mars requires a stimulus: dreams, drugs or pain. Issues #4 and #5 present the events on Mars as being part of Orson's memory. Through five issues there are eight sequences that occur on Mars. As the story progresses the Mars sequences increase in complexity. Issue #3 introduces a new mission for Orson et al. that involves a bit of mining for gold mining on the sly. This surreptitious operation becomes a major plot point in issues #4 and #5. If it turns out to all be a dream or drug-induced delusion then Orson should try his hand at writing comic books (at worst, screenplays) because he possesses an overactive albeit healthy imagination and the fantasy life of a fabulist.
The Mars mission is paramount. Its inclusion adds dimension to both the story and the characters, most importantly, the Mars sequences get to the narrative's overall theme, perception versus reality. Azzarello, perhaps, provides a clue to the reader early on about the veracity of the Mars mission. As Orson is gearing up to have virtual sex with Lily, a prostitute, he says that his doctor (one may speculate more-than-likely a NASA doctor) used to call he and his brothers, ''future men of her dreams'' which Orson considers funny. When Lily asks him why he thinks this is so funny, he says, ''Ain't no future. My life didn't come true.'' Letterer Clem Robbins sets the words ''ain't'' and ''true'' in bold type. Coincidence? Is Azzarello having a little fun here, getting to have it both ways? Ain't true? Methinks the genetically-engineered space ape doth protest too much.
Risso's depictions of Mars are sparse and open, negative spaces with only the necessary details needed to tell the story. The quarters of the spacemen look industrial; it's a work space, a temporary shelter and not a home. Risso adds details like pinup girls, stickers and newspaper clippings (including a photo booth strip of images of that look very creator-friendly) to these living spaces without mucking up an uncluttered canvas. The character designs for each of the four spaceman are uniform; after all, they were (genetically) designed to look that way. Risso makes a few distinctions to provide personality -- a few facial hairs here, mop-top there. The cleanness of the panels in the Mars sequences allow colorists Patricia Mulvihill and Giulia Brusco to use gradients that provide a cool pop of color that set off the characters and create a "magic hour" effect, as if the sun is always rising or setting on the fourth stone from the sun. Given how much of the Mars storyline that Azzarello invests in each issue, it seems that his endgame is not to treat the events on the red planet as red herrings.
Rise and Dries
As above, not so below. Risso's approach to Orson's earthly pursuits (Mulvihill and Busco's color gradients never fade from the story) is to choke every panel with detail and shroud the rest in inky blackness. Often, four or five characters cram into small panels made even smaller by backgrounds stuffed with the dross of consumer culture. Close-ups of eyes, hands and faces are commonplace in Risso's earthbound illustrations and nothing the artist depicts on Earth is clean; details of one kind or another (lots of bullet holes, flotsam and jetsam) mar every image. On Mars, Orson is always covered-up either by his space suit or a jumpsuit; on Earth he goes native, forever shirtless and exposed. A lot of this design has to do with the setting, which is the point. Where Mars is open and colorful (read: red), Earth is dark with the look and feel of noir which fans of 100 Bullets will find a comfort.
On terra firma everything is defined by what it is not. Spaceman is a world of haves and have-nots, those with the means live in ''the Dries,'' while the poor (the meaningless) must make it in the ''the Rise,'' a Golgotha of crumpled concrete and swamped skyscrapers. Public and private spaces define one another in this series, but Azzarello and Risso play with these oppositions, often blurring the lines and constantly throwing perception (and reality) into question. Because of his appearance, Orson keeps a low profile; he was once a public figure and now has to hide out as a private citizen. When he talks to Lily that's (sort of) all that it is, talk. Orson keeps his video feed turned off. Lily can't see him even though he can see and hear her. When this perception (deception?) is shattered, bad things happen. After rescuing Tara from the kidnappers, Orson brings her back to his home. She tunes in to a news feed to learn about her abduction while Orson crashes on the couch. Lily calls Orson to see if he's interested in some... um, let's call it "virtual comfort." When the call comes in, Tara doesn't know to keep the video feed off when she answers. Lily sees Tara and then she sees Orson and finds out that her john is a spaceman. On Earth, a spaceman sticks out like a sore thumb and now Lily knows where to find Tara, not to mention her own fortune and fame. In Spaceman, when private becomes public, worlds collide and information can no longer be controlled, reality comes into sharp focus and things fall apart, fast.
