‘The Loneliest Astronauts’ Strands Spacefaring Frenemies on an Alien Planet
It's not every webcomic that has its own theme song. The Loneliest Astronauts, the recently wrapped comic from Kevin Church's Agreeable Comics stable, inspired Adam WarRock to apply his geeky beats to a pair of astronauts stranded on a distant planet. But Steve and Dan, the eponymous cosmic castaways, aren't just dealing with homesickness and unrelenting boredom -- they also hate each other's guts. That hatred fills The Loneliest Astronauts with some viciously funny pranks and stir-crazy odd-couple antics. It also makes for some incredibly witty science fiction.One of the most terrifying television experiences of my young life was "Black Hole," an episode of Ren & Stimpy where the cartoon cat and chihuahua travel to an alternate dimension where they mutate, encounter astronaut-eating aliens and ultimately implode. I'd find myself tentatively poking at the stranded in space subgenre as if I were picking at a scab: the uncomfortable absurdity of the short film Field Notes from Dimension X, the eerie electronic music of Forbidden Planet (even if Leslie Nielsen had a way off Altair IV), the everything-wants-to-eat-you misadventures of Lexx, the exquisite isolation of films like Silent Running and Moon.
The Loneliest Astronauts could have been a disappointingly silly affair. We join Steve and Dan a year after their spaceship crash landed on an alien world. The crash killed the rest of the crew (including the girl Steve wanted to bone), leaving the pair to slowly go mad all by their lonesome. Steve is the more intellectual of the two, a linguist with a fondness for Fellini, while Dan is a nut-punching goofball whose thoughts wander to such high-brow fare as chocolate pudding and Hello Kitty. With a combination like that, wackiness must, of course, ensue.
But there's a twinkling intelligence behind Steve and Dan's inanity. Sure, there are the expected murder fantasies, the slapstick pranks and the phrase "Shut up, Dan" is uttered more than a few times. Church, who's contributed to ComicsAlliance in the past, manages to really stick the landing on even the silliest pop culture jokes; he pays homage to Ghostbusters, Forbidden Planet and 2001 without pushing them into the readers' faces. Steve voices his frustration through a mental health word association test. The astronauts always wear their matching environment suits, and on the rare occasion they unzip, there's an ungodly smell.
More importantly, though, Church captures the cold despair running beneath the jokes. As silly as Dan and Steve can be, there's a melancholy to their madness. Dan tries to alleviate the dreariness of their situation by playing Secret Santa, a story arc that vacillates between Steve's eye-rolling jokes and Dan's surprising earnestness. Their pranks range from simple "I'm with stupid" gags to Steve releasing the pressure from Dan's suit or Dan tricking Steve into thinking he's gone blind. When the duo encounters alien life, that life is further from Star Trek forehead aliens than the Ren & Stimpy horrors that haunted my childhood nightmares.
Artist Ming Doyle deserves much of the credit for allowing those contradictory tones to flourish. Church partners with a different artist for each of his Agreeable Comics, and Doyle pairs the comic's otherworldly craziness with an understated design. Doyle has her work cut out for her; we never see Steve and Dan's faces, and it would be all too easy to overcompensate by hamming up their gestures. But Doyle practices admirable restraint, saving her more bizarre illustrative talents for the truly bizarre sequences. Steve and Dan spend most of their time against the cold void of space, as if they landed on the moon without the comforting view of Earth on the horizon.
Initially, The Loneliest Astronauts appears to be a gag strip, with some longer sequences of funny. But as the comic progresses, Church dives headfirst into a pool of science fiction subgenres, developing a story that blends truly alien aliens, space barbarians, a malfunctioning artificial intelligence and time travel. Sometimes when comics make that sort of narrative shift, they become abruptly serious. There's no danger of that here; no matter how grim things get for our protagonists, the universe still has that same terrifying sense of humor.
The longer arc also shows how fantastic Church is at pulling together the various strands of his comic. He and Doyle will throw in great little details, like Steve pouring over the florid handwriting in a dead co-worker's journal. Through flashbacks and reminiscences, he creates a complete, if absurd, history for his astronauts, and he applies his science fiction tropes in such a way that packages various characters and concepts together in a neat little bow. It's especially satisfying to read The Loneliest Astronauts in a single sitting to see just how ingenious Church's plotting is.
For all its goofy antics, The Loneliest Astronauts has added plenty of fodder to my stranded in space nightmare fuel. Steve and Dan didn't just lose their crew in that crash; they lost their agency, and their only hope to avoid living out their days in crippling loneliness is to surrender their fates to some alien intelligence. And while the ending they get is satisfying for the reader, it isn't much of a reprieve. Then again, it's no worse an ending than they deserve. Let's face it; these guys are jerks.
It's also added a new wrinkle to my desert space island fears. If I ever find myself stranded on a distant planet, I may have to quietly murder the other sole survivor.