BLOG: Why You Need To Read Orbiter

BLOGGERS’ WEEK Alasdair Stuart waxes lyrical about the Warren Ellis work that he considers “one of the best graphic novels of the past 20 years”

Written by Warren Eliis
Art by Colleen Doran
Lettering by Clem Robins
Colour by Dave Stewart
Published by DC Vertigo (2003)

There are four graphic novels I return to. V For Vendetta for the uniquely English dystopia that it depicts, Transmetropolitan for its stunningly-depicted future, DMZ for its very different, equally impressive look at a broken New York and Orbiter . Orbiter isn’t a story about political cultures clashing; it isn’t a look at a broken hero at the end of his life; and it features no tattooed journalists dispensing tremendous justice with a bowel disruptor. It is, however, one of the best graphic novels of the last 20 years.

The idea is simple; ten years ago the space shuttle Venture disappeared in orbit. Unable to find any trace of it, NASA collapsed, the space program was mothballed and the Kennedy Space Centre became a shantytown. Then, ten years after it disappeared, the shuttle makes a controlled landing at Kennedy, wreaking havoc as it does so. When the dust settles, and the bodies are removed, it becomes clear the Venture is covered in skin, it’s in top condition and one crewmember is aboard. He hasn’t aged a day.

NASA brings in a team of specialists to try and understand what’s going on; one is a former astronaut, one is a propulsion genius born ten years late and one is a psychologist whose job it is to get through to the surviving mission commander. Together they work out what modified the shuttle, why everything inside it seems different, where it’s been for ten years and why, John Cost, the astronaut aboard, is catatonic and barely a day older than when he left. The conclusions they reach are extraordinary.

Orbiter makes me tear up every time I read it. One of my earliest memories is watching the first Space Shuttle launch and seeing that weird, iconic, botched together spacecraft come apart not once but twice in my lifetime, broke my heart. Orbiter was being worked on before, during and after the Columbia disaster and the love the book, and its creative team, have for spaceflight in general and NASA’s birds in particular is palpable. This is a story about a space truck that goes further and faster than it ever expected to, a story about a shuttle that doesn’t just fly, it soars, and the romance and joy and beauty of that is communicated in ways that make my breath hitch. Splash pages of the shuttle somewhere impossible are scattered through the book, each revealed as the team figure out a little bit more, come a little closer, get a step more in pace with the giants who stole it and then sent it home. Doran’s precise character work and love for expression and scale are given space to absolutely shine here and Orbiter is some of her career best work, especially in the closing stages as the plot really begins to fall into place.

Orbiter is extraordinary. It’s a love letter to a space truck that should never have worked, a hymn to a lost future we’ll eventually get back. It’s a story about the difference between flying and soaring, between surviving and living, a call to adventure wrapped in carbon heat tiles, skin and history. Orbiter’s a modern classic. You need to read it.