Punk, both as a musical genre and as an alternative subculture, has historically operated on the margins and is often viewed with distaste and suspicion by polite society. Etymologically, the word “punk” can be traced back to 1575 to refer to a “prostitute.” Later, the term came to refer to a “young, inexperienced person” or a “petty gangster, hoodlum, or ruffian.” Thus, when “punk” or “punk rock” developed as a musical genre in the 1970s out of 1960s garage rock and other forms of underground music, it was already associated with lowbrow aesthetics, anti-authoritarian ideologies, and youthful rebellion.
In this regard, the first volume of Space Trash—Jenn Woodall’s sci-fi comic adventure about a girl gang navigating the perils and politics of high school, set against the backdrop of space colonization—is a decidedly “punk” book. It touches upon surveillance culture, corporate capitalism (and its complicity in worsening climate change concerns), and the idea of the school as a form of incarceration (and consequently, the rule-breaking culture that it unwittingly fosters). Its three young delinquents—Stab and Yuki (Earthlings) and Una (a transfer student from Mars)—are enrolled at a decrepit education center on the moon. They constantly get into scuffles, face detention, dye one another’s hair, privately discuss how horrible the system really is, and—true to the volume’s punk roots—end up breaking the school rules. Indeed, the near-future that Woodall paints in deftly drawn panels and bright, optimistic colors is actually pretty dystopian. Instead of teachers in the classroom, a bot delivers long lectures (or rather, thinly disguised propaganda) to the bored students on how Earth was deemed too inhospitable by megacorps, resulting in terraforming projects on the moon and Mars, and that, if these underprivileged youths excel enough to pay off their future debts then—and only then—they “may be eligible to live in the luxury colony of Malez on Mars” (p. 9).
But these teenagers are determined to rebel and aren’t falling for the capitalist lie of a more comfortable life further down the pipeline. While scholars have debated the relative merits of discipline over freedom for centuries, for most of us the school system is our first brush with surveillance and policing—a place where the individual’s will is often censored or erased to conform to arbitrary standards of uniformity. The demotivated students are punished for being inattentive in class or engaging in rowdy behavior, served bland food at the canteen, and have their mobility and sleep cycles regulated by alarms; detention for rule-breaking involves cleaning the roofs in the presence of a bot who will reprimand you if you take even a second’s break to catch your breath. In fact, the scene in which Stab stops her work to look up at the Earth through the high barbed-wire fence that separates the school from the vast, lunar landscape reinforces the idea that these kids are far away from home and unjustly imprisoned (p. 24).
However, the real authority figures aren’t the bots but the mysterious members of the Student Council who function as the all-seeing eye of the panopticon. Jeremy Bentham’s concept of the panopticon as a system of control and surveillance was later popularized by Michel Foucault to highlight how disciplinarian regimes exert power over citizens by forcing them to censor themselves, out of fear of punishment—a self-regulation technique to induce docility and allegiance. Be it the classroom, the rooftops, or even the school auditorium at midnight, the students are watched in most public or community spaces. In fact, for Una, her enrolment at this particular school appears to be a punishment for some transgression on Mars (or for being “too difficult” for the schooling system to handle). This is also eerily relevant in light of conversations about the school-to-prison pipeline in the United States, through which minors from marginalized backgrounds are more likely to be incarcerated as a result of school policy.
Yet, even though an education center can effectively function as a prison, the ethos of punk culture alongside the energetic phase of teenage rebellion stipulates that disciplinarian regimes can be upended, or at least negotiated with. For instance, Una has somehow managed to steal a laptop, students still risk passing notes and doodles in class or smoke near the lockers, and one group has even found a way to disable the bots so that they can hang out on the roof under the pretext of detention. This spirit of rebellion culminates in a discovery of an old space shuttle that still broadcasts a signal from Earth—although the cliff-hanger ending suggests that the teenagers’ quest for freedom is about to be punished by a secret and surveilling authority, bringing the age-old dilemma full circle.
This emphasizes another crucial part of punk subculture—its focus on DIY ethics and building solidarity. In punk fashion, ordinary clothing is often recycled to give it a new twist with the help of safety pins, paints, metal studs, and razor blades, while cross-dressing and androgyny are warmly welcomed and celebrated. Moreover, the success of punk bands and their connections to underground culture spawned numerous zines as well as political visual art in the form of graffiti, collage, cartoons, and tattoos. Furthermore, the DIY aesthetics of punk are linked to its anti-capitalist and anti-consumerist stance, signifying a move towards ethical consumption, and are repeatedly referenced in Space Trash.
Unable to escape, the students similarly exercise their freedom in other ways, such as in their sartorial choices, the memorabilia they collect, and even by renaming themselves (Stab, for instance, doesn’t answer to her birth name, Agatha). The dingy and dirty walls of the building are splattered with spray-painted messages, stickers, and rude exclamations. In the privacy of their rooms, the trio can let their unique quirks and personalities shine through the assemblage of vintage posters, favorite toys, and even banned items such as punk music from Earth.
In a tender moment, Yuki borrows Stab’s hair dye to color Una’s hair, and Una shyly asks if she can make a playlist for Yuki. While the overall optimistic tone can be compared to Valerie Valdes’s Chilling Effect (2019-) series, which is also very decidedly hopepunk, the friendship and camaraderie (and perhaps, even feelings) that blossom among Woodall’s characters are also reminiscent of the heartwarming relationships portrayed in comic book series such as Lumberjanes (2014-20) and the standalone Mooncakes (2019). These examples are important because of the widening of the subgenre they represent: the punk musical movement initially voiced the frustrations of disaffected, working-class, white youth and became inclusive of women and people belonging to other genders and disadvantaged backgrounds only much later (for example, the feminist riot grrl punk movement only took off in the early 1990s). The DIY approach undertaken by the primary cast of Space Trash isn’t just about fashion and self-expression but also about survival. Towards the end of the novel, for example, Una’s tech skills come into use when she is asked by another group to help repair the spaceship, and the characters hatch a plan to approach other students and find a way back to Earth.
