I’m a terrible audience for Jonathan Fetter-Vorm’s Moonbound: Apollo 11 and the Dream of Spaceflight, given that I took to referring to First Man as “Space Bros” after seeing the trailer a gazillion times and have reacted to all news of billionaire space exploration with something between eye-rolling and outrage. So it says something that I found it an engaging and intelligent read. Fetter-Vorm has a way of doing that. Battle Lines: A Graphic History of the Civil War, which he drew for writer Ari Kelman in 2015, performs a similar trick, taking the subject of a million fat books purchased as Father’s Day gifts and turning it into something relatable and newish. Moonbound, out now from Macmillan’s Hill and Wang imprint, is about the moon landing, but it hops lightly among many other topics, including civil rights, computer programming, the history of stories and myths about the moon, Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe (and his metal nose) and quite a bit more. Lots of nonfiction comics follow a pretty straight narrative line and suffer for it. That kind of structure works better for prose, which has far more words in which to expand upon what otherwise doesn’t make for a very interesting journey. Fetter-Vorm alternates chapters on the actual moon landing with sections on all these other aspects and then some, both types of chapters moving from past to present but at different speeds, until they intersect, much like the docking of the lunar lander and the command module. So how does one end up making a comic about the moon, and what skills prepare you to do it? Read on for a conversation with Fetter-Vorm, conducted over email.
Paste: I read that you studied history at Stanford, which in some ways isn’t a surprise. How did you come to comics?
Jonathan Fetter-Vorm: At some point after failing calculus and admitting to myself that I was not destined to become any sort of scientist, I read Beowulf and something clicked. I’ve been drawing comics for as long as I can remember—mostly about dragons and the occasional ninja turtle—but Beowulf was the first time that I began to think about hybrid forms of literature. Before it was ever written down, Beowulf existed for centuries as a song, or a collection of songs, about a strange and deeply pagan world, and then at some point in the Middle Ages it was transcribed by Christian monks (who tried to temper the strange and pagan parts), and the result is this kind of collage of images and narrative fragments. Reading it felt like reading a comic book. So I learned Anglo-Saxon, made my own translation of the poem, read a bunch of scholarly literature, and combined it all into a graphic novel. I’m not sure if it all worked, but that was when I first recognized that comics are the perfect medium for mixing scholarship and storytelling.
Paste: You learned Anglo-Saxon? You say that pretty casually! Does it ever come in handy?
Fetter-Vorm: I don’t mean to be cavalier about it, but it really didn’t feel like a big deal at the time. It’s like learning any language, except instead of memorizing phrases like “where is the bathroom?” you get to read stories about hermit monks battling demons out in the swamps. I’m not very good at learning languages, and if someone quizzed me now about inflections I’d fail miserably. But I do still have a bit of Beowulf memorized, which mostly comes in handy as a party trick.
Paste: What era of history did you focus on the most?
Fetter-Vorm: I wrote my thesis about sex and death in Baroque Florence, which pretty much sums up my interests at the time.
Paste: Are there particular skills you gained from your undergraduate study that you apply to making comics?
Fetter-Vorm: Not necessarily from my time in school, but after I graduated I apprenticed with Peter Koch, a master letterpress printer in Berkeley. He runs his press like a Renaissance print shop, a gathering place for artists, writers and craftspeople. I learned how to set lead type; how to design, print and bind books; and how to try to sell things that didn’t easily fit into established genres. It felt like a way to get as far away from the Silicon Valley ethos as possible (but without giving up the Bay Area weather).
Paste: Did you grow up reading comics? Which ones?
Fetter-Vorm: Growing up in a small town before the internet, my only access to comics was at the local soda fountain/newsstand. I mostly read Batman and Spider-Man, whatever random issues I could get my hands on. My public library had a copy of Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, which scrambled everything I thought I knew about what comics were for. Jason Lutes’s Jar of Fools was the first comic I read that felt like reading a novel, and Craig Thomson’s Blankets was the first comic that made me cry. But if you get your hands on my high-school sketchbooks, you’ll see it’s all just drawings of Spawn and Wolverine.
Paste: What about space: were you interested in it from a young age?
Fetter-Vorm: I never wanted to be an astronaut (except for all the freeze-dried ice cream), but I did always want to go to space, to be out there in the abyss. When I was a kid I didn’t have the right words to describe the temptation, but now I’d call it the Sublime—that dizzy feeling that’s equal parts wonder, beauty and abject terror. I remember sleeping out at night in my yard under the huge Montana sky and almost hyperventilating at the vastness of it all. When I first started Moonbound, I wanted to channel some of that sentiment, but I quickly realized that I don’t have what it takes to get that idea across in a drawing. Luckily, Michael Collins, the astronaut orbiting the moon during Armstrong and Aldrin’s landing, wrote an elegant passage about that feeling in his memoir, so I used his words; it’s better coming from the mouth of someone who’s actually spent time floating in the pitch black of the far side of the moon.
