Space Academy 123, by Mickey Zacchilli. Toronto, Ontario: Koyama Press, October 2018. 216 pages. $18.00, paper.
Space Academy 123 is an abundant story full of likeable characters, simple-but-expressive imagery, and unique storytelling. And this is a comic in which author Mickey Zacchilli (*great name) seems to be having a ton of fun. At first glance the comic appears very chaotic because a lot of action is going on and we meet a ton of characters at once, but soon enough Space Academy 123 evolves into a beast of a comic, one that is hard to put down due to its mix of brevity and wonder.
Mickey Zacchilli’s space epic takes place in the year 2155, aboard a gigantic colony vessel in the aforementioned outer realms of space. Said vessel contains a bunch of cool space kids with varying goals and aspirations. Those individual stories build into a collective cry which Zachilli writes in an episodic format. None of the stories place themselves in only one solid event, but instead they tend to exist outside of their own individual storyline. The cover of this book sets the reader up for a typical comic book experience, at least in terms of how it is presented—which is in color, like most in the comics industry. But this idea is subverted as the rest of the novel is colorless and drawn in a very toned-down manner, which slightly resembles the form of a Japanese manga, as mangas are typically drawn in black and white. This not-so-subtle touch is surprisingly effective in demonstrating different emotions from the different characters within the academy, the focus more on their facial expressions and not always on props and their environment. Smaller details are key.
Zacchilli also seems to be paying homage to comic books of the early twentieth century as her space adventure is sectioned off into alternating comic strips. It’s a unique touch, and while it took a second to click, the story is woven together smoothly. This choice by Zacchilli also allows for an even palette of attention towards her cast of characters. This in turn creates a rich atmosphere of fun and variety.
The story begins with a joke:
These panels set up the novel’s overall comedic tone well, and it is how we meet Ashley, a one-eyed, eyepatch wielding student filled with confidence, intensity, and spunk. She begins her tale while boasting about herself before her expectations are tapered back in hilarious fashion. For example, she tries to write a script for the school play because she is unsatisfied with the current production. She soon learns that writing a stage play is easier said than done. The idea of learning from mistakes, whether they stem from ego or overconfidence, becomes a recurring obstacle for her throughout the narrative. That said, this story would be comical even without Ashley. The Space Academy is filled to the brim with her equally amusing peers:
Zacchilli introduces Andrew as the new kid at the academy, and as a foreigner to opening school lockers. He instantly becomes a character that has earned our trust and sympathy. You just want his adjustment period to be as smooth as possible: you want him to open his locker, to talk to a girl he has a crush on, and to write his mom as much as possible.
Donna Summer is a graduate of the titular academy and a newbie in the vastly expanding workforce. She dreams of being a chiropractor but is thwarted by the system in front of her. She is instead tasked with becoming the principal of the school and overseeing the quirky students enrolled. Zacchilli moves down the list and fills her fictional school with a mix of both human and robotic faculty members, computerized advisors, and a maintenance man to boot. The arc is also the rare occurrence of a storyline continuing for consecutive pages, which subtly establishes Ms. Summer as a main character and a focal point of the overall narrative.
Shandy is introduced later in the story and proves to be a scene stealer. She is by far the youngest of the main group of students at the academy and she seems to excel at the meager studies of her peers. She desires for a challenge and hates how babyfied everything around her is. She’s even dressed in a onesie for the entirety of the book.
These characters combine and create the overall plot of this tale. As Ashley strives to prove herself to everyone else, Andrew hopes for friendship, Shandy welcomes any obstacle, and Donna struggles with a job she hates. The intricacies remind me of Japanese manga/anime Boku No Hero Academia, which centers around a group of students who go to school to be heroes. Space Academy 123 similarly juggles various character strings well and displays effortless control over the world. The dialog is simple yet strong, and the situations depicted by Zacchilli are equally relatable to the real-life high school experience. When Andrew is forced to present in front of a bevy of students, his nerves get the better of him. Who hasn’t experienced that? (*natural born speakers, but they are in the minority). A character who appears later on, named Naomi Watts, skips class and yet still passes. Ashley’s overconfidence and high maintenance attitude is a reflection of the modern jock. Her overconfidence even leads her to believe that she can craft an entire play by herself; and that it would be better than the current one they were rehearsing for.
In Space Academy 123, Zacchilli alternates to a different story every page or so but gives us character updates from time to time. It’s an interesting creative approach that puts the pressure of the narrative on the main cast but quickly cements trust with the audience.
Trey Brown is a junior at Wright State University majoring in English with a concentration in creative writing. Whether writing fiction, drawing comic books with friends, or crafting movie “reviews” for The Guardian (WSU edition), writing has always been a calming way of expression for him. In his spare time, he plays basketball (go Bulls) and listens to music (indie/r&b).