The Webcomic Overlook #226: Ellie on Planet X
After man first set foot on the moon, young kids dreamed of voyaging to other planets. After all, if human beings can put their footprints on soil not of this earth, how hard can it be to, say, go to Mars? As it turns out… very hard. Universe Today estimates that the journey would take 250 days. And that’s the nearest planet. How long is it going to take to get to the moons of Jupiter? To the rings of Saturn? Heck, are we even going to get out of the solar system?
So we resign ourselves to the fate that most deep space exploration is going to have to be conducted by robots and computers. Like Voyager 2 and it’s ground breaking tour through the outer planets. Or Mars rover Curiosity, journeying the red planet to unearth new scientific discoveries. Is it as thrilling as Neil Armstrong hopping off a lunar lander? Maybe not. At the same time, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel a pang of empathy when the Spirit rover got stuck in sand. Sure, it was just a piece of machinery. And yet, it had sort of anthropomorphized into a poor little explorer stuck on a weird alien world.
James Anderson’s Ellie on Planet X is the story of one such space probe. this one, though, is a whole lot more adorable than anything assembled by NASA. Well, maybe except for Sojourner. That one was pretty darned cute.
Ellie is a deep space probe that sorta looks like a deranged Hello Kitty. She lands on the lush alien world of Planet X. Her early adventures are a lonely one. She toddles around the softly sloping landscape, cataloguing new life forms and transmitting the images back to Mission Control at home. (The time frame is a little weird here. I don’t know how long it took Ellie to get to Planet X, but Earth looks like a society stuck in the 1960’s. Was there a retro revival that never ended? Or should I repeat to myself that it’s just a webcomic, and I should really just relax?) This lonesome mission doesn’t bother Ellie, though. She takes joy in naming things and coming up with fun little poems.
Eventually, Ellie does run into an intelligent — or rather, a relatively intelligent — life form. It’s an invertebrate that she names Jeff. Using her mad linguistic skills, Ellie eventually learns to communicate with him. He’s a goofy, happy-go-lucky fellow who’s more than thrilled to join Ellie as a sidekick on her adventures.
They also run into a grumpy little alien that Ellie named Muffin (much to his chagrin). He is less thrilled. Also, he lives in a hole that very much makes it looks like he’s roommates with Winnie the Pooh. He tries to shake off Ellie at every opportunity … but she’s not easy to ditch because she must observe things in the name of science!
Indeed, Ellie’s arsenal is quite formidable. She’s equipped with a titanium shell, which comes in handy when beasties try to eat her. She has a little ring on her ear, which transmits data to the also cute orbital satellite hovering overhead. She has GPS (which Muffin interprets as a sign of Ellie’s craziness). And she’s got x-ray vision. But Ellie is also a sensitive piece of hardware, and any slip-up could cause her to go into an endless loop of system errors.
Along the way, they run into all sorts of imaginatively designed critters. There’s aliens that take the forms of bathtubs. With their mouths opened wide, you can take a bath in their bacteria-cleansing saliva. (They also have a mating ritual which is disgustingly drool-based.) There are rude, gigantic creatures who tower over the landscape and eat melons of incredible size. There are little worm-like things that puff up like balloons and ride the currents of the wind.
Ellie on Planet X is presented in lovely shades of orange and teal. (There’s a fun little meta joke, by they way, where the color palette is a result of a malfunction. Ellie manages to get the full range of colors at one point, and it blows her mind. Literally.) The scheme reminds me of Dr. Seuss books, where the price of colored ink only allowed for one other color on the printed page that wasn’t black or white. The visuals are very much in the spirit of Dr. Seuss as well. Plants grow in colorful stalks that end in big, fuzzy puff balls.
Anderson’s artwork is gleefully retro. They evoke the Space Age world of the 60’s, when the flowery path of an atom was a huge design revelation and when rockets were so cool that automakers were putting gigantic fins on cars. It’s the perfect backdrop for this comic: a time when optimism in space exploration was at an all time high, and when people didn’t worry about silly things like budget overruns and the brutal realities of time and space. Everyone’s smiling and fresh-faced, seeing a beautiful new world unfolding before them. One that’s almost become its own little fantasy world — one where traveling to another planet is a breezy little frolic.
Above all, though, Ellie on Planet X is irresistibly cute. I scores very high on the adorability index. Now, for those of you with low whimsy tolerance, you should probably stay away. But darn it, I like cute things. The great thing about Ellie on Planet X is that it’s just cute enough. It doesn’t get overly saccharine (there are drool monsters in this comic, after all).
Also, the characterizations are strong enough to overcome the cuteness. One of the best ways to gauge the strengths of the characters is to strip the imagery to dialogue and figure out which of the characters said it. It works very well in Ellie, because each has a unique voice. Ellie remains effortlessly optimistic, Jeff is good-natured but clueless, and Muffin has a touch of sarcasm. They’re like archetypes in classic cartoons, whether they’re Mickey, Goofy, and Donald or Fone Bone, Smiley Bone, and Phoney Bone. It’s perfect for a comic that inspires wistful nostalgia for a time that I personally did not grow up in.
Rating: 5 stars (out of 5)