28 January 2013

The Evolution of Grease Monkey

Tim Eldred has published his comic Grease Monkey in a variety of ways: as a series of indy comics starting in the mid-1990s, with presses Kitchen Sink and Image, in this 2006 volume from Tor Books, and on the web.

Evidently inspired by the opening scenes of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Eldred imagined a gorilla in space alongside humans. He also wanted to explore slice-of-life stories instead of the usual battle-for-life sagas of superhero comics and space operas.

The result is a series of episodes set on a large military spaceship guarding Earth after one extraterrestrial race has nearly destroyed the planet and another has provided reparative technology and sped up evolution for gorillas to make them as intelligent as Homo sapiens. That spaceship isn’t at war; its personnel are training for war. But the tensions and rivalries of military life provide plenty of twists in the mild, character-driven plots.

Though Eldred started with his gorilla mechanic Mac Gimbensky, the main character really is Mac’s teen-aged assistant. That character—young, idealistic, and upright—is named Robin. (I’m just saying.) Most of the stories are coming-of-age episodes for Robin as he works through his role in the Barbarians fighter squadron, his crush on an assistant librarian, and his loyalty to dubious friends.

Indeed, Mac and an older gorilla in the custodial service provide so much help and wisdom to Robin that they might have become futuristic substitutes for the “Magical Negro” of single-species stories. But both those characters have their own plotlines, Mac especially, and Eldred provides a wide range of archetypal roles for both people and gorillas. Indeed, one of the few weaknesses of the saga is that most supporting characters fall quickly into familiar roles as antagonists or helpers.

Eldred draws in a classic American “realistic” comics style with some “cartoony” bulging eyes or floating hearts where called for. There’s a clear visual difference between the mid-1990s installments and when he picked up the series again a few years later, but the shift is interesting rather than jarring.

The only reading problem Grease Monkey posed for me was a tendency for panels to be stacked on the left without clear visual cues to guide the eyes. The online installments from the yet-to-be-printed sequel use word balloons as a visual bridge from one panel to the next in such layouts.

That sequel also provides a dangerous enemy for the spaceship’s crew—a shift back toward traditional adventure now that most of the characters have been established. I worry that the number of years since the end of that saga and now without a printed volume means Grease Monkey isn’t getting the readership it deserves.

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