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Friday, Jul 24, 2009
When the drama of the moment ends in Ultimate Secret, the human adventure begins.

‘Ladies and gentlemen, the sky is ours’. It is hard to imagine a more dramatic way to end the scene. Writer Warren Ellis immediately taps our collective hopes of launching at an escape velocity and slipping free of the bond of Earth’s gravity. This scene from Ultimate Secret ends on a moment of high drama, reminding readers that planetary escape velocity is just the beginning. The sky, is literally the limit.


Imagining a more dramatic ending becomes even harder after three pages of dialogue. It is possibly the challenge that accomplished artists most regularly dread. How would you move the story forward visually during narrative phases of nothing but conversation? Artist Steve McNiven responds admirably to the challenge.


Instead of a simplistic shot/reverse-shot mode of storytelling, he deploys a highly animated array of visual techniques. Close-ups morph into worms-eye views, promoting a sense of intimacy. Back-of-the-head shots of protagonist Philip Lawson framing others at the conference table place the audience in the proverbial hot-seat, creating a sense that they themselves are making the presentation. Birds-eye views provide an abstract and visual distance from the imposing scientific detail at just the right moments.


Equal to the visualization, Ellis’ dialogue provides a unique drama of its own. Hard science concepts like zero point energy and breakthrough propulsion systems are driven home in clear and concise language. As lead character Lawson explains these concepts, the drama of scientific endeavor exploration unfolds.


But everything leads back to the spaceship Asis. And the beginning of the human adventure in outer space. As Lawson guides both the supporting characters and audience through the science, the dream of deep space travel is stirred once more.


Our calculations show that the Asis could will develop a speed of some twenty percent of the speed of light. This puts the Moon just hours away. Mars, days away. It puts a return trip to the nearest star within a human lifetime.


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Thursday, Jul 23, 2009
When you reach for the stars, who knows what dreams may come?

Two men of very different destinies. Artist Craig Hamilton makes a compelling visual statement about writer James Robinson’s project of an art deco city in comics evolving from the lives of great men.


For writer James Robinson, the dream of an art deco comics has been a long, slow project. By issue 54 of Starman it had taken nearly five years. Winding its way through a passing exchange between characters, and on to being visualized by the series’ regular artists, Starman’s home of Opal eventually became as much a character as any other. But it is with issue 54, and with guest illustrator Hamilton, that the art deco theme finally transcends the visualization of Opal and influences the medium of comics itself. Ironically, issue 54 is set in the nineteenth century, long before the art deco movement properly took hold.


Hamilton depicts two men whose contribution to Opal live on for longer than a century. In doing so he opposes their individual characters, but also the fabric of the city’s life.


To the left is legendary blood-and-guts lawman, Sheriff Brian Savage, the Scalphunter. To the right stands Herman Moll reclusive (and by the close of the twentieth century, little-remembered) visionary, the fictive inventor of the first spaceship. Contrasted as looking down on their achievements, both remain unaware of the full impact they will have on the future of Opal.


The vibrancy and warmth of the palette used to depict Savage in the Chinese parlor differs sharply from the cold, clinical hues of Moll’s hangar. Yet for all its warmth, Savage’s world will require of Opal defenders prepared to spill blood. While for all the apparent cold of Moll’s panel, it is his work that will nurture the dreams of Ted Knight, the first Starman and provide Jack Knight a means to the stars.


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Wednesday, Jul 22, 2009
Wally Wood's refusal of celebration offers a magnificent statement on the potential of the comics medium.

Perhaps more so than any other artist, Wally Wood has come to symbolize the frustrated genius of comics, bowdlerized and ultimately defeated by mass medium publication. What could his lasting contribution have been if the comics industry of the ‘50s had been primed for creator-ownership like the industry of the ‘90s? Or more to the point, what innovations might the creator of Daredevil’s red suit have given audiences, had he found that acknowledgement he sought from Marvel and DC and gone on to work with classic superheroes?


While Wally Wood’s will always remain as visionary inventor of the ‘32 Panels That Always Work’, the lack of his fuller impact on established superhero characters is sorely lamented. Perhaps the happiest time of his productive life was to be had at the carefree studios of MAD Magazine. Despite his frustration by mass-media corporations Wood’s genius deserves to be recognized, even celebrated.


