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Larry Young's old-school s-f graphic novel series. . .

Astronauts in Trouble: Master Flight Plan

Packaged in a smallish 5-1/2″ x 8-1/2″ hardcover with a dust jacket that resembles a flight manual, Astronauts in Trouble: Master Flight Plan (AiT/PlanetLar) collects three s-f mini-series that revolve around the same event: a disastrous attempt in the near future (where John Glenn is presented as a crotchety geezer brandishing a cane) to seize lunar control. Rooted in a mini-comic that publisher Larry Young first concocted in 1995 (and which gets reprinted in a companion volume, The Making of Astronauts in Trouble), the black-and-white graphic novel collection opens with its establishing five-part story, “Live from the Moon,” which is primarily told through the jaundiced eyes of a trio of Channel 7 telejournalists. Our scooperific threesome is following the richest man in the world, Ishmael (because Ahab would’ve been too obvious?) Hayes in what they think is a prematurely launched trip to the moon. They’ve been bamboozled by the multi-billionaire, but they wind up on the satellite in their own newsvan and ultimately break the real story – which also involves a group of eco-terrorists, a group of mobsters with their own nuclear missiles and much snappily written corporate/journalistic intrigue.
Scripted by Young and illustrated by Matt Smith (first three chapters of “Live”) and Charlie Adlard (the rest of that mini-series and its two follow-ups), AiT is a cheerfully old-fashioned sci-fi story. Everybody in the tale is a professional who is primarily defined by their job or position (Dave Archer, the on-air reporter, for instance, is a hard-working snow-jobber reminiscent of William Hurt’s Broadcast News anchorman; while pilot Annie Franklin is spunky and – as rendered by Smith – looks like a scruffy blend of Jaime Hernandez’ Hopey and Maggie). Though pilot Annie’s ability to follow the moon explorers in the company newsvan is a bit of a stretch (if airships in the employ of a news corporation are capable of assaying short-jump spaceflight, you’ve gotta wonder why more folks hadn’t been doing it before now), the characters are all meant to be regular types. Stranded on the wastes of the moon, for instance, the main thing cameraman Heck Allen can think about is his mother’s baked pies. (He’s an ex-farm boy; if he was from Brooklyn, he’d probably be thinking of the Mets or Yankees.) Old-fashioned characterization, but it still works, especially when placed alongside the non-characterization passed off in so many mainstream comics.
One of Young’s regular ploys is to contrast mundane humanity with moments of sci-fi sublimity – which means he has to rely on his artists to provide some serious outer space gee-whizzery. Of his two main collaborators, Adlard has the larger visual arsenal, though I generally found Smith’s slightly sparer compositions easier to read in the hardbound edition’s compact size. Both artists make effective use of black-and-white comics to suggest the unforgiving nature of space. At times, I was pleasantly reminded of Makota Yukimura’s Planetes (the two series feature eco-terrorists in a subplot, interestingly), though “Live” is too boyish to indulge in some of the stronger visual poetry of that manga series. If Planetes approaches Bradbury in its adolescent evocativeness, “Live from the Moon” is Leigh Brackett.
Follow-up mini-series, “Space: 1959,” is a three-part prequel that shows an earlier trio of Channel Seveners (a small digression: calling it Channel 7 makes sense in 1959, but wouldn’t the network go by call letters or a less regional name in 2019?) investigating an early double-secret U.S. plan to put a man on the moon from a secret base in Peru. Young and Adlard are showing off a bit on this ‘un: working for a different tone from chapter to chapter (hard-boiled in the opening chapter; more elegiac in its end song), but the characters are a tad too broad to suit the material. (Base leader Colonel Macadam is positively Strangelovian.) Later one-shot, “One Shot, [heh] One Beer,” returns to the moon ten years after the events in “Live” and shows the survivors in a mining saloon reminiscing and providing amusing footnotes to Hayes’ doomed adventure. As such, it provides a pleasurable complement to AiT‘s primary story.
As does The Making of Astronauts in Trouble, which prints the script to “Live” alongside roughs plus polished art samples and includes a series of mini-comic collaborations that also appear in the back of the hardbound “Master Flight Plan.” Young’s scripts read, I suspect, like he talks. Occasionally, you can see him working overtime to establish rapport with his artists: commenting on how successfully the collaboration has gone to date, encouraging ’em to work through the more challenging visual sequences and pointing out Big Moments. It’s an instructive supplement, and I’ll admit I also looked to it to clarify a couple of details that slipped past me in the original work.
Astronauts in Trouble was the work that basically launched the AIT/PlanetLar comics line (the original five booklets were published under the Gun Dog imprint, though the graphic novel reprint is PlanetLar). As such, it makes for a strong company debut: so much so that I wish Young were inclined to focus more on comics scripting than on the day-to-day of publishing and p.r. (But, then, if he weren’t doing the latter so well – would I even be reading this graphic novel?) “Live from the Moon” is also still available on its lonesome in a full-sized trade paperback, incidentally. I’m strongly considering picking up a copy just so I can take a fuller look at it. . .

About Bill Sherman

Bill Sherman is a Books editor for Blogcritics. With his lovely wife Rebecca Fox, he has co-authored a light-hearted fat acceptance romance entitled Measure By Measure.

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