Welcome to Astronaut Academy! There are classes in dinosaur driving, speaking in run-on sentences, and advanced heart studies (in Legend of Zelda fashion, you start off with one or two, but can acquire up to eight). The faculty includes an elf, a panda (still not extinct!), and a principal who carries a gigantic Final Fantasy-style sword as a “symbol of instructional excellence.” There are anti-gravity drills and games of Fireball—and there are also parent-teacher nights, best frenemies, adolescent crushes, and some kids who just don’t quite fit in.
Pretty typical middle-school, wouldn’t you say?
Astronaut Academy: Zero Gravity collects Dave Roman’s webcomic Astronaut Elementary, and in the process of moving from webcomic to book, Roman has enhanced the art and added some background to the overall story of the Academy and its students. Hakata Soy is the new kid in school, deliberately mysterious about his background in the Meta Team (a superteam that is part Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers, part Transformers). He becomes friends with the bookish Miyumi San, who is worst friends/best enemies with Maribelle Mellonbelly, the queen-bee rich girl. Also in attendance at the Academy are Billy Lee, the former alpha-male dethroned by Hakata and by the loss of his hair; Maliik Mehendale, who has a knack for getting crushes on girls who barely realize he exists; Tak Offsky, a Fireball player who hates his name; Scab Wellington, Maribelle’s right-hand tough girl; and my personal favorite, Doug Hiro, who more than anything else would rather spend all his time floating in the vastness of space—and who never takes off his space helmet, ever.
One of the most appealing things about Astronaut Academy is simply how much fun it is. It’s full of silliness and whimsy, delivered with unselfconscious, unironic good cheer. The Spanish teacher is a panda named Señor Panda? Sure, why not? Of course there’s a planet of bunny-people harrassed by Gotcha Birds (with lasers!). And it’s only natural that Hakata would find himself stalked by a robot doppelganger that contains a heart that used to belong to him. The comic is liberally sprinkled with nerdy pop-culture references as well: the Guidance Chancellor (not counselor, Chancellor) bears a striking resemblance to Cobra Commander, for instance; and at one point, for no obvious reason, a character speaks a few sentences made up almost entirely of Tori Amos song titles. Attentive readers may also notice references to FullMetal Alchemist, Metroid, and more.
The book also has a certain “Harry Potter in space” vibe, what with the setting and its eccentric school curriculum and oddball characters. There’s even a plot twist with a time-pausing watch reminiscent of Hermione’s Time Turner in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. But Hakata Soy, despite being the ostensible Potter-esque hero, is almost a side character in his own story; most of the narrative is related by the other kids one episode at a time, each bringing their own distinctive voice to the tale.
Of course, the whimsy works because the artwork is so beautifully suited to the mood, and the characters are thoroughly grounded the emotional realities of middle-school life. It’s a lighthearted take on the subject, to be sure, but any adolescent (or adult looking back) will recognize the changing loyalties, first crushes, and the dread of having something awful happen to your locker. It’s a great book for young readers, and as the saying goes, it’s fun for adults too, and I look forward to Roman’s second volume, already in the works.
Read an interview with Dave Roman here, where he talks about the inspirations and influences of Astronaut Academy. You can also read an excerpt right here on Tor.com.