Like so many much-loved science-fiction stories, Tom Gauld’s Mooncop seems to be about this, but it’s really about that. In the case of Gauld’s comic, the this is a cop on the moon, and the that includes isolation, monotony, and obsolescence. As with Mooncop’s predecessors, a reader helps create these deeper meanings; the story’s rewards increase with a person’s level of engagement. So, potentially, do the disappointments.
Gauld draws comics in a singular, instantly recognizable manner, with linework that’s borderline cutesy (Mooncop occasionally reads like it ought to have been crocheted rather than printed) but also elegant and the result of clear technical control. As a storyteller, his pacing is deliberate and his affect is flat by design. Wes Anderson is an easy comparison but a fitting one; both artists mix melancholy and knowing understatement, whimsy and compositional tightness. And as with Anderson, it’s not always obvious whether the artist’s carefully-rendered world contains real insights or merely signifies insightfulness.
Gauld depicts the lunar colony of Mooncop with measures of care and irony. From the start, his pages initiate a kind of game-playing with readers as much as they immerse readers in the world of the story. Gauld’s cross-hatching of moon rocks, for instance, is so methodical that it lends depth to the setting while also reinforcing its artifice. The clunky geometry of the colony’s buildings, meanwhile, recalls the set-design of sixties and seventies TV sci-fi; it’s a land of boxes and bubbles.
When the ping of an alarm first puts the mooncop in motion, Gauld doles out the scene slowly, with little urgency in either his pacing or the mooncop’s reaction. This is not a book, the sequence says, that will offer all of the traditional pleasures of this genre, e.g. a deep dive into a fantastical world, or blood and thunder, life-and-death stakes, within that world. Gauld makes the lack of excitement more overt and plot-level soon afterward—readers learn that there’s not much crime on the moon, and not much to occupy a mooncop’s time. The consequence of this, the mooncop’s depression, is the story’s real concern.
Mooncop proceeds to give readers more of the mooncop’s daily minutiae (a donut order, a stop at his apartment) at the same unrushed pace, putting them in sync with him. Later, when the mooncop discusses the lunar colony’s slow decline with a woman who has lived there from the start, Gauld extends his gambit as a storyteller. “I think what you did was wonderful,” the mooncop tells the old woman. This is the most expressive the character has been so far, although Gauld delivers the scene in a manner consistent with earlier ones. It reads almost like a challenge: Has Gauld built in distance between his readers and the mooncop so he can challenge them to empathize with a cipher?
The idea of distance is complicated here, granted. If a reader accepts Scott McCloud’s pitch about what he calls iconicity—that people project themselves most easily onto simple designs—then the mooncop is a classically relatable comics figure; a cipher, maybe, but an inviting one. Still, there’s a pervasive coolness to Mooncop that doesn’t permit an immediate giving of oneself. (Gauld adheres strictly to a blue and gray palette, for instance, which envelops everything, including the sight gags. Even the sight of a dog in its own tiny oxygen bubble takes on a melancholy cast.)
Some powerful sequences come out of Mooncop’s remoteness. One page in the book’s second half includes a large, wordless, faraway panel of the mooncop eating his donut at a lunar cafe while its lone employee stands behind the counter. It’s up to the reader to imagine the level of tension, the intimacy or lack thereof, between these two basic strangers, and the scene has a blend of ambiguity and established features that makes this imaginative work worthwhile. In another scene, the mooncop gets a therapy robot to accompany him on his duties, but the machine is so poorly equipped for the uneven terrain that the mooncop has to carry it to and from his vehicle—bare-bones slapstick and a sweet, simple moment.
Despite the resonance of the former sequence, Mooncop courts disappointment once the Lunar Donuts employee returns in later scenes. Unlike the mooncop, who admits to being a bit depressed in his current station, she says of the moon, “I love it here. I can spend hours just looking out at the stars and the rocks. It makes me feel very peaceful.” The lines provide a counterweight to the mooncop’s own attitudes, and yet they don’t especially read like a deepening of the comic’s concerns or a widening of its point of view. If anything, they threaten to unveil Mooncop as another story in which a sad-sack dude finds a new lease on life thanks to the cute girl who sees life more vividly than he, not even an Andersonian story but a Braffian one.
In the end, Mooncop is not exactly that, or not exclusively that. As the mooncop and woman from Lunar Donuts go for a drive and look to the sky, Gauld gives readers the same interpretive latitude he does in his first scene with the woman. The characters may be together, or they may be two people, alone together. (And the story may or may not effectively steer clear of clichés.)
What a reader makes of this scene may determine what they think of the book as a whole. As a work of compositional and tonal consistency, Mooncop is a success by nearly any measure. It’s also an emotionally limited story; which, to an extent, is a function of the comic’s consistency, and perhaps a function of a project that pushes readers to bring their own empathy to the book. But for a reader to finish satisfied, that experience might have to be an end in itself. (Having closed the gap between themselves and Gauld’s character, stepped into a different vantage point, will they see anything new?) Mooncop may be best appreciated as a retro sci-fi tone poem, big on feel in its depictions of loneliness and depression but short on insight. For the latter, it’s up to readers to take one giant leap beyond what’s on the page.