Bizarro Back Issues: Apollo Smile And The Dancing Starship (1998)
If you were a super nerdy teen in the late '90s, there's a pretty good chance that you encountered Apollo Smile in some form or another, whether it was through her career as a voice actress in stuff like the Sega Dreamcast's Space Channel 5 or in her role as the "Live Action Anime Girl" who welcomed viewers to the Sci-Fi Channel's first-ever showing of Galaxy Express 999. If you somehow missed out, I've always thought of her as a mascot of that very particular time right before the death of the VHS tape, when Japanese animation was on the verge of breaking through into mainstream pop culture. She's the feeling of digging through the shelves at Suncoast Video and paying $35 for a VHS tape of Sailor Moon that had two episodes on it given human form.
As you might expect, I feel squarely into Smile's target demographic, but somehow, some way, I managed to miss the fact that she had a short-lived comic book series in which she starred as herself. Well, an idealized version of herself, anyway --- I'm not sure if the real life version could control a starship through the power of interpretive dance.
On one level, it makes perfect sense that this comic would come out when and how it did. There's a long line of celebrities whose fictionalized adventures have appeared in comics --- DC's Adventures of Bob Hope ran for 109 issues, for example --- and Smile had the unique advantage of being a fan who was already steeped in the world of nerdy pop culture. In a time when audiences were clearly hungry for the aesthetic that they'd gorge themselves on once the turn-of-the-century manga boom hit, the cheerful face that had introduced them to Urusei Yatsura on the Sci-Fi Channel was about as marketable as you could get.
The comic was, after all, on the stands not too long after that gig:
Unfortunately, 1998 wasn't exactly a great time to be making comics. The industry was contracting --- even Marvel was just beginning to dig itself out of its infamous bankruptcy --- and small press publishers were being killed off left and right. Smile even says as much in the introduction to #2 with the announcement that her publisher, Eagle Wing Press, was getting out of the game.
And yes: That happens in the introduction. Rather than saving that news for a letters page or even putting it on the inside front cover, each issue starts with page one as a full text page from Smile, letting you know what's up. And considering that it's not even two full paragraphs before we get the announcement that they're losing a publisher, it sort of kills the mood for the rest of the issue. But I think we're getting ahead of ourselves here.
The story is brought to you by Apollo Smile herself --- credited with "Groove and Scripting" --- along with cowriter Paul E Hosten, artist Peter Kato, and creative director Douglas diMonda, and I have to say, they're not so good at explaining the actual premise of the comic. As near as I can figure, the Apollo Smile of Apollo Smile (by Apollo Smile) is an intergalactic pop star who travels the galaxy in a space ship that looks exactly like the GI Joe stealth fighter with her bodyguards, her agent, and her cat, presumably getting into adventures between gigs.
That's my theory, at least. With only two issues ever released, she never actually gets to a gig, and only has about half of an adventure.
The adventure in question comes when Apollo and her crew run across the wreck of a passenger starship, and, when they investigate, find out that it's full of dismembered corpses. Clearly, there's something amiss here, but believe it or not, that's not quite enough to get Apollo Smile interested in figuring out what kind of horrible monster could've murdered dozens of people and wrecked a pretty big starship while they were at it.
Instead, she has to investigate because this time... it's personal.
And look: I don't necessarily mind throwing that in there so that we've got some kind of connection to drive the plot, but you'd think that the gigantic ballroom full of corpses would be enough to get someone to say, "Hey, we should stop this thing" without having to bring in the fact that our heroine just lost a ticket sale to go along with it. Just seems a bit selfish.
Needless to say, Chekhov's Floating Globules Of Highly Explosive Space Fuel come into play, but the daring escape is only the first major set piece that we get in the course of Apollo Smile's two issues. In the second, we get Apollo commanding her ship to intercept the escape pods fired off of the wrecked passenger ship, and again, it's never really clear whether she's doing this to help survivors, track down the villains responsible, or both.
In any case, she ends up running into a firefight, and since this requires precise evasive maneuvers that even her sentient computer can't handle, Apollo has to take control herself by putting on a VR visor and floating in a pink bubble so that she can steer the ship through the power of dance.
If you thought I was kidding about that part, I was not. Even though it took me a few minutes --- and three splash pages in a row --- to figure out that was what was going on, It is pretty fantastic, and just proves that the old adage is true: To a live-action anime girl, every problem looks like a dance floor.
Unfortunately, there's only so much that even Apollo Smile's groove can do in the heat of an interstellar dogfight. Thanks to a substandard warp drive purchased by Apollo's manager, Malachite --- truly the Alexander Cabot III of outer space --- the crew is left stranded in space just as their adversaries fire a missile that turns into a giant space Satan and hits the ship. And that's how it ends!
Never before has a second-issue cliffhanger been quite so grim in retrospect.