Thursday, August 24, 2017

Comic Review: What If? Russians on the Moon!

When it comes to alternate history comics, they almost always involve some sort of supernatural or science fiction element.  Pure alternate histories are, comparatively speaking, a bit of a rare bird.  I don't mind this too much, I do love a good Alien Space Bats scenario, but I can understand other people who might feel a bit frustrated.  Well, I have some good news that's sure to please everyone in the alternate history community.  Comixology has been partnering with Delcourt and Soleil, two of the biggest names in French comics, to brings English translations of all sort of great French comic books and graphic novels.  We're going to be talks about one of those comics.  Specifically, we're taking a look at What If? Russians on the Moon!

What If?, known as Jour J in its original language, is an alternate history anthology comic book series.  Each issue, at slightly less than sixty pages, poses a different alternate history question.  In this first issue, the Apollo 11 mission ends in disaster when a micrometeoroid destroys the Eagle Lander, and in the process, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin are killed.  America recoils with shock from the tragic turn of events.  There shock only increases when, a few months later, the Soviet Union launches a successful Moon mission, and Valentina Tereshkova becomes the first human to set foot on the Moon.

The action then jumps ahead ten years to 1979.  The United States and the Soviet Union have both established competing lunar bases.  The Space Race continues to rage on and tensions remain high between East and West.  America's Eagle Lunar Station is on high alert after astronaut Valeriane Smith reports becoming mysteriously ill; medical expert Tom Lang is sent to investigate.  Meanwhile, the Soviets have noticed that their lunar base, Galaktika, has been usually quite lately.  The Soviets send a reconnaissance of their own, led by a hotshot test pilot named Sasha.  He and his partner have been given license to kill if necessary.  There's plenty of thrills, adventures and alternate history to go around.

So before we tackle the plots itself, let's dissect the alternate history.  I understand that he micrometeoroid was used to set up the plot, but I'm not sure if it was the most realistic point of divergence.  The hull of The Eagle was certainly thin, but I'm not sure necessarily that thin.  We also see, in graphic detail, that the micrometeoroid causes Armstrong and Aldrin's heads to explode.  It's true that getting hit by a micrometeoroid is a bit like being struck by a bullet, but I doubt it would result in exploding heads.  Personally, I'd have had things basically be a lethal version of the misfortunes Apollo 13 experienced, but I digress.

Now, one things to keep in mind is that the America and Soviet space programs were almost total opposites of each other.  Wernher von Braun might have been the head of the American space program, but it was very much a team effort.  Even if Von Braun were to have dropped dead, the other scientists would have been able to continue just fine.  By contrast, the Soviet space program was very much a one-man show lead by Sergei Korolev.  When he died it was an absolutely crippling death blow to the Soviet space effort.  Korolev's death was one of the biggest reasons the Soviet Union never landed anyone on the Moon in our world.

I bring all of this up because it is addressed within the comic itself.  Based on a couple of offhand comments and throwaway lines, it appears that Korolev is still alive and kicking.  Lunar bases as the next leg in the Space Race makes sense.  Even with the added public support a Soviet moon landing would generate, I doubt that either America or the Soviet Union would be able to develop the technology necessary to get to Mars by the late 1970s.  Semi-permanent settlements on the Moon make more sense given the technological limitations.

It's also shown that the continued Space Race has led to advances in military technology.  For example, the Soviets used missile-launching satellites to great effect during the Soviet-Afghan War.  It is true that the Soviets had plans for such devices, but you'd think that having something like that in orbit would make America a bit more antsy, possibly developing their own such devices.

The Space Race has always been one of my favorite points in history.  It was an exciting time, and its fun to speculate on what it would be like if manned space flight was more advanced.  As you may have guessed, I was sold on this comic from the moment I heard about it.  The artwork is really well done, like something you might see from DC or Marvel.  The cover is especially gorgeous; it's done in the style of those old Life Magazine covers.

Okay, now we have to talk about some potential spoilers.  Get off now all those who don't like that sort of thing.  Okay, everyone gone who wants to be gone?  Good, let's dive on in.

So, why exactly is Valeriane ill?  She's not, she's just pregnant and about to give birth.  She met a cosmonaut named Dimitri Ivanovitch Babakin during a mission to the Sea of Fertility.  One thing lead to another, and now they're expecting the birth of their first child.  Turns out, Eagle and Galaktika have been helping each other for quite a few years now.  They've moved beyond Cold War tensions in the spirit of exploration and cooperation.  That ties in with why Galaktika has been so quiet.  They encountered some problems with their station, and they've been hanging out at Eagle.  Well, that and many of them are hoping to apply for asylum.

Valeriane and Dimitri hope that the announcement of their child's birth will bring peace to Earth.  Unfortunately, Frank Spotino, the astronaut who accompanied Dr. Lang to the Moon, discovers the Soviets who have taken up residence at Eagle.  He sets off a bomb that throws the Soviets onto the lunar surface without spacesuits, instantly killing them.  Upon spotting this turn of events via telescope and satellite, America and the Soviet Union decide to mutually destroy each other's moon bases.

The astronauts and cosmonauts have just enough time to announce the birth of little Tom-Ivan Babakin-Smith before evacuation is underway.  Unfortunately, Valeriane is still bedridden, and Dmitri decides to stay by her side to the bitter end.  They trust Tom-Ivan in the care of Dr. Lang and Sasha before giving a tearful goodbye.  I'm not sure if it was intentional or not, but it kind of reminds me of Superman's origin story.  Anyway, with the help of Sasha's friend Vladimir Putin, he and Dr. Lang successful fake their deaths.  They then move to a tropical island to raise Tom-Ivan in peace.

Now, I bring all this up to discuss the alternate history, and scientific accuracy, involved.  The media dubs Tom-Ivan as The Star-Child, and he becomes a symbol of peace and unity throughout the world.  By the year 1980 the Berlin Wall, as well as the Eastern Bloc, has fallen in the name of the Star-Child.  Okay, so communism falls in Eastern Europe ten years ahead of schedule.  I'll give that as a reasonable divergence; communism was already on its last legs by the 1980s in our world.

In terms of scientifically accuracy, things might be a bit looser.  Tom-Ivan was gestating in only 1/6 Earth gravity and, one assumes, was exposed to quite a bit of cosmic radiation in-utero.  When we catch up with him in 1989, however, he doesn't appear to be anything other than a happy and healthy ten-year-old. It helps that he was raised on Earth, but you'd expect his bone structure and muscles to be weaker.  As for the potential damages that could result from radiation...well, the less said the better.  I know it would make an already bittersweet ending even more bitter, but it stood out to me.

I don't want to end this review by making it sound like I didn't enjoy this comic.  Really, those were just minor nitpicks.  I enjoyed this comic very much, and it's one of the best alternate history comics I have yet encountered.  Fans of alternate history will love it, as will fans of science fiction and space exploration.  It's a great comic, and you won't want to miss out on it.

I'm really excited about all the great French comics that Comixology is bringing to English speaking readers thanks to their partnership with Delcourt and Soleil.  There's plenty of great titles to discover, and I can't wait for more issues of What If? to come out.  It seems like they're trying to focus translating issues that involve topic familiar to American readers.  I can understand that, there are certain issues that don't make a lot of sense unless you have a good grasp of French history.  Hey, it is a French series, so it makes sense that there would be focus on alternate history that impacts France.

Still, there looks like there's going to be a lot of potentially great issues to come.  Hurry up, Comixology, I can hardly wait for them!

Well, I think that's enough from me for now.  I will see you guys next time.

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