One Trick Pony
Writer/artist: Nathan Hale
Abrams Books; $14.95
In his book series Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales, cartoonist Nathan Hale presents thrilling adventure stories culled from American history. In his original graphic novel One Trick Pony, Hale looks to the far-flung future and finds a thrilling adventure there.
The fast-moving sci-fi epic is set so far into the future that the development of high-tech, humanoid robots is something that happened in the ancient, half-forgotten past; robots aren’t just antiques but artifacts that might be found deep within ruins.
And they are exactly the sort of thing that teenage girl Strata, her brother,. and their friend are looking for at the start of the book. Some time ago, human civilization as we know it was destroyed by bizarre alien invaders called “Pipers” who travel in bizarre, variously-shaped vehicles that look a little like microscopic organisms, a little like post-modern sculpture, and a little like monstrous animals. They somehow generate bubbles to collect anything metal or electronic, and then they take their finds away.
Strata’s people have devoted themselves to finding and preserving human culture, which means recovering things like robots and computers before the Pipers do and then keeping out of reach of the invaders, which they accomplish by living a nomadic lifestyle in their “Caravan,” a whole village on wheels…and tank-treads.
The action starts with the discovery of the title character, a golden-colored robot horse that follows Strata’s every command and is especially adept at one particular command, hence the title of the book. When the kids find the horse among a huge cache of other robots and electronics, the aliens swarm, setting off a chain of events that pull in several other factions of human beings who, unlike the people of the Caravan, have adapted by adopting a pre-industrial, almost Stone Age way of life.
With a can’t-put-it-down level of momentum, Hale’s One Trick Pony reads an awful lot like one big chase scene, with just a few pauses for the narrative to catch its breath before plunging into another action scene. Like Hale’s Hazardous Tales, the tone is humorous as well as dramatic and the well-rendered art appears in black, white, and an additional color—here, yellow.
The book is at its best when it’s still in world-building mode, and Hale’s conception of the aliens and the peculiarities of their culture are fantastic in both senses of the word. It’s so rare in comics to find depictions of aliens that are actually, you know, alien,\ rather than just some sort of people. As the book reaches its conclusion, Strata does meet those behind the invasion, and all the weird machines she and her people have been contending with, and a degree of the mystique is lost as the aliens become humanized (that is, they finally exhibit rational and understandable—if still evil!—motivation). But then Hale more-or-less had to sacrifice their inscrutability in order to bring the book to a satisfying conclusion, and it does have a satisfying conclusion, of the perfectly constructed sort that reveals the author’s careful planning from the very first pages.
It’s a rather rollicking adventure story that should entertain readers of any age, but what is the most remarkable is how unusual the details are. Sure, stories of young people in a future dystopia are a dime a dozen, but the specifics of Hale’s story make it one in a million.