Once upon a time, man landed on the moon. Astronaut Neil Armstrong exited Apollo 11 and set foot upon the planetary satellite’s powdery surface, and his steps represented the pinnacle of human progress. They were a symbol of all that was possible in our world.
In Tom Gauld’s new graphic novel, Mooncop — published by Drawn & Quarterly — the age of the moon has waxed and waned. People have moved there and are already over it; now they’re moving back. The technology that gets things to the moon has become commonplace; shipments and shuttles come and go with regularity. Neil Armstrong is still around, but only as an automaton in the Museum of the Moon. When our unnamed mooncop hero encounters it, the automaton has strayed from the museum and is standing beside some rocks, reenacting Armstrong’s historic steps and remarks — which now, given the circumstances, seem sort of pretentious, a little Buzz Lightyear-ish. Mooncop returns Armstrong to the museum, only to find that the institution is packing up its things. “You’re closing?,” he asks. The answer feels purposefully predictable at this point in the book, but the punch line is hilariously not: the collection is moving to a space museum in Beijing.
This is the story of Mooncop: people leaving, things being removed, the downsizing of the moon colony until there’s almost no one and nothing left. (And this is its tone: deadpan.) It’s accompanied by a parallel narrative of technological breakdown: When mooncop requests a transfer, his remote bosses (who presumably work on Earth) deny it but send a “support unit” instead. This turns out to be a therapy robot whose battery life is worse than a new iPhone — and which plugs into a different type of socket than what’s generally used on the moon. Earth’s beloved satellite has not only lost its power to summon the possibilities of a technologically advanced future; it’s straight-up outdated.
Gauld’s spare drawing style complements this idea nicely: his figures are one step up from stick, and his palette consists of black, white, and two shades of blue. Such simple art — which is Gauld’s trademark — combined with mooncop’s rote, boring life help create the sense of a place that is, despite being materially unique, just like everywhere else that humans live. The moon is unremarkable.
Yet the spareness also creates a stillness that I like to imagine only exists on a place like the moon. There is no text on the first nine pages. On the 10th, we get the “ping” of an alarm and a few words on signs and screens. On the 12th, someone finally speaks. Mooncop is very much a tale of loneliness — though ultimately it’s mitigated by a woman who’s brought in to staff the upgraded Lunar Donuts cafe (as the only worker, she swiftly ascends to Employee of the Month). At book’s end, she and mooncop are the only two people left on the moon. And perhaps because she’s new there, the woman is able to see its beauty — something of which our hero has lost sight. It’s a little cliché for an ending, but it fits well on a story that’s essentially a fable. And if the lesson of that fable is also a little cliché — everything new loses its novelty; the trick is finding a fresh perspective — Gauld has nonetheless devised a charming and clever way to teach it.