BOOK CLUB DISCUSSION: ASTRONAUT DAD, VOL. 1

by

 

Welcome to the book club! 

If everyone can pour themselves a cup of coffee, grab a Danish, and have a seat we’ll get started.  This past month we read the first volume of the graphic novel “Astronaut Dad.”  We’ll begin with a synopsis and go right into the discussion.  And please feel free to join us afterwards in the comments section. 

THE SET-UP:

(Note:  Keep in mind that spoilers are inherent below as we will be discussing the book in-depth.  If at all possible, we here at the Steve Austin Book Club would encourage you to pick up and read this story before following and hopefully joining in the below discussion.  That said, knowing the plot mechanics and developments of this particular book shouldn’t limit your enjoyment of it in any way as it’s a character piece first and foremost.) 

“Astronaut Dad, Vol. 1” is the first half of a graphic novel by writer David Hopkins and illustrator Brent Schoonover (shame on the editor for not reading the back cover text closely enough which lists Mr. Schoonover as an “illustratow.”  Even if that is how OG’s 4-year-old son would pronounce that word, it’s still no excuse!) 

This slim volume tells the story of NASA reservists living in Texas in the early 60’s as seen through the eyes of their oldest children.  Said children, pre-teens Jimmy Norton and Vanessa Kelly, view their fathers in completely opposite ways.  While Vanessa is fiercely proud of her dad, Jimmy (our narrator) is embarrassed by his father’s reservist status.  What they come to find as Vanessa forces Jimmy reluctantly into friendship is that their dad’s aren’t just sitting around “all day waiting for Alan Shepherd to break his ankle” as Jimmy speculates. 

In fact, as they investigate the fallout shelter hidden by the shed in the Norton’s backyard, they find that the men are actually active astronauts participating in secret launches and orbital flights over the Soviet Union.   

This revelation understandably rocks Jimmy’s world.  The jaundiced eye he had been viewing his father with as well as the emotional remove that had grown between them all gets confused amidst the rumbling and steam of a night-time rocket launch. 

Other threads running through the story explore the minefield of early-60’s housewife politics, the Kennedy assassination’s shadow over America’s ascendancy in the space race, the mixed bag of camaraderie and loneliness that comes with the astronauts training and the fact that most kids born in the 50’s and 60’s probably came from a cigarette-smoke-filled womb and somehow still managed to be born without 2 heads! 

Volume 2 of “Astronaut Dad” is due this summer and will see the completion of the story. 

THE DISCUSSION: 

OG:  My Dad, as you know, was not an astronaut; far from it, in fact.  For 20-odd years he worked for the Ford Motor Company on one of its many Michigan assembly lines until his retirement a few years ago.  Due to circumstances of my parents divorce and the fact that he typically worked midnights and weekends I didn’t get to see him as much as I would have liked growing up. 

EG:  Well, you know that my father also worked at Ford, albeit, a different plant, for 25 years.  I certainly understand not getting to see him as I was growing up.  There were many times his job hindered us spending time together. 

OG:  Don’t get me wrong, he’s been a great dad.  In fact, saying that either of our dads spent 20-odd years on an assembly line already makes them pretty good dads in my mind.  It’s not like men sign up for that work for the fun of it.  No, they do it for their families.  They do it so their kids, hopefully, don’t have to. 

EG:  Absolutely.  As adults now, we can understand the notion of responsibility that they took on.  Our fathers knew what they had to do and they did it.  I’m positive that they would’ve liked to have gone on every camping, sporting, or whatever opportunity with us as we grew up, but that would have been short-sighted.  They were the providers and did what they needed to for the family. 

OG:  Quick story:  I remember around the time I was starting to drive I had to drop my Dad off at work so I could borrow his truck.  It was dark as we rolled past the vast fields of Milan, Michigan and I could see two clusters of blinding lights on either side of the road up ahead.  My dad said, “See those lights on the left there?  That’s a prison.”  I replied, “And the other lights are the plant?”  “The other lights are a prison too,” he said.  I then made the reasonable, if bone-headed assumption that we had further to drive.  But, of course, the other lights were the factory.  We had a good chuckle over that but I often wonder if it was as bittersweet a joke for him as it was for me. 

