posted by @HeyItsKamo
Would a catastrophic disaster jeopardize the future of our planets space program? A scary thought, but as it turns out… it actually almost did.
Orbiter, written by Warren Ellis (Planetary, Desolation Jones, Transmetropolitan) and illustrated by Colleen Doran (A Distant Soil), is an incredibly imaginative and beautifully drawn graphic novel that gives us a glimpse at the future of space travel. Well, that’s not exactly what it’s about- it’s more like a crazy look at what might happen when aliens decide they’re bored and want some new playmates- in this case… US!
The story starts with the long lost manned space craft, space shuttle Venture, returning to Earth and landing at Kennedy Space Center- actually, crashing and killing hundreds of residents who’ve built a shanty town at KSC is a more accurate description of the ships return voyage. Right off the bat, something isn’t right. The ship was lost to unknown reasons a decade earlier, shortly after its launch (motherfucker straight up vanished right after it entered space), which caused the government to completely scrap the entire US space program- the National Aeronautics and Space Administration stopped all future research into manned space flight and the very idea of whether or not man is destined for space is in question.
Once word gets out that the Venture is back, it’s clean-up and assessment: what is this previously lost space ship doing back on Earth, and just where the hell did it go the past ten years? A Colonel from US Space Command is spearheading the operation, but doesn’t know shit about what’s going on, so he does the logical thing and calls in some experts in various fields- Dr. Anna Bracken worked on the NASA Psychiatric Evaluation Team, talking with astronauts about their occupation/missions and helping them understand their experiences. Dr. Terry Marx (this character looks and acts a lot like The Drummer from Planetary) used to work on the NASA Breakthrough Propulsion Team, where he designed, built, and tested experimental rockets for space shuttles. Dr. Michelle Robeson worked for the Astronaut Corps, a NASA scientist that devoted her life to space. The three have one thing in common: they all worked for NASA before the Venture was lost and the program was disbanded, and they love the he*k out of space. So, two things in common. Also, they all think dogs are cool. Food too. Okay, they have a lot in common, I guess…
Once all the experts are gathered, it’s up to them to assemble some teams and figure out what kind of journey this lost space shuttle took- how does something that and with that amount of technology inside of it (I’m assuming space shuttles come with some kind of navigation system and maybe a beacon that tells mission control where the fucking ship is, right?) big completely disappear for ten years and then suddenly reappear almost completely unchanged? Either way, our scientists need to find out quick- this incident is classified 31 levels above top secret, and the clock is ticking.
Upon closer investigation of the ship, Dr. Robeson discovers that, when touched, the shuttle hardens into a strange substance- some kind of bionic skin. “Don’t look at me,” says the Colonel. “Working out why Venture cam back covered in skin is your job.” Maybe figuring out where the ship has been all this time will be a bigger task than originally thought…
It only gets stranger from here. Turns out one of the crew members is still on board, he’s speaking an unknown language and gone completely crazy and- wait. I don’t want to ruin it for y’all! I’ll just say this: the story alone is worth checking this one out. Ellis is the king of weird twists in the comic book world, and Orbiter is no different in this respect.
The opening sequence of the Venture returning home is an incredible and devastating scene; the color of the scene is a grey-brown bleak, almost something you would think of if someone said “desolate wasteland”, while the main action of the panels are just as powerful- a beat up space shuttle makes its fiery crash return to the planet. The two interact perfectly, and this (the pairing of color with mood of the scene, that is) is continued through the rest of the novel.
I think the most striking thing about the book, which I had never heard of until I found it in the back of a local comic shop with other seemingly random trades, is the subject matter. “What would happen if a ship disappeared? Where would it go? What would it and its crew see? Is an alien intelligence involved? Are they hostile or friendly? What would happen to the future of space research and travel?” I like to think that the story was written with these questions in mind, as they are all addressed in the pages of this graphic novel.
This isn’t typically a comic book/graphic novel that I would go out and actually look for- there’s nothing really supernatural about it (except for the modifications to the ship and the fact that an alien intelligence was responsible for the disappearance), there are no hulking giants destroying cities, no zombies are staggering around, no distressed damsels are in need of rescue by a heroic knight or flying superhero. Put simply, this is the story of what happens when passionate characters are allowed to do what they love, mixed in with a little bit of science-fiction and mystery.
Ellis, a huge science-fiction and space enthusiast, had a bit more to say about space travel and the future of this endeavor in his dedication and forward of the book. The graphic novel, which was published shortly after the space shuttle Columbia disaster in 2003, is “dedicated to the lives, memories and legacies of the seven astronauts lost of space shuttle Columbia during mission STS-107.”
I think that with this story, Ellis is trying to say that disasters in the field of space travel and research may happen, but what can be discovered if man keeps reaching for the stars is unknown and, in the case of the Venture, beyond what we can imagine.