Nerds are frequently bad at naming things. Most of you probably know what “jumping the shark” means – the point at which an ongoing story starts to go downhill. If you haven’t heard of its counterpart “growing the beard” you’d be forgiven, because it’s honestly kind of a terrible name. Like so many fandom terms, it’s a reference to Star Trek; fans of TNG noticed an upturn in the quality of episodes around the time that Riker grew a beard in the second season. In addition to “growing the beard” bringing to mind a bizarre visual out of context, the beard in question isn’t even what caused the show to get better, making the entire thing kind of inexplicable (cue hatemail from beard enthusiasts). Maybe there are better options for how to refer to this phenomenon.
Like most webcomics, Gisele Jobateh’s Star Trip starts out kinda shaky and gets dramatically better over time. But Star Trip is interesting to me for a particular reason: instead of the gradual but steady improvement that characterizes the bulk of works like these, its improvement is hyperbolic – almost unnoticeable at first, then abruptly skyrocketing.
This means that unlike most webcomics, it’s easy to pinpoint the moment when Star Trip grew the beard. Or would “shaved the head” be more appropriate? Crap, that’s not catchier at all. Well… let’s come back to this later.
Star Trip is about Jas, an Earthling who stumbles across an alien trapped in a net on her walk home one night. In return for Jas freeing them, the alien, a shapeshifter named Khut, agrees to take her with them to space to visit every habitable planet in the galaxy. But though an interplanetary road trip seems like fun, they’ll still have to contend with the people who put Khut in the net in the first place – a special forces unit from the planet Taikos who will stop at nothing to capture the shapeshifter.
Khut, who can become a spacecraft and achieve escape velocity under their own power, makes good on their promise, bringing their human companion on a grand tour of the unique and fascinating features different planets have to offer. Jobateh’s worldbuilding shines here, giving us dazzling landmarks, strange ecosystems, and complex cultures. And yet, for all that they are alien, there are troubling commonalities between these distant civilizations and our own; capitalism, colonialism, and racism still rear their ugly heads, even so far from home. The Earth, like many technologically unadvanced planets, is classified as a “hick” planet under galactic treaty, protecting it from colonization; some planets our heroes visit were brutally colonized before such protections were enacted.
On the other hand, gender politics in the galaxy at large are quite a bit better than what Earthlings are used to, much to Khut’s exasperation. When Jas misgenders Khut, confused by their changing forms, Khut angrily explains that they are neither male nor female, and that galactic custom expects that people refer to each other with gender-neutral language until being told otherwise. Downright civilized if you ask me.
Jas learns a lot in her travels, growing from an stubborn and impatient brat to a, well, a stubborn and impatient space traveller. Her personality hasn’t changed, but it’s clear that her experiences – like stealing food for the poor, conning people into thinking Khut is a popstar, winning at space DDR, saving Khut from the hunters, and trespassing in a sacred jungle – have matured her. Perhaps that last one most of all.
Which brings us back to where we left off above. After contracting dangerous lice in the jungles of DerjiKha, Jas is forced to shave her hair and burn her clothes – some of the last memorabilia of home she has. This is one of the lowest points in Jas’s character arc, a moment where her recklessness and lack of consideration have come back to haunt her. But with Khut’s help and support, she faces up to those poor choices and emerges, from her chemical bath renewed and transformed.
Jobateh seems to take advantage of this change in appearance to make a dramatic switch in how they draw their protagonist. At the beginning of chapter 7, Jas is bald, but she’s also shorter, rounder, and much more expressive – in short, her design isn’t generic anymore. But that’s not all that’s changed. The author’s use of light, color, and movement seems to level up at the same time, and where before the dialogue was often stilted or unnatural, the characters now have clear and authentic voices and multilayered emotions. Even Khut’s transformations are more lovingly rendered, as a swirling cloud shape rather than just a wavy outline. Something happened in Jobateh’s two-and-a-half month break between chapters 6 and 7, and it must’ve been something magical, because the story has a renewed vigor and enthusiasm that comes through each panel.
Okay, you’ve got me, the improvement in this comic didn’t actually happen all at once – that’s not giving the author enough credit. Aside from the difference in how Jas is drawn, you can see all of these changes beginning to show in at least chapters 5 and 6. But 7 is the chapter where you finally notice, and that’s because of the new Jas. In the comments section readers call her “Chibi Jas”, but it seems to me like this isn’t an alternate form, but her true one – a sense backed up by a vague recollection of Jobateh saying as much, somewhere, at some point. Jas was always meant to be small and fat, and once the art in the comic reflected that, everything else felt more authentic too.
So maybe it’s just as arbitrary to refer to Jas getting her head shaved as the turning point as it is to reference Riker growing a beard. And maybe this example doesn’t actually lend itself to catchy terminology. But who cares, the point is that Star Trip is wicked good, and that creators gain just as much from interesting character design as their readers do.
Final verdict: If you want a space opera without all the machismo or glorification of violence or white dude protagonists, Star Trip should be your go-to.