The Webcomic Overlook #153: Spacetrawler

Comedic science fiction can be a tricky proposition. The folks who enjoy such things are typically total nerds… and I mean that in the best possible way. The humor has to be clever. The creator has to tread the line between bizarre scientific concepts and a winking acknowledgement of the absurdity of it all. After all, the reader doesn’t like to feel like he’s being talked down to. You must never dumb things down.

When done right, you get Futurama, Red Dwarf, and Mike Resnick’s The Three-Legged Hooch Dancer. When done wrong… you get the Star Wars Holiday Special.

Fortunately, Christopher John Baldwin’s Spacetrawler, a star-spanning space opera, falls in the former category. It’s quite likely that this webcomic draws a lot of comparisons to the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books. The gratuitous asides on the Uneyetarians and Brograhm’s Teeth, in particular, are highly reminiscent of Adams’ infamous encyclopedia entries.

The world of Spacetrawler is one governed by the Galactic Organization Body (or GOB for short), a sort of interstellar United Nations. Everyone seems to be well off. Everyone, that is, except for the Eebs. While they are adept at technology — technologies such as the Spacetrawler, a miracle technology that provides everything from interstellar propulsion to food — they also lack any sort of willpower. To the other denizens of the galaxy, they are slaves and non-sentient beings. They also look a little like those green alien toys from Toy Story. It’s in this world that a John Brown-type character arises to stand up for Eeb rights: a tubby, surly alien fish named Nogg.

After an intro following the daring adventures of a big red freedom fighter (who will soon be Sir Not Appearing In This Comic), Spacetrawler opens, quite daringly, with Nogg informing an old man named Mr. Zorilla that his daughter, Martina, is dead. Nogg insists that Martina died with honor and tries to offer some comfort with a gift of interstellar Russian tea cakes. These discussions with Mr. Zorilla serve as the story’s framing device. The rest of the story is told in one big flashback.

This particular page, though, tends to stick with you during the entire reading experience. As you read the story, you come to realize that Martina is one of the most sympathetic characters. Yet, in the back of our minds, we know her adventures are tinged with tragedy because she’s not going to make it. You start to wonder if any of the others that Nogg recruited made it out alive, either. Perhaps Mr. Zorilla is only one of many people that Nogg will be visiting? Then there’s the matter of the Russian tea cakes, which gets a humorous callback later in the comic.

Nogg’s story follows a group of humans he brought onboard to help free the Eebs. Humans have not yet been included in the GOB, and filling the vacancy will, in theory, give Eebs a voice. Martina, the most level-headed of the bunch, eventually becomes their leader. Pierrot hails from Gabon and is generally peaceful unless an animal’s well being is in danger. Emily is an American cowgirl who was raised by coyotes and gets pretty much all the action scenes. Dimitri is a Russian lothario who finds the prospect of sleeping with alien women intriguing, even if some do look like watermelons. Yuri is a Japanese technophile who grafts new cybernetic components on her body with each passing storyline. And Dustin … well, he wasn’t supposed to be on board. Turns out they wanted his brother. This last bit will end up causing the team no end to their consternation.

They’re joined by Krep, a sarcastic half-squid half-horse who is Nogg’s second in command, and Gurf, the team’s tank. If the alien names are starting to blend together … well, there’s plenty more where that came from!

One of the things that makes Spacetrawler work is the chemistry between the characters. For example, take Dimitri, perhaps my favorite character in this comic. Typically, he’s in the comic relief role, whether we’re following his sexy misadventures or his other weird hang-ups. Yet we also understand why the other members of the team value him: he’s easy going, cool in pressure situations … and surprisingly earnest. So, when he decides to part ways with the team some time later in the comic, it makes sense why Emily would be disappointed and why Martina would respect his decision.

Yuri, meanwhile, originally struck me as a one-dimensional parody of an otaku fangirl, what with the kitty headband and the Inu Yasha posters and the squeeing and whatnot. Spacetrawler, though, exposes her to some of its most screwed up plot twists. Over time, she seems to become more unhinged and drifting further away from her humanity to the point where Martina has to rein her in. While other characters still treat her as a friend, she’s increasingly becoming the team’s wild card.

A lot of this character development comes from just letting the story breathe. A lot of space is devoted to the dialogue, and Mr. Baldwin uses it effectively to establish the individual personalities and voices. While there are intermittent bursts of action, a lot of Spacetrawler is spent watching the characters talk about things. Sometimes the matters are trivial, such as whether soy burgers are appropriately vegetarian in a world where everything is synthesized from raw matter. Others are more pointed, like when Nobb’s longtime friend, Choan, takes him to task about knowing his crew.

