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September 12, 2005

Filed under: fiction»reviews»ellis

Graphic Novel Review: Global Frequency: Planet Ablaze and Detonation Radio

There are a thousand and one people on the global frequency, each an expert in his or her field and ready at a moments notice to rescue people from threats that no-one else could handle. It's a brilliant premise by Warren Ellis, and it lets him play with the conventions of comic books--each issue is drawn by a different artist, has a unique and unconnected plot, and even a new cast. There are only two recurring characters: the leader of Global Frequency, Miranda Zero, and her assistant/coordinator, Aleph. Everything else is new with each episode.

Unfortunately, the quality can vary from issue to issue as well. The artwork ranges from fairly traditional four-color pieces to beautiful painted or inked panels. Of the former, Simon Bisley's "Detonation" stands out. Lee Bermejo's shaded work (which doesn't seem to be titled) is stunningly rendered, but Jon Muth's "Big Sky" really goes above and beyond, with its rough black inks scraped across the page like a sumi-e painting. Unfortunately, Ellis's writing for that issue can't keep up, a problem that often undermines Global Frequency.

You certainly can't accuse the creators for lacking ambition. The whole project is an unconventional idea that tries to fit in lots of other oddities. But sometimes those concepts get away from them--or worse, turn out to be not so mind-boggling after all. The "Superviolence" issue collected in Detonation Radio is just one big fist-fight, taken to sick Comics Code-busting extremes, but it simply doesn't flow well enough--or differentiate between the combatants--to be anything but a muddled, confused mess. "Big Sky" is like an X-Files episode where the magic turns out to be something disarmingly mundane, and it never gets up enough momentum to make the mystery satisfying when it's solved.

But when the writing and the art work together, Global Frequency is a great example of comics written for adults, not for superhero-obsessed fans. "The Run" introduces the audience to the city-running sport of le parkour, and pairs it with smart dialogue. "Hundred" works as an over-the-top action movie, with plenty of guns and gore that rivals even Ellis's own Authority. And some of the characterizations are brilliant, like the Russian hitman in "Detonation":

"I'm aware of the young lady. The Lam case in Kowloon. But you, Mr. Grushko...?"

"Did you ever have a nightmare about a large man who killed your parents, and your siblings, and then your lover, and then everyone you know? And then burned your house down and destroyed everything precious you ever conceived of? That was me."

Warren Ellis is one of the few comics writers whose graphic novels I regularly buy. His Transmetropolitan is a brilliant and hyperactive political satire, and The Authority betrays his glee at destroying as much of superhero comics as he can. But it's also obvious that as an author he sometimes gets stuck on an idea long after he should have let it go--Stormwatch previews the plot and themes of Authority, and the archetypal smartass Ellis stand-in (Jenny Sparks, Spider Jerusalem, and to some degree Miranda Zero) can get old quickly. That's one reason while I've always admired Planetary as perhaps his best work--the cast is interesting without being transparent, and the writing is more even along the story arc.

Global Frequency and Planetary are similar in structure, but in stepping away from the superhero deconstruction GF takes more risks. Ultimately, it's a fascinating experiment that may be too chaotic for the average reader. If you're interested in sampling the books, the first volume (Planet Ablaze) is probably a little bit better than the second.

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