Review by Frank Plowright
Craig Thompson first came to widespread notice via his children’s graphic novel Goodbye Chunky Rice, expounding on self-empowerment, loyalty and friendship, and it earned him a Harvey Award as Best New Creator. His output since has been selective, concentrating on long and very ambitious projects, and that description can also be applied to his return to children’s graphic novels with Space Dumplins. It’s his best work to date, discarding much of the pondering on life, and freeing his inner child in a glorious manner.
That’s first apparent flicking through the pages, noticing the vibrant colour and the fantastic designs. An imaginative child could spend hours looking at what Thompson’s packed into his spacecraft, all of them with a distinct retro feel, and as the cast move through the plot they constantly switch craft, so this is a delight from beginning to end. Some are designed like old tug boats, complete with rings of tyres around the prow, while others have the look of experimental 1970s Matchbox vehicles. Thompson’s desire to create environments to be explored extends beyond spacecraft to every other location, giving Space Dumplins an individual visual density.
The thrust of the plot is Violet’s search for her missing father, in effect a space trucker, an indication of the resolutely blue-collar cast, unusual for any graphic novel. This is a universe where whale diarrhoea is emitted in such quantities that it can envelop planets, and where creatures that live in the vacuum of space attack journeying craft. Violet is joined on her quest by Zaccheus, a junkyard dealer, and Elliot, a studious chicken subject to fainting fits during which he experiences visions. They’re all delightfully characterised and illustrated, with Zaccheus harkening back to the wacky 1950s Warner Brothers cartoons. While Thompson’s concentrating on adventure for children, it’s not an exclusive condition and those themes explored in his earliest work recur here, but far more satisfyingly and subtly integrated. This is also the case regarding the significant metaphorical content about topics causing much real world debate such as environmental protection, immigration and animal experimentation. Whale diarrhoea or oil spillages? The smarter kids will pick up on it, but it makes no difference to the cracking adventure whether they do or not.
Despite the dangers and some selfish behaviour, Thompson’s cast maintain a plucky optimism and can do attitude that never crosses the line into excess sentimentality, and the broad streak of crude humour will delight. Pooping, burping, bad smells, the Mucky Way and plenty more have an important narrative part while simultaneously inducing the giggles removed from the classroom when the pronunciation of Uranus was altered. At one point Violet and Elliot are in protective care of a nanny robot also programmed for soap and water mouth-washings when hearing prohibited language, and every right-minded child and adult will revel in its fate.
If there’s a problem with Space Dumplins it’s extended slightly too far, and there are repetitive elements. On the other hand this is a joyful book that can be read and re-read, providing as much excitement and delight the second time around. It’s the graphic novel equivalent of a good Pixar movie.