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“Cute” and “quirky” all too often come off as dismissive when describing things. Dave Roman‘s Astronaut Academy: Zero Gravity (First Second Books, 2011) will make you think twice, though, when it comes to those words. If everyone did “cute” and “quirky” as well as Roman, these words would only be compliments.
A redone and expanded version of Roman’s mini-comic series Astronaut Elementary, Astronaut Academy follows students of the titular school, where classes include Wearing Cute Hats or Fire Throwing and teachers are Mrs. Bunn (a bunny, of course) and Senor Panda (a panda, as the name would suggest). The principal carries a very large sword (think Final Fantasy). All of this is covered in the first few pages. It’s the perfect introduction to the wacky, anything-goes world Roman has created here.
The main plot follows Hakata Soy, a transfer student with a mysterious past. A cyborg named Cybert also arrives with the mission to eliminate Hakata Soy. All of this, though, is really just a frame for things like dinosaur driving lessons, incomprehensible games of Fireball, student crushes on the elfin teacher Mr. Namagucci and diversions with Doug Hiro, who never takes off his space suit.
Roman’s multi-ethnic (and multi-species, I guess it must be said) cast is refreshingly diverse. It’s evenly split between girls and boys and there’s a personality for everyone to relate to, from the bratty Maribelle Mellonbelly, to the sweet overachiever Miyumi San to the sporty Tak Offsky among many others. You knew these kids. Possibly, you were (or are) one of these kids.
Roman’s art is full of joy. While he obviously draws inspiration from manga, especially in his facial expressions, his definitive lines and cartoony style has a giddy, childlike quality. Panels and pages emphasize movement and motion. I don’t remember when still images seemed so animated.
While it’s perfectly suitable for children — the humor is always innocent without being insulting (Roman was editor of Nickelodeon magazine, so he understands kids and doesn’t talk down to them) — I also get the feeling Roman didn’t necessarily set out to make a comic exclusively for kids. He was just making the comic he enjoyed creating — one that’s playful and sweet, and yes, cute and quirky. His fun tends to rub off on the reader.
I know I’m already waiting for the promised sequel.
Advance reader copy provided by publisher.