Chimpanzee Complex – Big, Wonderful, Epic Sci-Fi.
Written by Richard Marazano, art by Jean-Michel Ponzio
I love big , epic Sci-Fi. Always have. And there just isn’t enough of it in comics to keep me satisfied. Every so often something comes along though that gets it absolutely right, does everything big Sci-Fi is meant to do – all the wonder, all the majesty of space, all the complex technical stuff, all the unanswered questions. And that’s exactly what The Chimpanzee Complex does. It’s Big, epic Sci-Fi done absolutely right.
It’s 2035. Space exploration has become increasingly sidelined as the years have passed and a planned Mars exploration has been effectively mothballed. No-one cares, the money’s just not there and the astronauts on the Mars program have to cope with having their years of training and their dreams put on hold. But then a space module falls into the Indian Ocean, an all too familiar space module, with all too familiar crew-members. Which triggers a huge panic on the part of the authorities, because if these crew members are who they claim to be, then who was it who……
And that’s where I’m going to have to leave that particular thread. Because that’s the first big reveal, the key that everything else hangs off in this first part of the trilogy and the trigger for everything that follows.
(The first mystery of The Chimpanzee Complex (and there are many more) – just who are these two, ever so familiar astronauts. And what on earth are they doing in 2035? Art by Jean-Michel Ponzio, from The Chimpanzee Complex Volume 1: Paradox, published by Cinebook.)
A few pages into the book and I was hooked. I was loving everything about it and found myself really engrossed in the book. I didn’t know the identity of the mysterious visitors and was reading voraciously to get to the reveal. Which is why I don’t plan on spoiling it for you by revealing the identity of those two astronauts, even though it’s a fairly open secret. If you want to know, have a look round the Internet. But if you trust me, if you go into this one just expecting a great bit of epic Sci-Fi and knowing that there’s something important from the past coming through to the present of 2035, you’ll get so much more out of this.
Our central character here is Helen Freeman, who should have been the first woman to set foot on Mars. But she’s a victim of the cut-backs and has had to come to terms with the fact that her very reason for living all these years, the culmination of her training and the distillation of her dreams may just have vanished. But the mysterious spacecraft and it’s equally mysterious astronauts throws her a lifeline; suddenly there’s a need to go back into space, a mission to the Moon and on to Mars to find out the secrets that both may hold. But to do so she’ll have to make the most difficult choice; her dreams or her child, who’s already used to a life of disappointment and a mother who puts her job above her daughter.
The “chimpanzee complex” of the title describes the term used by NASA to document the experiences of chimps used as test pilots in early space flight. Smart enough to understand they have no control over their circumstances, they became increasingly unstable, aggresive and essentially “blow a fuse”. Whether this chimanzee complex refers to the two rescued astronauts or will go on to describe Helen’s situation – manouvered as she is by events beyond her control to be taken further and further from her daughter, we just don’t know.
The difficulty of Helen’s choice, and the hopelessness of the situation she suddenly finds herself in is very well handled here, but it’s still merely a very well done sub-plot. The meat of Chimpanzee Complex is all in the big Sci-Fi. And that’s done so very well. The mystery of the astronauts at the start is just the beginning of a series of big secrets and stunning mysteries that will no doubt develop as we get further into the book. Again, I’m not giving any of them away – I want you to share this book, to come to it without much prior knowledge and to enjoy it every bit as much as I did.
Little touches matter in Sci-Fi and with this taking place in the very near future of 2035 it was pleasing to see that the tech of the day was just right – nothing too outlandish, all the principals done right, helicopters still instead of hover planes, Spacesuits, Orbiting Spacecraft and Shuttles just one generation of development from now. Nicely done.
(A mother takes off, a daughter is left behind. And then we get the beauty and grandeur of space and the wonder of spaceflight. Art by Jean-Michel Ponzio, from The Chimpanzee Complex Volume 1: Paradox, published by Cinebook.)
The art is lovely, very photo-realistic, Arthur Ransom style stuff (artist of Judge Anderson, Button Man etc and not, as Google keeps trying to tell me, the man who wrote Swallows and Amazons). [EDIT – 08/11 – Thanks to Dave Shelton in the comments I realise that it should be Arthur Ranson. I am an idiot.] But it’s not quite perfect and suffers from the occasional really bad panel where the poses are just too static or even completely wrong. It doesn’t happen too often, but when it does it’s a real shame as it does the one thing art in a complex fantasy like this should never do – drag the reader out of the fantasy to concentrate on why the art looks so bad. But such lapses are thankfully few and far between, Ponzio’s art really serves the story well, with the photo-real style working very well in this near future Sci-Fi setting.
The one real issue with the Chimpanzee Complex is the length. Each of the original French volumes was a mere 56 pages each. But it’s just not long enough. This is a trilogy that demands collection in one omnibus volume. Then it would be perfect. Because reading just 56 pages has made me desperate to find out what happens next. And I really don’t want to wait. More please. And soon.