Paste: Given that you know how to print letterpress and bind books by hand, I’m assuming you’re kind of a hands-on guy when it comes to making your books. Accurate?
Fetter-Vorm: That sounds right. Making comics is a very hands-on process. Obviously in the drawing, but also in the mechanics of laying out the book. You have to think on the level of the page, not the word count, so I’ve found that my experience constructing books helps me better understand how to conceive of my stories as objects, meant to be held and lived with. When I first started out, my best friend and I started an outfit called Two Fine Chaps, and we made elaborate limited edition books—pop-ups, comics, coloring books—that we sold at conventions. They were more art books than comics. The craft of it was fun, and we had complete control over how the finished objects turned out, but the logistics were overwhelming. Someday I’d like to get back to printing my own comics, but for now it’s nice to have a publisher to take care of the details.
Paste: Do you still do any printing or binding? A whole comic is a big undertaking, but do you get itchy to make other things by hand? (LOL at Two Fine Chaps, btw)
Fetter-Vorm: I wish I had more time to do weirder, less useful things than what I’m writing and drawing now. And I have to keep reminding myself that not everything needs to be 250 pages long. I’d be okay if I never had to bind another book again, but I do miss the whole process of printing. I miss the smell of solvent and ink and pulp dust. I miss the big dirty clanking machines and the way they belch out sharp, perfect sheets of paper. I’ll get back into it when I can find a press and the space to house it. Until then I’ll have to make do with building a bigger coop for my chickens.
Paste: And yet you don’t seem opposed to computers. Why do you think that is?
Fetter-Vorm: I’m ambivalent about the usefulness of computers for my art. Photoshop is an astounding tool, but lately I’ve been trying to force myself to rely on traditional techniques. Battle Lines is all digital, though I made it look like it was drawn with a pencil and brush. I thought I would save myself time doing it that way, but when you have the ability to Ctrl-Z your way through every mistake it makes it dangerously easy to derail yourself on a detail that no one but you will even notice. Part of the joy of making art is when something interesting happens by accident. And maybe it’s just me, but with ink on paper, accidents tend to happen a lot.
Paste: Research is clearly a big part of your books. How do you know when to stop (i.e., when you have enough material to move forward)?
Fetter-Vorm: I think I’d be extremely content if I could just research forever and not have to find a way to cram it all into a narrative. But the challenge of fitting the pieces together is its own sort of pleasure. From the outset I have to remind myself that half of what I discover in research isn’t going to make it into the final book. And with comics there’s a built-in cut off point: when it comes time to start drawing, I have to have the script already hashed out. Of course that starts a whole new round of research, but this time it’s visual—collecting reference images, or color samples, or even just looking at other artists to see how they solve problems. Maybe the best way to know when I’ve gathered enough material is when I get sick of thinking about the project. It’ll be a while before I’m ready to learn anything more about the moon.
Paste: What were the hardest things to find photo references for in this book?
Fetter-Vorm: I was not at all prepared for how many photographs NASA produced during the Apollo days, so my challenge was never really about the difficulty of tracking down the reference. Rather, what I found hardest was knowing that every bolt and switch and strap has been photographed and archived somewhere so the only excuse if I get something wrong is my own laziness. I read a story a few months back about how the crew of the movie First Man commissioned Omega to make several replicas of watches to match all the different models than Neil Armstrong wore in his lifetime. That’s an absurd bar to try to surmount, and I knew there was no way, as one person working alone in his studio, that I’d come even close to getting every detail right. But one place where I wanted to fudge as little as possible was the Lunar Module. Since so much of the action takes place there, and because the geometry of the thing is bizarre, I used a combination of plastic model kits (including one I bought on Ebay from 1969) and 3D renderings as reference. I also have the Saturn V Lego set on my shelf, but I’m not sure whether that really counts as a business expense.
Paste: Why structure this book in the way that you did, kind of flipping back and forth between past and present (yet getting closer to the present with each chunk of the past you show)?
