Global Frequency

Global Frequency: Planet Ablaze

Global Frequency was a group of 1001 individuals (“freaks, geeks, and security risks”) from around the world. Each was an expert in some technology or ability, and each was given a special cellphone. When it rang, they’d be called into action to save the world from a bleeding-edge threat that normal people didn’t even understand.

Writer Warren Ellis used this premise to explore various science fiction concepts. Each of the 12 issues was a standalone story illustrated by a different artist. The formula allowed for a new idea to be introduced, as different agents were called upon, briefly explored, and then defeated in a creative or, more frequently, excessively violent way.

Volume 1, Planet Ablaze, reprinting issues 1-6, contains the following stories:

Global Frequency: Planet Ablaze

  • “Bombhead”, about a living Cold War weapon whose breakdown risks nuclear destruction of San Francisco, art by Garry Leach (an excellent choice to start the series, able to draw people and tech equally well)
  • “Big Wheel”, about a damaged killer bionic man (the most horrific tale of the bunch), art by Glenn Fabry
  • “Invasive”, about an alien meme turning people into a hivemind and love saving the day, art by Steve Dillon
  • “Hundred”, about an Australian cult threatening to blow up an office building, art by Roy A. Martinez (given the number of gunfights, this one is mostly an action movie with some cracks about crazy web designers)
  • “Big Sky”, about a town in Norway going crazy after their church was burned down (the most ambitious and striking story, both textually and visually, exploring religion, perception, and magic), art by Jon J Muth
  • “The Run”, about a parkour runner chasing an Ebola bomb, art by David Lloyd (providing beautiful scenes of motion)

I don’t know what spurred me to revisit this series from 2002. Given its premise, I knew it would have aged. Most obviously, the special cellphone resembles a Tivo remote more than any modern communication device. And the phones stay merely phones, missing out on the smartphone/mini-computer model that’s today’s cutting edge. But these two volumes were still entertaining to read, like a series of really good mini-action movies, although book 1 is much better than book 2.

The idea of a group working together beyond country, tied together by internet and cellphone, is attractive and reflective of the life of many of its potential readers. Their ability to access any of the many machines that populate our daily lives gives them a kind of superpower as well as reminding us just how much technology has permeated our world. The storytelling is dense, heavy on concept and ramification pushed just a little further into science fiction.

I was surprised, though, to note just how little characterization there was in the cast. Even Miranda Zero, the head of the group, is a one-note tough woman making hard and right decisions instantly with snappy patter. The character types were familiar to me from Ellis’ other works, such as Aleph, running central communications, a pretty/edgy young woman whose life is conducted online. Those two continuing characters are the only ones we have any sense of.

Global Frequency: Detonation Radio

Volume 2, Detonation Radio, reprinting issues 7-12, starts getting more into its own mythology, and the ideas aren’t as strong. It contains the following stories:

  • “Detonation”, another shootout, this one to stop a terrorist, art by Simon Bisley, whose more cartoony art isn’t in keeping with the tone of the series so far
  • “.001”, a wisecrack-driven piece in which Miranda Zero is taken captive and the team sets out to find her, art by Chris Sprouse and Karl Story
  • “(Untitled)”, a tale of body horror with a resistant retired volunteer sent to investigate insane surgeons, art by Lee Bermejo
  • “Superviolence”, about two pain-resistant men beating on each other, art by Tomm Coker
  • “Aleph”, showing how the comm expert copes when headquarters is infiltrated, art by Jason Pearson, whose over-sexualized view of female characters unfortunately undercuts the message of competency
  • “Harpoon”, about stopping an old, broken satellite from destroying Chicago, art by Gene Ha

In general, the characters may not like people, but they’re willing to sacrifice themselves for humanity. Many of them are atoning for the previous use of their talents for the military or government, finding a way to help the world that’s more ethically preferable or better suited to them.

I’d call this the quintessential Warren Ellis series, blending his approaches to storytelling (in structure, this is a precursor to Planetary), dialogue, characters, technology, style, suspense, and the need for hard decisions and sacrifice.

Update: Out this week is Global Frequency: The Deluxe Edition, a single-volume hardcover collection of the series.



8 comments

  • Noah

    I LOVE Global Frequency! Good points on all counts, Johanna. But I’d add a few things I think are worth mentioning:

    – Ellis hit on the idea of a tech-savvy “Smart Mob” before it became big: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Smart_mob

    – All of the covers are by Brian Wood, which necessarily makes them incredibly awesome.

    – There was a pilot filmed for a Global Frequency tv show, but it wasn’t picked up. It was leaked onto Bittorrent in 2005. Wired wrote about it here:

    http://www.wired.com/entertainment/music/news/2005/06/67986

    The writer of the series, John Rogers (also behind the new awesome show, Leverage) had a bunch of blog posts about the show here:

    http://kfmonkey.blogspot.com/2005/06/gf-storm-surge.html

  • This is one of my favorite books, not only for Ellis’ tight, quick-paced writing, but also for the slew of amazing art that graces the pages. Ellis is in full form here, and his idea-splosions never get in the way of a tight, solid story. The fact that a TV pilot was made of this, and then trashed, is very bizarre, and also fitting, as I think that something would get lost in the translation. Essential modern comics reading!

  • Sarah

    For me, the whole thing was, oddly enough, too sentimental. It’s a puzzle anthology, but the stories spent too much time trying to make us care about the done-in-one characters. Fun, though.

    Michelle Forbes, the woman who played Admiral Cain on BSG, was Miranda Zero in the pilot–thought she did a good job.

  • Dave Snyder

    Planetary would be the precursor to Global Frequency, wouldn’t it? It started years before.

  • catullus

    Adventure anthology comics in the 1950s (“My Greatest Adventure,” “Tales to Astonish”) played heavily on the ways in which “everyman” (and then, not “everywoman”) would be thrust into a unique situation, and still prevail. The genius of Warren Ellis was to graft so much structure as was necessary to introduce contemporary everymen and everywomen (yeah, the 1001 were supposed to be unusual, but aren’t we all?) to situations where, well, just what would an ordinary person do?

  • Sarah

    …but everyone in the stories was extremely good at whatever they were being called upon to do. Most of us in those situations couldn’t free-run across an entire city in twenty minutes or whatever, so the answer to that question would be “cry and get eaten by the threat.” It was a competence-fetish series. Nothing wrong with that.

  • My favorites were “Invasive” and “Big Sky.” And probably “The Run” after that. I guess I preferred exploring the weird concept over using the concept to introduce a shootout.

  • Dave: Gracious, you’re right! I thought Planetary must have come after GF since it’s still waiting to be finished. Turns out it started 3 years before. Thanks for the correction!

    Catullus, great observation. Noah, thanks for the links. And Kelson, yes, I agree. The shootout issues were my least favorite.

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