Of course, as a character in a John Green book once said, “High school is neither a democracy nor a dictatorship—nor, contrary to popular belief, an anarchic state.” In fact, films from Mean Girls (2004) to Do Revenge (2022) have repeatedly brought to light the nefarious power politics among the various cliques and factions of the high school, which are so often built on class privileges and social capital—where appearances and reputation are paramount, forging alliances and betraying one another at convenient moments is the norm, and gossip is wielded as a powerful tool. For much of the narrative, Stab is concerned with coming up with a suitable name for her girl gang, and the three band together when another group, the “Hell Rats,” appears on their turf and steals personal items from their lockers. Yet this altercation and subsequent detention prove to be useful when they decide to work as a team to escape their shared prison.
This high school drama unfolds against a dystopian backdrop in which pollution levels on Earth are at an all-time high, allowing corporations to embark on colonizing other planets under the pretext of evacuating citizens to safer climes. The education center in which the story is set wasn’t created to provide a nurturing and supportive space for underprivileged youth, but to indoctrinate them with the company’s capitalist values—training the students to serve their cause. Stripped of their humanity and reduced to their roll numbers, the teens are expected to meekly perform their roles as efficiently as possible and obey instructions at all times. It is not a surprise, then, that in their dreams Stab and Una revisit the trees and ponds of Earth—visions of a carefree life interrupted by the alarm calling for an immediate midnight assembly. The communal dining hall is emblazoned with posters featuring slogans like “Nutrition Is Key To Productivity!”—as well as company adverts and promotional images that posit the school owners as saviors and protectors of human life and not destroyers or colonizers.
But Una, Stab, and Yuki are mature enough to see through the propaganda. When Yuki reminisces about her life with foster parents on Earth “far from any big city,” Una (who was born and raised on Mars) responds:
“It’s so weird to hear you talk about Earth … I was told it was a total wasteland for, like, the past decade. I couldn’t imagine anyone living there as recently as two years ago.”
Yuki replies by saying:
“ … Makes sense. They want everyone to think they left behind a hopeless wasteland rather than a place that required work and effort. More money to be made sucking a new planet dry, after all.” (p. 42)
It is a short conversation that emphasizes the mechanisms of neo-colonization, as practiced by multinational corporations and sustained by capitalist power structures where monetary profit via exploitation of cheap labor and the planet’s resources is prioritized over all else. Thus, the high school environment functions as a space in which students can, at least privately, question the sort of education for which they are expected to be publicly grateful, while the power struggles and rule-breaking anticipate the kind of wider conflicts they will inevitably face once they come of age.
To counter this bleak future, Jenn Woodall’s art is peppered with retro aesthetics and punk nostalgia—lava lamps, arcade games, anime posters, CD players, playlists, soft toys, vending machines, and a plethora of stickers—all serving to evoke a sense of wistfulness for the past in her readers, and in the lunar residents a longing for their lost homes on Earth. But this nostalgia for the past also has a political purpose, in archiving lesser-known but pivotal moments in history, as well as hearkening back to more sustainable (and somewhat anti-consumerist) lifestyles, focused on recycling and conservation as viable alternatives to the capitalist predicament.
A well-plotted comic, Space Trash also boasts the color-coordinated art which isn’t subservient to the script but adds another layer of texture to the world. The bright, eye-popping hues not only inject a thread of hope and optimism into the narrative, but also invite the reader to look for small details, Easter eggs (such as the Sailor Moon and Astro Boy posters, or Una’s mixtape for Yuki), and explore all corners of the lunar environment for an ever more enjoyable and immersive experience. Another lovely use of textual space is in the front matter of the book, which contains a large panel that depicts the photo ID cards of the three students amidst other paraphernalia (including a box of Pocky sticks and a pen with chewing gum stuck on it). This immediately introduces the protagonists’ names and faces and gives a hint of their personalities, all before we formally encounter them in the story.
Perhaps the only grievance I had with this comic book is that it is too short and ends rather annoyingly with not exactly a cliff-hanger but in the middle of a scene, leaving the reader with several unanswered questions. The frustration stems not from a sense of unsatisfied curiosity about what comes next but rather from the sense of being interrupted in a movie that seemed to have been nearing its end. While the promise of more volumes is somewhat comforting, perhaps it would have been more emotionally satisfying if the narrative was a bit more self-contained, rather than serving as exposition for sequels that are yet to be released.
Still, the lunar education center in Space Trash offers a refreshing take on boarding school narratives. The story heart-warmingly explores friendships between women and finding community, while also tackling relevant, real-world concerns from student debt to the climate change crisis, or the insidious ways in which capitalism operates on a global scale, affecting every aspect of our personal lives. The vibrant art accompanying the underlying threads of hope and rebellion is not only an homage to the punk ethos but also posits punk values as a sufficient alternative to capitalist propaganda. If you’re in the mood for a near-future sci-fi adventure set in space, headed by a girl gang with distinctively retro and riot grrl vibes, pick up the first volume of Space Trash. This is a series definitely off to an exciting and promising start.