COMIC REVIEW: The Chimpanzee Complex, Vols 1-3 (Cinebook Review #25)

ChimpanzeeComplexTime plays tricks with us all.  I’ve only been writing for the Geek Syndicate for a little over three years, but it’s filled my thoughts and spare time so completely that I can barely recall what life was like before joining this phenomenal network of people.  Meanwhile, Cinebook Reviews has only been going for a year and a half yet I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface of the Franco-Belgian comics scene. Of course, Cinebook are not the only publisher out there translating these books into English.  Fantagraphics and Archaia (among others) have great reputations and catalogues that I’m itching to delve though, but life only lasts so long.  I’ve begun to realise that I’m never going to be able to read every book, watch every film and play every game.  Passion for one thing in life drives out the space for all else, and in the end we become defined by the choices we make.  All of this brings me – thematically – to The Chimpanzee Complex, a superb series of books set in the near future of space exploration.

The setting is 2035.  Political will failed and the first manned mission to Mars has been shelved, crushing the life-long dreams of astronaut Helen Freeman.  The arrival of an impossible craft on Earth reignites her career, though.  Her new mission will take her in the footsteps of Neil Armstrong, then on to Mars and far beyond as the riddles lead on to deeper mysteries.  Revelations about the past are about to collide with the future of humanity in space.  It’s a hard one to categorise – in parts a science fiction mystery, hidden history and family drama.  On top of that, it presents us with philosophical and psychological conundrums that defy simple answers and moral judgement.

This is a brilliant read.  Tension kicks in from the get go, starting with the military recovery of the craft, nicely inter-cut with the emotional difficulties at Helen’s home.  It’s a real attention grabber and manages the tricky job of hooking in the reader by their brain and their heart in quick succession.  Helen is the best astronaut NASA have: intelligent, driven and capable.  Sofia, her daughter, is just ten years old.  She cannot understand her mother’s obsession, unable to see beyond Helen’s absences and broken promises.  She’s angry, defiant and heartrendingly lonely.  It makes for a taut dichotomy between the needs of the individual and the persistent drive to achieve something that transcends the self.  They may only share 3 pages together but their relationship forms the emotional core to the story.

Jean-Michel Ponzio’s artwork is jaw-droppingly good throughout.  I can’t tell if photography was actually used or not (possibly colour graded or at least as reference), but there are moments when you’d swear that these images are taken from life.  The colours are washed out and the level of detail belie the notion that he has just drawn over the top of photos, but there is something eerily real about the images we’re presented with here.  Ponzio manages to use decompressed story-telling techniques without sacrificing much in the way of pace.  The pages are often crammed full of panels, but, being a Cinebook album, the pages are larger than the usual UK and US trades.  This gives them enough room to show their wares off without making you squint, while still allowing for a cinematic pacing on the page.

The body language and facial expressions are all given space to hit the critical dramatic beats which really raises the quality of the character work.  It gets you inside their heads and adds touches of humour, frustration and pathos which we otherwise wouldn’t be privy to.  Ponzio also reminds us that the framing of the image is as important as the contents of the panels.  One page particularly drew my attention: the cluster of images focused in on Helen as she prepared to step onto the red planet for the first time.  Seven tight shots, claustrophobically clustered at the top of the page, leading down to a wider shot of her face, then her eye and finally we see what she sees – the vast, beautiful, open plains of Mars.  It’s a simple trick, but it works so effectively.

Richard Marazano’s script is well balanced in the first two volumes, unfolding the story at a comfortable pace without losing sight of the mystery or humanity.  His plot twists are increasingly fascinating and I found myself utterly gripped, trying to piece things together.  Frustratingly though, the third volume feels compacted in terms of story and character interaction.  An extra book could easily have been made of the final volume, developing the threads of what the astronauts have learned and experienced so far, pushing their own Complex more convincingly to the limits and taking the time to wrap up the story with the the same grace as it was begun.

As it stands, we lose sight of Sofia altogether in the final book and the answers to the central mystery feel stabbed at, rather than unveiled.  ’Lost’ in space, if you will.  Whilst Helen’s human story is resolved, the intellectual questions remain tantilisingly out of reach.  Don’t let this put you off though.  I have read some interesting theories online which may go some way to explaining the gaps, and that gap of understanding can sometimes make stories more compelling for the reader.  Everyone loves to talk about a mystery after all.

The ‘Chimpanzee Complex’ relates to the inordinate stresses of understanding your situation but being utterly powerless to do anything about it.  The example given is that of the chimpanzees in early space missions, but time and again throughout the story we see characters falling victim to circumstance: Helen is given no option to refuse her mission; Sofia cannot bring her mother home; the astronauts on Mars have no agency by which they can return to Earth and all of them suffer deeply for it.  Thankfully this is not just another story about people going space crazy and killing each other, rather it is a meditation on what we can achieve in spite of the circumstances that hedge us in.  All the while Sofia struggles to deal with the fact that she has been sacrificed to Freeman’s dreams, Helen fights to free Man’s dreams from the limits of small minded politics, to journey beyond our own small world.

While some of the sufferers clearly cannot cope, Helen and her daughter both find ways to breech their prisons and wring victory from the jaws of defeat.  In the end it is the human story that we come for and the human story found within these pages is as painful, familiar and true as any I’ve read.

Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Dion Winton-Polak

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One comment

  1. Dion, I am the marketing manager for Archaia. Drop me a line and I can hook you up with our French translated titles for your review! m[dot]caylo[at]archaia[dot]com

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