Chrononauts, the new comic from Mark Millar and Sean Gordon Murphy, is a wonderful grab-bag of genres and influences. Mixing a little bit of Stargate with a bit of Time Bandits and starring leading characters straight out of test pilot swagger school, it’s the sort of full-speed-ahead science fiction adventure Spielberg used to give us. Millar creates sharply drawn characters and builds tension into scenes, even though this is only the debut issue and the story has barely started, and Murphy’s art has oodles of background detail and an eye for the cinematic, with that classic science fiction contrast of huge background vistas with mundane and very human characters in the foreground. Both keep the energy level high as the story zips along towards a classic “Boy’s Own” cliffhanger. In fact, that sort of “boy’s adventure” genre from the 19th and early 20th century would probably the best description of the book. It’s wonderful fun.
The premise here is that at some point in the near future, government scientists develop a time machine. Looking almost exactly like the famous “Stargate”, the characters know the machine is eventually going to work based on the number of historical anachronisms they keep finding, such as an F-14 Fighter Jet in a 6000-year-old temple in Turkey. But at the moment the device is still experimental, and all that’s been transported back so far is an automated probe.
A nice twist that aligns this story firmly with the sort of meta-textual sci-fi we’re used to seeing today (as opposed to the Spielberg glory days) is that every event from the time machine is broadcast live on television to the world. Watching time travellers has become the ultimate reality show, and everyone, rich or poor, from Nuns to Strippers, watch attentively. This makes their first probe attempt, sending a camera back to the battlefield of Gettysburg in 1863, quite a dramatic feat (and Murphy’s art is wonderful in this sequence, particularly the way he’s able to blend his own Manga-influenced style with classic painterly pictorial composition in his civil war vista).
Eventually the machine is ready for a human, and here we meet our almost comically exaggerated heroes, the heroic and stalwart Corbin Quinn and his douchebag hot-shot sidekick Danny Reilly. Two Irish names, and two muscle-bound characters with PhDs (of course!) that look like they were pulled straight off the Navy Aviator flight line.
Reilly and Quinn, the two Irish Dudes who are the heroes of this story
In fact, Reilly’s carrying on, putting his feet up at the press conference, aggressively kissing a female reporter before putting on his flight helmet, making off-colour remarks and that two-finger-point gesture that says “douche” in any language makes him as cartoonish a character as has ever appeared in the genre. He’s essentially Lord Flashart from Blackadder. Quinn is more restrained, with adult-level regret over the loss of his relationship with Rachael, a surgeon who left him for a lawyer, but he’s still firmly in the pantheon of Male Action Heroes.
By the time the Chrononauts (a word that just means “time traveller”) step into the machine, the story’s almost over. Their first mission, which is typical for the sort of Uber-American military industrial machine being represented, is to go back and witness Columbus landing in America in 1492. But, again as is typical for this sort of story, something goes wrong. And we end on a great “Boy’s Own” adventure shot, which, without giving too much away, involves spacesuits vs bow and arrow.
There’s a wonderful energy about Chrononauts, as if it’s a comic designed for a younger audience. It certainly would have appealed to me as a youth and even reading it now, my inner 12-year-old loves it. Wherever Millar and Murphy decide to take the story, and it could literally go anywhere at anytime, I’m sure it will continue to be an entertaining and fun read.