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A Fuse #8 Production
Inside A Fuse #8 Production

Review of the Day: Space Mountain by Bryan Q. Miller

Space Mountain: A Graphic Novel
By Bryan Q. Miller
Pencils and Inks by Kelley Jones
Letters by Rob Leigh
Colors by Brian & Kristy Miller
Disney Press (an imprint of Disney Book Group)
ISBN: 978-1423162292
Ages 9-12
On shelves May 6th

It sounds at first like a bit of a joke. You take a typical Disney indoor roller coaster with a late ’70s look and name and you write a graphic novel for it. It appears to be silly, but then again look at the success of movies like The Pirates of the Caribbean. Maybe a graphic novel’s a good way to start. Sure as heck beats reading a GN about Splash Mountain, after all. Add in the fact that graphic novels are huge with kids but make up only a very small percentage of what gets published by trade publishers in a given year and you’ve a recipe for something pretty good. Disney Book Group decided the best tactic to take in this case was to hire a well-established comic book penciller and inker and pair him alongside a television writer. The results, alas, are mixed with some bright spots woven in between the hopelessly confusing narratives and odd art choices. Good enough for action adventure fans, but not one of the best of the year, there is at least a lot of potential. Think Buck Rogers meets Ray Bradbury and you’ve got the gist of the thing.

For Stella and Tommy it’s the field trip of a lifetime. Their class of space cadets is going to get to visit Space Mountain! No, not the Disney ride. As residents of the Cygnus X1 Colony they are lucky enough to be close to Space Mountain, the space station that uses the nearby black hole’s event horizon to experiment with time travel. And once on the station the two soon learn that they are the lucky winners of a contest to take a real trip through time with the fearless Captain Benjamin Cole and his hardworking crew. Granted it’ll just be 24 hours into the future, but that’s fine with the kids. Time travel is time travel, after all. And everything probably would have gone just fine had that mysterious probe not disconnected from their ship into the event horizon. Next thing they know it’s 24 hours into the future, but EVERYTHING has changed. The past, the people, everything. Seems that little probe managed to muck with history itself and now our heroes are standing trial for treason. When the adults are sent to different points in Earth history, it’s up to Stella and Tommy to not only rescue the crew, but also solve the mystery of how to get history back on track again.

Now as a writer Bryan Q. Miller is probably best known for his work on such superhero laden shows as Arrow and Smallville. In print he’s written for Teen Titans and Batgirl. Here, he has to sort of switch focus and hone in on his more sci-fi tendencies (which shouldn’t be too hard since he apparently wrote for the SyFy channel’s show Defiance). Trouble is, rather than be content with space travel and its usual perks (aliens, wormholes, etc.) Miller decided to kick it up a notch. He decided to introduce the notion of time travel. Now as a general rule, if you’re going to engage in a time travel narrative you have to keep it as simple as possible. Otherwise you’re going to run into the Back to the Future, Part 2 problem. Ray Bradbury? He knew how to keep it simple. Rebecca Stead? Ditto. And here’s where I give Bryan Miller some props. The man has chutzpah. He is not afraid to think big. Real big. If I were to put a stamp of a single word all over this book, that word would be “Ambitious”. Too ambitious. See, things start out just fine. Then they get absolutely friggin’ bizarre, and not in a good way either. Confusion reigns when it comes to the ways in which the kids rescue the crew, to say nothing of why one paradox happens and another does not. Add in the twist at the end involving Captain Cole that just throws the whole enterprise off balance and you’ve got yourself a narrative that will stump a good chunk o’ readers.

There’s also the odd use of exposition. Characters that consider space travel normal (that are actually known as “space cadets”) would probably know better than to open a water bottle in a spaceship. The fact that Tommy doesn’t understand the principal of zero gravity was a bit too much to fall for, let alone Stella’s teacher not knowing why their home was built as close to a black hole as it was. Some authors have a way of integrating information seamlessly into the text. This book has yet to master that particular art. Also, a show of hands. Who else thought Stella’s mosquito bite was going to turn into a much bigger deal than it was?

And I might throw my hands up and give the whole kerschmozzle up for lost if the writing didn’t contain so many specks of awesomeness. For one thing, many chapters begins with a pertinent, really interesting quote. Here are some samples:

“The only reason fro time is so that everything doesn’t happen at once.” – Albert Einstein

“The best thing about the future is that it comes only one day at a time.” – Abraham Lincoln

“The future ain’t what it used to be.” – Yogi Berra

Granted all the quotes come from white guys. That was sort of a bummer. The book does a bit better with two of our heroes being black and Latino, insofar as I could tell. Then there are the written selections. The first words of the story once things have begun are “Somewhere between a forgotten yesterday and a twisted tomorrow . . .” Show me the inventive 11-year-old reader who can resist THAT little sentence.

I was showing the book to my husband when he plucked it from my hands to see who did the penciling (as well as the inking, I might note). Just as he suspected, it was Kelley Jones. Jones has a particularly distinctive style, for those who are familiar with his art. Between Sandman, Deadman, and various forms of Batman, he’s kept busy over the years. I didn’t know who he was when I read this book, but I did have a palpable sense that this was someone important. It was the inking that gave it away. For example, there’s an early conversation between the Captain and Tommy where the adult is thinking dark thoughts about the past. Jones takes care to bring the shadows up on his face, purposefully obscuring in his features in at least three different ways in three different panels. Even reading a black and white galley of this book, I could see the time and attention taken on these images.

Trouble is, much like the writer Bryan Q. Miller, Jones had to reel himself in to write an appropriate comic for kids. And for the most part he is just fine. A-okay. Granted, the faces of Tommy and Stella prove oddly difficult for him. Adults he does just fine, but his pre-adolescents have a tendency to look just a little too much like adorable woodland chipmunks. By contrast, his villainess in one particular image exhibits all the problems with female characters in superhero comics today. Mainly, skin tight outfits with ridiculously gigantic boobs and a waist a Disney princess would envy. One particularly egregious image is found in the last panel before the start of chapter three and I couldn’t help but wonder why it was there at all. No one would blink twice if this was a Batman comic and she was Catwoman, but come on! In a GN for 10-year-olds? Reel it in, Jones, reel it in.

What I didn’t expect to enjoy quite so much was the overwhelming 1980s feel of it all. It’s not just the Space Mountain itself (though that doesn’t hurt). Both Stella and Tommy with their longish hair and thick glasses look like nothing so much as my fellow classmates in school circa 1988. It almost feels as if Jones has taken as his inspiration the look and feel of the original Star Wars films, sans aliens, and used that as his fashion inspiration. I like that. It sort of makes you think about the original opening days of the actual Space Mountain ride. Like a kind of kooky homage.

So it’s not perfect, no. Between the convoluted plotting and the boob-o-rific baddies, the whole enterprise feels like an adult graphic novel uneasily readjusting itself for a younger readership. Now none of this is to say that a certain type of kid fan won’t hanker for the sequels anyway. Miller leaves the reader wanting more and there’s definitely more to be had. It’s just hard not to think about how much better the book might have been with some judicious editing here and there. An impressive, big-scale romp through space that will leave some scratching their heads and others hankering for more. Not perfect but not the worst I’ve seen either. Salvageable.

On shelves May 5th

Source: Galley acquired at an ALA Conference for review.

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About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.