Warren Ellis, Colleen Doran - Orbiter

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Posted by Sulkyblue (17th May 2004, 17:19)

I read a graphic novel! I think this may actually be the first one that I've read all the way through. I only read it because I was too lazy to move and it was the only thing within reach to read. The story was an interesting one, 10 years after a shuttle disappears while in orbit, it returns to Earth with only one of it's crew aboard, covered in some form of skin and with mars dust in it's wheels. The shuttle's disappearance had ended manned space flight and it's return is greeted with great enthusiasm by space experts. It's an interesting tale, well structured and well told. But I just couldn't get over the fact that I'd much rather have read the short story, or even a full length novel. I just don't *get* graphic novels, the artwork really doesn't give me anything and I hate the shortening of so much of the text and descriptions. A very intersting story, but I just don't like the format.

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 Jakob ( 17th May 2004, 21:49, Rank: Purple Drazi )  reply

I dunno - I think the comic strip format can work very well for some things. It can be just as dense (in the positive sense) and information-rich as a normal book. Sandman or From Hell spring to mind. At their best, they can combine the visual impact of a film with the cerebral impact of a book; left-brain *and* right-brain art at the same time. Not everyone can do this well, but Sturgeon's law holds for comics as for everything else.

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 John Kirk ( 17th May 2004, 23:49, Rank: Patrician )  reply

First up, I liked the story, although I know what you mean about it feeling a bit rushed (I wasn't sure why the characters were in such a hurry). And I think that it conveyed the writer's enthusiasm for us to actually get out there into space, as seen in his other work. A scene from "The Authority" comes to mind: "you're the first woman to walk on the Moon - take a moment to enjoy it".

As for the medium, I could (and one day will) write a long essay about this. But due to time constraints, a few quick comments for now.

I think that some stories benefit more from the comic format than others. Warren Ellis also wrote "Ministry of Space" (a 3 issue comic series where the British won the space race), and I think the artwork was essential there, since it was very evocative. It was the combination of idyllic England, and the style of the spacecraft (very reminiscent of "Dan Dare"). In "Orbiter", I think the artwork helped, but was less important.

It can be a bit frustrating when comics are a quick read. That was something that bothered me a bit about a recent "Transmetropolitan" paperback (scenes of a storm). I think British creators tend to be better than American ones in this respect, for historical reasons. I grew up reading anthology comics like the Eagle, where an issue would have 10 stories at 3 pages each, rather than one 30 page story. So, that gave an incentive to pack a lot into the space. By contrast, a comic like "Nightwing" would typically use the first page as a splash page (one picture taking up the whole page), then pages 2-3 as a double page spread (one picture across both pages). You can't then say to people "Right, that's your lot, come back next week"! So, if you read "V for Vendetta", it feels very dense - 9 panels per page, on every page. That said, there's nothing wrong with splash pages in the right context. There's a very effective example in a Sandman story (in "World's End"), where most of the pages use small panels but then you get a double-page spread of a huge sea serpent looming over a sailing ship. The sudden shift in scale helps to emphasise the size.

Finally, we are basically stuck with the format that the creative team chose. Even if the story would have worked better as a prose story, we don't have the option of reading it that way, so it's a choice between the comic and nothing. That doesn't negate Lorna's points, but it's how I justify my purchases :)

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 Sulkyblue ( 18th May 2004, 10:26, Rank: Nazgul )  reply

Fair points all. I still haven't read the Sandman books and do honestly intend to try them, I think From Hell is one I tried reading and thought it was dreadful, maybe I didn't give it enough of a chance. Generally I find graphic novels seem to lose depth. I just don't find that the depth of character, story and environment conveyed in the descriptors in books is replicated well enough in the graphics. I slip very quickly into reading the text and skimming the picutres, never studying them, 'cos I generally just don't like the style.

That said, I really haven't read many serious graphic novels, my comic background is mostly Thundercats to be perfectly honest. I always like the X-Men, but never got into the comics because again I felt the stories were just more interesting in themselves without the comic, so tended to drift out and just pick up synopses. Obviously there is an element between the comic and nothing, but I opt to clear my huge backlog of reading list before working on graphic novels.

