21 March 2005

Retro: Orbiter (TPB)

Prior to 9/11, there were many who believed that my generation's defining moment happened on January 28, 1986, when the space shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after liftoff from Kennedy Space Center, instantly killing all 7 crew members aboard, including the first teacher scheduled to fly in space, Sharon Christa McAuliffe. I was in 11th grade at the time and while it was definitely a notable moment, I recall feeling somewhat removed from it all, born a year and a half too late to have any memory of Neil Armstrong's historic walk on the moon and therefore lacking any real emotional connection to our space program.

In the wake of the space shuttle Columbia's tragic disaster two years ago - exploding during re-entry and, again, killing all seven crew members aboard - NASA suspended all manned space flight while they investigated the accident, and to my adult sensibilities, it felt like submission; the end of an era, and an ominous step backwards. An ill-conceived computerized missile defense system began to look more likely than a human being ever setting foot on Mars.

Now, on May 15, 2005, the space shuttle Discovery is currently scheduled to "Return to Flight," the first manned spaceflight since the Columbia tragedy. Discovery Commander Eileen Collins, when asked about how she'd dealt with the Columbia tragedy, said: "It's time to move on. We will always remember our friends, but it's time to take what they lived for and what they believed in -- space exploration -- and move on and get the Shuttle flying again."

Warren Ellis wholeheartedly agrees.

Ellis recalls Armstrong's "odd little jump from the end of the ladder to the soil of the moon" as his "first memory...being held up in front of a tiny black and white TV set by my mother and being told, 'Remember this.'" And remember it he did, as that moment clearly informs much of his exceptional writing over the years.

His original graphic novel Orbiter - written a few months before the Columbia disaster and published a few months after - is something of a love letter to that "odd little jump" and the achievements it inspired over the years; an ode to the sense of wonder that for a time had telescopes at the top of Christmas lists, and "Astronaut" as one of the most popular answers to the question, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" It's also a pretty damn good sci-fi story full of the geeky science theory and quirky characterization that Ellis is best known for.

Taking place 10 years after the fictional space shuttle Venture disappeared without a trace while in orbit, NASA has ended its manned space flight program and the grounds of the Kennedy Space Center have inexplicably become a shantytown. Without warning, Venture returns, crash landing at the Space Center with only its catatonic Captain onboard, bringing with it the mystery of its whereabouts for the past 10 years. Where has it been? Where is the rest of its crew? Why is it still intact? And why the hell is it covered in skin?

A story like this obviously hinges on a willing suspension of disbelief, something that itself hinges on the sincerity and believability of the characters, and it is there where Ellis shines, with Colleen Doran's emotive artwork and Dave Stewart's muted coloring bringing his exuberant story to vivid life. The primary characters - the Astronaut Corps veteran, the whiz-kid scientist, the depressed psychiatrist, and the traumatized Captain - are all one step removed from Armageddon clichés, but it's a significant step, the difference being the obvious fondness Ellis has for the subject matter, a palpable sincerity that graces every single panel and accentuates the emotional crescendo of its uplifting conclusion.

Dr. Bracken: Venture went away. Crewed spaceflight was cancelled in the wake of your disappearance.

Captain Cost: Jesus. That's all backwards.
In one of the extras on the exceptional Incredibles DVD, writer/director Brad Bird comments on the set design for his movie, noting that he was going for a futuristic look via the optimism of the 60s, when kids still believed they'd be going to work in jet packs and flying cars in the very near future. Somewhere along the line - the ugly truths about Vietnam, perhaps; or the Cold War threat of mushroom clouds subtly but dramatically changing our perception of scientific progress? - that optimism, the dreams of space travel and "going where no man had gone before" faded to a relative contentment with microwave ovens, the Internet and camera phones.

Orbiter recaptures that previous sense of optimistic wonder; the belief that our future lies in the stars above and that space exploration is not only important from a scientific perspective, but from a humanistic one. That it is through our sheer doggedness and ingenuity that we become better people, and that our generation can come to be defined by great achievements instead of crippling tragedies. Or, as Ellis puts it in his introduction, "Because it is too important a thing to allow it to die in the sky."

Orbiter (DC Comics, 2003; $24.95-HC / $17.95-SC) Written by Warren Ellis; Art by Colleen Doran; Colored by Dave Stewart; Lettering by Clem Robins.


Omar said...

Guy is a liar. There is no way he was in 11th grade in 1986. He was 25 in 1986. He's an old mofo!

Erech said...

I was 11 in '86 - you are old Guy.

Reading this makes me really want to get the book now, I don't know why I slacked on it for so long. Your wordy reviews are OK in my book ;)

Guy LeCharles Gonzalez said...

Ok, for the record, you ageist bastards, I was 16 years old in January 1986. I was born on August 16, 1969 - aka, I'm currently 35 years old, with a hot wife, two kids and my own apartment! I may be older than 95% of the members of Newsarama forums, not counting creators, but I'm not O.L.D. Now get the f**k off my lawn with your loud music!

Anonymous said...

I am sorry, but I don't buy the "goodnes" of that book by Ellis. It doesn't sound like good science fiction1

"...whiz-kid scientist...covered in skin..."? Come on, who is buying that crap fad common techniques of making an obnoxious bubble gum, girl crazy teenager a scientist? Why can't it be an experienced older man or woman scientist!? Its unrealistic. And covered in skin? Here we go with the "Aliens" movie sage old overworked theme. Skin. conclusion is that it was inside some sort of "god" or a animal organizm. This is boring and redundant.

I see nothing fantastic, inspirational or wow action about his science fiction. Young kids might like the book due to the "whiz kid", but adults will not enjoy the story.

And you did lie about your age. Why? And how could you not have some sort of feeling for those dead space shuttle astronauts in the early '80s? Just because you were too young to apprecaite Armstrong? YOu sound like a callous, nerdy snob who has no humanity! You are not a real science fiction understanding fan. YOu have missed the total point of science fiction and being human. You like poetry and politics, but do not understand true science or the thirst for new alien cultures or the stars.

Dan Diaz said...

I can only speak for myself, but I think many will agree. Anonymous posts that rip someone are for the spineless. Its one thing not liking the review, but getting personal too, thats just weak.

CBC Contributor

Guy LeCharles Gonzalez said...

I love anonymous comments. Some of the funniest stuff ever comes from people with secret identities. "YOu sound like a callous, nerdy snob who has no humanity!" Larry Young's got nothing on this guy. And you just know it's a guy, some hardcore sci-fi geek who thinks George Lucas is the anti-Christ and girls are icky.


Dan Diaz said...

For me anyway, posts like that are the equivalent of highway accidents. You hate them, but you can't seem to keep your eyes off of it.

CBC Contributor

Erech said...

I love how "you like poetry" has now become this giant, standard insult against you.

Ahhhh sweet comic fanbase, hours of enjoyment you bring me.