And yet, while there are plenty of breathers, the plot moves. In just over a year, the crew has evaded several alien bounty hunters, went on the run from the GOB, and claimed a spot on the galactic council. They storytelling and pacing are breathlessly efficient.

When I pulled up Mr. Baldwin’s profile, I learned that the guy worked at MAD Magazine. It was one of those things are are so obvious that when you’re confronted with the fact, you sorta slap your head and yell, “But of course!” The way Mr. Baldwin draws his characters to be small and simple is similar to they style of fellow MAD alumnus Sergio Aragones. Aragones was famous for his “marginals,” quick jokes that were drawn in the magazine’s negative space. He was fast and he paid special attention to tiny details. This turned out to be a great asset in his rendering of memorable crowded scenes, sometimes filled with a hundred characters, in Groo the Wanderer (his comic book with writer Mark Evanier).

Baldwin’s style is very similar. I’ve taken other webcomic creators to task for drawing their characters too small. The wide-angle style, though, works quite well for Baldwin. He’s got quite a knack, first of all, for character designs that are both simple and distinct. I thought he captured the details of each of the human characters’ ethnicities quite well. Plus, the alien designs are nothing short of imaginative. An alien with arms growing out of its mouth? Perhaps impossible from an evolutionary standpoint, but eye-catching nonetheless.

Secondly, by pulling back a bit, he gets to fill in a lot of nifty environmental details to flesh out his sci-fi setting. We get the claustrophobic sensation from a starship’s interiors, the hustle and bustle of a crowded alien metropolis, and the mayhem of an all-out brawl. It’s busy, colorful, and alive, giving you a sense that there are stories going on around the galaxy that aren’t exclusive to our small band of humans.

Most importantly, though, Spacetrawler is chock full of off-the-wall, clever humor. One moment, you’ve got a local nutcase who reveals JFK was an alien. The next, you’re watching Pierrot bargain with a highly insistent Potty-Bot who only wants to collect his pee. There are jokes the creep up on you unexpectedly. Other jokes — such as the character-driven humor and callbacks to previous gags — that reward the attentive reader.

Overall, Spacetrawler is the total package. It’s funny, adventurous, and intriguing. It’s the sort of comic you eagerly flip through because you want to see what’s next in store, and where you feel the inevitable crush of disappointment when you realize that you’ve reached the last page and you’re all caught up.

Rating: 5 stars (out of 5)


About El Santo

Somehow ended up reading and reviewing almost 300 different webcomics. Life is funny, huh? Despite owning two masks, is not actually a luchador.

Posted on February 15, 2011, in 5 Stars, action webcomic, adventure webcomic, comedy webcomic, sci-fi webcomic, The Webcomic Overlook, webcomics. Bookmark the permalink. 16 Comments.

  1. I love when you review comics I’ve never heard of and I get to add them to my rss subscriptions!

  2. Been reading this one for a little while. It’s remained consistently great so far 🙂

  3. Not spectacular but pretty good. I think this is a comic I’d rather read in larger chunks so I’ll keep it bookmarked rather than in my rss.

    Side note: Holy crap el Santo, site update?

    • The site’s had the same look for a year and a half now, so I thought it might be nice for a slight refresh. It’s a little cleaner, but hopefully not too different either.

      • ack! sudden black box against white! I advise a toning down against the later of the extremes with a pale yellow-orange of some kind and a darker color for site background to match it. But that’s just me.

        • I’m assuming you mean the comment box. Can’t say I’m too fond of that either. Unfortunately, it looks like I’d have to purchase some sort of Upgrade to modify any of CSS fields from the standard templates… and I’m kinda not very knowledgeable in that field, personally. 😦

  4. I don’t know what it is, El Santo, but your five-star comics rarely do the trick for me. I found this to be neither particularly funny or exciting. The only thing that actually made me laugh was Yuri’s ear-stealing moment. Other than that, there’s no real magic in the jokes for me. In fact, I found the sequences with Martina’s father to be very grating. He seems to be the same sort of oblivious buffoon as Mayor West in Family Guy, except he is to be taken seriously. Also, I’m not catching anything to indicate that the wildly different nationalities of the human characters are being played with. Does Dimitri think Putin is a hero, while Martina would rather see the man in jail? Does Pierrot bring up that whole Japanese dolphin-slaughter thing to Yuri? It’s stuff like that where a comic like this could shine (and could still be funny). And how about the ethics of hijacking (or trying to, anyway) an entire planet’s voice on the Space UN in the interest of radical idealism? As someone hailing from a country with an Animal Party in the parliament, that immediately springs to mind, but I see no indication of this comic treating issues like that beyond the fragging of some space bounty hunters and how that is Bad and Wrong.

