I’m not normally one to put a tremendous amount of stock in a publisher’s promotional blurbs — they’re over-hyped by their very nature, and get the factual basics of the work in question, which they’ve presumably read, flat-out wrong with surprising frequency — but when Koyama’s pre-press promotional materials referred to Mickey Zacchilli’s Space Academy 123 as a blend of “Starfleet with Degrassi,” they captured the essential character of the book, originally serialized as a daily strip on Instagram, with fairly astonishing accuracy. But, of course, there’s a lot more to it than that.
Zacchilli, who hails from Providence, appears to have picked up no small amount of the residual energy left over in the cultural zeitgeist of that town from Fort Thunder, in that her strips are imbued with, and subsequently convey, much of the frenetic immediacy that her cartooning forebears made their stock in trade, but they necessarily update that ethos with a new energy and attitude entirely appropriate to second decade of the 21st century — even if the setting here is outer space in the far future. Much of that is down to the “rushed” nature of the work, sure — cranking out a full-page strip every day leaves little time for reflection, even less for going back and editing or otherwise “polishing” one’s creative output — but even more, I think, is down to Zacchilli’s keen sensibilities and razor-sharp instincts. Formal strictures such as a tight publication schedule and a rigid format can work to one’s advantage far more than they’re given credit for, but absent a cartoonist who knows how to play to the strengths those dictates can impose, you’re just getting a shitty cartoon every day —and rest assured, Space Academy 123 is about as far from “shitty” as you can imagine.
Not that it doesn’t frequently look the part, mind you — but that’s part and parcel of the nature of this peculiarly endearing beast. Zacchilli’s illustrations are frequently slapdash in the extreme, to the point of appearing not just “raw” but unfinished, but that’s not only appropriate for the material on offer, it’s necessary — as is the case with her sprawling ensemble of characters, most of whom are one-note ciphers with a twist (Andrew is a stereotypical over-achiever who wets his spacesuit and forever teeters on the brink of a nervous breakdown, Ashley is a stereotypical underachiever with an entirely unearned aura of self-confidence, resident bully Naomi is burdened by an uncharacteristic streak of conscience). These strips are designed to be absorbed — hell, mainlined — quickly, and the conceit of presenting and delivering them with the same level of engagement with which the audience interacts with them is a stroke of probably-accidental genius, but genius nevertheless.
The various plot scenarios are as absurd at their core as everything else on offer — “Grandfather Computer” dishes out the fate of “his” charges with a coldly mechanical disregard that borders on laziness (if, ya know, machines could be lazy); Naomi goes on a quest to find the fabled Private Admin Jacuzzi; hapless recent grad Donna is immediately “promoted” to becoming principal of the school despite wanting to be nothing more than a “space chiropractor” — but a word of warning : many of these de facto “storylines” are abandoned as quickly as they’re introduced (which really only causes frustration once, when an obliquely-hinted-at “love triangle” is never followed up on), and if you’re the kind of reader who needs to know how everything ends, well, tough shit.
Honestly, though, obsessiveness in general is anathema to the whole idea of what Zacchilli has created here : this is near-instantaneous cartooning, written and drawn in one moment, shared with readers the next. It’s as close to being a part of the creative process as you’re ever likely to get and, as such, any pre-planned notes would ring hollow. Formal technique isn’t so much abandoned as it is employed in as direct a fashion as possible, and detail is, by dint of sheer necessity, dispensed with in favor of easily-identifiable visual cues, each character having a trademark “thing” (Ashely wears an eyepatch, Shandy a hair bow, etc.) that makes them stand out when the rapid-fire figure drawings simply aren’t — shit, can’t be — up to the task.
Thrown in re-drawn lines (or, you prefer, scribbles) and re-written words and the overall “vibe” here is intrinsically chaotic, to be sure, but it’s all so sincere and engaging that you’re left with no other choice but to embrace the chaos. Mickey Zacchilli may not make any pretenses to being the greatest craftsperson in comics, but in terms of sheer hyper-kinetic imagination, heartfelt humor, and good, old-fashioned fun (remember that?), Space Academy 123 is tough to beat.