Fetter-Vorm: The story of Apollo 11 is a hard one to tell. Not because it’s particularly complicated (though there is a harrowing amount of documentation to sort through), but because it doesn’t easily fit a classical dramatic arc. In a way, it’s the story of a bunch of people doing their jobs well and everything pretty much working out. There are moments of tragedy, like the Apollo 1 fire, and moments of tense uncertainty, like the lunar landing, but as a whole this story is not Euripides. Rather, it’s a story of ideas and ambitions, many of which are much older than the Space Age. For the sake of storytelling, I knew there was no way I could just start with the creation of the moon and work linearly across 4.5 billion years to our present moment. Jumping back and forth from the Apollo 11 mission to the historic elements that made it possible was a way to give the book a sense of momentum without trying to make it into a purely plot-based story. I mean, it’s gotta be about the astronauts, but mostly, it’s not about the astronauts.
Paste: What do you think you tried to do differently in this book compared to past histories of the moon landing?
Fetter-Vorm: There are more books about the Apollo Program than I can count, but no single book that I’ve found weaves as many disparate stories into one narrative. I chalk that up less to any innovation on my part than to the particular strengths of the comics medium. You can get away with much more ambitious leaps in comics than you can in prose, something about the mechanics of jumping from panel to panel. It’s a fundamentally associative medium. I also wanted to find a way to emphasize, within a history that is often mostly about the exploits of white men, the contributions of women and people of color—important milestones in the space race that until recently have gone largely unheralded.
Paste: This book feels like a natural next step from your first one, what with the relationship between the nuclear program and the space program. But one didn’t come right after the other. Can you tell me a little bit about Battle Lines, which you co-created with Ari Kelman, and how that book came about?
Fetter-Vorm: Ari is both a hotshot historian and an educator who’s deeply committed to finding new ways to engage his students, so when we met at a pizza shop in Vallejo, California—a sort of “blind date” facilitated by our editor—we got really excited about the potential of collaborating on a book. I relished the idea of riding Ari’s coattails to push the comics medium toward more rigorous scholarship, and I think for Ari the prospect of a graphic history of the Civil War was a way to reinvigorate a story that has been told so many times that it approaches the level of myth. His original pitch was for a “new perspective” on the Civil War, a history glimpsed from unexpected angles. We used objects as an organizing theme—a bullet, a noose, a flag, a draft card—and took a cheeky sort of delight in avoiding the marquee figures and events that everyone learns about in school. I learned a lot from working with Ari, but probably the most valuable lesson was that the history of a thing always begins much earlier and ends much later than a simple chronology might lead you to believe.
Paste: Is it strange to have created this book at our present moment, what with a lot of folks who seem to want to return culturally to the 1950s but not to the levels of government funding of the era? What other echoes do you see between today and yesterday?
Fetter-Vorm: It’s become a cliché to point to the moon landing as an example of America at its greatest, when everyone banded together to accomplish something that seemed impossible. But it’s important to remember that throughout the Apollo Program, opinion polls show that a majority of Americans did not think that going to the moon was worth the cost. The civil rights leader Ralph Abernathy organized a march of poor people to the launch of Apollo 11 to speak out against the idea that a country could afford to spend so much to send three men to the moon while its cities crumbled under the weight of racism and poverty. The response from the head of NASA was essentially that it was easier to solve an engineering problem than a social problem. I think about that now with our current race to the moon, led by billionaire entrepreneurs. Their new rockets are beautiful to watch, and the prospects of spaceflight are as enchanting as they’ve always been, but I worry that the new space race, like the first one 50 years ago, will simply give us more brilliant solutions to all the wrong problems.
Paste: Do you think going to the moon was worth the cost?
Fetter-Vorm: I tried really hard to avoid having to answer that question in my book! It’s complicated. If the choice to spend what works out to $112 billion in today’s money had been up to me, I probably would have sided with most Americans in saying that there are better ways to use our resources. But it’s also the most audacious journey that humans have ever made, and I don’t know how to put a price tag on that. The question is also wrapped up in the sense of diminishment that followed the moon landings, when the Apollo Program was defunded—the sense that such a lofty project didn’t appear to make life any easier back on Earth. Maybe it’s still too soon to pass judgment. If we become a space-faring species in the next century, we’ll look back on Apollo 11 as a vanguard in a much larger, more profound shift for humanity. But just judging from the past 50 years, the moon landings look like a strange outlier on our timelines. Many of the astronauts who went to the moon spoke about how the experience realigned their understanding of just how special and rare the Earth is, and for me that’s the most meaningful legacy of the Apollo Program. For centuries we’d imagined the heavens to be perfect, to exist is some rarefied and idealized realm. But once a dozen of us went to another planet we saw first-hand that no, it’s not better up there. We already have the best of it, and that is what’s worth protecting at all costs.