By Gavin Rehfeldt. “Press start with your mind-finger…”
God Hates Astronauts, by its very title, is an invitation to comics absurdity and adult whimsy. GHA, as devotees lovingly refer to it, also busts something resembling your balls. Me oh my, are you in for it with God Hates Astronauts, what with its carefully orchestrated F-bombs, its surreal animal-headed characters, and its gigantic grotesque action set pieces, it all makes for just a few small reasons to be among the GHA cognoscenti.
An obscure, self-published, Chicago-based book that immediately deserved greater attention, God Hates Astronauts started in 2009, breaking out as a cult marvel that tapped into some of genre storytelling’s best elements (space, animals, superheroes, snacks, sex, etc.) and made them bigger and crazier than ever before. God Hates Astronauts #1 continues the daring gonzo approach of alternative comics.
The first series was comprised of three issues, which have been collected into a beautifully presented, Kickstarter-funded hardcover. (New readers don’t need to pick up this collection to appreciate Image’s new series, but it is highly recommended.) The collection includes origin stories for all the characters with art by some of the best emerging and established creators working today who are just as enthusiastic about the vision of GHA as I am. Browne has also put out 24-Hour Comics, at least one GHA zine, and a web-comic, Blast Furnace (which has been collected in softcover). For fans of absurdist superhero/scifi parody like The Tick, Axe Cop, and The Venture Brothers, Browne’s work carries on their legacy of extremely silly adventure stories that take themselves ironically and archly serious, while also pushing the boundaries of filthy adult humor. (The brilliant animated series Rick & Morty is another recent addition to this genre.)
The team at the center of the GHA-verse, the Power Persons Five, with their psychedelic action and extreme characterizations, is interesting in their own right, but the universe is further expanded here in the Image Comics’ presentation. The first volume was an odd family story, with lots of punching and a divorce at the center, but this volume tackles bigger objectives with Saga-like gravity. With surprisingly resonant and timely themes, the GHA universe sees warring factions combating over the right to privately farm in outer space. It’s here where Browne hangs hilarious sight gags and one-liners off of this basic framework. He has developed a mastery of deploying sound effect words for everything from a kick to a finger point, which fills the majority of the panels with an effect that is never overused or deflated. It’s simply part of Browne’s storytelling style, and calls to mind Jhonen Vasquez’s editorial comments in the gutter space of his comics.
The interiors are sublime. Browne’s pencils are married beautifully to his words and pacing. The inks and coloring are bold and tell a story on their own. The character design is striking, especially for characters of royalty, including Admiral Tiger Eating A Cheeseburger, King Tiger Eating a Cheeseburger, and Sir Hippothesis. Hippothesis’s chariot led by astronaut centaurs is one of the more memorable images I’ve seen depicted in recent comics. (It’s my opinion that Browne is one of the best costume designers in comics.) The lovable crab-headed people are given a number of wonderfully foolish optimistic moments that distinguish them from the rest of the rough and reckless ensemble, and their naivete is communicated effectively in the performances Browne interprets through his artwork. Of course, credit must be given to his collaborators, colorist Jordan Boyd and letterer Chris Crank. Geof Darrow also lends his expertly skilled hands to an exciting variant cover, which represents the climax of the issue.
So, what exactly happens in issue #1? There’s no A to B storyline, per se; the book serves more as an establishing issue that leads into a big battle where the advantages are fairly one sided. There’s a small love story between a space-farmer and his chicken. We’re introduced to an endearing character, 3-D Cowboy, who serves as an expositional framing device… and he is flipping adorable. (I love his confession that this was his first time providing exposition, and he hopes he did well – he was a little nervous. These little bits of self-awareness for comics characters always charm me.) It is amusing too that 3-D Cowboy is clearly a parody of every cute critter that needs to get wedged into a story for merchandising purposes and to grab the imaginations of younger readers. That being said, I should point out that while this book has its cartoony charms it is decidedly for adults. Don’t let the kids near it! Not if you want them spouting clever and filthy exclamations!
The real crux of the story is the conflict between space-farmers, crab-headed space soldiers, and the Power Persons Five caught in the middle of it all, working for the Crabulon royal family. There is a wedge between the royalty and the Power Persons Five (and a not-so secret grudge with the farmers; everyone seems to want to take them down) because the team did a unsatisfactory job of keeping the space-farmers out of, well, space, which resulted in a collision leading to the untimely death of Admiral Tiger Eating A Hamburger.
Power Persons Five (whose numbers appear to be more like Power Persons Three for this issue) step up their aggression on the space-farmers and their beloved corn, in reaction to the royalty’s dissatisfaction with Power Persons Five. With an army of bears, and my favorite character The Impossible, PP5’s leader Star Grass (with Gnarled Winslow at his side, always ready with a snappy rejoinder) leads an offensive against a mass of space-farmers holing up in a barn. The back and forth between leader Star Grass, a beer-swilling superhero with a ghost cow head, and the farmers is delightfully skewed and arrogantly hostile. The PP5 offensive winds up blowing up in everyone’s faces – with some of the farmers escaping into space in a silo cum rocket.
Obviously the story isn’t the focus in a God Hates Astronauts issue; the characters and the insane dialogue are the real stars. I don’t want to pluck quotes because discovery is part of the thrill. Whether or not you have been reading GHA before Image picked it up, anyone (no kids!) should be able to pick up this comic and appreciate it on its own merits.
Browne continues to evolve as one of the most promising emerging comics creators, since the artist began working closely with Image Comics on Manhattan Projects, and Bedlam, as well as the criminally underrated IDW series Smoke and Mirrors. It’s great to see a high profile publisher taking risks and putting content like God Hates Astronauts in the greater publishing sphere. I am immensely impressed with the creativity and daring involved in GHA #1, and look forward to the rest of the 4-part mini-series. Here’s to looking forward to more from Mr. Browne!
Written and illustrated by Ryan Browne.
Colored by Jordan Boyd.
9 out of 10