Plumbing the Depths of Space and Human Psychology in ‘Southern Cross’

On its surface Southern Cross is a simple tale—a beloved sister dies, a loving sister hops an interplanetary transport to reclaim the body and investigate the death. But there hidden depths here, both literary and human.

You don’t see it immediately, the most charming part of Southern Cross, except that you do. You see it right on page one. But you write it off as a gimmick, as something that’s just attention-grabbing for the opening two-page splash. Just now when you turn the page, you tell yourself, things will get back to normal. Except, this is normal. This trippy spatialization of the comicbook page really is the storytelling heart of Becky Cloonan and Andy Belanger’s Southern Cross. And even if you see it right from page one, you don’t really see it until later in the book, when Lon, the ship’s doctor, leads dauntless protagonist Alex Braith to her cabin.

On it’s surface Southern Cross is deceptively simple, Victorian in its ambition. Which is to say it’s a story with a calm, dark surface and hidden depths beneath. Alex Braith must travel by ship to a distant place to reclaim the body and personal belongings of her deceased sister. But the setting isn’t Victorian in the least. Instead it’s sometime in the future. The distant place isn’t somewhere half a world away, it’s actually worlds away, on Titan, one of Saturn’s moons. Space travel to the outer giants of our solar system is technologically viable, but not commercially so. Somehow, in this future, socioeconomic acceleration has not kept pace with technology, so the only practical way to get to Titan is to hop a ride on the Southern Cross, a container ship that carries supplies to Titan to be used in the industrial exploitation of the moon’s mineral resources.

The opening issue was easy enough fare; Alex discovers she’s bunkmates with an annoying chatterbox, Erin, who’s onboard to perform routine safety inspections of one of the rigs on Titan, Alex explores the ship (corporate logos are on every product a human hand and minds needs to interact with, right down to the food squeezed out of the outer space toothpaste tubes), Alex gets lost a couple of times, meets key players aboard the ship. The mode of storytelling, the weird angles and that gorgeous, vertiginous spatialization of the panels however, keep you riveted.

Then there’s the denouement. “Routine safety inspections” was just a smokescreen. Erin’s heading to Titan to investigate Alex’s sister’s death. Specifically to investigate how it is that someone in Administration can meet with such a gruesome and mysterious death. But how could Erin have disappeared from her and Alex’s cabin in the middle of the night? And why would she leave her clothes laid out like she were still sleeping in her bunk? Is her disappearance connected to her true purpose for visiting Titan? Then there’s the gravity drive that powers the Southern Cross as it sails towards Saturn’s moon. Did that gravity drive just speak to Alex? Did it just warn her of something?

And right when we’re about to launch into the real mystery, a mystery that isn’t waiting on distant Titan, but is very much present on the Southern Cross itself, the first issue cliffhangers. Wait until next month. And you do, willingly so.

From Southern Cross #4 by Cloonan and Belanger, published by Image.

Things have only ratcheted up in the second and third issues. We hear about a mysterious suicide in Cabin 17, the very cabin which Alex used to share with the now officially missing Erin. And there’s that thing in that came through the wall, this weird muscle-monster. Next came some revelations. The truth about that creepy guy Kyril who bunks down directly across from Alex’s cabin. The truth about Captain Mori and why he pushed the ship’s doctor to rule Flask’s death a suicide. Then a new cliffhanger than extends the premise of the cliffhanger to the first issue — Amber, Alex’s dead sister is somehow trapped in the gravity drive (or was that simply a hallucination due to someone having tampered with the drive?) and warns Alex that Alex herself will die in three days.

That’s where we enter with the fourth issue, with things already having crescendoed.

But maybe the more interesting part of the fourth issue is what’s left out, rather than what’s made it through. For one, The paneling itself has become far less desperate in its vertigo. The story, the physical precepts of the story, that is, has become more regularized, more “normalized”. We’re getting far more of the straight-on, “looking at” kind of panels that we get in regular comics.

