At its heart the very best science fiction isn’t about alien civilisations, space exploration or future tech, it’s work that on a very personal level speaks to us about recognisable realities of the human condition. That’s a point I have made a number of times this year at Broken Frontier – perhaps to the point of tedium – but one that will be underlined again today as we look at Kristyna Baczynski’s Retrograde Orbit, one of three major releases (the others being Katriona Chapman’s Follow Me In and Tillie Walden’s On a Sunbeam) that Avery Hill Publishing are releasing at this year’s Thought Bubble.
For some, no doubt, there will be a sense of incredulity in my noting that Retrograde Orbit is Kristyna Baczynski’s first graphic novel. With multiple British Comic Awards nominations and an Eisner Award nomination, Baczynski is a stalwart fixture of UK indie comics whose self-published comics range from the carefully crafted storytelling of Hand Me Down to the travelogue autobio 87,000 Steps. She’s also been a contributor to a number of anthologies like Tiny Pencil, Off Life and Blank Slate’s jam graphic novel Nelson. Quite a back catalogue then but Retrograde Orbit is her first full-length book.
Set in a solar system at once both alien and yet strangely familiar (a population of diverse extraterrestrials who are nevertheless recognisable for their anthropomorphised animal likenesses means its society is one step away from our reality and yet tantalisingly close enough to ensure our immediate empathy with the characters) its main characters comprise three generations of the same clan – protagonist Flint, her mother Dolores and grandmother Baba. Living on the mining world Tisa, Flint’s family were originally inhabitants of the planet Doma which has now been abandoned after a nuclear catastrophe.
But Doma’s lure overshadows Flint’s life as she begins the journey from childhood to adulthood and becomes obsessed with that planet’s significance. Apprenticed at the mineworks her sense of displacement grows as the years pass, leading her to question her identity and look to rediscover her roots. One momentous decision will change her life and the lives of those closest to her forever.
Despite its sci-fi trappings Retrograde Orbit is a graphic novel that explores universal themes of family, how we define ourselves, where we come from and who we are. Baczynski presents Flint’s stories in a series of chapters that provide us with vignettes of her continuing quest to understand her identity at key points in her life, jumping the years from school days to teenage years through to her first job and desire to strike out on her own. It’s a need that begins with wistful classroom romanticising about Doma and grows into a committed search for answers about its history and culture; one that will take a radical turn when evidence surfaces that Doma may not be as deserted as previously believed…
Those jumps in time take that “reading between the panels” element of comics into different interpretive ground as we fill in the time between chapters for ourselves as the intensity of her fixation on Doma grows. As we are invited into these snapshot moments of Flint’s formative years, Baczynski is unafraid to present a central character who is layered and complex; one who retains our empathy throughout even though the dividing line between her passion and determination on the one hand, and her obsession and obliviousness to the feelings of others on the other, can be a fine one indeed.
Baczynski’s intricately assembled pages, carefully considered monochromatic colour choices to represent each chapter’s mood, and gorgeous sense of design are, of course, key elements in communicating Flint’s story with an intuitive subtlety. She also imbues her cast with the most expressive body language which, again, enhances characterisation and emphasises Retrograde Orbit‘s recurring motifs; all the more pronounced for the book’s pseudo-anthropomorphic elements.
Retrograde Orbit is a graphic novel, then, that individual readers may connect with on very different but always inter-related levels. It’s a journey of self-discovery, a visual essay that asks us to question notions of identity and belonging, and a narrative that underlines that the concept of “home” has a broad spectrum of definitions. Most notably, though, it’s a delicately crafted character study with a beautifully realised central theme about finding our place in the world. Poignant, touching and unforgettable. it’s arguably Kristyna Baczynski’s greatest achievement in the medium to date.
For more on the work of Kristyna Baczynski visit her site here and follow her on Twitter here. You can see her at Table 47 in the Originals Marquee at Thought Bubble. You can also order Retrograde Orbit online from Avery Hill Publishing here.
Retrograde Orbit launches at Thought Bubble 2018 on Friday September 21st at Travelling Man. More details here. There’s also a London launch event at Gosh! Comics on Friday September 28th. Full information here.