The Chimpanzee Complex, volume 1: Paradox
Richard Marazano & Jean-Michel Ponzio
Here’s a closer look at Helen Friedman, Floridian, NASA’s best astronaut in 2035, and protagonist of The Chimpanzee Complex, a bande-dessinee written by Richard Marazano, illustrated by Jean-Michel Ponzio, and published by Dargaud (French) before Cinebook (English):
This is a space comic: a comic about astronauts, and exploration, and mystery, and politics, and family dynamics. About boldly going, if you like.
Helen, highly skilled astronaut (I don’t know exactly what you have to be good at to be an astronaut and this comic hasn’t told me yet—diplomacy? (that’s most of what we see from her)—is famous to her colleagues, to the children of America, to professional enemies and allies, and well into the White House. She’s tipped to lead the first peopled expedition to Mars; the culmination of her whole life’s dreaming!
The problem is: hers is not the only life she’s responsible for. Helen has a daughter, Sofia, and no partner or co-parent, which is problematic—she can’t be in space and at Sofia’s side at the same time.
What’s a woman to do?
Promoting her most recent book, Lionel Shriver talks about her brother dying before she could agree to take care of him during a harsh period of recovery: “So I got out of it. And I never really had to answer the question as to whether or not I would be willing to make that kind of sacrifice on my older brother’s behalf.” That suggested a book for her, Big Brother: “It’s asking, and trying to answer, that question.” In Chimpanzee Complex Helen finds herself in a similar bind, so she gives up her dream and asks her boss to fire her from her dream job so she can “be there” for the beloved dependent. But before that firing can take effect, the choice is taken out of her hands. Reversed. Helen is needed, as a matter of highest priority and under the greatest secrecy: national security demands her time. Because Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong just came back from the moon—yeah, again. And no, they don’t think they’ve been gone for sixty-plus years. Neither does anybody else, because up to this point this has been a perfectly straightforward comic about professional field scientists in the not too distant future. In this reality, as in ours, Aldrin and Armstrong did the moon walk, came back, and carried on with their lives. So who are these clowns? They certainly look right, but . . .
This is a puzzle, a weird one, and the answers aren’t here on Earth. There’s no-one more qualified than Astronaut Friedman to find them off-planet. Chimpanzee Complex: Paradox ends with the mission being extended and Helen approaching Mars. Everything she ever wanted. The goal she tried to abandon. Fate took her anyway. Sofia will understand, right?
This book is so good.
I’ve read a couple of reviews that found Sofia to be unbelievable as a character, or as a child. Personally? I totally buy it. She’s the angry 90s-movie kid (usually a boy, and otherwise almost never in a dress); parents too busy, independent spirit. She’s quick to exercise her sass mouth without pity before anybody gets the slightest whiff of the terrible, bursting pain she’s almost ready to dissolve into. I feel for this girl. She’s mean and sarcastic to adults, she disrespects her mother, and she denies her own truths to protect herself from her mother’s. Sofia’s vulnerable outbursts are a driving force in a book technically centralised around the vast mysteries of space and the sly secrets of politics. She’s the fullest human element, because even Helen has learnt to suppress her emotional reactions. Helen is torn between her child and her dream, but she puts on a professional face and gets the job done. She can lie on a small, new bed. She can cross her arms over her chest, close her eyes, and sleep under orders. Her turmoil is on the inside, because Helen is an adult.
An adult being jinxed into following the childhood dream that she was willing to give up in the name of maternalism. A child who is not given evidence that anybody loves her “the most,” turning from everything she loves the most and building boundaries to simulate emotional security. The cool space mystery, the taut potential for betrayal by colleagues of circumstance (once Helen gets into space: Russians #classic #internationalrelations #ymmv), the massive danger of space travel, and the idea of seeing “life on mars”: massive bonus elements, or what you’re here for? Doesn’t matter. Either way it’s win-win.
Helen and Sofia are both supported by male characters, and in the first volume at least, all authority figures above Helen are male too. They don’t threaten her integrity, though, and their interaction with her is not gendered. The book is set in the near future, and I really appreciate seeing that while sexism may not be extinguished, is it is not taken for granted.
The colours in Chimpanzee Complex seem to bulge and draw you in, dark orange and teal like a streetlight battling a hot humid twilight. Space is chilled with sepia and a damper blue. Heavy black swathes, thin lines and photo-realistic anatomy . . . what if the cinematographies of all three CSI series got together and made a political thriller about domestic betrayal? In space?
It’d be the . . .
. . . freakiest show.