In an example of his work from that period, Wood pens the closing panels to ‘Flesh Garden’ a parody of Flash Gordon. In an unexpected twist readers discover that Flesh did not return to earth. Instead, he chose to remain on Planet Ming. Once Dale exits, the rocketship is empty.


Wood’s empty rocketship provides a strange and unwitting reply to compliment made by the visionary Will Eisner. Speaking to Frank Miller in their book-length conversation, Eisner/Miller, Eisner appraises Wood as, ‘Wally was a genius. In 1950, he did spaceship interiors that were valid in 1980! I mean thirty years ahead of his time!’.


With ‘Flesh Garden’ Wood presents his audience with an alternative recognition; the idea of potential. Just as the empty rocketship is an exhortation to venture beyond the planet, Wood’s refusal to draw a (no doubt genius) interior reminds readers that like science fiction, comics is ultimately germinal of the world we deserve.


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Tuesday, Jul 21, 2009
Ultimates writer Mark Millar, and artist Bryan Hitch present a compelling argument for the superhero genre being the thematic successor the western, and at the same time tap the elation and exhilaration of spaceflight.

In ‘Grand Theft America’, the final volume of the seminal Millar/Hitch run on Ultimates, the chips are down one last time. America has been overrun by super-powered terrorists and the Ultimates, the first line of defense seem down for the count. With Captain America and Thor incarcerated, Hawkeye tortured, and Black Widow revealed as a traitor, the odds seem stacked against the cadre of superheroes.


Unexpectedly, it is Tony Stark’s Iron Man, drunk and held at gunpoint by the Black Widow, who is first to turn the tide in America’s favor. Escaping capture he dons the earliest model of the Iron Man armor. In another twist, he does not engage the enemy directly; instead he flies towards Stark Space Station, there to activate the most advanced Iron Man to date.


With the theme of self-rescue, Millar provides a cogent argument for the superhero genre being a thematic successor to the western. In westerns the cavalry arriving was a sign of heroes being reintegrated into society, coming home from the frontier. But what happens when society is everywhere, and society itself is being threatened? In this way, superheroes always perform a self-rescue before rescuing others.


Millar’s genius however is to associate the theme of self-rescue with exhilaration of spaceflight. As the view of the Manhattan skyline recedes, eventually replaced with a view of the Eastern Seaboard from the troposphere, Millar and Hitch present their audience with a clear and concise logic. That performing a superhero-style self-rescue for our entire species, is as simple as entering into orbit.


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Monday, Jul 20, 2009
Things should never have gotten this bad

No longer catatonic after prolonged exposure to the rigors of deep space isolation, Venture Flight Commander John Cost surveys the impact of his disappearance on the Kennedy Space Center. It wasn’t supposed to be this bad. KSC is blasted, its amenities now support a growing refugee camp. Somewhere in the wake of having disappeared along with his shuttle and its entire crew, Cost returns to find not only the landscape, but the dream of spaceflight destroyed. Yet Cost returns with wondrous news, he and the crew of the Venture have made first contact with an extraterrestrial civilization. The Venture itself has been retrofitted with science-fictional technologies that allow for super-lightspeed exploration of the galaxy. And he has returned to Earth to ensure humanity takes a permanent step into space. Yet Cost now confronts a humanity that has forgotten how to look up.


In a moving Foreword, writer Warren Ellis sets out the project of Orbiter. ‘This is a book about returning to space in the face of fear and adversity. It’s a book about glory. About going back to space, because it’s waiting for us, and it’s where we’re meant to be. We can’t allow human space exploration to become our history.


‘Human spaceflight remains experimental. It is very dangerous. It demands great ingenuity. But we are old enough, now, to do these things. Growing up is hard. But we cannot remain children, standing on the shore or in front of the TV set’.


The eloquence of hope contrasted starkly with death of the dream of spaceflight, Orbiter speaks to our dreams for a better world, and our responsibility to keeping those dreams alive. Forty years ago, to the day, our species landed human beings on an alien soil using simpler technology than iPhone. It is time to reclaim our heritage, and recall the words of President John F Kennedy: ‘We choose to do these things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard’.


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