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Apes In Space!

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James Vining may not be a familiar name to comic fans as yet, but his first graphic novel on the early days of the Space Race looks set to change that.

First In Space is the true account of Ham, the first chimpanzee to be sent into space to test the future viability of human missions, in the early days of NASA’s space program. This 96-page graphic novel focuses primarily on the lives of Ham and his human handler Beach, as months of training ready the chimp for his first experimental solo flight. With the Americans and Russians locked in the Cold War the tension amongst the NASA scientists and staff is palpable throughout, but it’s the story of one man and his ape that will keep your attention rapt throughout this impressive debut from comics newcomer James Vining.

It’s not the most commercial sounding of premises for an original comic strip but this is a story that will draw you in almost immediately with its innate charm. At the book’s core is Beach’s relationship with Ham who, despite repeatedly being told not to get too attached to what is essentially a test subject, manages to endearingly form a bond with his charge. This is contrasted beautifully with the varying attitudes of the other handlers to their apes and the colder detachment of the NASA scientists.

Vining imbues all the chimpanzees in the tale with very distinctive personalities and character traits, underlining the inherent tragedy that, brought to the project as infants, their lives are casually considered commodities to be used up to further scientific advancement. In emphasizing that the chimps’ freedom has been sacrificed to the altar of mankind’s self-interest the novel never loses sight of the price these unfortunate creatures have had to pay and that is its greatest strength. Ham’s dreams of freedom are particularly touching in this regard, further highlighting the moral issues involved.

Vining’s cartoony art has a detailed clarity that matches the tone of the narrative wonderfully. I don’t know if it was intentional or not but physical differences in the human characters are often underplayed. This adds to the feeling that we’re getting a chimp’s eye view of the world and makes the reader empathize with Ham and his fellow primates all the more.

The wealth of research done is evident throughout the art, with painstaking recreations of the NASA rockets and equipment (further examined in some bonus material after the main narrative). Despite capturing the feel of the early space race so authentically I found myself more drawn to Vining’s depictions of the chimpanzees, their body language and their social rituals. It’s not as instantly obvious but I suspect a similar level of study went into ensuring this element of the book was accurate throughout and it certainly pays off. At no point in the ninety-six pages does the extensive research ever bog the story down though. Vining shows commendable restraint in this regard and makes clear, accessible storytelling a priority over turning the comic into a NASA technical handbook.

Indeed Vining’s research has been so thorough that a website complementing the book (and billing itself as a learning experience to supplement the comic) exists at http://www.firstinspacecomic.com. With historical background, videos clips, photos, articles that make the reader think more about the ethical issues surrounding the experimental use of animals and a comprehensive bibliography (this latter also contained in the graphic novel) this rounds out the reading experience considerably.

Despite the historical success of the events depicted, the final fate of the chimps involved you will no doubt be unsurprised to hear, was not as rosy. This provides a poignant and thoughtful conclusion to the work. Vining never shies away from this aspect of the account and it gives the finale a moving and somewhat distressing quality. More information on the chimpanzees after the program’s conclusion can be found on the website and via the bibliography.

Without even a modicum of doubt, James Vining is a creator to watch out for. First In Space is one of those exercises in storytelling that uses the comic strip form to its maximum potential, allowing an exploration of its themes that could never be as well realized in other media. Absorbing, touching and informative, this is a worthy reminder that comics can aspire to so much more than just men in tights hitting each other.

Take a look at the First in Space website at  www.firstinspacecomic.com for more background information on the project, and to view some of the videos and clips Vining used as reference. For more information on Oni Press and its other titles, go to www.onipress.com.

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