The Chimpanzee Complex volume 1: Paradox


By Richard Marazano & Jean-Michel Ponzio, translated by Jerome Saincantin (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-84918-002-3

One thing French comics creators excel at is challenging, mind-blowing, astoundingly entertaining science fiction. Whether the boisterous, mind-boggling space opera of Valerian and Laureline, the surreal spiritual exploration of Moebius’ Airtight Garage or the tense, tech-heavy brooding of Orbital, our Gallic cousins always got it: the genre is not about tech or monsters; it’s about people encountering new and uncanny ideas…

Prolific, multi-award winning Richard Marazano was born in Fontenay-aux-Roses in 1971. He initially pursued a career in science before switching to Fine Arts courses in Angoulême and debuted in bande dessinée in the mid 1990s. Although an extremely impressive artist and colourist when illustrating his own stories (Le Bataillon des Lâches, Le Syndrome d’Abel), he is best known for his collaborations with other artists such as Michel Durand (Cuervos), Marcelo Frusin (L’Expédition) and Xavier Delaporte (Chaabi) to name but a few.

His partnerships with artist Jean-Michel Ponzio are especially fruitful and rewarding. As well as Le Complexe du Chimpanzé – the trilogy under discussion here – the daring duo have also produced the taut, intricate social futurism of Genetiks™ and high-flying paranoic cautionary tale Le Protocole Pélican.

Jean-Michel Ponzio was born in Marignane and, after a period of scholastic pick-&-mix during the 1980s, began working as a filmmaker and animator for the advertising industry. He moved into movies, designing backgrounds and settings; listing Fight Club and Batman and Robin among his many subtle successes.

In 2000 he started moonlighting as an illustrator of book covers and edged into comics four years later, creating the art for Laurent Genfort’s T’ien Keou, before writing and illustrating Kybrilon for publisher Soliel in 2005. This led to a tidal wave of bande dessinée assignments before he began his association with Marazano in 2007. He’s still very, very busy and his stunning combination of photorealist painting, 3D design and rotoscoping techniques grace and enhance a multitude of comics from authors as varied as Richard Malka to Janhel.

Cinebook began publishing The Chimpanzee Complex in 2009 with the beguiling and enigmatic ‘Paradox’ which introduces the world to a bizarre and baffling cosmic conundrum.

February 2035: experienced but frustrated astronaut Helen Freeman is still reeling from the latest round of cutbacks which have once again mothballed NASA’s plans to send an expedition to Mars. The young mother is resigned to living an Earthbound life in Florida with the daughter she has neglected for so long, but just as she tentatively begins to repair her relationship with young, headstrong Sofia her world is again turned upside down when a call comes from her ex-bosses.

Bowing to the inevitable despite Sophia’s strident objections, she and her old boss Robert Conway are whisked away under the tightest of security conditions to a US aircraft carrier in the Indian Ocean under the draconian control of Top Brass Spook Konrad Stealberg.

Here they learn that, days previously, an unidentified object splashed down from space and was recovered by divers.

The artefact was the Command Module of Apollo 11 and it carried the still-living Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin: legendary heroes and the first men to walk on the moon. Baffled and bewildered, the recovered astronauts have steadfastly refused to speak to anybody except NASA representatives…

Helen is the first to get any information from them, and whilst Stealberg’s technician’s check every bolt, wire and component of the capsule, she and Robert carefully quiz their greatest idols. When the lost astronauts learn they have been in space for 66 years they are horrified. When they learn that history records they returned safely and died unremarkably years later they go ballistic: exhibiting what Freeman describes as the traumatic shock response peculiar to space voyagers categorised by NASA as “the Chimpanzee Complex”…

Impatient martinet Stealberg has harder questions: if – as every test they can think of indicates – these men are the real thing, who or what landed on Earth all those decades ago?

And most importantly, when they were feted by the world in 1969, was third astronaut Michael Collins one of us or one of “them”?

Exerting military privilege he peremptorily kicks Conway out whilst press-ganging Helen onto his staff, and transfers mystery men and their capsule to his ultra secure Red Hills Creek Base in Colorado…

Helpless but conflicted, Freeman plays along, enjoining Robby to explain and take care of Sofia. If she had been angry before, the daughter’s reaction to this further enforced absence from a mother she feels doesn’t want her will be terrible…

Events move very fast at the paranoid levels of the Military-Industrial complex, and as Helen continues her interviews with the biologically perfect astronauts she begins to discover inconsistencies and memory-lapses in their stories.

That’s enough for Stealberg to initiate other, harsher procedures but before they can be implemented Helen is awoken from fantastically real dreams of exploring Mars to a new crisis: Armstrong and Aldrin are dead. From the state of their corpses they have been for decades…

In Florida Robby is still trying to assuage Sofia’s feelings, telling her that Mum will be home soon. There’s no chance of that, however, as Stealberg has moved on with his plans and arranged a private meeting with the President.

The result is the re-commissioning of the completed but mothballed Mars exploration shuttle with the intention of revisiting the site of the Apollo moon landings. As NASA’s top flier and an expert on the Mars vehicle Helen is going too… whether she wants to or not.

Twelve days later, amidst massive public uproar and speculation at the ludicrous cover story for the sudden moon-shot, Helen and her crew are introduced to the rest of the exploration team and she realises with horror that her professional career is based on a lie.

NASA has never had an American monopoly on spaceflight: the military had been running a clandestine, parallel program since the very start, funded by siphoning the Agency’s operating budget and personally instigated by ex-Nazi rocket pioneer Werner von Braun

The launch is televised around the world, trumpeted as a final shakedown flight before closing the costly space program forever. Aboard the blazing javelin, Helen and close companion Aleksa ponder the coincidence of heading for the moon in the week they were originally scheduled to take off for Mars, but are more concerned that mission leader Stealberg has filled the shuttle with mysterious, classified containers…

All too soon the vehicle establishes orbit over the moon and a Lander touches down on the most hallowed site in the history of technology.

It’s a huge shock: the paraphernalia left by the missions doesn’t match the records and there is a strange trail of footprints. Following them the terrified explorers discover the mummified, space-suited, long dead bodies of Armstrong and Aldrin, even as high above pilot Kurt matches velocities with a piece of space junk and discovers the Apollo 11 Command Module…with Collins’ corpse in it…

Moreover, there’s a recorded distress message in the primitive computers: a 66-year old Russian cry for aid originating from Mars…

And that’s when Stealberg reveals his biggest secret, summoning booster rockets and a second-stage shuttle from deep orbit whilst breaking out the cryogenic coffins that will keep the crew alive as they travel on to Mars and an appointment with the truth, whatever it might be…

This is a stunning hard-science magical mystery tale, dripping with wide-eyed wonder, leavened by solid, reassuring cynicism in Marazano’s economical script and brought to intoxicating life by the hyper-realism of Ponzio. A deft blend of intrigue, hope, paranoia and abiding curiosity, The Chimpanzee Complex is a tale no lover of fantasy and suspense should ignore.

© Darguad, Paris, 2007 by Marazano& Ponzio. All rights reserved. English translation © 2009 Cinebook Ltd.