We live in cynical times. We live at a time when much is taken for granted, and advances in technology are a given, not something to be wondered at. Space travel is no big deal, and shuttles going up into the heavens only make the news when tragedy strikes. Apollo XIII, Challenger, Columbia—these names we remember, because it is apparently the tragedies that make the best stories. Do you remember which Apollo missions landed on the moon without looking them up? We are at a place in our history where we feel we’ve made all the big discoveries, and that anything else is just a matter of degree. We have become complacent. We have become jaded.
Warren Ellis is not only one of the most prolific writers in comics but also one of the most talented. He is capable of creating works as disparate as a gonzo journalist’s view of a dystopian metropolis (Transmetropolitan) and historical fiction set in 14th Century France (Crécy). As diverse as his body of work is, the common thread seems to be that in all of his stories, people are indestructible. We may sink to some low lows, but it would take a lot to snuff out our desire to survive and thrive; to explore and leave the world better than we found it; to be curious and filled with wonder.
Orbiter is set at a time when manned space flight is a thing of the past. A decade earlier, NASA sent a shuttle called the Venture into space where it, along with its 7-person crew, disappeared from orbit never to be seen again. This caused the world’s space programs to eliminate all manned flight, limiting themselves to robotic exploration.
That is, until Venture mysteriously reappears and crashes back to Earth with a single survivor, and a fuselage covered in skin.
In many ways, Orbiter is a good-old-fashioned mystery. How did the ship get here? What happened to the rest of the crew? It succeeds in making the search for these answers suspenseful and pleasurable, even to those not interested in space stories or travel. Ellis accomplishes this by creating carefully etched characters for us to follow into the heart of the mystery: Dr. Anna Bracken, of the NASA psychiatric evaluation team; Dr. Terry Marx, of the breakthrough propulsion team; and Dr. Michelle Robeson of the astronaut corps. Each of these people has not only a deep love of space, but a deep love of what it takes to get there. Anna is fascinated by what makes astronauts tick, and how they’re affected by what they’ve seen. Terry is a hotshot young physicist who was born too late, never got to apply what he knows to crewed space flight. He is thrilled by the chance to explore this piece of history. Michelle was on the last manned flight before Venture’s disappearance and desperately misses the opportunity to go up. The reader wants to find out what happened to Venture, because this exceptional team does.
And then there is the lone survivor, John Cost, the mission’s commander, who has had the opportunity to see things no other human being has ever seen and becomes their link to humanity’s lost wonder.
Setting the story at a time in the future when human beings no longer go into space was a brilliant choice, as it is the perfect way to examine our own cynicism. They, like us, are bored with space. Before Venture returns to Earth, people use old NASA flags as rugs in makeshift shacks. Not only is space becoming “ancient history”, but it is not even a part of ancient history that is fashionable enough to care about. As the NASA team attempts to solve the mystery, we are reminded of how miraculous is that people can go into space at all, and how miraculous it is that any of them make it back.
Colleen Doran’s artwork is also responsible for the story’s success. If Orbiter is the story of humanity reacquainting itself with wonder, we see that journey on every character’s face and in every panel, from the slums in the parking lot of the old Kennedy Space Center, to Venture itself, alive and covered in skin. Doran’s greatest triumph is in the face of John Cost, and in the silent, profound panels in which we see him light up at the thought of where he has been. Both she and colorist, Dave Stewart, capture a mood that is at once modern and nostalgic.
Ellis’ Introduction to the hardcover edition of Orbiter begins with him describing being bitten by the space bug as a child. It was then that he watched human beings walk on the moon for the first time. Those memories, as well as the Columbia disaster put the completion of Orbiter into sharp focus. Ellis writes, “[Orbiter is] a book about glory. About going back to space, because it’s waiting for us, and it’s where we’re meant to be.” From the inspiring introduction to the inspiring story itself, Orbiter is perhaps a perfect comic for this period in American history, when a current of optimism can be felt within the Obama administration. In order to fulfill our destiny as a species, it is not enough to merely exist. We must obey the impulse to explore. Orbiter challenges us to remember wonder.