The Azzarello–Risso Yearbook, Part 3 of 4: “Spaceman”

Matthew Derman

The protagonist is Orson, also the “Spaceman” of the title, genetically engineered years ago by NASA to be able to travel to and live on Mars.

With 100 Bullets a couple years behind them, Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso joined forces for another Veritgo-published, creator-owned series in 2011-12, titled Spaceman. The futuristic sci-fi dystopian story of the series seemed at first to be sort of a divergent path for these creators to take. Their work together before had always been down-to-earth crime stories, set in the present day and without too many fantastic elements, even when doing Batman. Yet despite its shift in time period and subject, Spaceman remains thematically related to its predecessors in the Azzarello-Risso library. It’s just as much about the darkest, most dangerous places and people in the world as anything else they’ve done together, but viewed through a more complicated and ultimately far more interesting lens.

The future in which Spaceman is set is not too distantly removed from our own time. However, it does seem to take place after a major natural disaster of some kind has occurred, separating society into two distinct geographic and economic sections: the Rise and the Dries. The Rise is essentially a massive slum built around and within a giant body of water, presumably left in the wake of whatever disaster took place. The Dries is where the wealthy live, cut off from the lower classes by an enormous literal wall, called the Fence. Travel from one side of the Fence to the other is a slow and difficult process so, for the most part, everyone stays where they are.

Because this is an Azzrello-Risso book, most of it goes down in the Rise, since this creative team thrives when dealing with squalor. The protagonist is Orson, also the “Spaceman” of the title, genetically engineered years ago by NASA to be able to travel to and live on Mars. Unfortunately for Orson and all of his Spaceman “brothers,” the moral and ethical questions of NASA creating life in a lab led to it being shut down before the Mars mission could happen, and Orson ended up in an orphanage. Now an adult, he makes a meager living by collecting and selling the metallic junk that floats in the waters of the Rise. His only social life consists of hanging out with his pre-teen drug dealer and crew, plus the occasional virtual sexual encounter with a woman named Lilly. Orson doesn’t seem too miserably depressed when we meet him, but he’s not very satisfied with his life, either. He is a little dim and extremely aimless, having been bred for a very specific purpose he never got to fulfill.

The story of Spaceman, then, is Orson finding a new purpose and devotedly seeing it through, only for the world to screw him over again at the finish line. A young girl named Tara—one of many stars of a reality TV program called “The Ark” where orphans compete to be adopted by a celebrity couple—gets kidnapped, and it is immediately the biggest news item of the day. Through sheer dumb luck, Orson finds Tara in the grips of her captors and manages to save her. They form a quick, tender friendship, Orson doing his best to keep Tara safe and figure out how to get her home, and Tara doing her best to let him. Orson’s mental and emotional simplicity sometimes gets in the way since he’s barely more than a big kid himself, but that’s also why Tara is so fast to trust him, and why they get along so well.

There are many external threats to Orson and/or Tara’s safety, some preexisting and others cropping up along the way, but the scariest and most significant comes from one of Orson’s estranged Spaceman brothers, Carter. Hired to re-capture Tara by the same rich pedophile who had her kidnapped in the first place, Carter is ruthless, violent, and an efficient bounty hunter, moving swiftly and decisively at all times. Where Orson is kind, caring, and innocent, Carter is a broken-in sociopath, killing for sport or convenience without it affecting him at all. Carter’s lack of a heart makes him the ultimate foe for Orson, who’s all heart, and in the end Carter uses exactly that to come out on top and leave Orson with nothing.

There are a lot of opposites in this book; it’s built around them. Orson and Carter are two sides of the same coin. The Rise and the Dries are another stark example. When Tara and Orson meet and she learns his history, starting out famous as part of the NASA scandal and then becoming an orphan, she says out loud, “That’s the opposite of me.” And they are physical opposites as well, Orson a hulking collection of oversized parts and Tara a slight, small child. Then there is the underlying theme of the difference between the real truth and the accepted or perceived truth, another, more complex pair of opposites. Or at least opposing forces. When people see Orson with Tara, they assume that the freak monster is who stole the little girl, and that story never gets straightened out. The reader understands what really happened, that Orson was as noble and brave as any hero in history, but the public of his world sees him as the villain.

