There are few graphic novels that not only benefit from multiple readings, but also demand they be reread. "Spaceman" is an example.
The premise alone of "Spaceman" (DC/Vertigo, $24.99) is fascinating: The "spaceman" of the title is Orson, a hulking bruiser in the near future, genetically engineered to survive a trip to Mars and do manual labor there. But when the controversial program that created Orson and his 16 equally anthropoidal siblings became public, the outrage costs NASA its funding and Orson his future. Instead of living and working in outer space, he scratches out a living dredging up salvage from America's seacoasts, which were flooded after the icecaps melted. What isn't drowning in this greenhouse world is burning, except for narrow strips between fire and flood where the wealthy live as well as ever.
In an interview, writer Brian Azzarello said "Spaceman" wasn't a post-apocalypse story, so much as "a collapse. An environmental and economic collapse." And it's not science fiction so much, he said, as "science hell."
Which is just the setup. The plot involves the kidnapping of a celebrity couple's child, who falls into Orson's orbit. Will he save her? If he tries, what chance does he have against the competing bandits (and one of his siblings) who want the reward? And, even if he can, is he doing it out of altruism -- or for the money?
"He has a good heart, but only Mother Teresa has never given in to temptation," Azzarello said, laughing. "There's a noir element to it. If there wasn't, I wouldn't be working on it."
Which is obvious to anyone familiar with Azzarello's career, famed for the crime noir series "100 Bullets," the western noir series "Loveless" and currently "Wonder Woman" -- which is framed not as a superhero book, but one exploring the Greco-Roman gods, a group Azzarello calls "the original crime family."
Azzarello is teamed with artist Eduardo Risso, his partner on "100 Bullets," and Risso's work is gorgeous. But, in many ways, the writing is still the star.
For example, Orson is named for Orson Welles, who -- among other things -- has a connection to Mars in the form of Welles' famed 1938 radio broadcast, "The War of the Worlds." In fact, Azzarello said, all of the genetically altered children were named with Mars references. The entire book is laden with this sort of wordplay, from chapter titles to the dialogue, mostly delivered in futuristic slang based on texting-speak.
That's one reason "Spaceman" needs a second reading, to catch all of Azzarello's clever references, puns and double entendres. But another reason is that all of this cleverness is in service to the story, which involves overlapping story lines, plots, double-crosses and triple-crosses, with echoing themes both overt and sub rosa.