Grease Monkey by Tim Eldred
My intention is to praise Caesar rather than bury him. And by “Caesar,” I mean Tim Eldred, but “Tim Eldred” in the first sentence didn’t quite have the same flow.
Grease Monkey, Eldred’s latest and, one could argue, most personal graphic novel should be admired for all of the things it represents. It marks the second occasion that speculative fiction juggernaut Tor has published a graphic novel. (The first was Charles Vess’s The Book of Ballads, which, frankly, was an easier sell than a graphic novel by an unknown writer.) This alone is cause for celebration, simply because Tor has a knack for finding the most interesting work that the genre has to offer.
And Grease Monkey is interesting. Its evolution alone, from original concept to its current hardcover form, is full of so many twists and turns that it rivals the story of Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker series, which brought new illumination to the word labyrinthine. Monkey’s back-story is more than I could sum up in this review. Besides, Eldred does it better in his afterward.
Eldred’s choice of characters breaks with tradition. Rather than focus on the upper echelon of the crew of a space station, Eldred dials in on the folks who actually do the grunt work, like noob mechanic Robin Plotnik and his sapient gorilla boss Mac. Minor characters include a janitor, a librarian’s assistant, and a chef. While elites like the ship’s admiral and its top fighter pilots wander through, they serve as condiments on the meat of the real story. It’s a nice change from wild tales of derring-do done by those who always do the derring, if that makes sense.
There is also a sense of dimension to these characters, which can be chalked up to Eldred’s skill with a pen. He is one of those illustrators who can easily convey reams of information with seemingly simple lines. Eldred’s day job is as a storyboard artist and his ability to convey the movement of a scene is a wonder. Plus, he draws a good gorilla and never overinflates the chests of his female characters, which is something to be praised as well.
For these reasons alone, Grease Monkey succeeds. For these reasons alone, Grease Monkey is notable. There is, of course, a however.
However skillful Eldred is with his illustrations, he isn’t equally skillful with the plot. While each installment adds to the story as a whole, there just isn’t enough at stake to make the end results satisfying. Mac and Plotnik have it too easy. The good people are very, very good. The bad people are clearly bad. There is no moral ambiguity. Sure, there is heartbreak and headache but a reader is certain that it will all get sorted out quickly and that the troglodyte ex machina will descend by the last act.
Some of this is inherent in Eldred’s non-traditional choice of characters. It is a nice change to see the worker bees rather than the queen, there is little at stake. If Mac and Plotnik can’t solve their dilemmas, the worst that will happen is an inconvenience. There is no potential glory in the end, nor is there tragedy. All that remains is just another day at the office.
As far as a life lesson, it’s a good one. Most of us don’t live the life of the hero. Given that Grease Monkey is pitched to the young adult crowd, it may be good to teach the younger set about middle management and job fulfillment. Lowered expectations may save them from years of reaching for unobtainable glory. It also may be that the average YA’s experience with story may make them immune to my complaints about Monkey’s lack of conflict. Or, perhaps, latent stress about upcoming standardized tests makes them pine for something straightforward to parse. Just because a reader is young, however, doesn’t mean that said reader is also unable to grasp a genuinely suspenseful plot.
For what it’s worth, I wouldn’t think twice about handing Grease Monkey off to a young reader so that he or she can get a sweet (and inoffensive, unless you are a gorilla hater) taste of what a graphic novel is. Adult readers, however, won’t be quite as satisfied, despite the book’s considerable charms.
Grease Monkey by Tim Eldred