This is a profound escalation in storytelling technique. Because it demonstrates that as the drama and the atmospherics of the story itself heighten, and the plot mechanics are drive the story, we ourselves as readers are becoming more involved in the tale. How so? Because the environment we’re viewing is becoming more “normal,” therefore we ourselves must be undergoing neurophysical changes as we ourselves “grow more accustomed to” the harsh environment of outer space and the claustrophobic confines of the Southern Cross.

As we read the story, creators Cloonan and Belanger posit that we ourselves are being changed by the environment depicted in the story, hence our perceptions are changing, hence the nature and focus of the artwork changes. It’s a subtle point, but a mindblowingly beautiful one. You’re not just reading Southern Cross, you’re experiencing it. Why else would the Captain’s name, Tetsuya Mori, appear in the credits of the first issue. (Well, OK, it doesn’t exactly appear in the credits. We see “Paging: Tetsuya Mori” appear on one of the screens at the terminal, in the same way that the credits appear on screens at the terminal. And “paging” of course need not refer to “pagination/layout”, but to “calling” instead. But the layout is just ambiguous enough to make the entire thing tantalizing. I know whereof I speak. Take a look for yourself, right below).

Enlarge for clarity. From Southern Cross #1 by Cloonan and Belanger, published by Image.

A second thing that you’d except to see more of as the issue count increases, and something you just don’t see in the pages of the later issues of Southern Cross is an increase in the psychological intricacy of the lead character. I’m not talking about psychological depth and complexity. Alex has more than enough of that going for her. I’m talking about extraneous psychological intricacy that lends itself to agonizing over potential action, and inevitably leads to inaction. That kind of storytelling technique would, given the mounting dramatic tensions of the plot, would allow Southern Cross to grind to a halt. Instead, as Cloonan develops Alex’s backstory, she continually leads her primary character into actions that serve the twofold investigation into Amber Braith’s mysterious and gruesome death, and the strange goings-on aboard the space vessel.

What we get is the opposite of Gore Vidal of Leo Tolstoi, in a medium that would actively work against such literary techniques. What we instead get is J. K. Rowling or Charles Dickens, something simple on its surface, but possessing of a psychological depth that, like Walt Whitman, contains multitudes. This is exactly what Cloonan offers us in Alex Braith — a character who, the more we learn of her backstory, the more invested both we and she become in the various conundrums of her present moment. And that’s exactly what you want for a time-honored genre like this one. But wait, you say, this kind of corporate-industrial, long spaceflight scifi sub-genre couldn’t have existed for too long? Maybe since the ’60s with the Cold War, what with submarines? No. This genre that Cloonan and Belanger are remastering, and I use that word unapologetically, “remastering”, goes back much further in time. To the actual Victorian.

Almost exactly as far back as Arthur Conan Doyle, right before he officially launched his literary career. Right when he piggybacked his first anonymous story, “The Statement of J. Habakuk Jephson”, onto the mass hysteria surrounding the discovery of an unmanned Mary Celeste, suggesting his fiction as a true account. Doyle wasn’t coming at the genre at its start, but at its height. From Wilkie Collins to Daphne du Maurier, all the way through P. G. Wodehouse there is a grand tradition of suspense stories in Victorian fiction, and tales set at sea are not in short supply. Doyle’s critical literary insight, which would prove prescient for tabloid journalism during the Ripper murders just five years hence, was to ally the mechanics of the gothic suspense story with actual terrors culled from the headlines of the day.

The success of Doyle’s gambit couldn’t simply be repeated. Especially in fantastical fiction where the technology doesn’t yet exist. What Cloonan and Belanger offer then is the only “realistic” means to replicate the postmodern success of Doyle’s story — by presenting readers of Southern Cross with a comics text that “is aware” of it itself being read. A text that adapts to pressures felt by its main characters and one that “assumes” those pressures must be felt by the reader as well. Why go through all of this? Because that’s the only way to, in a sci-fi setting where the technology being written about doesn’t yet exist, get at the real sociocultural yield of the ’60s — not Cold War paranoia and subs sailing by undetected and underwater, but rather the Age of Aquarius and the mind-altering experiences that come with consuming hallucinogens. And that’s exactly where Southern Cross #4 cliffhangers us, with Alex imbibing something she probably shouldn’t but definitely needs to, and we as readers being entirely unable to distinguish space travel, from tripping.