EG:  You know, thinking about that and also the idea of our father’s doing the job so we didn’t have to, I remember a time when I wanted to go to work at the factory just after college.  It seemed a good option, pay-wise, over the other options I had.  My father absolutely wouldn’t hear of it.  I believe he was afraid I’d get “trapped” there, after he worked so hard to make sure I wouldn’t have to.  Hmm…a bit of a tangent there… 

OG:  Yeah, a huge tangent.  Sorry about that.  Believe it or not, I actually do want to discuss the book.  I only bring all of this stuff up to show that we always bring some baggage to any story we read and that this was the particular baggage I was carrying when reading the phenomenal “Astronaut Dad.”  The baggage of a son who was dying for more time with his dad growing up.  The baggage of being proud of him at the same time as I was envious of other kid’s dads who had more interesting, cooler-sounding jobs.  And, the baggage of a kid that was obsessed with the space program, had even gone to Space Camp, and then had those dreams cast aside by the Challenger tragedy. 

Needless to say, in order to hit me right in my sweet spot this book didn’t have to bother with a deftly told, economically written script; nor did it have to have deceptively simple, emotionally evocative illustrations.  The fact that it did pummel me with that particular one-two punch of startling quality just made this experience all the richer. 

EG:  Yeah, the story as a whole already had an in with…well, not just us, but I’d bet with just about every son out there. 

OG:  Definitely. 

EG:  And, I also appreciate that it didn’t rest on the laurels of that but that it was a good read regardless of personal experience. 

OG:  I agree.  Simply put (and I know we’re really burying our reviews deep down the page here) I loved this book.  As a struggling writer myself I can only marvel and turn green at how swiftly and effectively Hopkins is able to develop character; small moments or scenes that tell you with very little dialogue or description who people are and the unspoken things that are standing between them. 

EG:  I was really impressed at how quickly each of the characters got their own “voice.”  Each character seemed distinct to me, and fitting, not only the story, but for the era itself. 

OG:  And, as a struggling artist, I can only imagine that you probably find yourself turning a similar shade of green when you see how seemingly easy Schoonover is able to carry across Hopkins story. 

EG:  Oh yeah.  Brent is just an amazing artist.  Though, I try not to compare my meager talents to others, for fear that I’d never pick up a pencil again. 

OG:  Myself, I’m terrible at describing art styles, but the illustrations are slightly reminiscent of Archie comics to me, at least the characterizations.  But, I don’t want that to come off as a slight at all. 

EG:  I can see that, especially with this story.  A lot of Brent’s art is very evocative of an animated style, along the lines of Bruce Timm or Darwyn Cooke.  This, though, does seem a little different, with a more cartoonish bent. 

OG:  But, I think that our way into this story is found it this cartooning style that immediately feels specific to the era and simple on its face.  But, as it draws you in with that light touch, you suddenly can see all the shades and heartbreak hidden in the lines.   I mean, for my money, that one page shot of Stan Norton sitting in his space-suit in shadows tells me volumes about him and about the story I’m reading.

  

EG:  Exactly.  The emotion comes through so clearly by way of the expressive, simplistic art.  And, in this case, simplistic is in no way a bad thing.  It is the productive use of each line, without the need for excessive filler.  I know that you weren’t into comics in the 90’s, OG, so you only have a historical knowledge of the overuse of lines and scratches, meant to make art more “dynamic.”  I lived through that era.   Give me a nice, clean page of art over that any day! 

OG:  Amen to that, brother!  You know, my biggest gripe, and I suppose it is a big one, is that this thing is too dang short.  I know there’s another 80 pages of story coming this summer, but I can’t imagine that’s going to satisfy me completely.  There’s so much more about these characters and interpersonal relationships that I’d like to delve into that it seems unfair to leave us hanging in this way.  I mean, I could read 80 pages alone just on the relationship of the astronauts’ wives.  (WHAT!?!?!  You mean that Charlize Theron/Johnny Depp movie didn’t give you enough?!?!)  I suppose that that has as much to do with my recent obsessive love for the TV show “Mad Men” which also deeply investigates the same emotional landscape of married life in early-60’s America.  (And is also another showcase of irresponsible pre-natal cigarette and alcohol consumption) 

EG:  I have to admit, I also wonder if another 80 pages will be enough.  Though, I can understand, as I’m reading, this is the story of a boy and how he sees his father, and how that perception changes.  The other aspects of the story could definitely be mined for rich stories.  But, with the focus of the story being what it is, I’m going to say that the “less is more” aspect is being followed.  This is a chunk of Jimmy’s life and even though other things happen around it, this is the focus.  I can respect that even if I’d like to see some follow up books. 

