Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Entry 54: Space Corps

Today I’m going to talk about a comic that I didn’t expect to like. It’s science fiction, which is right up my alley, but it’s also about a military organization, which is about as far from my alley as you can reasonably get without crossing the border. Like many people, I try to be open-minded and explore new things even if I typically regard the subject matter with distaste. However, also like many people, I usually wind up sticking with the types of stories that I already know I enjoy. So I was delighted when, upon warily beginning to read a new and untested comic, I found myself utterly charmed by Space Corps.

The most striking thing about Space Corps, for me, is the sheer diversity of aliens that we get to see. The eponymous organization contains members from a vast number of species, to the extent that you’d be hard-pressed to find any corpsmen who share a species for most of the comic. (With the exception of humans, which I’ll discuss in a bit.)

Very often, in fiction, supposedly interspecies organizations are mostly populated by humans. For television and film, it’s logistically easier to keep most actors out of heavy prosthetics, but the tendency extends to other media as well. Humans write about humans a little more naturally than they write about lifeforms that are not human.

Alternatively, many works feature a handful of alien species, meant to represent a vast and diverse cultural mix but with a small enough number of cultures that it’s easy for the readers (and the creators!) to keep track of them. Space Corps takes things a step further, demonstrating with every page just how many species inhabit this setting. I can’t keep track of all these aliens, and that’s a good thing, because it makes everything feel so much fuller and more complex than it would be if I could get a good grasp of the cultural interplays after only a few minutes of reading.

Above is Lt Adelina, and I’m going to use her as an illustration of the character work that I love in Space Corps. First, she’s a lizard woman, which is just cool. But look at her body shape; somehow, the artist has refrained from drawing the female character with significant cleavage, or even any hint of breasts at all.

Of course, it wouldn’t make any sense whatsoever for Lt Adelina to have a significant bust. One, she’s a lizard, and two, she’s wearing armor. I feel bad even pointing this out, because it’s not so much a good choice as it is the lack of a bad choice, but I’ve seen so many inexplicable drawings of sexy lizard women that just seeing one case of an artist doing the sensible thing instead reaffirms my hope for humanity. Cpl Simmons may be sexualizing Lt Adelina, but the artist does not sink to the level of his characters, and draws her looking just like the soldier that she is.

Like many stories, Space Corps has a gender balance that skews more masculine, but Adelina actually provides an elegant workaround for the issue of gender diversity. Visually, there’s no way to tell that she’s female; the reader only knows because of dialogue. Meanwhile, the vast majority of characters in Space Corps are neither human nor given significant on-page character development. I find it completely plausible that there are a good number of women on these pages, but that their genders are typically irrelevant to the story and unremarked-upon.

That’s just speculation on the part of a reader, but I like the idea, because it gives some weight to the true array of alien beings in this comic. It’s not always possible to tell gender at a glance, especially not with unfamiliar species, and that extra level of unknowns adds to the fun for me.

Space Corps is organized into “issues,” as if it were a serial comic in print. You could probably follow each issue without having read the previous ones, but it’s easiest to read and follow the story by just going in order from the beginning. Starting with Issue #1, Space Corps primarily follows the story of a human named Deven Taylor. The comic doesn’t begin with Issue #1, though. There’s an Issue #0, which contains a few short stories, each focusing on different characters.

So far, the most prevalent perspective in the comic is a human one, but in Issue #0, humans are hardly present. I cannot emphasize enough the impact of beginning from an alien perspective. It builds a setting that feels deep and complete, full of people and conflicts outside a limited human viewpoint. To be sure, a complete and expansive story could be told just from a human perspective, and indeed, many stories have. However, the impression I get with Space Corps is that an equally complete and expansive story could be told from the perspective of any one of the aliens we see.

The idea that one’s own perspective is not definitive that other beings, with entirely dissimilar backgrounds, have equally deep and complex stories to offer is a powerful one. In a story like this, it makes the aliens and their lives seem that much more real and compelling. In real life, it opens up the possibility of understanding and compassion for people whose life experiences differ strongly from our own. To me, Space Corps reinforces the idea that, whether dealing with alien species or just humans with different genetic histories, there’s room to hear and empathize with their stories.

