The Chimpanzee Complex volume 3: Civilisation


By Richard Marazano & Jean-Michel Ponzio, translated by Jerome Saincantin (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-84918-043-6

French comics creators excel at challenging, mind-blowing, compelling science fiction. Whether boisterous, mind-boggling space opera like Valerian and Laureline, surreal meta-spiritual exploration such as Moebius’ Airtight Garage or the tense, tech-heavy veritas 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 paranoiac 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.

Perhaps still the very best of these talented individuals’ joint efforts is The Chimpanzee Complex trilogy which concludes its English translation here with Civilisation

When, six and a half decades after it first returned, the Apollo 11 Command Module splashed down in the Indian Ocean in February 2035, redundant NASA astronaut Helen Freeman was pressed into the top-secret investigation of the incredible passengers, deserting once again her troubled and too-often neglected daughter Sofia.

Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were the first men to walk on the moon, and nobody – including them – had any idea where they’d been for sixty-five years. For the baffled spacers it was only days since their mission began…

On learning how history had already recorded their triumphant return and unremarkable deaths years later, the legends went ballistic: exhibiting what Freeman knew as the traumatic shock response peculiar to space voyagers categorised by NASA as “the Chimpanzee Complex”…

They had no knowledge of “their” missing third astronaut Michael Collins (if he ever existed). Nobody could explain what they might be and no test science could devise was able to disprove or corroborate their incredible story…

Compelled to work under Military Spook Konrad Stealberg, Freeman’s subsequent interviews uncovered even more questions but no answers. Then one day the enigma-nauts began exhibiting memory gaps.

Whilst her best friend – NASA bureaucrat Robert Conway – left to look after her increasingly intransigent daughter, Helen and Konrad’s team were presented with another insoluble mystery when the astronauts suddenly expired: becoming decades-old corpses overnight…

Soon Helen was reluctantly piloting a mission to the moon in the mothballed but hastily reconditioned shuttle originally designed for Mars – until budget cuts scotched the project. Her trusted comrades and fellow unemployed astronauts Kurt, Alex and Aleksa were just as delighted to be back in space, but as apprehensive as Helen over the military presence and top-secret paraphernalia piled aboard.

They were even less sanguine when Stealberg and his creepy elite commandos replaced the regular crew.

En route they discovered the secret history of the 1960s Space Race: America’s black ops space program and the USSR’s clandestine and apparently failed mission to Mars.

Even bigger shocks materialised on the moon when they found the pressure-suited corpses of Aldrin and Armstrong deep in a concealed fissure. In orbit above them a vintage Command Module was intercepted by their own shuttle.

The relic contained Collins’ corpse and a decades-old Russian distress call the pilot had recorded. The message had been sent by Commies from Mars…

NASA never had an American monopoly on spaceflight: the military had run a covert, parallel program from the very start, funded by pirating portions of NASA’s budget at the personal instigation of ex-Nazi rocket pioneer Werner von Braun

Moreover, the 66-year old Russian distress message in the capsule’s primitive computers proved the Soviets had also been far more committed to space exploration than history recorded – and just as secretive as the USA…

Mid-flight Stealberg took over, unveiling interplanetary hibernation chambers and turning the now-militarised mission towards the Red Planet. Amidst fears of what awaited them, Helen fell into cold sleep, agonising that she had again abandoned and betrayed Sophia …

When they arrived they only found greater mysteries. The Soviet attempt had been a success and a thriving base at the pole welcomed the Americans. Nothing made sense though. The Russians believed they had been there for twelve years – not six and a half decades – and mission commander Yuri Gagarin (whose death in had been faked in 1968 to facilitate his smooth transition to commander of their Mars-shot) was obsessed with a bizarre scientific hoodoo he called “probability of presence”.

His ruminations on Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle and whether such a subatomic phenomenon could apply to larger constructs (like human beings) in a constant and simultaneous state of being and non-being was a truly disturbing idea, but Helen had no time to debate it or their shared regrets about their abandoned Earthbound children as the other Cosmonauts had insanely decide to destroy their own base…

As she returned to the greenhouse module, Konrad presented an even more pressing problem. He had discovered Gagarin’s sixty-years-dead corpse…

As colonists Vladimir and Borislav set fire to the base modules, the Americans retreated to their vehicle, dragging the hysterical Helen, who had promised her very much alive Yuri a ride home…

The tension peaked when they got back to the orbiting Shuttle: Paul had vanished without a trace. Thoroughly rattled, Konrad ordered an immediate return to Earth, with increased watches for every day of the trip.

By May 2036, on Earth Cooper and Sophia both eagerly await Helen’s return at Cape Canaveral. However as the Shuttle approached it suddenly vanished from the tracking systems. Aboard ship Helen and Kurt saw their home planet disappear. Helpless, unable to brake and with no world in view, they rejoined the others in cold-sleep, not knowing when they would reawaken or if they’d still be in the solar system when they did.

Helen’s last conscious thoughts were of the daughter she might never see again…

The epic conclusion picks up in the Great Unknown as hibernation ends after seventy years. Only Helen and Aleksa are still alive; all the other cryo-capsules having failed at some indeterminate time.

With only finite resources and dwindling power, Helen consoles herself by catching up on messages beamed in hope and anticipation by Robbie Cooper, but is roused from her fatalistic depression by Aleksa who has made a shocking discovery.

Seeing one of the EVA suits missing, he at first believed their comrade Alex had committed suicide by walking out of the airlock. Then he saw the impossibly huge unidentified space vessel and called Helen…

Suiting up and arming themselves, they cross to the ship, Helen further encumbered by a laptop with all the messages – read and unread – from Robert stored on it. They have no idea when Alex left, or if she even tried to reach the UFO.

However as it is their only hope of survival, they make a leap into the void and after great struggle find themselves in a vast and terrifying mechanical chamber of disturbing proportions.

Alex’s abandoned gear is on the floor. She had clearly camped there for some time before vanishing into the dark, dusty cavernous interior…

Whilst they rest and consider their next move, Helen watches the last message Robbie sent from Earth. It is sixty-seven years old…

Later, Helen freaks out when they find Alex’s empty suit until Aleksa does the unthinkable and opens his own EVA garb. The enigma ship has warmth and a breathable atmosphere…

And then something pushes part of the vessel over on them…

The pair narrowly escape harm and cautiously explore the vessel, but after splitting up Aleksa is attacked again. When terrified Helen finds him he is hugging the crazed, decrepit, wizened but still alive Alex.

Mute but still vital she leads them through vaulting passageways to what they can only assume is a skeleton. A really, really big one…

Outside a viewing portal, Mars spins by above them. It’s as if they’ve come home …

However fast or far or forward humanity travels, their fears and foibles go with them and before long distrust and dread spark a final confrontation in the uncanny construct. Thus only one person makes an implausible, inexplicable escape back to Earth…

It’s 2097 and as a long-missing craft splashes down in the ocean to begin the circle anew, it becomes clear that some mysteries, like some philosophies and some family bonds, remain ineffably beyond the sphere of rational thinking…

Bold, challenging and enticingly human, this astonishing science mystery dances and darts adroitly between beguiling metaphysics and hard-wired mortal passions, easily encompassing our species’ inbuilt inescapable isolation, wide-eyed wonderment, hunger to know more and the terror of finding out, with Marazano’s pared-to-the-bone script brought to hyper-life with stunning clarity by Ponzio to produce a timeless fusion of passion, paranoia and familial fulfilment.

Do you read me? Do read The Chimpanzee Complex.

© Darguad, Paris, 2008 by Marazano& Ponzio. All rights reserved. English translation © 2010 Cinebook Ltd.