“Why, you lyin machine…It’s the same fuck old day it always is.”
–a disgraced, scientifically-engineered space ape to his singing Hello Kitty alarm clock in Azzarello and Risso’s Spaceman #1
I spent more time leafing through last month’s Spaceman #1 than I did with most other single issues that week or in the time since. Judging by our own community response, it’s polarizing in a way that few books truly are. And in comics, that’s saying something.
I doubt it has much of anything to do with the visual style, as was the case recently with Chris Bachalo’s Wolverine & The X-Men. No, it has everything to do with Brian Azzarello’s stylized dialogue, a speech pattern infused with exotic slang expressed so casually as to make practiced readers feel altogether dyslexic. There are passages from 100 Bullets and even September’s Wonder Woman #1 that require a repeat reading for the syntax to fully gel, such is the writer’s specificity. But the often guttural blue collar dialect of this space oddity is made all the more challenging by an onslaught of colloquialisms, many of them familiar words repurposed by a future generation. It doesn’t take too long to realize ‘brain’ is being used in place of ‘think’ or ‘thought.’ But there’s a few trickier exchanges, especially as we’re ushered into a word of virtual reality brothels and genetically tailored hallucinogenic serums (Though that’s not such a far-off prospect, apparently). The clash of world-building and steep learning curve dialogue makes the book as divisive as Diablo Cody’s Juno script or Neal Stephenson’s otherworldly Anathem lexicon. For some it’s an enticing challenge. Others dismiss it as too confusing, nothing but a series of halting distractions from the narrative.
By the end of issue #1 I wasn’t sure which camp I consigned myself to. But the following week it was still clinging to my ribs. I read more books and they dissolved as quick as I consumed them, paltry things. Spaceman remained. Turns out this capsule was gradual release.
You read it again and the slang either registers or drops away, deflected off the hull of narrative progression. It’s simple evolution. Unless you’re looking for it, a best friend’s tic of “you knows?” and “likes” become the ‘p’ you never pronounce in “pneumonia.” You’ve got the context and you’ve got the trajectory. So you adapt a kind of filter. And that stylized speech–still an important spice on the plate–recedes so that those very compelling themes and ideas emerge. That’s what stuck with me all the way up to this week, when I realized just how excited I was for issue #2.
Spaceman, you realize, isn’t straight-up science fiction. I mean it’s there, but that’s not the hook. The sharpest challenge to your suspension of disbelief is that we’ll ever manage to scrape together the resources to return to our woefully stunted space program at all. It’s much more reasonable to accept the idea that our attempts are botched and that those adventurers designated to expand our reach to Mars don’t become heroes, but rather rejects living out their days in slums. It’s a sad state of affairs and far more bleak than my usual taste in science fiction or fantasy. But that’s okay, because this isn’t SF. This is a crime story. Orson the drugged-out space ape reminds me more of Robert Mitchum than General Ursus. He’s a man with a past, chasing highs and finding companionship with pros. And as big and inventive as Azzarello and Risso’s dystopia is, they zoom in on the little guys. As much as Spaceman is about a failed space race, cloning and designer drugs, it’s much more a story of poverty and the cult of celebrity, of reality distortion and human trafficking. This is future-noir at its best. By association it may be SF at its best too, less spectacle than social comment. And issue #2 doesn’t go down the wrong pipe either. It’s as resonant as the debut, but my dyslexia seems to have faded. I don’t know if I’m good enough to order from the Spaceman menu in its own language just yet. But I’ve got the words to point and say “I’ll have what he’s having.”