Melancholy always permeates the narrative of the astronaut, whose purpose is to penetrate a hostile, incomprehensible infinity. Certainly we first understand the astronaut to be an adventurer, a heroic figure, and yet the stark facts present a human being, essentially a wad of raw throbbing pulp, packed in its unwieldy casing, dwarfed by immense darkness: an object lesson in total helplessness. That early space exploration should have been accomplished using grindingly primitive midcentury technology, with room-sized punched-card computers, is astonishing, but falsely so, when in spite of some improved tools, the possibility of exploring space in anything approaching genuine safety and comfort remains devastatingly remote. We humans may enter oblivion, in a limited way, but can never belong there. The image of the astronaut seems to balance on razor-point heroism over a chasm of madness.
As a hero, the astronaut is a deeply romantic figure, forgoing sublunary comfort to essay the unreachable star. Courtly love, the type of highly ritualistic romantic expression which prioritizes idealized spiritual longing over base lust, is the template for the astronaut’s pursuit of the cosmos. Like a virginal lover-knight, an astronaut’s knowledge of space is more conjecture than experience. The necessary life-support apparatus presents an impediment to consummation with the object of desire, indeed the face is often not just inaccessible but obscured, and the astronaut’s distinguishing features are reduced to a person-shaped silhouette, an everyman. As with all abstracted human forms, we’re forced to see ourselves in that gleaming gold mirror.
Even stripped down, with flesh laid bare, an astronaut’s vulnerability is less sexual than vulgar and unnerving. Ellen Ripley in white cotton underwear is undeniably sexy, but ultimately chaste, raw and innocent as a fetus with a tenuous grip on the womb. Dave Bowman enacts that metaphor literally, transcending to a realm of unknown space that renders the friable human intellect applied to it as useless as a lucky talisman against a nuclear bomb. The Rocket Man, in Ray Bradbury’s short story of the same name, finds life constrained to earth unbearable, and hurls himself obsessively into the stars until a star consumes him, and this is the horror at the heart of space exploration, the black hole whose gravity keeps the galaxy intact: we live as part of the universe, but in attempting to unite with it, we die.
Jack Teagle’s “Dead Astronaut Comics,” wryly titled to imply a single episode of an indefinite series, comprises eight identical panels (or seven, and a title page): in each, a corpse in a spacesuit drifts amid unrelenting darkness. Space is rendered not in smooth calm ink but in scratchy masses of hatching, evoking the black page from Robert Fludd’s Utriusque cosmi maioris scilicet et minoris metaphysica, physica atque technica historia, and its caption: “Et sic in infinitum.” It’s impossible not to sense the tedium of coloring all that black, or the weirdly grueling exercise of rendering the same inert scene again, and again, and again. There’s a comedic effect to the sustained (literal) deadpan, but repetition in a comic is confrontational too, it’s a kind of mettle-testing staring contest. This uncomfortable slice of the infinite is exactly the point: it’s unnerving because our finite methods of seeing and showing have revealed their inadequacy. The vastness of “forever” can only be presented to linear creatures like ourselves panel by boring panel. We don’t belong in infinity.
But the dead astronaut, now static in the embrace of an incomprehensibly vast tomb, does belong, which must represent for them a kind of victory. As we perceive them, the dead astronaut has always been and will always be. Rather than devising better defenses for the tiny mind and fragile matrix of flesh that the cosmos cannot accommodate, the dead astronaut has relinquished those human qualities altogether, becoming an angelic, transcendental figure. Like the Little Prince, who must return to his distant asteroid not with a ship but with a viper’s bite, the astronaut has resolved the existential riddle by drastically altering the parameters of their existence. The joke in this comic is a gloomy one, playing with the moth-to-flame romance of the unattainable, and with the fable of death as the ultimate expression of passion. Once you scrape off some of the romance, remove the narrative context that helps us to make sense of it, yes, space is boring, death is boring. Everything that makes it seem otherwise belongs to the sublunary world, which the astronaut yearns only to escape.
