Thursday, June 22, 2017

Stanford GN Project: A Place Among The Stars

I've long been fascinated by the Stanford Graphic Novel Project. As far as I can tell, it's a unique endeavor for non art-schools in that it asks a group of students to create an entire, full-length book in just one year. There are further restrictions: it has to be based on real events and have some kind of social justice component. The results have frankly been all over the place, with 2010's Pika-Don (about a man who survived the bomb dropping at both Hiroshima AND Nagasaki) by far the most successful and the best-looking. The time constraints, the fact that many of the students are raw beginners, the distribution of labor (which inevitably is not equal) and many other factors have led to the books being more of a curiosity than something worth reading on its own.

The latest book I've received, 2014's A Place Among The Stars, is right up there with Pika-Don in terms of overall success. Interestingly, it predated the success of the book (and later smash hit film) Hidden Figures, which was about another little-known aspect of NASA, its "human computers" who were women and largely African-American. The book from Stanford is about the Mercury 13: thirteen female pilots who were given an opportunity to train and be evaluated for the possibility of going out into space in the early 1960s. It's an incredibly compelling narrative, and it's unsurprising and unfortunate that it's not common knowledge--especially given the rampant sexism in society and the quasi-military culture of NASA. Another interesting thing about the book is just how little the artists behind the project had to go on with regard to deep knowledge of the program. There were a few reference books, but this is something that really demands an oral history to really get at its deep roots.

That said, given the relative paucity of reference material, the artists did a remarkable job in creating a compelling, fluid narrative by focusing on several key characters and filling in some blanks. Fortunately for them, the key characters were memorable individuals indeed, Jerrie Cobb was a young and accomplished pilot who held a number of world records. Janey Hart was an accomplished pilot who was married to a senator. Randy Lovelace came up with the idea of training female astronauts (thinking they might be better suited to the rigors of space and were smaller than male astronauts) as part of NASA. And Jackie Cochran was the most famous female pilot in America, but a bit past her prime. That simple mix produced a compelling narrative that didn't feel at all dumbed-down, as every character was given shading and nuance.

Reading the end notes, the instructor team of Dan Archer (CCS grad and cartoonist), Scott Hutchins & Shimon Tanaka (writers) made one key change. Instead of having three teams on the book (writers, thumbnailers, artists), they instead made every writer a thumbnailer. Thumbnailing doesn't require drawing skill, but it does require an understanding of cartooning and storytelling. Doing this made it an easier process to translate their initial ideas into a form that was easy for the artists to translate. The actual drawing in the book is frequently shaky, especially with regard to anatomy. However, the cartooning is fine. The characters stayed on model on page after page despite having a number of different pencilers, their characters in relation to space were consistent and body language was well-expressed.

In terms of the writing, the authors did a great job setting up the main characters and their feats as pilots, the excitement of potentially going into space, and the many hurdles they had to face as women. Jealous, alcoholic husbands. Jobs that fired them for taking time off. Taking care of children with no one willing to help. Sexist and flip attitudes from men of all stripes, especially journalists. Indifference and scorn from male astronauts. Being told they weren't qualified because they hadn't flown jets, but being denied that opportunity because it was restricted to the military--which they couldn't join. An interesting twist in the story was that it was Randy Lovelace's idea to begin with, and that a lot of opposition came from a jealous Jackie Cochran, who wanted to be the first woman in space despite not qualifying physically for the opportunity. It all came to a head in a Congressional hearing where Lovelace refused to appear and Cochran stabbed the other pilots in the back. It wasn't just sexism that sank the program, but glory-hogging and grandstanding as well.

Wisely, the authors made sure to include an epilogue that not only followed what the pilots wound up doing after their program was permanently discontinued, but also how the US space program changed to eventually include women. The overall result was a pleasant, page-turning book that was painstakingly researched, nicely-colored in tones that were chosen to match the era. I could easily see a more polished version of this book being published by First Second or Scholastic as part of a historical or science-related YA line. Archer really hit on something by forcing everyone to do at least something that was visual by making the writers thumbnail, and the result was a pleasantly cohesive book that still upheld all of the values of the program.

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