Helen’s an astronaut, you see. She wakes up in a space suit on the surface of a planet orbiting the star Canopus, 309.8 light years from earth. She doesn’t know how she got there, what she’s supposed to be doing, or why. She doesn’t even remember the little robot who keeps following her around and calling her mom.
Canopus is a new series from Scout Comics, a newer outfit with a fairly wide-ranging line. The only one I recognized immediately was Kristen Gudsnuk’s Henchgirl, one of my favorite serials of the last ten years or so (Henchgirl I believe moved to Dark Horse for the collection). So they’ve been out for a while and they seem to have a real eye for developing talent. Case in point, I had never (to my recollection) encountered Dave Chisholm, but now that I’ve read Canopus #1 I’m paying attention.
There are few things in comics more delightful than picking up a new first issue with no expectations or prior knowledge and walking away with a new favorite, but I quite like Canopus and I quite like Chisholm. I’ve read quite a few first issues in my time - so many first issues that never even tried, really, and certainly did not succeed in pulling me back. You have to give your reader something new in your first issue or they won’t want to show up for the second. Such a simple principle! If you want your readers’ money, give them a story they can’t not read.
There are worse ways to start a story than by having your protagonist wake up with amnesia on a distant world. Helen has to recover her memories and figure out what’s going on, or she’s never going to get anywhere. She needs some raw material before her ship can replace needed parts, so she has to set off on a cross-country journey with Arthur, the boy robot who sort of looks a bit like Astro Boy, only if Astro Boy was holding some deadly secrets close to his chestplate. Wandering around the planet she stumbles across a pit of her childhood toys. They come across an ancient and abandoned settlement carved across the walls of a cliff, and then evil teeth start snaking out of the walls. You know, like real astronauts do. It’s impossible to figure out what’s going to happen next in this story, and that’s a rare blessing in this veil of tears called life.
There are two aspects of Chisholm’s artwork that stick out at me: faces and landscapes. The story is primarily told in the juxtaposition of close-up views of Helen’s face in her space suit and the wide-open vistas of her unnamed alien world. There’s only two speaking characters in the book’s present (not counting flashbacks to Helen’s youth), and a great deal of the storytelling has to be conveyed through Helen’s emotional state. Although sometimes he gets tripped up on foreshortening, it is delightful to see the range of expressions he gives his troubled astronaut over the course of just one issue.
The other real character in the story is the planet itself. Space books aren’t always colored with pastels, but Canopus makes it work - from the warm lavenders and pinks throughout to the jolt of electric blue when Helen switches on her Kirby krackling energy knives. (What self respecting astronaut leaves home without their energy knives?) Chisholm draws his alien landscapes with an eye for geological detail, allowing the dimensions of the planet and Helen’s claustrophobic anxiety to dictate increasingly interesting page layouts. It’s not a backlot in Studio City, it feels like precisely what it is: an empty world that maybe once upon a time didn’t used to be so empty. Spooky stuff.