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Hailing Frequency

  Global Frequency: Planet Ablaze

 

Warren Ellis, Various Artists

Wildstorm / DC, 2004

Rating: 4.2

 

 

Posted: February 16, 2004

By Kevin Forest Moreau

Like most comic writers, Warren Ellis made his bones toiling in the superhero genre before making a conscious decision to move in other directions. The transition wasn't a problem for Ellis, a writer with a strong, identifiable sensibility that has translated easily into other kinds of tales. Like his contemporary Grant Morrison, Ellis writes with a strong grounding in science and a keen sense of just where, on technological and personal levels, the mundane and the fantastic intersect. More to the point, his imaginative scenarios in books like Planetary and, now, Global Frequency are cut from the same cloth as his work on The Authority. The threats to civilization are still colorful, extremely well realized and (in some cases, anyway) disturbingly plausible -- it's just in Frequency, the protagonists are real people instead of musclebound special-effects programs with severe neuroses.

The Global Frequency is a semi-shadowy organization, somewhere between an urban legend and a secret black-ops agency, peopled by 1,001 specialists in a wide range of fields, scattered across the globe. The people on the Frequency all live normal lives -- which is to say that none of them can bench-press a city bus or live in sentient spaceships floating in interdimensional space -- but they also carry with them, at all times, a uniquely shaped cell/videophone that when it rings links them to Aleph, the Frequency's quick-witted dispatcher. When that happens, the person called -- be it a former sniper, an employee at the Centers for Disease Control or a helicopter pilot -- is tapped to contribute their expertise in regards to a current and specific threat. In Global Frequency, then, the heroes are people just like you and I -- if, that is, we happen to have come to the attention of, and been recruited by, the Frequency's enigmatic leader Miranda Zero.

Planet Ablaze, which collects the first six issues of the comic, doesn't offer any backstory detailing the origins or inner workings of the Frequency; the closest we get to any concept of how it's even partially funded comes when Zero offhandedly mentions that some nations pay the Frequency hush money not to discuss some of the things it's mobilized against. If Ellis is planning at some point to lay bare any political maneuverings or behind-the-scenes machinations, a la 100 Bullets, say, he gives no indication of that here. Instead, each self-contained issue shows a member or members of the Frequency in action against a particular situation.

Given Ellis's previous work, one would be surprised if such larger-scale complexities didn't eventually work their way into the title. But if he only wants to turn out a limited monthly series of thoughtful mini-thrillers, he's succeeded quite handsomely. The first story, "Bombhead," builds its suspense nicely as we follow a Frequency agent, in media res, in pursuit of a Russian émigré tied to an electromagnetic anomaly. Aleph, a smart and capable young woman with a punk-rock fashion sense, puts the operative in touch with an agent at MIT (interrupted in the middle of some serious S&M play, from the looks of it) who posits that the Russian is less than a half-hour away from opening "something very like a black hole" in San Francisco. From there, Ellis paints an X-Files-worthy picture of an obsolete, long-gone Soviet "bioweaponeering" project whose post-Cold War decay threatens to explode a Russia-based nuclear warhead via a wormhole.

Of the six threats the Frequency faces in Planet Ablaze, three are grounded in this science-fiction realism; one ambiguously hints at either a mind-boggling coincidence or supernatural origins; one is a straight shoot-em-up with all the zip and emotional involvement of a video game; and one concerns a young woman -- a Le Parkour runner, or someone who treats the city as an urban obstacle course, "like Tarzan with buildings" -- racing across London to stop the detonation of a bomb ready to spread the Ebola Zaire virus. Oddly enough, perhaps, it's the stories most rooted in reality that strain under the weight of contrivance: It makes some sense that the Le Parkour runner might be an efficient way to get to the location of the bomb, once it's revealed (thanks to a hilarious scene involving a lawyer operative interrogating a couple of geeky environmental terrorists), but we're never convinced that the story wasn't conceived just for shots of a sleek young woman leaping across rooftops, swinging off of fire escapes and jumping off of buses. Likewise, in the shoot-em-up chapter, in which two agents blaze their way through a cadre of idiotic zealots getting ready to blow up themselves and some hostages if their demands aren't met, we're asked to believe that the group posted its demands and intentions only on its own website, and somehow fully expects the world to learn of the situation and act on it. Shaky reasoning, even for suicidal fanatics.

But those are small criticisms. Planet Ablaze offers an intriguing central concept and delivers on it with suspense and flair. Each of the six artists (including Garry Leach, Steve Dillon, David Lloyd and Glenn Fabry) does a good job of moving the action along and keeping things rooted in the same consistent world. In its use of ordinary men and women tapped because of their unique specialties and backgrounds to face threats both small and violent and plausibly, fantastically epic, it reads like G.I. Joe meets The Authority by way of Mission: Impossible. And Ellis plays to his strengths, combining inventive science, impressive research and vacuum-sealed plotting in the service of a diverting and compelling read.

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 Ratings Key:
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 4.0-4.9: First-rate
 3.0-3.9: Solid
 2.0-2.9: Mediocre
 1.1-1.9: Bad
 0.0-1.0: The worst

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