The Geography of Space Exploration: APOLLO (Graphic Novel Review)

A well-researched account of the Apollo 11 mission in graphic novel form, Fitch, Baker & Collins’ book is surely right up there with LEGO’s Saturn V as a must-have for Apollo dorks.

Apollo cover, art by Mike Collins (Image: apollocomic.com)

What is it? Graphic Novel

What’s it about? Apollo 11, the first Moon Landing

Who made it? Authors Matt Fitch & C.S. Baker, and artist Mike Collins (not the astronaut)

Where can I get it? SelfMadeHero an independent publisher out of the U.K.

Review: Telling a Famous Story

Even in 2018, the historic successes of NASA’s Apollo program are well known as memories of the first Moon landing remain vivid among an entire generation.

On top of this, several generations since, like my own, have experienced the story of the Moon landing in books, TV shows, and documentaries, and recently, major film, several times over.

Because of the pervasiveness of the Moon landing mythology in popular culture (certainly among North Americans), you have to admire the authors for taking on the artistic challenge of re-telling of one the most well-known and documented events in human history.

Meeting this challenge, creators Fitch, Baker & Collins do an impressive job presenting well-tread material in a manner that is both engaging and interesting. From reading Apollo, it seems the authors knew that the way to make such a well known story engaging was to inject their artistic talent while accurately telling a true story.

What helps the book in this vein is what I, in my instructor mode, call ”evidence of effective research”. Indeed, if I were marking this as a final project in my second year university course Space Exploration, the authors would score very well in the ‘research’ criterion.

Inside panel art by Mike Collins (Image: apollocomic.com)

But comparisons to a student project are not quite apt. This is a polished, professional work. While I’m always hesitant to critique art which I myself am not practised enough to create, as a lifelong comic book reader, I hope by now I can appreciate effective storytelling in the medium.

What’s particularly refreshing about Apollo is that it avoids some of the common tropes of space history writing. In the mythology of human spaceflight, astronauts can sometimes be stripped of character and context. thankfully, Apollo does not do this.

At the core of the graphic novel’s main story are of course Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Buzz Aldrin. As with Damien Chazelle’s First Man, the Apollo 11 astronauts are conveyed with the real life depth we’d expect from real-life people.

As many have pointed out regarding First Man, ultimately Baker & Fitch’s approach of writing the astronauts, as people, helps the reader better relate to them. In this sense, the authors build off of the existing heroic stature of the crew, and subvert it to effectively tell an even more engaging story.

Far from usurping the accomplishment of the Apollo astronauts, this approach highlights the incredible feats of the program. The flight crew and ground crew were not perfect, they were humans, they could have (and did) make mistakes. While its famously quipped that “failure was not an option”, Fitch, Baker, and Collins’ book makes clear that failure remained a possibility.

In the end, Apollo helps both new and old audiences appreciate how impressive it is that these guys (and 24 others) sat on top of the most powerful rocket ever built and flew to the Moon with no guarantee of success.

Multiple Audiences

In order to reach both space nerds and broader audiences, the authors do well to make clear things that might trip people up, such as acronyms and astronaut nicknames. In this sense the book easily works for casual (non-space-nerd) readers.

For hardcores, or those of us who study space history, the book is still engaging due to the artistic skill of the creators (my first reading was entirely uninterrupted). The crux of this is the weaving of the astronauts personal lives (in flashback from) with the main narrative of the Apollo 11 mission itself.

It’s possible that for the most hardcore space history buffs there probably isn’t much new in terms of facts or insights. Nonetheless, the story telling and character development does well to make you keep reading and enjoying the book. On top of that, there are Collins’ wonderful interiors that depict Apollo hardware with accuracy.

A Graphic Textbook

As I do in my lectures, the book helps highlight key aspects of the Apollo program’s infrastructure: the lunar module (LEM), the command service module(CSM), and the Saturn V’s three stages.

Because of this I am currently using Apollo as a reading in my Space Exploration course. From my experience, anytime you can reinforce key class content within storytelling, you have the opportunity to meaningfully enhance student learning.

Further, with what could be described as ‘historical easter eggs’, Apollo briefly touches on a few key parts of the Space Race that I believe will peak student curiosity and tie nicely into class lectures. These include the Apollo 1 fire, the The Mercury and Gemini programs, the Apollo resistance community, and Nixon’s view of the space program.

Mike Collins’ splash page of the Apollo 11 Lunar Module “Eagle” landing on the Moon’s surface (Image: apollocomic.com)

The Graphic has Landed

To be sure, we can expect a barrage of Apollo 11 media coming our way over the next twelve months thanks to Ryan Gosling’s wonderful portrayal of Neil Armstrong in First Man and the upcoming 50th anniversary of Apollo 11’s success on July 20, 1969.

Despite the attention it will rightfully receive next year and omnipresence of the Moon landing story in American mythology, I believe Fitch, Baker, & Collin’s book carves out a nice spot for itself. It’s combination of strong research with effective story telling and brilliant art make it unrivaled in its presentation of the subject matter.

For educators and history buffs, Apollo is yet another indication of how powerful the graphic novel form can be for telling historical events. While Apollo can’t carry the emotional power of the best known true-story graphic Maus, on any day it can hang in conversation as among the better recent entries in the growing non-fiction graphic genre.

Danny Bednar, PhD is a Lecturer in the Department of Geography at Western University in London, Ontario, Canada where he studies climate change adaptation, environmental governance, and the geopolitics of space exploration. All views are his own

Space Geographer, PhD & Amateur Musicologist. Asst. Professor #Space2090 I Columns: The Geography of Space Exploration & The Canon of Heavy Metal I Views Mine I

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