Space Bear OGN
Pilgrim Finch is an adventurous astronaut bear who explores the cosmos with a mission to bring samples of life back to his home planet. But when he crash lands on a new planet full of surprises and danger around every corner, Pilgrim will be forced to question his orders and learn that there’s only one mission that matters—compassion for all living creatures, no matter the stakes!
For decades, the Comics Code Authority justified bigotry and censorship by stoking fear about the danger of comics on developing brains. However, comics like Ethan Young’s Space Bear graphic novel – which he dedicated to his child and is aimed at early readers – are a reminder of the amazing opportunities for both education and entertainment that comics offer their youngest readers.
Told via a sequence of approximately two-hundred vibrant three panel spreads, Space Bear is the story of a bear astronaut named Pilgrim Finch who has crash-landed on an alien planet. When an envelope is stolen from him (the contents of which aren’t revealed until the story’s close), he finds himself adventuring into a world whose history, occupants, and conflicts he must learn to understand. The story is almost always playful, but has its share of action sequences and heartfelt, even bittersweet, moments.
Young may be best known for Nanjing: The Burning City – a more detail-heavy graphic novel about China’s traumatic past, but he nonetheless excels in this lightly colored, generally light-hearted read. Its repetitive format of three-panels-per-page doesn’t leave young kids too many places to get confused, while making for a swift read that keeps up with the narrative’s often fast pace. Young’s skill as a character designer (a job which he did on FXX’s Major Lazer) comes across quickly. Characters are not only visually distinct from one another but incredibly expressive, with their thoughts and emotions frequently depicted in the speech bubbles. While the cover art may not be gob smacking, it communicates the book’s premise – of a bear going on an interstellar adventure – in a clear way both children and adults can understand.
While the book is aimed at kids, that doesn’t take away from how enjoyable it is to read as an adult. It plays heavily into familiar sci-fi tropes, but Space Bear’s story never feels degrading or infantilizing. Young doesn’t paint either protagonists or antagonists in a purely two-dimensional light. Space Bear’s characters have motivations that aren’t always revealed early on. Sometimes, actions have to be reevaluated, and often only after communication. Crucially, Pilgrim himself isn’t always in the right. Space Bear is a book that shows the possibility of redemption, and of compassion, in moments when we haven’t been listening to or considering the people around us.
Kids reading Space Bear can grow their empathy and compassion for strangers along with the ursine astronaut. Reading helps us collectively as human beings to gain empathy for life experiences and people otherwise alien and even scary to us. This isn’t to say that real threats can’t exist, but to say sometimes communication and compassion are needed to understand others and our own failings.
One more thing sets Space Bear very much apart from most titles: its almost complete wordlessness. While comics are already a medium that emphasizes images, for Space Bear this is even truer. Whether intended by Young or not, Space Bear is also curiously a comic about language: both words and visual language (a.k.a. what an image can communicate). Speech bubbles are predominately filled with pictograms showing characters’ feelings, desires, and stories. Pictograms – their own form of visual language – also play an important role within the narrative itself as Pilgrim discovers statues, and pictograms/glyphs via carvings and a stele which help him to understand and resolve conflict. Visual language helps bridge a lexical gap in a similar way comics can for children learning to read.
Comics can help children understand narrative progression and consume complex narratives even before they have an extensive vocabulary to do so. Because our brains process images 60,000 times faster than words, our brains learn to process words as pictures. Our brains don’t first respond to a word’s meaning but its orthography – shape. One of the two regions of our brains that recognizes and catalogs faces – the visual word form area (VWFA) – is repurposed to recognize words when we learn to read. Words become complex images. And so, while Pilgrim Finch learns to translate images into stories, and applies those stories to the world around him, so are children reading his story – on many levels.
To wrap things up, Space Bear is a graphic novel that that excels at everything it sets out to achieve. Perhaps more. It becomes more than a vague comic about compassion and communication, but one about how we communicate in the first place. From an educational perspective. It’s a reminder that children’s books can still be thought-provoking for adults. Comics can be fun, but they can also be so much more than that.
Space Bear may be silent, but it has a big story to tell. It’s a vibrant, charming sci-fi about communication and compassion that offers children a chance to learn, while giving comic-loving adults a way to share a medium they love. It’s also plain good fun.
Space Bear OGN: Getting Kids (And Adults) Hooked On Comics
Writing - 10/1010/10
Storyline - 10/1010/10
Art - 10/1010/10
Color - 10/1010/10
Cover Art - 10/1010/10
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