3 out of 5
In my experience – y’know, as an unpublished writer who never finishes or submits anything and whose writing no one likes – outlines can sometimes be more limiting than helpful. (Nod knowingly at how that opinion influences my publication status.) Certainly, having character and plots beat down can give a story a proper sense of flow and progress, but I suppose I’m thinking more structurally: sticking to the fiction side of things, I can imagine a good mystery or adventure can surely benefit from mapping out things ahead of time, but when you start to veer into the more surreal… that’s where I think it can be problematic. Unleashed from reality is a mode in which I tend to write, and I’ve noted that when I let the surreality flow as it will, I can tame it and tamp it down later; alternately, when I think up how I want those oddities to be shaped ahead of time, the story ends up feeling more rote and predictable than I would have wanted. I would chalk this up to my own abilities, but I’ve sensed similar effects in others’ stories. And I would include Dave Chisholm’s Canopus in that.
Applying this to comics makes it even harder, of course, since you have definitive stops with each issue, making it more desirable to give yourself some strict, book-by-book structure. And that’s what Canopus does: Helen wakes up, marooned and amnesiad on an alien planet – alone save the on-board computer in her downed spaceship and an AI robot that also seems to have survived the crash – and sets about trying to get back to Earth. Issue by issue, then, something strange happens on the planet and it kicks off a troubling memory for Helen, filling in what her space-bound mission was, or should be. And while the specifics of this are very interesting, and well thought out, the way that Chisholm chose to present those specifics unfortunately makes the story a very familiar and rather predictable one. As fiction readers, we can accept the alien planet and the AI buddy; once the first truly off-beat thing happens – a pit is discovered, with a bunch of discarded toys – we’re engaged, but then that structure kicks in: two, two-page spreads that tip-toe through Helen’s flashes of memories and give the toys context. You can sketch out a general idea of what Canopus’ conclusions are going to be after that, and by making these flashes the center around which each issue revolves, it rather distracts from the more unique background story – what she’s doing on this alien planet. That’s the more sci-fi aspect, granted, whereas Chisholm chose to favor the foreground, psychological aspect. Adding to my ‘structure first’ criticism, Dave purposefully (according to backmatter) made these sequences visually disorienting, to reflect the fractured nature of memory; that’s all well and good, but it also makes them difficult to read – the flow and immersion of the story breaks.
But even with knowing the gist ahead of time, and the somewhat fractured immersion, Canopus still holds up. Helen’s narration – to herself, to the AI – has an organic, unfiltered feel to it, reflective of how one might more naturally respond in this type of situation. She’s not particularly likeable, so we’re more engaged by her relatable humanity than forced attempts to make her fun to be around. And Chisholm smartly gives the story a throughline by having her on-board computer guide her on the planet to resources needed to fix the ship, a clear destination for us to get to.
The art has an open, fine-lined nature to it, reminiscent of Frank Quitely, but the characters are a bit “flatter” – I think Nick Brokenshire comes to mind. It’s a good combo, though; a fitting middleground for the sci-fi / psychology focuses, embracing both grounded and surreal elements.
The collection has some bonus pages and comments from Chisholm, as well as alternate covers.