Making Sense of SPACEMAN

Spaceman #2, cover by Dave Johnson

“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.”



  1. Interesting article. Spaceman seems very unique. I plan on picking up the first few issues to read over the break.

    Not to compare Star Wars comics to anything Mr. Azzarello (or Diablo Cody or [especially] Mr. Stephenson) has ever written, but I have noticed that the extremely odd slang in many of the recent Star Wars comics (Legacy, specifically) seemed to turn off readers. Personally, I enjoy the unique feel this type of dialog brings to books that SHOULD feel different from everything we experience in real life.

    • Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

      Yeah, Star Wars comics are probably a close example. It’s that combination of alien terms and street slang writers can have fun playing with. Spaceman might be a little more difficult to parse, I think because Azzarello isn’t dropping the kind of contextual hints other writers might. Like, he won’t go out of his way to show you what the characters mean. It’s all natural behavior and gradual unravelling. I like that approach to realism, but it was honestly quite daunting at the start. I’ve embraced it since, but I understand when people decide it’s not for them.

    • As you may know, those Star Wars books actually included definitions at the end of every issue. I think I’d actually prefer it if they didn’t.

  2. Yes, a thousand times yes! Paul you nailed it. The process of immersion into this lexicon was one of the best parts of last months reading. Its one of the few books that I’ve immediately wanted to read again and then ended up reading 3 times, on the one hand so enjoying the feel of Risso’s artistic stylings again and on the other following through logical societal evolutions to figure out how the language was being morphed by Azzarello’s incredible mind.

    I have still not read issue 2 (its my first goal when I leave work today), but like you, I’m hoping that my careful time spent deciphering and examing this work critically will have lead to the inevitable filter where I no longer notice the future slang.

    Thank you for this, I’ve seen so much writing off of a title that simply asked the reader to use examination and thought.

    In a time when so many of us are constantly asking for less decompressed storytelling and more than a “10 minute flip” I welcome this addition to my monthly stack.

    • Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

      A lot of bang for a buck in issue #1, yeah? I didn’t mind paying $2.99 this month, but I was shocked when I dug out #1 in preparation for this piece. “It was only a dollar?”

  3. Great points Paul, I had a similar reaction to issue 1, the newslang was still a little jarring for me in issue 2. So far I am still intrigued enough by the overall premise, and want to learn more about this world. I’ll stick around to see where it goes. I am really enjoying the art by Risso, and covers by Johnson.

  4. I agree about the polarizing nature of the dialogue. I found it wonderful, but I read comments from others who hated it. It reminded me of the reactions to the phonetically written dialects of the British tank crew in Garth Ennis’ Battlefields series. I found it masterful, but others found it unreadable. But I could hear the dialogue in my head as I read it – it was definitely worth the effort.

    If Spaceman is a turn-off, don’t ever try to read A Clockwork Orange – it’s the mother of all this!

    • Damn, you beat me to it. I was about to mention Clockwork Orange (Also, Vurt by Jeff Noon: excellent book). I made that connection the instant I read #1. It’s not for everybody, but it is definitely for me. Right on, Paul.

  5. Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    I’m also reading the new collection of Walt Kelly’s POGO and some of the swamp dialogue and wordplay are just as challenging. Which I found really funny. Both worth the effort though.

    • Have you read China Mieville’s Embassytown? It immediately immerses (hah! that’s, well, you’d have to read it) you immediately into a whole universe full of slang and concepts that simply don’t exist in our meager brains.

    • Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

      Ack, I read the first chapter but need to finish it. I can see what you mean though.

      Too many books!

  6. While not specifically about the invented patois, I’m really digging the strong William Gibson vibe. The world feels lived in and familiar while retaining a ‘futuristic’, if dystopian, athestetic. The linguistic flourishes are probably the most obvious expression of that, but imo just one piece of the whole

    • Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

      Gibson’s a good call. I’m also reminded of Paolo Bacigalupi (Wind-Up Girl, Ship Breaker, Pump Six) for those reasons and specifically the impoverished settings.

  7. I’m loving Spaceman. I know it’s only two issues in (of nine). But I can’t help but feel this will be something I double dip on. Get the issues to be part of the conversation, and then get the hardcover. I hope this is made a hardcover.

  8. Eh, I never thought anything of it. Just figured it was a mixture of ghetto slang, and internetspeek. You get used to it after a while.

  9. This sounds like the kind of book I’d dig. I’ve always loved fake slang, dating back to reading A Clockwork Orange way too young. Nothing wrong with a book making you work for it.

  10. “Spaceman, you realize, isn’t straight-up science fiction. I mean it’s there, but that’s not the hook.”

    Um, Yes it is. Just because its got a crime story as part of its plot. Doesn’t make it stop being Science Fiction.

  11. All I can say is I’m glad that first issue was only a dollar. Its just not my type of book, I shouldn’t have to re-read a book to understand it.

    I was able to keep along with the story purely by the cartooning skills of the artist. The dialog didn’t really move anything forward, and didn’t make me care about any of the characters. So that added along with made up jargon kept it off my future pull lists.

    • Thank God….I was starting to think maybe I missed something, but I agree with you. I just thought it boring.

      Now the Eric Powell sci-fi story in the recent DHP #5 I enjoyed a lot.

  12. It’s really good

  13. I enjoyed issues 1 & 2, Azzarello’s use of comunication works for me, though I’m thinking that at some point (on another project) he will go too far in creating a slang and/ or language and lose me. A good exmple of how this approach can go horribly wrong is Waterloo Sunset.

  14. The ‘post-apocalyptic dialect’ can be challenging, but I do think its necessary as it compliments the puzzle-like structure that Azzarello is playing with as he weaves his tale. Orson’s world has fallen apart, including the language. To make sense of Orson’s words, is to make sense of Orson’s World.

    I can understand the view that comics shouldn’t be this hard, but I would argue that it is this type of sequential art workmanship that elevates a story beyond words and pictures.

    To me, Spaceman is becoming ‘one of those books’ that will be talked about beyond its nine issues.

  15. I am interested in reading this book, however, I stopped reading your article halfway through because of the lack of editing and proof-reading.

  16. the second issue was super impressive. i’m excited for the book now

  17. nice article. i much perfer things like this and great moments in comics history as opposed to articles that say things like socially awkward people should be EVEN more self conscious of how creepy they are preceived by the masses because it makes the rest of us look bad or telling people on a budget to stop complaining about book prices even if they themselves(the writer) dont pay full price
    nice incite vs….presumptuous pretension
    nice incite will win me over every time

  18. Not much to say on the topic orther than this my most anticipated monthly book. I absolutely love it.