This week, instead of looking at a classic science fiction novel, we're going to look at something different: a webcomic about a young science fiction geek growing up during the Summer of Star Wars.
Meet Sci-Fi Guy.
I met Doug Holverson in college, at the campus science fiction club at the land grant university in the heart of Darkest Iowa where we both attended college. Doug was also an aspiring cartoonist and drew his own comic book, a space opera parody called "Captain Saucer" which he printed at the local copy shop. Doug helped me put out my own first self-published comic, "Brisbane the Barbarian."
"Captain Saucer" went through many changes over the years. Doug developed an alternate universe in which the First Contact with extraterrestrials occured in the 1950s when an alien spacecraft accidentally collided with Sputnik and had to make an emergency landing at the Studebaker plant in South Bend Indiana. By the present day, humans are established in space, aliens perform in indy rock bands, and Studebaker makes the best damn flying saucer in the Solar System. The title character, a macho space hero, faded into the background and one of the supporting characters, a busty and muscular alien amazon named Flexia, took over as lead. Doug renamed the comic "Interstellar Overdrive" and spent years reworking and refining the setting and the characters.
More recently, Doug has set aside the Interstellar Overdrive Universe for a more personal project titled "Sci-Fi Guy". It's about a kid named Merv Gustafson, a young science nerd growing up in a small midwestern town. He looks a bit like a young Mark Hamill with glasses and has a bit in common with Luke Skywalker. Like Luke, Merv is stuck in a small backwater place -- if there's a bright center to the universe, Iroquios City might not be any farther from it than Tatooine, but it's not any closer either -- but he has dreams of the deep reaches of space.
He's not the only science fiction fan in town -- the release of Star Wars has made sci-fi trendy -- but he's still something of an outsider. His Dad is an unemployed aerospace engineer; work has been scarce since NASA shut down the Apollo program. Merv has an odd vocal quirk; he and his Dad both speak in a jerky staccato suggestive of Asperger Syndrome. He has a best friend, a tomboy named Maggie, who might be his girlfriend if he paid a bit more attention to that sort of thing. Merv has just graduated from high school. His immediate goals for the summer are to see Star Wars -- he's the only kid in town who hasn't yet -- and to complete the latest robot he's been building. But first he has to mow the lawn.
Merv doesn't realize it, but he is being observed by a time-traveler from the future. Merv will someday be an important inventor, and the traveler, a cat-girl inexplicably named "Tom", is here to see that he has the chance to fulfil his destiny.
Doug has put a lot of attention into evoking the era, from the ASCII rendition of the logo on the first splash page, to Merv's '75 Mercury Bobcat, to the Heavy Metal magazines in his bedroom, to the Four-Color Bic retractable pen his dad uses; all are rendered in loving detail. This goes to more subtle aspects of the comic as well; the characters's dialogue is lettered using an IBM Selectric type font, and most of the line art is colored a light purple instead of black; the same purple as the old Ditto-Master copies that schools used before photocopiers became common.
From time to time, Doug breaks out of Merv's Ditto-purple world to pay homage to '70s artists who inspired him. Sometimes these make thematic sense, such as when Merv is mowing the lawn and daydreaming he's in an episode of Star Trek, rendered in the bright colors of the animated Trek; or the Richard Corben Heavy Metal pastiche airbrushed on the side of a hippie's van. There's one sequence where Merv is showing off one of his home-built robots and he enthusiastically describes how such robots could be used in warehouses of the future, illustrated in a slick style imitating instruction manuals of the period.
Some of his other bits are less explicable. A sequence in which Tom the cat-girl steals a pickup truck is nicely-rendered in an R. Crumb style, but there seems no reason for the change in visual style. Another bit where Tom uses a translation app on her "iBeam" personal electronic device to talk to a pen full of pigs is meant to invoke Al Capp's "Li'l Abner", but to my taste doesn't quite succeed.
The story tends to wander, a common problem with serial stories being written one chapter at a time. Doug lets events unfold slowly, moment by moment. In spots this causes the story to drag, and meander pointlessly. But I can forgive this for the other lyrical moments, such as the sequence opening the story where the point of view leads us gradually from space, to the town of Iroquois City, and ending with a page or two lovingly tracking over the interior of the town's comic book shop.
Doug can be as subtle as a Death Star in some places, as when he devotes far too much space to high school bullies and mean ol' hippies being loud-mouthed jerks; but elsewhere he can capture moments that are moving and true, such as Merv's dad trying to maintain his dignity while looking for work in a field which has passed him by, all the while hoping his son will follow in his career but do better; or Merv rushing indoors with excitement because he's just heard a radio contest offering Star Wars tickets to the seventh caller, only to find that his dad is using the phone trying to locate a 7879 chip for Merv's robot; or Merv waffling over the decision whether to go with Maggie to finally see Star Wars, or take her to a one-night-only showing of 2001: A Space Odyssey at the nearby university.
The webcomic is currently on hiatus; Doug set it aside some time back to tinker some more with ISOD; and the story leaves us poised with the anticipation of things to come. Merv has not yet met Tom; nor has he discovered what the 7879 chip he recieved in the mail from a mysterious benefactor will make his robot capable of. Doug's tagline for the series, "Way to go, kiddies! You have just corrupted the future by observing it!" suggests that Merv's adventures will take him much farther than Iroquois Falls.
I hope Doug returns to the comic. I never thought I'd ever be nostalgic for the '70s, but Sci-Fi Guy evokes the period with a sense that it was a time of possibilities. His veiw of the era is far from sentimental but it is not without a certain degree of affection.