by Lillie Scarth
In their exploratory series Kaptara, writer Chip Zdarsky and artist Kagan McLeod cast a diverse set of characters to challenge and reshape science fiction tropes. Their sharp wit and absurd world building create a tight satirical reflection on the space adventure narrative. Together, they reach back to childhood roots, recalling pop culture phenomenons such as He-Man, G.I. Joe, and Star Trek to effectively isolate crude biases in the recent history of American SF (although disregarding the first two source materials as SF). Their wide referential range makes the humor and underlying message accessible to readers of different ages and varying American pop culture backgrounds.
The collective cast is diverse in race, gender, sexuality, and demeanor. Each member carries traits and behaviors traditionally associated with the secondary or “sidekick” character in any adventure narrative, with the exception of the white, straight, male captain whose resemblance to James T. Kirk from Star Trek: The Original Series could not be sheer coincidence. His logic driven decision making, fluid leadership, and bravery outline him as an easily recognizable hero trope often seen in SF.
Considering the parody nature of the text, the two prominent deaths within the first issue take a heavy critical hand to several SF clichés. None of Zdarsky’s characters rely on cultural stereotypes to build the character; therefore each individual makes a statement by simply existing as a speaking role in the text. With racial stereotypes in mind, examining the satirical purpose of the captain becomes clear. His physical and behavioral resemblance to arguably one of the quintessential SF characters in pop culture history spoon-feeds the reader a very powerful message about race in SF. The framework for this trope has even built itself around the character in the same way that the character is represented as “central” in the text, where difference is acceptable but never at the expense of the James Tiberius “Church” character.
Zdarsky’s inclination to create a cast that is relatable to an audience and also representative of the consuming populace gives Kaptara a critical edge. However, Zdarsky’s crew assembly does make the limitations of characterization within the text very clear. Keith is a natural American and associated by blood to a very wealthy and powerful family within the field of industrial science. His background does not come with cultural struggles that are representative of life as a person of color in the United States. Arguably, if Zdarsky had created Keith from a clichéd stencil as he had created the captain but placing that critical twist, the character may have been more accessible as well as more reflective on cultural bias in SF.
Despite Zdarsky’s personal limitations, he boldly pursues progressive texts and Kaptara is no exception. By recognizing the mistakes made by his preceding creators, he is able to evolve characters and plots that cast harmful tropes aside and speak to a diverse audience. His utopian world building presents an interpretation of respect, communication, and acceptance across cultures in human society. Issues of race and culture in Zdarsky’s imagining of human exploration of alien worlds parallels the anthropological practices of cultural relativism and ideals within cross-cultural relationships. These representations effectively turn a serial comic into a pop culture reflection on the issues of race in SF.