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 karne ( 19th May 2004, 10:51, Rank: GSV )  reply

From Hell isn't Sandman, it's Lucifer isn't it? There's a huge difference in style.

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 Siberman ( 19th May 2004, 11:15, Rank: Mentat )  reply

so what do people think is the best comic novel of all time then? I suspect that people are going to say one of the sandman stories, but I live in hope of surprises.

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 John Kirk ( 19th May 2004, 11:52, Rank: Patrician )  reply

"From Hell" isn't connected to Sandman or Lucifer - it's a story about Jack the Ripper. Personally I didn't like it much (a bit too bleak for my tastes), but I think it's skilled work. The writer (Alan Moore) is the same guy who wrote "Watchmen" and "V for Vendetta".

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 Sulkyblue ( 19th May 2004, 13:32, Rank: Nazgul )  reply

Ah, I think it was Lucifer that I started reading then (someone left it in the kitchen) and just found so cliche riddled that I couldn't take anymore.

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 John Kirk ( 20th May 2004, 01:19, Rank: Patrician )  reply

Defining the "best comic novel" is tricky, since it depends what you're looking for. My personal favourite is probably "The Death of Jean DeWolff" (a Spider-Man/Daredevil story), since I've read that the most, and my copy is now looking a bit worn. There's one cliffhanger in the middle which still gets my pulse racing now, even when I know how it gets resolved. There are other stories that offer deeper insights, so i think "Astro City: Life In The Big City" is the best crafted.

When you take a long running series like "Sandman", it's difficult to judge a particular story independently of the rest of the series. Similarly, if you take a mini-series like "Marvels" or "Kingdom Come" (4 issues each), you will get a lot more out of them if you're familiar with the characters who appear in them, so you'd need to have read other Marvel/DC comics. In the case of "Kingdom Come", it had some fairly obvious meta-level aspects (talking about changing trends in comics over the years), but they are only obvious if you're aware of those trends.

More generally, it depends how you define the terms. Coming back to the original review, "Orbiter" is a graphic novel, since it is a complete book-length story that was never serialised. Whereas the Sandman paperbacks were originally published as monthly comics, then reprinted later. Would they still count as graphic novels if they hadn't been reprinted? Or could you say that a comic novel is any storyline published in comics, regardless of whether it's been reprinted? In which case, could you take your favourite Sandman story as "the second half of that paperback and the first half of the next one"? For instance, "Sandman: Fables and Reflections" contains issues 29-31, 38-40, and 50. So, it's more of a thematic link than a continuous storyline.

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 Billy ( 9th Aug 2004, 07:47, Rank: Tripod )  reply

A quick comment about Orbiter and Ellis (I am a Warren Ellis case you didn't know) - Orbiter sits very well with a couple of comics that he wrote: Planetary 18 and Global Frequency 12. He seems to be a big fan of DIY spaceflight, and explores various takes on the idea in those 3 books.

As for comics/graphics novels/whatever you want to call these books with lots of pictures in, I agree that they do sometimes lose depth of character and story, but it is a sign of a good comics writer when you don't. A lot of what Ellis writes is throw away crap, but he does also write a lot where there is a lot of characterisation outside of the pictures. You do also need to take time in reading and looking at the pictures (which I never used to), and while that may just add an illusion of depth, it seems to work for me :)

GNs/Collections to read: V for Vendetta (bleak...Alan Moore...), Transmetropolitan (Ellis does Hunter Thompson. In the future. With more drugs), Fables (Willingham - fairy tales alive and well in New York), Astro City (every collection, they all rock. Kurt Busiek) and if you like traditional superheroes, and want to see them in a different light, then Marvels (also by Busiek, with shiny painted art by Alex Ross).

But this thread is closed, and noone will probably read this. But hey, it's stopped me from going to work for another few minutes, which is a good thing.


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