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)