On top of that, there’s also some uncertainty as to what the reader actually knows, because in between all the saving of Tara, there are scenes of Orson, Carter, and two other spacemen living and working on Mars as planned. Even though we’re told explicitly by Orson and Carter themselves that they never went to Mars, we watch it happen, and it’s never entirely clear what we’re being shown. Is it an alternate reality? A dream/nightmare Orson keeps returning to? Is Mars the real story, and Tara the dream? The last page of the book certainly suggests that’s possible, and neither narrative ends too well for Orson, so it almost doesn’t matter which is real. If Spaceman has any lesson to impart, it’s that all stories should be questioned, because they’re easy to manipulate when it serves the storyteller(s) to do so.

Dishonesty and deception are not new territory for Risso and Azzarello. On the contrary, these are familiar stomping grounds for the duo, but Spaceman marks the most nuanced and thorough examination of these themes that they’ve ever conducted. Along the same lines, Azzarello plays with language heavily in Spaceman, something he’s done quite often before but never to this degree. By setting the story in the future, Azzarello gets to present an imagined evolution of English, with new slang, lots of mashed-up words, and a general informality that makes it both entertaining and easy to understand. All his trademark puns and quips are still present, but filtered now through the vocabulary of this new language. Azzarello plays with English as a whole, and then plays smaller verbal games within that larger game, too.

Risso also brings to this book an impressive expansion/extension on something he’d always done in the past, but it’s a little bit less obvious. Spaceman takes place in a fictional future where the world looks dramatically different, so Risso gets to do a ton of detailed world-building on pretty much every page. His visuals tell us immediately that we’re not in our own time but we are on Earth, and give some vital clues as to what might have happened to create this depressing new reality. The art provides significantly more information about the current state of things and the history behind it than the words do, because the words don’t need to after all the work Risso puts into constructing this world from the ground up. Because his past collaborations with Azzarello have tended to be current, Risso’s world-building skills have perhaps been less noticeable, but the truth is he’s always provided rich, full set pieces that worked together to create a unifying aesthetic for each series. Because the settings of Spaceman are more foreign to the reader, Risso can cut a little looser and have some more fun with it, leading to a few breathtaking two-page spreads that stand alone as complete works of art outside of the comicbook narrative in which they’re contained. So Spaceman is a unique chance for Risso to show off his inventiveness, but the level of care and craft that goes into his backgrounds is nothing new. It is, in fact, par for the course, but a little more eye-catching because of the nature of the details included.

Another bit of the old feeling new in Risso’s art can be found in the character design for Orson and, by extension, all of his Spaceman brothers. Risso’s quite fond of and skilled with bulky, larger-than-life figures, but Spaceman is a chance for him to take that to the extreme. Because Orson and Carter are both meant to be truly deformed, immediately distinguishable from “real” or “normal” humans, Risso builds them a little like apes. Their arms are too long and their legs don’t match, they have a strange shape to their undersized heads, and their bodies are massive and long, giving them an imposing size in all directions. While reminiscent of the biggest, scariest thugs and killers of Risso’s previous work, the spacemen are still quite distinct, not as much muscle but somehow more pure mass.

At its most basic conceptual level, Spaceman sounds like a major shake-up for Azzarello and Risso as a team. Certainly is has less in common with Jonny Double, “Broken City,” or 100 Bullets than any of them have with each other. Yet digging only a bit deeper into Spaceman's content reveals that it’s actually strongly connected to those other series, if perhaps spun a little differently. It may cover new ground, but it is also Risso and Azzarello working in their most comfortable spaces, just in ways they haven’t tried before. It is the logical, necessary next step in their creative partnership, showing that they can maintain the shared voice that made them such a popular, respected team while still branching out into fresh subject matter.

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