Astro Hustle #1
Crank! (Letters), Ursula Decay (Colours), Jai Nitz (Writer), Tom Reilly (Artist)
Dark Horse Comics
March 6, 2019
Chen Andalou is a criminal, but he has accepted a sentence that could spare his life. Except, instead of living out his days in exile, he finds himself awake in the midst of a sea of dead bodies sixty years in the future. He is clueless as to how so much time has gone by, but there’s another problem. He’s being sentenced—again—and this time, he isn’t going to get away so lightly. Thankfully for Chen, he is sharing a cell with a pirate who may know a way out.
The cast of Astro Hustle, a diverse group of space pirates, is intriguing. In an interview with Black Nerd Problems, writer Jai Nitz hopes that it will be viewed as “bright, colorful, brown, queer.”And that was enough to get me to read this series.
Having read this first issue of Astro Hustle—of a four-issue mini-series—I have to wonder how well this series fits Nitz’s bold statement. Yes, it is very bright, with its ’70s disco vibe that Nitz and artist Tom Reilly drew their inspiration from. It’s very colourful, from its aliens to its costumes—there is a splash of colour in almost every panel.
Then we come to the more problematic parts of Nitz’s proclamation. Is Astro Hustle sufficiently brown in the sense of its characters’ ethnicities? Chen is Asian, which is a rarity in mainstream U.S. comics, but despite being the protagonist of this series, the first issue does little to flesh him out.
The mystery of his 60-year time-jump has been spoiled by the book’s blurb, which states clearly that he was in cryo-sleep for that time. So, the one thing that Chen is most interested in finding out about himself, the readers already know. I’m not sure whose decision it was to include a plot point in the issue’s summary, but it has done Chen a great disservice. We also know from the summary that Chen’s from a wealthy family, the second son with no hope of inheriting the family’s power. None of that is even mentioned in this first issue, forget explored. As a reader, I feel a bit duped.
The other characters of colour are the pirates Carbon John and Svetlana, who are introduced late into this issue and thus lack any development. They will have more room to grow in upcoming issues, presumably. As refreshing as it is to see characters of colour take precedence in a comic book series, one can’t help but notice that they are all primarily criminals, while, barring one judge, the lawmen are largely white. Of course, the diversity could improve in the next few issues, but as a starting point, Astro Hustle isn’t living up to its promise.
I was looking for queer elements in Astro Hustle and assumed that the aliens in the prologue—Kyla and Zela—are a couple, but I cannot be sure about this. They didn’t appear to engage in any meaningful romantic conversation and referred to each other as bachelorettes. Is that to mean they were having a joint bachelorette party before marrying each other? I would have liked it to be clearer! Particularly because without that context, their affection towards each other could be seen as an overly-performative embrace catering to a male gaze. To put it plainly, they look like lesbians from a straight man’s fantasy. Even their clothes confirm this—shiny, barely-there underwear, that would be improbable on a real woman’s body.
And speaking of bodies, when creators talk about diversity, they conveniently leave out body diversity, especially with regards to female characters. In Astro Hustle, we get various-sized male characters, but the female characters all look like svelte super-models. We see monstrous male aliens, but the female aliens are humanoid enough to be desirable. This isn’t diversity.
Diversity and representation are two different things, and Astro Hustle isn’t coming across as particularly representative, not in the first book of its short four-issue run. The story has moments that keep readers interested, but I feel like too much of it has already been given away by the synopsis, rendering the actual content of this first installment moot.
The art by Tom Reilly, though detailed, feels unoriginal and too reliant on cliches, like the butt shot on the very first page! I like Ursula Decay’s colours, which are beautiful and varied; however, Astro Hustle #1 fails to deliver on far too many counts for me to even consider returning for the next issue.