It’s easy to get swept up in the enthusiasm and passion on display at APE with small press creators eagerly hocking their own wares, and sometimes the plain sincerity of a sales pitch can override one’s better judgement and lead to some rather dubious purchases. That’s the only excuse I’ve got for picking up Spaceman: Unarmed and Ready to Launch by the Lavapunch collective. It’s an appealingly goofy concept (“The random adventures of a spaceman who’s got no arms!”) that, on even a moment’s reflection, is a pretty thin premise for any workable stories.
So if the reader, on hearing that these stories are not the best, raises an eyebrow and wonders what I was expecting, well, you’d have me there. The stories in this book do indeed have all the depth and wit you’d expect of an anthology focused on a spaceman who’s got no arms.
I’ll at least acknowledge the book’s successes: it starts on a high note with Monica Chen’s “Uma and Pip: A Love Story,” which uses the silliness of the concept for a few good artificial-arms gags, then gets to its sweet conclusion without overstaying its welcome. Chen’s somewhat Rumiko Takahashi-flavored art is also some of the strongest in the book: her panel-to-panel storytelling is clear and easy to follow, which is important in any comic but doubly so in an mostly silent strip like “Uma and Pip.”
“Escape Velocity,” the story by Jillian Ogle and Evon Freeman that closes out the book, also has a nice moment that draws on the kaleidoscopic nature of an anthology for a big heroic finish. The actual plot of the strip is cliched, but at least it’s knowingly so–at one point, Captain Spaceman finds a map of the villain’s ship helpfully labeled “Enemies,” “Girl,” and “You Are Here.”
Finally, Alex Ahad’s gag strip “Unarmed and Dangerous” hits the right tone for the material he’s working with, though being chopped up into four-page segments sprinkled throughout the book doesn’t help the pacing. It would have worked better if the groan-worthy jokes about an inexplicably villainous version of Captain Spaceman being “caught red-handed” by the “long arm of the law” were allowed to accumulate, but it works well enough even as is.
The rest of the book is, bluntly, a mess. It’s clear that Lavapunch is primarily an artist’s collective by the way nearly every story falls into one of two pitfalls: it has lovely but unreadable art that fails to convey the ambitious ideas the creator was aiming for (Alpha Gamboa’s “Untitled” and Konstantin Pogorelov’s “The Path of Moderate Resistance”) or it hits the other extreme of a collection of deliberately crudely-drawn puerile jokes (Robert Iza’s “The Ballad of Captain Spaceman” and Teerawat Palanitisena’s “Captain Spaceman and the Temple of Shrooms,” which was so witless I actually fell asleep reading it).
Chalk at least some of it up to the perennial problem of anthologies feeling like a collection of B-sides; I doubt many of the creators were putting forth their best effort for a bunch of strips with such a lame shared premise, and I can’t really fault them for it. That said, if an anthology is meant to be a collective’s calling card, it does behoove its members to try a little harder than this–I can’t say I’m eager to look further into the work of any of the individual creators based on their representation in Spaceman. There are several other anthologies lurking somewhere in The Stack, so fingers crossed they do a better job at putting over their members as talents worth following.
IF LAVAPUNCH EXHIBITS AT NEXT YEAR’S APE I WILL: Walk on by.