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Review: ‘AstroNuts Mission One: The Plant Planet’

AstroNuts Mission One: The Plant Planet
Writer: Jon Scieszka
Artist: Steven Weinberg
Chronicle Books; $14.99

Let’s get this out of the way: AstroNuts isn’t quite a comic book in the traditional sense, despite the fact that a majority of its action is effected through artwork and that much of its dialogue comes in balloons. Lacking panels and containing sizable passages of prose, Jon Scieszka and Steven Weinberg’s collaboration falls into the popular comics/chapter book hybrid format.

Despite that, it is definitely good—very good, in fact—and it is definitely for kids, which is why we’re covering it here on Good Comics for Kids. Two-and-a-half out of three ain’t bad, after all.

The premise of the book, and the series that is almost certainly planned to follow, is that long ago, in the year 1988, the secret organization NNASA (that’s not a typo; NNASA stands for Not the National Aeronautics and Space Administration) planned a top-secret space exploration program in the event of humanity ever crossing a particular, world-threatening red line.

That red line?  If we started pumping 400 parts per million of carbon dioxide into Earth’s atmosphere, setting off the catastrophic events of climate change we’re now dealing with, then NNASA’s super-powered, mutant animal astronauts would be awakened from their suspended animation and shot into space to begin searching for a new, Earth-like “Goldilocks planet” that humanity could move to.

If that sounds alarming, it should; the narrator of the book is pretty annoyed about the whole thing, as said narrator is the planet Earth itself. The Earth will, of course, get over it. (“If your species decides to temporarily wreck my finely balanced climate and ecosystems by ending all human existence—I’ll be sad,” Earth says at one point. “But I will also, in a few thousand or million years, be just fine.”).

The would-be super-animal astronauts—who, because of a paperwork error, are officially dubbed “AstroNuts”—are four colorful if simple creatures, each with their own area of expertise, single personality trait and super-power.

There’s mission leader AlphaWolf, planner SmartHawk, nurse and cook LaserShark and pilot and tech officer StinkBug. Their very first mission is to investigate the Plant Planet, which seems awfully promising at first. They have two weeks to explore it and render a judgement on whether or not it could support humanity.

Of course, if the Plant Planet were truly a Goldilocks planet, then there wouldn’t be much conflict or drama in the book, nor a reason for future missions/books. It turns out the plants of the Plant Planet can think and move and talk, and there’s a reason there is no animal life at all on their planet. Not unlike humanity has done with Earth, they’ve screwed up the delicate balance of their ecosystems and atmosphere, and set up conditions so that it would only take a single unforeseen disaster to ruin everything for their whole world—a single unforeseen disaster like The AstroNuts.

Despite the prevalence of comics/prose hybrids on the shelves these days, I think it’s safe to say that you haven’t yet seen a book that looks anything like AstroNuts. That’s because artist Steven Weinberg has illustrated the book through collage, using as his initial source material engravings from the Dutch national museum, the Rijksmuseum. So the four protagonists are all altered and colored 18th and 19th century engravings, their “mutant” aspects drawn on by Weinberg, so that they all have human-like arms (even LaserShark), big, cartoony eyes and cartoony mouths, with matching utility belts drawn over their mid-sections. If you look closely, you can see discrepancies, like the fact that SmartHawk has two sets of wings, and vestigial “real” eyes just below her cartooned eyes.

Engravings are also used to render the plants of the Plant Planet, while other images are taken from public domain sources, like the planet Earth, Mount Rushmore (base of NNASA; Thomas Jefferson’s nose is actually their space-ship) and Command Escape, the glitchy old computer that serves as the AstroNuts’  mission control back on Earth. (There’s an explanation of how the artwork was made at the end of the book,  and if one goes to astronuts.space, one can download their own pages and images to collage their own AstroNuts scenes.)

As much as the book is a silly sci-fi adventure story, full of jokes and zany action, it is also pretty educational, albeit in a rather subtle sugar-helps-the-medicine-go-down kind of way.

There’s a degree of eco-parable to it obviously, as the entire premise of the book revolves around how dire the climate crisis has become, but there are also more specific dollops of science here and there throughout the action, including such diverse topics as animal habitat, chemistry, the structure of plant cells, and so on.

Smart, fast-paced fun, with an entirely unique look, AstroNuts is the perfect kids’ adventure book for our imperfect times. 

 

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J. Caleb Mozzocco About J. Caleb Mozzocco

J. Caleb Mozzocco is a way-too-busy freelance writer who has written about comics for online and print venues for a rather long time now. He currently contributes to Comic Book Resources' Robot 6 blog and ComicsAlliance, and maintains his own daily-ish blog at EveryDayIsLikeWednesday.blogspot.com. He lives in northeast Ohio, where he works as a circulation clerk at a public library by day.

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