STRANDED ON EARTH: AZZARELLO AND RISSO’S SPACEMAN
When Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso followed up their massive crime melodrama “100 Bullets” with a challenging-to-parse sci-fi nine-issue series called “Spaceman” in 2011, most readers just didn’t even seem to notice. They may have paid attention at the announcement, and, expecting something similar in tone to “100 Bullets,” just shrugged and ignored the first issue, even though Vertigo priced the opener at the low, low price of one American dollar.
Or maybe they picked up the prologue and saw baffling dialogue like “I’m awed, tho Bubba, you unawares of the satee ’bout to go junk on the city. Was web-wide,” or maybe they read the first issue and saw that it was about some grungy future and a kidnapped celebrity child and an apish non-hero and it didn’t look like sexy fun and that was plenty to make the decision to walk away.
Whatever it was, “Spaceman” was drowned out by other comics when it launched right after DC’s New 52, and it was forgotten by most readers by the time it concluded. Even the handsome hardcover collection — which provided glossy paper for Risso’s bold linework and Patricia Mulvihill’s colors to explode with precision in a way they couldn’t in the muted print job of the single issues — failed to garner “Spaceman” any substantial reconsideration.
Perhaps most surprisingly, the few readers who stuck with it until the end and wrote about the series publicly in its final issues or as a whole didn’t even seem to fully understand what they were reading. Most reviewers continued, even after the series finished, to refer to the “flashbacks” or the “two storylines” when that’s not what’s going on in “Spaceman” at all.
So what I’m here to say is: (a) “Spaceman” is a far better comic than you may have heard, well worth a read, and (b) it’s not what many readers seem to think it is.
“Spaceman” is the story of Orson and Tara, the former is a lumbering, seemingly dull-witted junk collector who was genetically engineered for a space voyage to Mars, and the latter is a young celebrity who gained her fame and fortune because she was adopted by the Azzarello and Risso version of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. In the not-so-distant future portrayed in the book, life is almost endlessly bleak, with reality television run rampant and widespread flooding of the great cities emphasizing the class divide between the water-level “rise” and the “dries.”
The pidgin-English-by-way-of-text-lingo future-speak adds to the verisimilitude of the post-climate change world of “Spaceman,” but the language takes a bit of getting used to, which might have been a deterrent for readers of the single issues in the monthly serialization. And then there’s the apparent “flashbacks” or “two storylines” which end up being neither of those things.
Reading the early issues, one might think that the cutaways to an astronaut outpost on Mars reflect Orson’s backstory. He was, after all, bred to handle the flight to Mars and genetically altered into his hulking form so he could withstand the harsh conditions setting up a proto-colony on the planet’s surface. Throughout the series, Azzarello and Risso bounce back and forth between Orson’s struggle to protect the innocent-and-lost Tara from those who want to harm her and Orson’s Ten-Little-Indians-esque Martian adventures, where greed turns the astronauts against each other, one by one.
The comic seems to be constructed in such a way as to use the Martian scenes to illuminate Orson’s motivation, showing his moral failings in an alien landscape and his attempts to do the right thing by protecting Tara back on Earth.
But that’s not what’s going on at all.
The text clearly indicates, more than once, that the “Spaceman” program which bred Orson and his similarly-apish “brothers” was disbanded due to controversy well before any voyage to Mars occurred. In fact, the brothers were sent away as children to various foster families and lost touch with one another. The cruel Carter, who is presented as a more highly-competent and viciously intelligent double of Orson, indicates later in the series that he hasn’t had any contact with the other would-be astronauts since they were children, and neither has Orson. On Earth, Carter is a deadly bounty hunter. On Mars, he was the manipulative Iago of a murderous conspiracy. Except Mars never happened. The Spacemen never launched.
The detailed scenes on Mars are fantasies imagined by Orson. They provide thematic parallels to Orson’s struggle on the real world of planet Earth, but the Martian stuff is all a delusion. He was an astronaut built for interplanetary travel, but his only voyage into space is the voyage he takes in his dreams.
What’s fascinating about the way Azzarello and Risso use the dream sequences is that they do not at all make it clear that they are dreams through visual cues. A skim-reading of the words of the story would easily lead you to believe that these are flashbacks (or maybe flash-forwards, though that doesn’t make any sense considering the way the story ends), because they are positioned the way we’ve been conditioned to expect non-linear stories to appear. We’ve seen enough movies and television shows and read enough comics that have multiple timelines that we get how they work, and we know that the information will accumulate until the timelines converge in the end and we all say “aha, that’s how it all fits together.” Azzarello and Risso seem to do that, but only one timeline is real, and the other is a fantasy. And yet in the fantasy, Orson presents himself as much more of a morally conflicted character than he is in the real world.
In the real world, he is a hero by definition. He risks his life to save Tara’s, even though she is a stranger to him. He protects her from the forces that would conspire to abduct her, or to kill her, and he is a good man whose only sin is to be embarrassed by how he looks and perhaps too ready to trust others who display no outward signs of malice. But in the fantasy world of the Martian mission, he is not a good man. He tries to be, but the promise of gold and vast wealth cause him to turn on those who he should be willing to protect. He’s not as sinister as Carter, but he doesn’t stand up against Carter, either, not in the dreamscape. He’s an accomplice.
He ends up as an accomplice to Carter in reality, but not because he intended to be. Carter takes advantage of Orson’s gullibility — and Orson’s desire to be perceived as a hero — and that leads to Carter’s own victory in the end. Carter ends up as a media darling for “rescuing” Tara, the child star ends up back with her celebrity family, and Orson is imprisoned but then released back into the world thanks to Carter’s influence. It’s a more complex psychological portrait than the physicality of the characters or unwieldy-future-slang would initially indicate.
All we’re left with in the final scene is Orson’s imagined isolation on Mars, where he looks up at the blue planet in the sky and says, “Tara…I missed you.” Tara, we realize, is “Terra” or Earth. He’s always wanted to get home, but home isn’t a place, it’s a state of mind. Where he’s needed. Where he can do some good.
“Spaceman” may not be a lengthy crime monument like “100 Bullets,” but it’s a gritty story with a gut-punching impact and not just a little bit of storytelling sophistication in its nine chapters. It deserves some attention.
In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of “Grant Morrison: The Early Years” and editor of “Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes” anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.