11 December 2008

Second in Reading Pile

First in Space, by James Vining, was the other graphic novel published in 2007 about an animal used in an early space program--the better-known one being Nick Abadzis's Laika. Both were carefully researched by their creators, as the First in Space website shows. After I'd launched my thoughts on Laika, I decided to check out this book as a contrast.

First in Space focuses on a young chimpanzee named Ham. He was the first chimp in space, but not the first animal, nor the first NASA animal, nor the first animal to return safely. But I guess First Great Ape or Hominid to Return from Space wouldn't work as well as a title.

Abadzis's art for Laika is in color, but almost entirely drab, given the Soviet setting. In contrast, this black-and-white comic is almost glaringly sunny. Vining's style seems to owe a lot to cartoons of the period. He makes a stalwart attempt to keep all the characters distinct, but is somewhat undercut by the story's military and engineering cast. The main characters pretty much break down into three uniform groups:

  • airmen in T-shirts.
  • scientists in lab coats.
  • chimps.
The bright simplicity of the art mirrors the overall tone of First in Space. Though the sight of a chimpanzee killed during testing establishes the stakes for Ham and his handlers, this isn't a dead dog book. There are no Stalinist gulags hanging over the human characters, nor any mention of the fear of nuclear annihilation that fueled the space race.

Laika ends with the little dog's death and the Soviet space program's lies about it. First in Space has its own dark epilogue, showing Ham as an old and lonely denizen of the National Zoo in 1979. The implication is that his space training was the high point of his life. But that's all over in two pages, and we end with a flashback to his arrival at NASA.

Many other threads seem to have been snipped off early along the way. What's the point of those tasks that we see Ham being trained to do throughout the book? What happens to the other chimps we see, cranky Enos and pretty Minnie, and how are they part of Ham's story? Do the scientists and airmen who look after the chimps have any other lives? What's the purpose of the glimpses of what Ham's life would have been like in the wild--including the killing of a smaller monkey?

Overall, First in Flight seems better targeted to young readers who are already interested in space than Laika. It's a shallower book. But perhaps, given the history behind Laika, that's for the best.

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