OG:  You’re definitely right about the story staying focused.  And, obviously, on a practical level I understand that this book, like all small-press outings, is a labor of love by two super-talented guys that need to pay the bills.  So, believe me, I’ll take what I can get here.  This was easily better than the seven issues of Marvel/DC product I consumed the day before I read it. 

To its credit, the brevity of the piece renders the story as more of a fable and that’s not a bad thing either.  If it’s a fable it’s a fantastic one and cuts right to the core, speaking to the relationships of fathers and sons and how hard it is to make that inevitable break into adulthood when your dad suddenly morphs from superhero into working stiff. Really, I’m just greedy.  I want more of this thing.  And, that’s probably the best review you can give to a book.  Plenty of graphic novels overstay their welcome.  I’m sure you and I could have a stirring battle about “Blankets” right here, but we won’t re-litigate that masterpiece.  I say “tomato” you say “pretentious piece of naval-gazing crap.” 

EG:  Actually, I believe I called it a “pretentious piece of masturbatory self-pity.”  Either way, though. 

OG:  Right, either way it’s sort of refreshing that Hopkins and Schoonover got in there, told their story with charm and economy, and got out leaving the reader wanting more.  Yep, that’s a good book right there. 

EG:  Ooh, what a turn of phrase!  “They told their story with charm and economy and got out leaving the reader wanting more.”  Wow.  How long did it take you to come up with that? 

OG:  I often spend a couple hours a day dreaming up pull quotes for things I read.   

EG:  Well, it was a very good book and I’m definitely looking forward to the remainder of the story.  For the first volume, I give it a solid 4 “Running Steves” out of five.
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 And you, mon petit fromage? 

OG:  I’m right there with ya. 4 “Running Steves” for me too.
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 And, that’ll close this month’s book club discussion on “Astronaut Dad.” For February, we’re going to be reading Neil Gaiman’s novel “American Gods.”  We’ll be posting that discussion on Saturday, February 29th.  We hope you’ll join us!

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9 Responses to “BOOK CLUB DISCUSSION: ASTRONAUT DAD, VOL. 1”

  1. Brent Says:

    Thank you guys so much for the this, it was great to read the thoughts on the book. Makes me want to get book two done even quicker. Thanks again, means a lot to me.

    Brent

  2. www.brentschoonover.com» Blog Archive » Steve Austin Book Club and 13 Hours In A Warehouse Says:

    […] Book Club chose Astronaut Dad as their first book of the year to read and discuss. Check out the link to read their thoughts on the book. Good stuff. Plus they put this wacky photo up which I rather […]

  3. earthgbilly Says:

    Glad you enjoyed it, Brent. Now, get to work on the next volume!!!

  4. David Hopkins » ASTRONAUT DAD IS FINISHED Says:

    […] The original idea was to do something reminiscent of the Silver Age Fantastic Four. The kids would be super adventurers, and the parents would be involved in NASA. It was a weak premise. Eventually, I made an important decision to strip away the adventure/fantasy aspects and make it more personal. I re-focused on the families, specifically how children perceive their fathers as the kids come of age. (Tangent: These two people had an interesting discussion on this aspect of ASTRONAUT DAD. Click here.) […]

  5. David Hopkins » ASTRONAUT DAD UPDATES Says:

    […] also the January selection for the Steve Austin Book Club (click here for the announcement and then here to read their discussion). I’m especially pleased Astronaut Dad encouraged EG and OG of the […]

  6. Ton Press Says:

    What a great list. I am always on the look for top lists, and your list is great starting point. Lists are very useful.

    Well, this is my first visit to your blog! But I admire the precious time and effort you put into it, especially into interesting entry you share here!

  7. ASTRONAUT DAD IS FINISHED | DAVID HOPKINS Says:

    […] The original idea was to do something reminiscent of the Silver Age Fantastic Four. The kids would be super adventurers, and the parents would be involved in NASA. It was a weak premise. Eventually, I made an important decision to strip away the adventure/fantasy aspects and make it more personal. I re-focused on the families, specifically how children perceive their fathers as the kids come of age. (Tangent: These two people had an interesting discussion on this aspect of ASTRONAUT DAD. Click here.) […]

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