Over on her blog, Colleen Doran gives those of us of an artistic bent a masterclass in painting a graphic novel cover. The cover in question is the one she painted for the Warren Ellis-written Orbiter a few years ago.

Colleen mentions that there were a few rough cover ideas submitted to Vertigo before the final design was agreed upon, and I present a couple of these here. I thought, too, that this might be an appropriate place to run a review of the graphic novel that I wrote at the time.

Orbiter rough

ORBITER represents the second comics collaboration between writer Warren Ellis and artist Colleen Doran (the first being the web-only strip Superidol). This 104-page graphic novel presents us with a dismal near-future scenario where three lost souls are seeking redemption.

Ten years ago the space shuttle Venture blasted off for a routine mission in low Earth orbit. Several minutes after take-off it disappeared without trace. Following this disaster all manned space-exploration was discontinued and so the various scientists and engineers connected with it had no purpose. The vast expanse of the former Kennedy Space Center was allowed to fall into ruin. When ORBITER opens, it has become a shantytown housing the flotsam of humanity.

Suddenly, without warning, the Venture returns to Earth — ten years late…

The shuttle’s return reinvigorates the lives of three people who were at one time closely involved with the space program. Michelle Robeson is tasked with investigating where the Venture has been for ten years (Martian dust in the wheel housing gives an early indication); Terry Marx is given the job of finding out what has been done to the craft itself (the Venture is covered in a mysterious skin, and unknown instrumentation fills the interior); Anna Bracken has perhaps the most difficult task – she must get inside the mind of the Venture’s lone occupant: mission commander John Cost, a man who seems to have been driven mad by his experiences.

Orbiter rough

Warren Ellis’s story presents the reader with an intriguing mystery, while at the same time showing how the Venture’s return literally restores the lives of the three scientists. These three, having seen their dreams shattered ten years ago, now stand on the brink of the greatest discovery in history. One that will change their lives – and the world – forever. There are echoes of Ray Bradbury and Arthur C Clarke here, and some will see elements of 50s’ British sci-fi tv serial Quatermass, but that is all to the good. This is a multi-layered tale that combines the best elements of its influences, creating a unified whole that is positive and uplifting.

While a few extra pages wouldn’t have gone amiss, the three leads are strong characters fully realised by the narrative. We see something of their past, and we come to know their aspirations. We like these people because they are not superhuman. They’re fallible and their lives are not what they would have wished for themselves. Normal, down-to-earth types whose heads just happen to be in the stars; in short, they are us. And make no mistake, it is us the story is aimed at: the dreamers who look up at the night sky in wonder; who shed a tear at the disasters that befell Challenger and Columbia; who look at the face of the full moon and see themselves reflected…

A graphic novel does not exist on words alone, and in Colleen Doran’s art we find perhaps the book’s greatest strength. Colleen uses a style that is largely experimental for her, full of stark contrasts, and while it is not totally successful it does suit the story extremely well. The story-telling is exceptional, and the characters are brought to life with graceful body language that is unique in every case. You can tell who the characters are just by the way they hold themselves within the panels (restless dreamer Terry Marx, introverted loner Anna Bracken), and that is a rarity in comics. We are given stunning full-page renditions of some of the wonders the Venture experienced on its travels, and the double-page spread of the shuttle’s violent return to Earth is a solid gold classic.

A word of praise too must go to Dave Stewart’s subtle colouring, which really brings the world imagined by Warren and Colleen to life. A brighter palette would have destroyed the illusion. It is a perfect compliment to the muted watercolours of Colleen’s painted cover: an image that conveys in a single illustration the full sweep of human endeavour in space.

In his introduction Ellis expresses his frustrations over the slow progress of mankind in space. ORBITER is his answer to those who would prefer that the exploration stop; who would cut funding; who would give machines tasks that ought to be done by people. We – mankind – have a restless thirst for knowledge, and a need to seek answers from what we see around us. Ellis and Doran believe that we will find the ultimate answers in space, and so that is where we must go.

After reading this book, you’ll know they’re right.

Orbiter ©2007  Warren Ellis and Colleen Doran