Each month, Raz Greenberg reviews an overlooked piece of science fiction, fantasy or horror – be it a film, a television episode, a comic or a game – one that should have gotten more attention when it first came out and should still be remembered, in his opinion. This month, he reviews a space-opera graphic novel that takes a unique perspective on the genre.
Tim Eldred is one of the coolest people in the world. Since the late ’90s, he works as a storyboard artist and director on several animated productions – Teen Titans, Batman: The Brave and the Bold, Ultimate Spider-Man, Futurama and others. That’s his day job – in his free time, Eldred is one of the biggest experts on everything that has anything to do with the classic anime show Space Battleship Yamato/Star Blazers – he’s responsible for the background materials and extras on the show’s DVD editions issued by Voyager entertainment, and has also directed an incredible documentary devoted to the show. And he also does comics – mostly American comics adaptations of different anime franchises. But in 1998, he published a completely original sci-fi series of his own called Grease Monkey and followed up with a sequel in 2007. This is one little-known title that deserves a wider readership.
Grease Monkey takes place in the distant future, after a devastating attack by a hostile alien race that left Earth in ruins and killed about 60% of the human population on the planet. Another alien race offers humans a helping hand, rebuilding its home planet and uplifting the intelligence of Earth’s gorillas so that they can stand side-by-side with humans to meet future challenges. The new Human-Gorilla society soon takes it to the stars, building the mighty Fist of Earth space-fortress, aimed at protecting the planet from future threats.
This background, combined with the art that brings together the style of classic American space operas a-la Flash Gordon and that of Japanese space-opera grandmaster Leiji Matsumoto, implies of an epic space adventure – but Grease Monkey starts as something very different. The protagonist, Robin Plotnik, has just completed his training as a spaceship mechanic and he is sent to the Fist of Earth, assigned to work for the all-female pilot squadron The Barbarians under the supervision of Mac Gimbensky, a gorilla chief mechanic with fearful reputation. The first Grease Monkey series follows Robin as he makes his first steps in his new role, befriends members of the station’s staff (and makes enemies of others), falls in love (and gets his heart broken), and generally makes his mark on the big universe – not as a daring space-hero but as an ace-mechanic, the guy without whom all the daring-space-heroes wouldn’t be able to fly. That’s what Grease Monkey is about: the hard-working backstage people who provide the frontstage people the tools they need. It’s a coming-of-age story told not in the battlefield but in the workshop.
And it’s a charming story. Eldred makes Plotnik’s story every bit a hero’s journey as Luke Skywalker’s, even though he never draws a sword. Dealing with military bureaucracy and logistics, and the daily routine of a huge space station is a challenge in its own right, made both amusing and emotional through Eldred’s witty (if not on-the-floor funny) dialogues and art. By the time the first volume is finished, readers will suffer through his losses and cheer to his triumphs.
On the series’ second volume, Eldred takes a more action-oriented direction, introducing a mysterious new pilot to the Barbarians who faces her own ordeals. Here Eldred demonstrates an enormous talent for drawing space battles (always a challenge in comics), doubtlessly inspired by his love for Star Blazers/Yamato. The second volume of the series loses something of the emotional quality that first volume had, but it makes up for it with heavy doses of exciting action, and a nice closure for both Plotnik and the series new mysterious protagonist – one which, it should be noted, leaves the door open for future stories which I certainly hope Eldred will draw some day.
Where to get it: the first volume of Grease Monkey was serialized by Image Comics, and later collected in a single trade-paperback that’s long out of print, but used copies are easy to come by, and there’s no need to look for them anyway: it has later been uploaded completely, alongside the second volume (which was never published in print) to Eldred’s website, where they are available completely free for everyone to read, alongside many extras and goodies. More recently, he started another, more experimental webcomics project called Pitsberg also available for free on the net. Did I mention that he is a really cool person?