For Jo and Mat, their whole world is their space ship, a great, living creature that swims through space. While their astronaut overlords do god knows what up in the control room, it's Jo and Mat's job to clean and care for the ship. But in the isolation of space, Jo makes an unexpected friend, one that threatens to destroy the ship that serves as both his home and his mother.
Sophie Goldstein's melancholy Mother Ship Blues is a short webcomic story, just 40 pages long, but in that span, Goldstein manages to fully convey the strange and sad universe in which Mat and Jo live. They are the grunge workers on this great, moving whale, and their life is filled with mysterious rituals: pills taken in the morning and daily reports on their emotions. They share the ship with Carla and Rick, a pair of astronauts always invisible inside their spacesuits. While Carla and Rick inhabit the relative sterility of their control room, Mat and Jo creep through the lush organic interior of the ship, cleaning its guts and tending to its bizarre ecology. But Jo has difficulty comprehending the reality of the ship—that an entire universe exists outside of it—and his role aboard it. In a fit of loneliness, he lets a parasite invade the ship, an error with disastrous consequences.
Goldstein is the artist and co-creator of the brightly colored (but similarly doom-obsessed) Darwin Carmichael is Going to Hell, and she moves wonderfully from the dingy apartments of her supernatural Brooklyn to the gloomy environment of her living ship, filled with intestinal fungi and wriggling villi. She also manages to tell a tale that captures the smallness of life aboard a ship—where the people you see every day can still be strangers—while also recognizing the vast emptiness of space.
The story gives us hints of a larger world, but like Jo, we never fully understand what goes on in that world. What's the purpose of the ship? What has happened to the people on board in their lives? Why must Jo log his emotions each morning? But those questions are beyond Jo's existence. Instead of building out the details of her world, Goldstein focuses in on Mat and Jo and their intense emotional lives. It makes her world feel no less real, but instead connects us deeply with her characters and the desperate choices they make as their ship begins to die.