Happy Yuri’s Night! It’s the fifty-sixth anniversary of Yuri Gagarin making history as the first man to travel into space and orbit the Earth. Most years I don’t have time to celebrate it, since April 12 inevitably precedes the April 15 tax deadline, so I make do with a quick game of the moon level of Red Alert 2: Yuri’s Revenge (remember that?). But since I have a little extra time, let’s take a look at one of my favorite fictional portrayals of Yuri Gagarin.
2000 AD is a British sci-fi anthology comic that started back in 1977, when its name had a distant and futuristic ring to it. (And yes, it’s called ‘2000 AD’ not ‘AD 2000’.) It’s a weekly comic that’s still going – it recently passed its two thousandth issue – and typically contains five stories of five to six pages each. Most of these are serials, but complete stories appear every so often, and it’s a notorious training ground for up-and-coming comics writers. You’ve got five comic pages to tell a complete science fiction story with action scenes, and it has to have a twist at the end. A story like this has to run at breakneck speed, with every panel driving the story forward.
Spoilers, by the way, because I can’t resist showing you the twist ending.
It’s 1961. Yuri’s making his historic spaceflight, but with a few extra complications. For one, shortly after Vostok 1 reaches orbit, it jettisons its cosmic ray shields. Yuri feels the effect of this radiation almost immediately, and he begins to describe the strange colors he’s seeing when radio contact is lost. Only when his capsule returns to Earth does he discover the cosmic rays have given him superpowers.
Well, of course they do. It’s comics after all. Nowadays the Fantastic Four’s origin is usually that they got their powers from a special cosmic storm, but back in FF #1 (which came out November 1961) they changed simply because of the radiation in the Van Allen belt. Anyone who went into space would get superpowers, as shown in FF #13 when Ivan Kragoff and his trained servant apes flew in a deliberately unshielded spaceship to become Red Ghost and the Super-Apes. (I love comics sometimes. More of them should feature a shapeshifting baboon and an orangutan with Magneto’s powers.)
But whereas the Fantastic Four were independent scientists, Yuri is operating within the Soviet space program, so when he returns to Earth he’s quickly taken away by the KGB. They discover he has a variety of powers at his command, from remote manipulation and precognition to mind control. (In two amusing compare-and-contrast panels he transforms a cell of stereotypically lounging beatniks into ramrod-straight loyal Communists.)
These powers make him far more powerful than anyone the KGB’s Paranormal Research Facility’s ever found. They quickly put him to work. Yuri’s fame lets him meet dignitaries from all over the world, and every time he gives their minds a telepathic rummage and passes on any juicy secrets to his handlers. And when the Americans try to launch their first man into space aboard the Freedom 7*, Yuri ensures the ship burns on the launchpad.
That’s the breaking point for him, though. He’s finished with doing the KGB’s dirty work, and if he decides to leave, who’s going to stop him? Yuri’s the only human who’s returned from space alive; there’s a panel showing people looking in horror into the Vostok 2 capsule, but whatever’s left of Gherman Titov is left in shadow. Yuri thinks he’s free, but one night…
By the way, isn’t the art nice? Wyatt originally thought the art should be in a Sixties style, particularly riffing off Jack Kirby, but I think Campbell’s more realistic noir-ish take (and Justice’s inks) is much more appropriate to the plausibility of the story. I must admit, I tend to focus much more on the writing in a comic than the art, but writing this post, and staring at the artwork a lot, I realize how much I love the use of solid blacks a la Mike Mignola or Alex Toth. The sequence with the beatniks is great: each panel is centered in the page with solid black on either side, merging with the black of the prison bars. And that panel above is very Eddie Campbell (no relation, I think).
Besides – and to dive into even more obscure comic history for a moment – 2000 AD has already had a Kirbyesque story about Yuri Gagarin with superpowers: Soul Gun Warrior. Shaky Kane’s art style takes Kirby’s style and infuses it with even more bombast and psychedelia, which meshed nicely (if I recall) with an gloriously ridiculous script about the ghost of Yuri Gagarin sabotaging American spaceships. Maybe I should try to dig that story out for the next Yuri’s Night.
But what of Yuri?
Don’t tell me you wouldn’t want to see a series about the superpowered god-dog. “Laika lives on,” indeed.
*While the real Freedom 7 launched three weeks after Yuri’s flight, the comic gives the launch date as February 1962, which implies that Yuri may have already done lower-key sabotage to the space program before this. The comic doesn’t name the astronaut, so whether it’s still Alan Shepard who dies in the Apollo 1-esque fire is left ambiguous.
Written by Arthur Wyatt
Penciled by Laurence Campbell
Inked by Kris Justice
Lettered by Tom Frame
First published: 2000 AD Prog 1376 (11 Feb 2004)
Availability: Unfortunately it’s never been reprinted, so you’re stuck with tracking down the original issue. Come on, Tharg! Why can’t you squeeze this story into your next Best of Future Shocks omnibus?