Sir Tristan of Lyonesse, through a misunderstanding, married Iseult aux Blanches Mains, whom he did not love. Tristan’s loyalty to La Belle Iseult (then queen of Cornwall) inhibited him from consummating the marriage, however, and his young wife was not so innocent she didn’t know the difference: “the lady weened there had been no pleasure but kissing and clipping.” Initially understanding and patient, eventually the slight turns her bitter, and on his death bed she takes her revenge. Though in casual discourse we refer to sex as the greatest possible intimacy—going “all the way”—in reality sex encompasses such a variety of gradations of anatomy and social dynamic that it cannot rightly be considered an outer limit: it is a trajectory rather than a destination. Having discarded patriarchal fallacies around the primacy of penetration, of orgasm, there is no firm boundary past which one can say sex has definitely taken place, and there is no “ultimate sex” which definitively trumps all other sex. Either we endure in ignorance, accepting that the boundary between experience and inexperience is illusory, like the young Iseult, or we become like Uncle Frank in Hellraiser, tortured by the awareness that something “more” exists, a mirage on an ever-retreating horizon. Something more always exists: sex is an unmappable infinity.
Lala Albert stages her “Starlight Local,” a smart sex/scifi/body horror comic, on a fantastic ascent to infinity, but it’s grounded in ambient real-world astronomy. A map on the wall of the carriage indicates the train’s route follows an asterism called the Summer Triangle, and dialogue between the characters describes progression through the triangle’s three stars. (The Starlight Local dryly differs from its presumptive namesake, the whimsical and benevolent Express, in that a Local passenger must endure all the other passengers’ stops as well as their own.) At Altair, only 16.7 light years from Earth, a young alien man boards the train and introduces himself to the Earthling protagonist. She’s on a solo vacation to rectify her inexperience, admitting she’s never traveled farther than nearby Vega (25 light years from Earth). The young people plan to disembark at Deneb, one of the most distant and yet most luminous stars visible from Earth with the naked eye. Deneb’s actual location is uncertain, as is its size, but conservative figures place it 1,550 light years from Earth, with a diameter perhaps 200 times the size of the Sun. The Summer Triangle appears directly overhead at midnight in the summertime. Thus, obelisk-like, the train is aimed ever upward, trained on an uncertain apex. So is the antenna suggestively protruding from the alien man’s head.
The two watch a program in his cabin, “the best new thing out of Zeta Ret,” which he obtained from the wandering planet Nibiru. Here real-world pseudoscience makes an appearance, too: the binary star system Zeta Reticuli is the popularly-accepted home of alien “greys.” Purported psychic transmissions from Zeta Reticuli warned of an impending collision of Earth with Nibiru in 2003. This alien man is friendly, he seems normal enough (which is to say, relatively human-like), but the idea of aliens as figures of menace, or at least miscommunication, is being introduced. A relationship (casual, companionable, sexual) blooms between the fellow-travelers with idyllic ease, until he suggests they try having sex. “Isn’t that what we have been doing?” she asks, cautious but game. “I mean beyond just penetration,” he explains. “Real sex.” During “real sex” the man’s densely veined penis splits apart as he orgasms, its worm-like tendrils detaching and, to the woman’s horror, burrowing into her. Lost in ecstasy, he’s oblivious to her protests, but the second it’s over she bolts, furious and frightened. Clutching wadded clothes to her bare chest, she flees to her own cabin and tumbles into the shower, scrubbing, crying, puking. By now they must have passed Vega.
What we witness, as the explorer from Earth curls inward in the final panel, processing this violation, is a painful recalibration of her conception of sex. She could be transitioning away from sexual innocence, turning from Iseult to Frank, after this taste of the “beyond.” It’s equally likely, though, that the rape has forced her to draw a new boundary around sex as a concept, with the alien man’s version of “real sex” assiduously excluded. Real sex shouldn’t make you feel like that. Here the alien abduction subtext reveals its sly utility by providing practicable context for her pain, where “alien” represents any “other” we hope to relate to: they may not mean us harm, exactly, but nonetheless they come from somewhere else. That difference is enough to unexpectedly flip curiosity and affection into horrific invasion.