The major subplot of Spaceman involves the investigation into Tara's kidnapping. Tara is on a reality show called ''the Ark'' in which children from around the world compete to be adopted by Marc and April, a mega-celebrity power couple. Risso does depict Marc and April in real life, but then he breaks down the transmission process and shows them on camera screens and control room monitors and then as they look to people watching on their tablets and televisions. In a scene in which Marc and April are taping a message for Tara (and an appeal to the kidnappers), their lawyer says, ''The Ark has more followers than any news feed. You react to this on your reality cast, and let them feed off it.'' The Ark is presented as a 24/7 broadcast with cameras trained on both parents and each and every child (nine, not including Tara). So, where's the tape (the feed) of Tara's kidnapping? Inquiring minds want to know.
Marc and April are being questioned at their posh mansion by two detectives, Wade and Cass (who looks like a samurai warrior with a badge). Marc is remiss to play out the drama in public. He tells April, ''… it's nobody's business but ours.'' In response to Marc, Cass says, ''Since when is your business not everyone's?''. The reality show (''realtee'' in the parlance of the story) angle allows Azzarello to take a two-pronged stab at celebrity culture and (so-called) televised reality. Cass and Wade don't trust Marc or April. Cass says, ''somethin in their milk ain't clean.'' What Wade and Cass can only conjecture, the reader knows. The man who supposedly initiated the kidnapping was not the same man who actually did the dirty work. In yet another subplot (it is a noir, after all) there is a shadowy individual -- referred to only as ''a sheiky man'' -- who lives out on the ocean in luxury yacht. He hires a bounty hunter (Orson's old Mars mission colleague and fellow spaceman, Carter) to find Tara and bring her to him. He says, ''What I want is what I bought.'' If the ''sheiky man'' bought, who sold?
By Spaceman #5, Azzarello is done playing with the vagaries of televised reality and decides to make a blunt albeit sharp statement on perception, reality and storytelling in the television era or any other. Tara, it turns out, has a tracking chip embedded in her skull. A shooter (sorry, camera operator) and a misanthropic producer camp outside Orson's abode capturing blurry images of what they assume are Tara's whereabouts. The producer says to the cameraman: ''We wait. We web-cast -- pictures of what appear to be Tara and her kidnappers, from an anom source.'' The dimwit shooter replies, ''webee staff on the show...,'' which elicits a sarcastic eye roll from the producer, who says, ''Jesus, Bob … it's called drama... nobody cares if it's realtee.'' A good story is a good story, no matter if it's fiction, reality, or a little from Column A and a little from Column B. Spaceman appropriates. Azzarello mixes, borrows and arrogates because that's how a story is told, that's language. What's the French word? … bricolage, ''a construction of ideas from whatever comes to hand.''** There is no English equivalent only the appropriation. Or else it's classified.
No Means Means No
After yet another narrow escape in issue #5, Orson takes Tara to a collection of junkers, scavengers like himself who mine the Rise for scrap. Orson plans to hide out in the open (''Best place,'' he says), he tells Tara, ''Under the rise, there be treasure.'' Reading Spaceman sometimes feels like a treasure hunt or a fool's errand, depending on one's mood. Azzarello and Risso create an alchemy of words and pictures which layer meaning on top of meaning and on and on. Tara asks Orson in issue #3 if he's going to take her home. He stares off into the squalor of the Rise trying to come up with the words and with a plan. Risso silhouettes Orson at the bottom of the page, his answer is a meek ''I.'' The following page is a reverse angle showing Orson in the distance as crippled children in the foreground fight for space among indifferent passers-by and the other ever-present garbage of the Rise. A small sign on a scaffold, set off-center in the frame reads, ''Danger.'' Risso and Azzarello litter dropped details like this across all five issues; treasure waiting to be picked-up and analyzed for clues. One word often found among the layers is ''gold.'' The word ''gold'' occurs in various forms and changes depending on the context, but it's one word that always pans out throughout the series. ''Gold'' means something to the characters in this story and Azzarello makes plain that ''gold'' means means and is coin of the realm when it comes to information and secrets hidden in plain sight.
