Since this review was posted, Warren Ellis was outed as an abuser. As comic books are a collective effort, this review will remain live, but I cannot in good faith recommend purchasing this book or other works by this person.
Comic book review for Vertigo’s Orbiter by Warren Ellis and Colleen Doran
If you’re going to read Orbiter, I suggest one thing: be a giant space fan. This is Ellis’ love letter to space. In fact, he writes a foreword in which he tells space he’d like a date with it on Friday at 8 p.m. And how humanity will benefit greatly from space travel. If we’d just go there already, dammit. I tend to agree with this statement, and predictably, I enjoyed this tale.
Orbiter takes place in the not-so-distant future. Here there has not been a manned (or womaned) space flight in 10 years, and the Kennedy Space Center grounds has become something of a tent-city. The beginning is interesting in that it’s the only real time we get a glimpse of what life outside the privileged scientists and doctors’ world-view looks like. Apparently, things are no good.
And while I wouldn’t considered Ellis’ vision of a not-so-distant future to be dystopian, it is still a further decline in terms of need and humanity’s destruction of Earth. Clearly, Ellis believes that humanity needs to explore space, not just because it’s cool and the final frontier, but for the survival of the species due to a dying planet.
Suddenly, a space shuttle called the Venture lands at Kennedy Space Center and ominously, the Venture kills the people who’ve camped out on its runway. The Venture’s been missing in space for 10 years. And it’s the reason the space program was shut down.
A three person team assigned to the Venture is Michelle Robeson, a biologist and the last living astronaut; Terry Marx, a physicist working in jet propulsion; and Anna Bracken, a psychiatrist who used to work at NASA with the astronauts. Quickly, there are several mysteries that they need to solve. They find dust from Mars in the wheels of the Venture. The Venture is covered in a skin-like material. And the Venture came back with only its pilot, Captain John Cost.
Terry works on figuring out the propulsion of Venture. It’s been changed by something. Or someone. He quickly discovers that there’s gravity being created on the ship. I felt like Terry was the character Ellis was most engaged with. Ellis most understood Terry’s point-of-view and wrote from it the majority of the book. Ellis certainly has mastered the techno-babble laced with some layperson’s science.
Michelle is in charge of figuring out where the Venture’s been. How far it went, and how Cost survived it. Cost has no damage in his body one would expect to find after that long in space. In fact, he appears younger. Michelle’s the character with the least presence. I don’t know anything about her, except she’s broken because she’s not in space. Astronauts are supposed to be in space. I do think it’s telling that the character Ellis is most disconnected with is black and a woman compared to Terry, the white man.
Anna is the one who helps John come to terms with being back on Earth. She’s also perhaps the saddest character in the story. Anna’s more fully realized than Michelle, but less than Terry. She’s also the ones who bring the characters together. Perhaps Anna misses space even more than Michelle.
In the second half, they solve all the mysteries. Or at least come up with the theories behind what really happened. And Ellis pens the story in a way that you know their theories are indeed correct about the Venture and its modifications.
A major criticism of Orbiter is that there is no third act. But I feel Ellis does this on purpose. Humanity in space is left up to our imagination. Humanity’s interactions with other worlds and aliens are also up to our imaginations. Not to mention, the Venture’s second trip into space and the introduction of humans into space probably would’ve led to another book. And Ellis just wants us to remind why space is important, why we need to get out there.
As far as art, Doran’s pencils are remarkably unremarkable. I’m not a huge fan of her art, but nothing in this book made me dislike it, but similarly nothing won my attention either. Doran loves space just as much as Ellis, and I don’t wonder if this story had more stories in space that she would’ve upped her game.