Everyone’s heard of the Apollo 11 space mission. It’s the one during which Neil Armstrong spoke the words “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” He and Buzz Aldrin, during that mission, became the first two humans to walk on the moon.
But what people may not remember is that there was a third astronaut on the mission. A Maine author and Maine illustrator are changing that with a recently released graphic novel.
“The Far Side of the Moon: The Story of Apollo 11’s Third Man,” written by Alex Irvine and illustrated by Ben Bishop, tells the story of astronaut Michael Collins, who along with Armstrong and Aldrin flew the Apollo 11 mission. It was the first time a moon lander touched down on the surface and returned to the orbiter.
Collins though, unlike Armstrong and Aldrin, didn’t leave the orbiter. His task was to stay behind, orbit the moon and be ready when they returned. For 21 hours, he lost contact with NASA mission control and his fellow astronauts as he traveled to the dark side of the moon, out of view of the Earth.
“There’s a specific role that Collins payed. He was in a way the stage manager of the whole thing,” Irvine said. “I wanted the storytelling of the book to reflect both that solitude and that he was offstage when the big news happened, but he was also the reason it was able to happen.”
This isolated trip through space is the setting for this book, where Collins contemplates the politics, science and engineering that made the mission possible.
“It was fun to work on. It’s fun to get the angle of someone who’s not exactly the forgotten man, but who doesn’t get the headlines [yet] was the one there making the whole thing happen,” Irvine said.
Everything about “The Far Side of the Moon” speaks to space and the isolation of Collins’ role in the mission. The design is black, white and blue — colors that reflect the darkness of outer space. It’s all framed images surrounded by inky blackness and stars, reflecting Collins’ actual, solitary experience.
Bishop said that the black, white and blue color scheme was a welcome challenge to work with. “I was able to use those three tones, which was really cool … [to create a] unique look,” Bishop said.
For both Bishop and Irvine, both of Portland, telling a true story through the lens of a graphic novel was a little different from most of their other individual work, which is primarily fiction.
“You’re working with history. Most of what I write is fiction … when you’re working on a nonfiction project, the bones of the story are there. The question isn’t so much what story to tell but how to tell it,” Irvine said. “When you write the script for a comic, you’re always thinking of what the artist is going to do and you’re always trying to think of ways to make your story and the art work together.”
In terms of creating compelling illustrations that capture the historical truths of the book, Bishop said that Irvine helped with the process a lot, providing him with pertinent links right in the script.
“It’s definitely more difficult than just winging it and making up the creatures as you go along,” Bishop said. “That’s where you bring in just general comic book knowledge … and how to move the eye across the page. … What do you need to show? Now what’s the most effective, comic-booky way to show this? … Just because they are true doesn’t mean they aren’t dynamic.”
Both Bishop and Irvine credit Ari Meil with getting this book project started.
“Tilbury House was planning to do some kids’ graphic novels and I knew some of the people there from a while back. Ari Meil was there at the time — I don’t think he’s there anymore — and he reached out to me,” Irvine said. “I’d been wanting to do stuff for kids for a long time, and this was a great way to do that.”
Irvine thought Bishop would be a good fit for the project. They had met years earlier in Portland.
“Alex and I have known each other a long time. We met when I was working at a coffee shop in the Old Port when I was 18,” Bishop said. That was more than a decade ago, and over the years Bishop and Irvine had talked about working together on a project. When this one came up, it seemed like a perfect fit.
Bishop also has a solo project about to debut. The Aggregate is a choose-your-own-adventure-type comic book that’s been two years in the making. He used the money-raising website Kickstarter to fund the first print run of the project. Backers of the project will soon receive copies and it will also be available at theaggregatebook.com.
Irvine is also working on another project — a full-length graphic novel on the history of baseball that’s due out next spring.
Both Bishop and Irvine will be in Bangor for an event promoting “The Far Side of the Moon: The Story of Apollo 11’s Third Man,” from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, April 18. It’s being held at the Challenger Learning Center of Maine in Bangor. They will be talking about the book, signing copies and more.
Irvine will also be at Rockland Public Library at 2 p.m. Friday.