Grease Monkey, Tim Eldred

Tor, 2006, 352 pages, C$37.95 hc, ISBN 0-765-31325-1

A significant proportion of Science Fiction readers pride themselves on the fact that they see life with a cool steel gaze, conditioned by the genre to ask the next question, investigate beyond appearances and stay free from sentimentality. Which is all well and good, except that a good chunk of SF’s impact (its much-vaunted “Sense of Wonder”) is about going gosh in the face of the universe. In SF’s rush toward literary respectability and engineering believability, it’s all too easy to forget that SF is all about humans. We shouldn’t afraid to feel something when we ought to.

There is a sequence in Tim Eldred’s Grease Monkey , Episode 9, which ends on a note of such earnest sentimentality that seasoned readers may be tempted to laugh, right before catching themselves and feeling guilty for being so cynical. For me, episode 9 is where Grease Monkey came into focus after a rough start and misplaced assumptions. You probably heard about those who come to graphic novels expecting kids’ comics. In this case, I made the mistake of approaching a teen graphic novel with too-adult expectations.

For one thing, Tor is relatively new at the graphic novels game, a state of things that brings along a disorienting lack of expectations. Grease Monkey is -I believe- the second such recent effort, and I happened to pick it up solely on the basis of it editor, the inestimable Teresa Nielsen Hayden. Tor’s production efforts certainly can’t be praised enough given how Grease Monkey looks like what Graphic Novels should look like: A handy hardcover that looks comfortable alongside other novels, with sturdy binding, wide-enough margins and a reasonable price. The entire book, as an object, is packaged exactly like the rest of the Tor fiction line and that’s how it should be.

But if you’re coming to Grease Monkey with expectations that this is going to be the same reading experience as the rest of Tor’s adult SF line, the first few pages may be disconcerting. The writing is sharp, the art is accessible and the characters are introduced efficiently. But there’s a tone, not of naiveté, but of earnestness that’s so old-fashioned that it’s unfamiliar. Grease Monkey opens as young mechanic Robin Plotnik arrives on spaceship Fist of Earth, an outpost perpetually on the edge of combat readiness. His boss, as it happens, turns out to be Mac Gimbensky, an uplifted 800-pound gorilla with a gruff sense of humour. Bildungsromans are an old staple of SF, and this is another one of them as it follows Robin during his first year as a working mechanics. It’s a year of friends and love gained and lost, with plenty of action and humour to keep the story gears running smoothly.

It takes a few pages (indeed, until Chapter 9) to understand that this is primarily a teen graphic novel that happens to have considerable adult appeal rather than the other way around. Once that particular piece falls in place, the rest of Grease Monkey works very well, with a tone juggling between sharp sitcom jokes and heartfelt character development. The art and storytelling also get better, which may not be a surprise when you read the notes at the end of the book and find out that the novel was a long time in development. The story itself is seamless, but the way it’s told keeps on getting better until the end.

There are fabulous moments here and there, whether it’s Mac and Robin’s respective romantic tribulations, what happens when their fathers (rival political operatives) meet on station or the back-story of how the Grease Monkey universe came into place. All throughout, Eldred’s straight-ahead charm is simply disarming: Reading Grease Monkey is like being reminded of how inspiring SF can be, when it simply tells us to be as good as we can in even the most desperate circumstances. (This is the Christmas gift you should buy for your younger relatives.) The characters are intensely practical blue-collar workers and their concerns are very real. It doesn’t take much to consider them friends. I’m curious as to how many types of readers (young, old, naive, sophisticated) Grease Money could reach.

But as good as Tim Eldred’s graphic novel may be, the best thing about it may be what it could represent as a beginning. From the open-ended conclusion, it’s obvious that there are other stories left to tell in this universe (an impression confirmed by the afterword, which announces a volume 2). But if we’re really lucky, Grease Monkey also means the possibility of a line of graphic novels from a major SF publisher. And if that’s not enough to rekindle your child-like wonder at the possibilities, I don’t know what it will take.

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