First in Space (Oni Press)

first-headerThe tale of Ham, the first chimpanzee to be sent into outer space, delves into animal rights issues and Cold War politics. But is it a bit to heady for an all ages book?

 

 

96 pgs. B&W, $9.95

(W/A James Vining)

 

James Vining's First in Space is based on the true story of Ham, the first chimpanzee to experience space flight, and the people who got him there. It takes place during the space race of the late 1950's and early 1960's between the US and the Soviet Union. Vining's story goes into detail of the training of a group of apes by the US government and poses moral questions about animal testing.

 

First in Space joins a fairly new trend in comics toward graphic non-fiction and educational books. Most of the story is dedicated to showing the process of training Ham and his chimpanzee peers, and the relationships of the men training and testing the animals. Many of the scientists involved are portrayed as showing cold indifference to the chimps' lives, but Ham's handler Beach shows compassion for his ape charge.

 

Vining certainly seems to have done his homework for this book; he gives a lot of attention to details concerning the early days of the space program and the people involved. One notable character is Senator and soon-to-be Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, who was heavily involved in the space program from its early days. Space enthusiasts will find this an informative read.

 

The subject matter and dialogue in First in Space may be too authentic, though, for its pre-pubescent target audience. Oni gives it a rating of Youth (ages 7 and up), but it's hard to imagine many elementary schoolers appreciating sometimes long exchanges between adults about science and Cold War politics.

 

The cover to First In Space by James Vining. Click thumbnail for a larger image.Also emphasized is the questionable way in which the animals were treated in the government tests. One chimp dies as a result of one test, and doctors insist on calling the animals names like "Subject 56" in order to remain detached in case fatalities occur. Those concerned with animal rights will be glad to know that this book does not paint a rosy picture of adorable monkeys in space, but shows the darker side of testing on apes. The story-telling is, for the most part, realistic and fair.

 

In stark contrast to the dry dialogue of the human characters and careful depiction of factual events, Vining makes a bizarre choice in showing Ham's "dreams". In a couple of sequences, the chimp dreams of himself and his fellow test subjects cavorting in the jungle. The dreams are very out of place in a book that is otherwise firmly based on reality, and go way too far in anthropomorphizing Ham. They also feature symbolism that seems strange and overly cryptic in the setting of an all-ages book. The story would flow better and be more credible as educational material without these vaguely Lynchian interruptions.

 

As many problems as the story has, Vining's art nearly makes up for them. It has a retro feel and utilizes some elements of pop art to complement the book's historical setting. Vining has a clean style that manages to depict detail fairly simply and is appropriate for an all-ages story. His eye for composition is very good, and each panel seems well-planned and flows seamlessly into the next. The chimps are pretty cute, too.

 

First in Space is an ambitious book that may be educational, but ultimately misses the mark. Children expecting a fun monkey in space romp will likely be bored by all the grown-up talk, and it doesn't have a lot of appeal for adults who are anything less than space enthusiasts or Cold War history buffs. James Vining's art is great for an all-ages book, and maybe next time he'll cater better to his audience. | Elizabeth Bolhafner

 

Click here to read a 10-page preview of First In Space, courtesy of Oni Press!

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