First in Space

First in Space

An impressive comic by a talented new creator is just what you need when you’re feeling grumpy. All the better that it’s a true story about the contributions of animals to increasing human knowledge. It’s nice to be reminded of the bigger picture and how different types of beings can work together (whether or not by choice) to achieve great things.

James Vining, former Coast Guard mate, has chosen the subject of the space race for his first solo comic. Specifically, First in Space is the story of Ham, a chimpanzee sent up to test sub-orbital rocket flight.

Back in the early 60s, when America was losing the space race to the Soviets, it was necessary to find out what would happen to living beings when exposed to the extreme conditions of spaceflight, launch, and recovery. (It’s astounding to think that all this was less than 50 years ago, and how far backwards we’ve retreated from scientific exploration since.) Navy men were tasked with experimenting on a group of chimps to find appropriate subjects to be sent into space.

First in Space

I mentioned the author’s service before because I think it’s a key factor in making this book feel so solid. He clearly understands how military men behave and react and hold themselves while conducting routine tasks, and as a result, his characters are believable. It’s hard to make a bunch of men in uniform distinctive, giving them separate personalities while keeping them within the bounds of acceptable service behavior, and Vining does an excellent job.

He’s also very good with the monkeys. Their design is simplified, but they’re not too cartoony — they’re animals, not little people in fur suits. They’re still cute, but how could they not be? Our sympathy is with them, asked to contribute and sacrifice to an important effort that meant nothing to them. The men who work with them give them nicknames and perceive different personalities among them, which carries through to the reader.

I learned a lot. I appreciate that, because I have a tangential connection to the subject matter. My father was career military, and he used to tell my brother and I about being on the ship that recovered some of the Genesis space capsules. So I was eager to get this perspective on similar elements of the period, and it was a plus that it was so entertaining.

I believe the author did a good amount of research, especially on the machinery. It feels right, and that contributes to the smooth read. It’s a story that sucks you in, pushing you to find out what happens next, hoping that Ham gets the happy ending he deserves for his contributions.

The phrase is widely overused, but this is truly an excellent read for all ages and a wonderful choice especially for schools and libraries. Different generations will find different elements to seize on, and it could spawn lots of interesting conversations about what was done and why. (A complimentary preview copy for this review was provided by the publisher.)

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