Depending on when you were born, you were introduced to the glories of space opera in different ways. I was born in 1976 and one of my first vivid movie-theater memories is watching Return of the Jedi with my cousin Billy and wishing he would just let me read the subtitles myself. I was an Ewok that Halloween and thus Star Wars became part of my soul.
Generations before me may have been introduced to space opera by a Heinlein novel or a Flash Gordon serial. Kids born since 2000 are, I hear, back on Star Wars, though in the form of a cable cartoon.
What I’m reviewing today, however, might be the single best introduction to space opera for any 2010 kid on the market today: Missile Mouse: The Star Crusher.
Missile Mouse is a one-man show. Blue Sky Studios artist Jake Parker has written, drawn and colored the poppiest (and most sardonic) cartoon mouse in at least a decade. Parker invented Missile Mouse when he was a kid and the character made his debut in the Flight Explorer anthology Random House published in 2008. Now he has a two-book contract with Scholastic; the first volume is out now and it’s a textbook for space opera.
I use the word “textbook” advisedly — a cynic could say that The Star Crusher is just a string of tired clichés strung together with duct tape (another cliché and a mixed metaphor to boot — these cynics and their lousy grasp of poetry), but that is not only missing the point, it is utterly wrong.
Let’s go back to Star Wars for a second (the first/fourth one) and its Joseph Campbell / Hero’s Journey / 30s serials / blah blah blah. How these movies purposefully tapped into our amygdalae is old news, but these truths didn’t make 1977 the Year of the Cliché. No, Star Wars was brilliant for mining the culture and our minds and refining it into something beautiful (or at least awesome). That’s more or less what Missile Mouse is doing as well.
Consider some of these bits of MM ripped without context from the book (spoiler alert!), and try to match them to Star Wars, James Bond, Indiana Jones, superhero origin stories, Mel Gibson (etc etc etc):
♦ The rogue veteran agent forced to team up with a near rookie who plays things by the book.
♦ A doomsday weapon capable of destroying an entire solar system.
♦ The gruff-demeanor-with-a-soft-interior head of a spy agency.
♦ The hero who, deep down inside, is doing it for daddy.
♦ The genius scientist without street smarts.
♦ The bad guy in a long dark coat.
♦ The Luddite hero (“I don’t like computers doing the flying.”).
I’ll stop there.
The funny thing is, the first time I read the book, I noticed not twenty tired old tropes — just two that were well integrated into the story. It wasn’t until a second read that I started to see how Parker had combed through every proxy adventure of his childhood and remixed it into something so fresh that someone as (let’s face it) jaded by genre as myself could be carried away.
Here’s part of the secret: I read it with my six-year-old son.
Everything in this book was new to him. It wasn’t just rainbow art jumping off the page, it wasn’t just Parker’s snappy dialogue, it wasn’t even just the story itself.
It was also the rogue veteran agent forced to team up with a near rookie who plays things by the book and the genius scientist without street smarts. These ideas were completely new to him.
And I can’t really think there was a better way to introduce him to them than by reading Missile Mouse.
And what’s good for the gosling is good for the gander. Because make no mistake: I, the father, liked this book too. It pops brighter than anything Andy Warhol ever printed (although, I should note, since this was a publisher-supplied advance proof, only the first signature was in color and I’m extrapolating a bit here), and it balances cute and menacing with panache (just as I thought the book would always be safe, some octopus dudes were fried down to their skeletons). It had a twist I genuinely did not see coming and when it decided to demand more of my suspension of disbelief, it had earned the right to do so and I went right along.
No, I don’t think I’ll be reading this book forty-five times, but let me make two observations here: One, I don’t read anybook forty-five times anymore — not since I became a teenager. And two, I’m not the target audience. Once my son learns to read, I fully expect this book to be on heavy rotation — and books that are on heavy rotation in early childhood influence everything as well we know. If childhood has textbooks, the heavy-rotation books are they.
So I’m giving my kids the smartest, funnest, colorfullest textbook I can.
Welcome to Space Opera 101, class. If you’ll open your books to page one, we’ll join Missile Mouse and his guides on a purple desert planet as three moons float in the background, and an ancient toothy skeleton lies half-buried in the sand.
Theric Jepson also writes about comics for Fob Comics and A Motley Vision. He maintains the Thmazing Suite of Websites (thmazing.com, thmazing.blogspot.com, twitter.com/thmazing….) for the sole purpose of promoting his own questionable agenda. He is also a tireless promoter of his recently released Fob Bible, and is trying to actually earn his title “World Expert on Mormon Comics” by compiling the world’s first anthology of Mormon comics, the first attempt at which will appear in all all-comics issue of Sunstone magazine summer 2010. He is also a rather pleasant person who prefers his cranberry juice (not “cocktail”) at room temperature.