First in Space.
Oni Press. 2007.
In the late 1950s, United States and Soviet scientists raced to be the first to send a man into space. In preparation, the Russians successfully sent up a rocket containing a dog, and the US upped the ante by using monkeys. But while both countries could get animals into space, they couldn't get them back down again; at least not alive. By 1960, NASA had moved on to working with chimpanzees, in the hopes that their similarities to humans would help scientists iron out the kinks and get man into space before the Soviets. Later that year, a chimp named Ham was the first animal to go up in a capsule and come home again.
If you were making a children's book about Ham, it would tell the story of a precocious chimp, whose intelligence and endurance win him the spot in the capsule over all of the other chimps, despite a slight weight issue. James Vining's extensively researched graphic novel, First in Space, tells that story, but also delves deeply into the ethical and personal ramifications of the experiments that finally led to success.
Many chimpanzees died during the extensive training and testing procedures, and it is in his portrayal of this truth that Vining excels. Rather than vilifying NASA and the trainers, or dismissing the deaths as necessary casualties, he presents many sides of a complex issue and lets the readers come to their own conclusions. He very clearly shows the NASA trainers caring deeply about the chimps in their charge and succinctly expresses why NASA scientists felt the sacrifice of life was important. He also shows chimpanzees thriving and enjoying training but doesn't shirk from showing those same animals terrified and confused as they're subjected to g-force and impact testing that they don't understand, and which ultimately kills some of them.
While these realities are expressed in the dialogue, it is Vining's art that really brings them through to the reader. His art is sharp and clean, and exhibits a strong grasp of the physicality of both chimps and humans. There's a lot of motion in the book, as one would expect around a NASA training center, yet it's always clear exactly what everyone is doing, and how they feel about it. The human characters are very well drawn, but it's with the chimpanzees that Vining really shines. Because they don't speak, everything they're feeling has to come through the art, and there isn't a panel where it doesn't. From smug to satisfied, from concentrating to confused, from angry to unsettled; each chimpanzee has a distinct personality and realistic reactions.
It's this attention to character that makes First in Space so effective, and ultimately the story, at least to this reader, so tragic. Reactions to the events in the book will vary, largely dependent on the reader's personal views on how animals are treated, but I'll admit to bursting into tears at the start of the epilogue.
While not a children's book, the art and inclusion of chimpanzees make this a book that will appeal to children, and reading it with parents could begin some very important discussions about the moral quandaries of animal testing.
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