Astronaut Dad, Volume 1
Written by David Hopkins; Illustrated by Brent Schoonover
I wanna talk about Horrorwood for a second before I get into Astronaut Dad, if that’s okay. Brandon Terrell’s script for Horrorwood was an engaging homage to the horror movies of the thirties and forties, but another artist might have been tempted to focus on its darker elements and create a straightforward horror story out of it. What made Horrorwood really special was Brent Schoonover’s simple, expressive illustrations. Letting the script communicate the mystery of those old films, Schoonover’s cartoon-like drawings ran against expectations and captured their fun.
So, I was pretty excited to see what Schoonover was up to next. When I heard it was a book called Astronaut Dad, I immediately thought of shows like Lost in Space and My Favorite Martian. Something about family, but with a space-adventure hook. But, in what’s becoming a recurring theme in this column lately, I was surprised to read a book that was pleasantly different from my expectations for it.
Astronaut Dad – at least the first volume – owes a lot more to The Wonder Years than Buck Rogers. It’s about three astronauts and their families in the ‘60s. At the height of the Cold War and the Space Race, Stan Norton, Ed Kelly, and Frankie Campbell are reserve pilots. As far as anyone knows, they’ve never been to space. Norton’s own son Jimmy thinks “they probably sit around playing cards all day waiting for Alan Shepard to break his ankle.”
And it’s particularly painful for Jimmy because even if his dad isn’t going into space, the job is still time consuming and keeps Norton away from home a lot. The story spends some time with the three astronauts, but the most powerful moments are when it focuses on Jimmy and Ed Kelly’s daughter Vanessa. Jimmy resents his dad, but Vanessa is fiercely proud of hers. The two kids are different in other ways too, but they strike up a friendship and that – in the midst of so much uncertainty about their dads, their country, and the fate of the world – is the beautiful part of this story.
Frankie Campbell is less of a major character, but it’s interesting to watch Stan and Ed’s wives take an instant dislike to Frankie’s. I don’t want to make it sound like Desperate Housewives, but the ‘60s housewife politics add a fascinating and entertaining element to the story. Stan and Ed have a similar distrust of Frankie, so it’ll be interesting to see if that changes in future volumes.
Schoonover’s art is as nicely matched here as it was in Horrorwood. The focus here isn’t on fun, but Schoonover does a great job communicating emotions through pictures and nicely supports the mood Hopkins creates through his thoughtful dialogue.
Towards the end of the book, Jimmy and Vanessa discover reason to believe that their dads may not be as inactive in the space program as they thought. That’s partially a setup for Volume 2, but it also affects Jimmy and Vanessa’s relationship with their dads as well as with each other, and it’s those relationships that Astronaut Dad is really about. It’s a sweet, touching book and I’m looking forward to the second volume.