My favorite things about Space Corps are the parts that fill me with curiosity, much of which will likely never be sated. Some questions, such as who the Winnowers are and why they rampage through space leaving a swath of destruction in their wake, may well be addressed as the story progresses. But many small character details may never be resolved, leaving only implications and the reader’s imagination to fill in the gaps.

Take Cpl Hive, who is literally a bunch of bees in a suit. It’s a pretty fun concept, and Hive is presented as a sort of microcosm of the Space Corps as a whole… individuals banding together to protect and help one another, forming a greater force in unity than they could manage as individuals. But I have to wonder… are there other people out there who are bees in a suit? Do the bees reproduce, creating more bees so that Cpl Hive will live as long as the population sustains itself? Did the bees invent the technology that lets them control the suit, or did someone else provide it for them?

Though I love to consider these questions, and I’d definitely get a thrill from answers appearing in the pages of Space Corps, I am completely content with the idea that answers will never come. I actually prefer open questions to concrete explanations, as I enjoy the mystery and the intellectual exercise of forcing myself to accept uncertainty. There’s a reason that “The Quiz Broadcast” series of sketches from That Mitchell and Webb Look forms one of my very favorite science fiction works. Implication can be so much more powerful than exposition, and Space Corps implies far more than could ever be stated outright.

If, upon reading the title Space Corps, you think “Oh man I wanna read that!” then you will not be disappointed; this comic absolutely delivers the kind of sci-fi battles you’re looking for. If, like me, you’re more skeptical, I encourage you to give it a chance. There’s depth here if you look for it, and there’s a sincerity and charm that’s almost seductive. I can almost see the creators pulling my emotional strings, getting me to cheer for developments that I’d normally regard warily. Space Corps makes me sympathize with viewpoints that I normally disagree with, and you know what, I think that’s a good thing. Because I should be able to empathize with people who have different life experiences than my own.

Space Corps is written by Gannon Beck and Bryan Richmond, and drawn by Gannon Beck. Issue #0 also has Joey Groah on the writing team, and colors by Kyle Tobin. Speaking of Issue #0, there’s a Kickstarter campaign to get that in print. Today is its last day, so you still have a few hours to get on that if Space Corps appeals to you.

Have a pleasant day, and remember, for your safety, always be aware of the location of your nearest exit.

I guess in this case the nearest exit is wherever you want it to be.

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  1. Thanks for reviewing this, Robynne.

    I'm glad you picked up on how Lt Adelinda is portrayed.

    For a living I do unit logos for platoons, companies and battalions across the military. One of the units I do work for is Officer Candidates School (OCS) on Quantico for the Marine Corps. Boot Camp environments, like at Quantico where they train officers, segregate platoons by gender, which is why there haven't been females in the boot camp issue. We try to keep the series culturally authentic. As the series moves away from boot camp the genders will be segregated. Quantico is one of the only places in the Marine Corps that has all female platoons. Parris Island also segregates by gender in boot camp.

    Because of this gender segregation, I've had the unique opportunity to talk with representatives from every female platoon at OCS for the last 10 years as to how they want to be represented in art. The word "feminine" does comes up, but it's always with other words like "strong" and "professional." Not once in 10 years has an officer candidate ask that I portray her platoon in a design with words like "sexy" or anything like it. It's just not a part of the conversation.

    Like all officers, the female officers carry themselves with composure and bearing. I've tried to capture all of that when drawing Lt Adelinda. Capt Brockett has the same bearing, so it's an officer thing, not a male or female thing.

    That's the background behind the choices. It's entirely deliberate, and I'm glad you noticed:)

    1. You know, I was so focused on the sci-fi aspects of the comic I kind of overlooked the possibility of real-world influences. (Partly because things like the Marine Corps are pretty far removed from my personal experiences.) That cultural authenticity really shines through, though.

      Thank you for sharing that information; it's great to get an idea of the influences that shape the media I enjoy. And I just think it's awesome that you have that real-world connection to draw on, and that you've put it to such good use.

    2. I'm glad you like the sci-fi aspects, too. Cpl Hive in particular is really fun. Aliens are so fun to draw. I'm also glad you're picking up on the diversity being a strength theme. We'll be honing in on that in a really cool way before the first arc is done.