Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Review time! with ‘The Kármán Line’

“Far beneath the ship the world is mourning, they don’t realize he’s alive”

The Kármán Line is a short nifty psychological thriller from Mad Cave Studios, written by Dennis Hopeless, drawn by Piotr Kowalski, colored by Brad Simpson, lettered by Chas! Pangburn, and edited by Joe Corallo. Let’s have a butcher’s, shall we?

The title of the book comes from the theoretical boundary where the Earth’s atmosphere ends and “outer space” begins. It’s a pretty good title, although it has little to do with the actual content in the book (this is why I’m bad a titles – I would never have thought of this name, but it does fit). It’s a superb idea from Hopeless – an international group of astronauts living on a space station … and it’s a reality television show. I mean, they’re really up there, but they’re being filmed all the time. There are problems – one is that they don’t know they’re being filmed all the time, which is a bit skeevy on the part of the producers, represented on the space station by Diya Khatri, a media consultant. The other problem … well, I’ll get to that. Hopeless sets up the situation well – it’s the near future, of course, and the Earth is not doing well, and the astronauts are being sent to the space station to work on a ship capable of transporting people to Mars. On the ground, the project is being vigorously protested by people who think funds would be better spent on the ground (even though, as one astronaut put it, this is probably humanity’s only chance to survive, but nobody tells the masses that because, well, we’ve seen what the masses can do when they’re riled up), and the governments of the astronauts are threatening to pull the plug. They have a novel solution – sell the mission as a reality show, and when a test run is sabotaged, the astronauts become more heroic and get more money, so they decide to continue up in space, and they send Khatri up with them. She, of course, keeps the cameras running, so the attractive American who’s supposedly digging the hunky Indian is actually banging the tough-guy Russian, and she thinks no one knows. Oh dear.

Into this mix comes the next big problem: each astronaut gets a private message from their governments telling them that a big war – World War III, it appears – has broken out on Earth and they’re to return to the planet as soon as possible, without helping their compatriots, who are now their enemies. This makes the space station one great big, tension-filled death trap, as the astronauts – the American, the Indian, the Russian, and the Chinese – try to figure out how to screw each other over. Both the Russian cosmonaut and the Chinese captain receive threats to their families, which is why they become desperate. Of course, they all find out that Khatri has been recording everything they do, which leads to more tension. There’s a nice vignette about why the Russian dude, in particular, takes the threats very seriously, and Hopeless does a good job showing how these people unravel in different ways – some more dramatically than others, of course, but they all do eventually. I don’t want to give anything away, but not everyone survives, of course, and it’s interesting to see how the people react to the news and how they try to screw each other over. It’s not a big, loud kind of thriller – we’re in space, of course, so people aren’t running through the woods as others chase them, and one horrific moment feels like it’s going agonizingly slowly because of the setting, which is effective on Hopeless’s part. One thing he doesn’t really address is how only one person is supposed to get back – they fly a space shuttle, so perhaps that can be piloted by one person, but it seems like it would have to be a team effort in order for them to return. Maybe it would not be. He makes sure that they can’t just stay there and tell all their governments to fuck right off – the threats to families will motivate people – but the actual mechanics of returning seem glossed over. I dunno. This is a quick book – 80 pages, just like yesterday’s! – and Hopeless doesn’t have a ton of room, so perhaps that went by the boards. In his limited space, he does a good job sketching out the characters well and ratcheting up the tension, and he also gets some nice digs at celebrity culture in there, especially when some of the crew returns to Earth (I’m not saying who makes it!!!!). It’s not the deepest comic in the world, but it grabs your attention and holds it, so there’s that.

Kowalski has somehow become the artist you go to when you want nekkidness, and I’m not sure why. He draws attractive but not impossibly gorgeous people, so maybe that’s it – his sex scenes feel a bit more real because the people look real? Beats me, but he does his usual good work on this comic. He has a very utilitarian style – a bit angular, but fluid enough that his figures “move” well in a story, and he uses some heavy inking and judicious hatching to make the people and things look “lived in,” as his worlds tend to be the slightest bit shabby even if we’re dealing with “futuristic” stuff like space stations. It’s a good tactic, as it allows Kowalski to imply the seediness of some things without making it obvious, and in this case, the ugliness of both the reality show aspect of the book and the violent nationalism that comes from the war on the ground is there without calling too much attention to it. He does a very nice job with the zero-gravity “effects,” both inside and outside the space station, as it really does feel like the people are moving slowly even though, of course, they’re static images. Simpson does a good job with the coloring – most of the book is somewhat muted with browns, greens, and blues, which we’d expect, but when Simpson wants to go bright, he goes very bright, and the jarring nature of the shifts is very effective. As usual with Kowalski, there’s nothing too spectacular, but it’s still a good-looking comic.

The Kármán Line is just a solid sci-fi thriller with the slightest bit of social commentary thrown in and some sad implications about humanity and its ability to put aside dumb differences and work together for the good of all. Hopeless does a good job grabbing your attention, and while I admit it’s not too deep, the clever idea of a reality show in space does keep things interesting as we move through the plot. It’s just a nice read.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆


  1. tomfitz1

    BURGAS; You said: “Kowalski has somehow become the artist you go to when you want nekkidness, and I’m not sure why.”

    I’ll tell you why: He was the artist that worked with Joe Casey on the Image series, SEX.

    Speaking of which, any idea when the next volume is out?

    1. Greg Burgas

      I mean, yeah, that’s possible, but did he get the gig on Sex because he was good at drawing realistic naked people, or did he get that reputation because of Sex? I’m not sure.

      Beats me about more Sex. I haven’t seen Casey in years, so I haven’t had a chance to ask him.

  2. In a slower month I may have ordered this because I love astronaut stories, but the price vs. pagecount made it not fit the budget. But I’m glad you’re buying and talking about all this stuff I wanted!

    1. Greg Burgas

      I’m not sure if I knew the page count when I ordered it, because that, too, might have given me pause. But I’m happy to entertain you! 🙂

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