The first form of ''gold'' found in the story arises when Wade and Cass are investigating the crime scene where Tara was taken and her nanny murdered. If the detectives want to question Marc and April they are required to sign a contract to appear on ''the Arc'' (in reality). Cass swallows her pride places her (finger)prints on the dotted line and puts Marc and April's names on the suspect list. A publicist for the couple tells Cass, ''Marc and April are golden. They are mega-stars. You might not be used to that.'' Cass counters, ''There's a missing child.'' To which a lawyer at the scene retorts, ''They [Marc and April] don't know anything … swear to gold.'' Marc and April's golden status sets them apart from the hoi polli -- another example of definition by discrimination, ''rise'' and ''dries.'' Azzarello also conflates ''gold'' with God. Swearing on (or to) gold is as close to a statement of power and authority as anyone can get in Spaceman. Being ''golden'' equates to power, to control. Marc and April and their cadre of lawyers, publicists and tv producers (not to mention, the children) have the means to control the message therefore all are golden.
Orson experiences his own golden moment, but he trucks in a different specie, one without the meine or means to do anything. The mission to Mars turns out to have been about growing crops and terraforming, all that goes boom when the greenhouse blows up. Orson says the team needs a new plan, but he's unsure what that plan should be until Carter discovers gold bubbling out of a nearby crater. As the four spacemen stare at a pile of gold that they've recently liberated from the planet's surface, Orson makes their plight plain, ''We here -- so's it. Gold be fuckin dust to us.'' Taken at face value, gold is useless in a place like Mars, especially to spacemen who are stuck without the means to go anywhere or do anything with the gold they hold. No means means no***. On Earth, gold equates to power and the control of information. On Mars, there are no riches to be found even in found gold without means or the information to process it. The spacemen strike a deal to fence the gold through Bubba, their contact in Houston (NASA), who, Orson says in a cogent bit for futurespeak, ''can't braino no one fuckusless.'' Orson sees the gold as the means to an end, a chance to ''unfuck'' as he later tells Ottershaw. Orson reckons: ''We go home with gold -- we be gold.'' Is this Orson's goal, to ''be'' gold; to become golden like Marc and April, rich and famous? Or is Orson thinking beyond status, beyond the stars? By virtue of being a spaceman, Orson is already famous; he was born to be famous. In Spaceman, Fame is facile. What Orson wants is not fame, but gold and what that means is yet to be determined.
Azzarello makes it easy to get stuck in Spaceman's semantic stew of words and the meaninglessness of meaning. Geeking out on words only gets one so far -- and if one wants more, they have schools for that sort of thing. What makes this story work is spaceman, is Orson. There is a ''knight-in-shining-armor'' quality to Orson that should not be given short shrift. The reader roots for Orson and wants to see him bring Tara home safe, but it's a question of can he rather than will he. A man of some means, a certain survivor, Orson is also out of place, out of his world and out of his depth. When Orson first brings Tara to his place, he says, ''I promd to keep you safe … but … we don know what that means jus now. Home might not be safe.'' Like many a traveler, many a spaceman, Orson wants to go home, but what is home to a space man? Spaceman has flown half of its arc, all that remains is a return. Azzarello and Risso will determine how safe of a journey it will be and if their spaceman can ever find his way home.
*See Hobbes (the philosopher, not the tiger)
***On my blog, I wrote a review of Spaceman #4 -- which Comics Bulletin publisher Jason Sacks read and which helped get me this gig -- and started to develop this idea of the meaning of ''gold'' in Spaceman. I've expanded my argument further in this essay as more examples have occurred and I expect I will continue prospecting as the series continues.
Mr. Silva is a recent relapsed reader of comic books, loves alliteration and dies a little inside each time he can’t use an oxford comma in his reviews for Comics Bulletin. He spends most days waiting for files to render except on occasion when he can slip the bonds of editing and amble around cow barns, run alongside tractors and try not to talk while the camera is running. When not playing the fool for the three women he lives with, he reads long, inscrutable novels with swear words. He recently took single malt Scotch and would like to again, soon.