From the stack: First in Space

April 4, 2007

Sad animal stories are my undoing. I can’t be in the room when a certain tenor of music or tone of narration kicks in on Animal Planet. I can watch dozens of expendable humans fall in the face of fictional mayhem, but damn it, if that loyal dog or cat doesn’t make it to the end of the movie or the last chapter of the novel, the book or movie is a wash.

So I viewed the imminent arrival of James Vining’s First in Space (Oni) with some trepidation. It has a fascinating premise – all about the chimpanzees sent into space to pave the way for NASA astronauts. But the prospect of a tale of animals being shot into space to further the curiosity and ambition of humans made me anxious.

I’m glad Oni sent me a preview copy, because Vining’s restrained, intelligent approach to the material gives it balance and sensitivity. The portrayal of chimpanzee Ham and the people who train him poses difficult questions, but Vining generally refrains from answering them.

The approach is similar to that used by George O’Connor in Journey into Mohawk Country (First Second), meticulously researching and documenting historical events. Like O’Connor, Vining barely imposes on the historical narrative, but Vining really doesn’t need to. It’s pretty much a “duh” statement to suggest that space chimps are naturally more dramatic than Dutch fur traders, and Vining’s editing of Ham’s story is funny, sad, suspenseful, and thought-provoking.

I think both Journey and First in Space could function similarly as teaching tools as well. Both provide snapshots of history and employ imaginative means of retelling it. First in Space has the added advantage of being a fine, mostly even-handed starting point for discussion and debate about the use of animals as research subjects.

And like O’Connor, Vining (who was awarded a grant from the Xeric Foundation) is a real find. His cartooning style is clean, lively and precise in its emotional effect. The material could lend itself to shameless heartstring tugging and Disney-esque anthropomorphism, but Vining plays it straight for the most part. He doesn’t push because, again, he doesn’t need to.

I’ll never be first in line for entertainments about animals in peril. It’s just not what I look for when I open a comic or novel or turn on a television. But First in Space avoids the cheap manipulations endemic to that category, simply telling a fascinating story and with sincerity and intelligence.

(This review is based on a complimentary copy provided by the publisher. First in Space ships on April 25.)