    • I sympathize with you, Piet. I wish more people would blog about webcomics — there are just too many different kinds of audiences, interests, and genres for one person to cover. Humor is especially subjective, especially when viewed on an international scale.

      The suggestions for the characters are indeed interesting. I think, though, that there’s a limit you can take some of the conflicts without conflicting with the characters. Like the “Does Dimitri think Putin is a hero” question. There was one conversation with Dustin which showed, I think, that Dimitri wasn’t one to care much for politics, as long as it served his own self-interest. Thus, it doesn’t seem like he’s the sort of guy who would care who would be in power. I’m not saying that his political allegiances wouldn’t make an interesting discussion point. However, if he did bring it up, the fact that he brought him up would stick him with the label as a Putin man, when it seems like it’s not part of his personality. Yuri, on the other hand, is primarily a technophile, so Japan’s dolphin-slaughter issue might not even be something she’s even aware of. (At least that’s what I’m assuming. I’m guessing most of America’s video game playing youths don’t care much or know of the cruel animal practices that go into making their hamburgers.)

      I suppose that Pierrot is the kind of guy to bring it up, though. However, there haven’t been many Pierrot-Yuri scenes yet.

      Finally, a Family Guy reference from someone in the Netherlands? I know it’s to be expected with globalization and all, but it still threw me for a loop. I guess Adam West should be flattered that he’s remembered worldwide now.

      • Don’t worry. Your blog still leads me to a lot of comics I read with pleasure. Right now I’m making my way through The Dreamland Chronicles, which I probably wouldn’t have shown interest in without your writing on the matter. Your way of writing reviews lends itself well to the reader being able to figure out if they’d like the comic or not, regardless of score.

        As for my comments on Space Trawler, they’re just examples, of course. More an indication of the sort of thing that might happen, rather than burning questions to which I must have an answer. It’s just that putting such a bevy of different nationalities together would see some interaction on that level simply because they’re from different cultures. For example, The Princess Bride is a seminal work of American fiction, but it is virtually unknown in Europe. When I saw a pattern of references cropping up in webcomics, forums and who knows what else, I assumed it was a new movie that would see its way to Europe in the next months or years. I was really rather surprised to find out the book has been around since the 70’s. Another example (more close to home, I guess) is that I could be seen as a comics enthusiast, but would hardly be able to make conversation with an American variant of myself on account of European and American comic cultures being wildly different and almost completely insular.

        So, if you ask me, it doesn’t need to go against character. It doesn’t need to be culture clash, specifically. But I’d rather like the comic to show some international savvy beyond the Russian drinking vodka and the Japanese girl having a thing for kitty-ears.

        And Family Guy is actually rather popular around here, as are other things. The entertainment industry still has to realize it, however, as most people I know just download the newest episodes because it takes them far too long to make it to TV. Similarly, The Walking Dead hasn’t even begun to make its way to our broadcasting channels, but I saw the comics appear in stores just around when the series launched in America. I wonder why that is…

    • I disagree, Piet. It has been touching on the ethics of imposing a voice on a race of beings incapable of taking a stand. It has also drawn parallels between this and the arguments for vegetarianism/veganism. This is much bigger than just ‘the fragging of some space bounty hunters,’ though in all of these situations there is an assumption about a basic value for life and sentience. I’m sure this isn’t the only way of interpreting the comic, but you could’ve actually tried to find some themes.

      Anywho, it’s not worth it to randomly toss out references to the politics du jour unless they’ll help with fleshing out the overall theme.

      • Here is my two cent as a person who has been through quite a bit of cultural clash (and still continues to do so until this very day)… Unless you are in a situation that forces or greatly encourage political/social problems to be brought up (i.e. in classes, among people who are into that kinda thing etc…), cultural clash tends to be a bit more subtle. From what I have experienced personally, it is usually less about your country’s political situation and more about how each person interpret things slightly differently due to different cultural background. There are people from at least 5 national background or so in my current office, and apart from me telling one of my bosses how Thai people don’t actually eat insect all that often, I don’t think we have even discuss obvious cultural/political things at all. We just don’t care to think or talk about it. Considering the fact that everyone but Pierrot doesn’t seem to be the type of persons who is that into this sort of things, I would feel that they are out of characters if they actually start discussing cultural issues seriously if something doesn’t force them to bring it up. I agree that cultural crash is an interesting theme for a cast featuring international (or actually intergalaxtic) cast, but I don’t think this is quite the right comic for that.

        I personally really enjoy the type of humor featured in this comic though, but I have always been a fan of dry zany humor.

  5. John Baldwin just made a little comic-note thingy underneath his most recent update advertising his book.
    “Maybe if I sell enough I’ll bring Dimitri back.”

  1. Pingback: Spacetrawler - 02/16/11 Luunock’s Welcome

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