Ministry of Space by Warren Ellis
(Artist Chris Weston, Colourist Laura Martin. Letterer Michael Heisler)
Genre: Science Fiction
Date of Publication: Edition Reviewed March 2006, Originally published in Comic format in 3 issues between 2004 and 2005
Publisher: Titan Books
Book Score: 92/100
Concept: 5 / 5
Difficulty: 4 / 5
Enjoyment: 5 / 5
Length: 3 / 5
Reread ability: 4 / 5
Ministry of Space is the type of graphic novel that you show to people who claim the format is all about superheroes beating each other up. While not playing to the clichés of the format it does play to its strengths. The book overall is a stunning example of a story that is engrossing, believable and clever. Equally it is only 3 comic issues and as such is short, somehow however Ellis managed to cram a hell of a lot of stuff into these three issues, and perhaps puts to shame a lot of long drawn out concepts.
The concept of Ministry of Space is an alternate history of the 20th Century where the British empire never fell due almost directly to the main character John Dashwood whom whisked the German rocket Scientists out from under the noses of the Russians and Americans for the express purpose of setting up a British Space program, or the ‘Ministry of Space’. Essentially Dashwood along with “the Doctor”, the never named German scientist (modelled on no doubt Werner Von Braun) manage to get man in space by 1950, on the Moon by 1956 and on Mars by 1969.
Despite all the Sci-fi in the book the centre of it is a character study of John Dashwood who is a very well developed character. He is modelled on the generic English airman, but although this he is very much not a sympathetic character. He is ruthless and only cares about ends not means, he demands for his first flight in space “I want the bloody cabin reinforced and pressurised! I am not going into space wrapped in tinfoil! I’m an English airman and I want to wear my bloody jacket and sit in a decent leather chair!” The price of this however is safety and he loses his legs and the re-entry goes wrong.
Equally his relationship with the Werner Von Braun character is one of mutual hatred; “(the Doctor) I think you’re a monster. And I’m glad you’re a cripple”. Despite the human cost of Dashwood’s arrogance he and the genius of the ‘Doctor’ create an, at first glance, idyllic future, the book flicks between the story of the growth of the ministry of the Sir John Dashwood in 2001. Britain is rich and unchanging, there are kids on jetpacks flying around and people growing plants on Mars in giant domes.
In the future however all Is not perfect, Dashwood is summoned to a space station to discuss the new upstart American space program that is about to send a spaceflight around the moon. Apparently the only reason they are allowed to do so is that they claim to know where Dashwood got the money for the ministry from. Equally in the future while it is futuristic it is clear it remains stuck socially in the 50s, this is where the art excels.
The spaceships are reminiscent of those of the old space adventure stories of Dan-dare although amazingly they do not also look stupid, but practical and very realistic (an achievement in itself). Equally often things are portrayed in that ‘idyllic’ 50s style, a child at the beginning waves to a passing space ship, portrayed in that Enid Blyton style of being unfeasibly quaint and innocent. The dark side is shown with the accident in launching the first nuclear space ship in Woomera, an accident which kills Dashwood’s other companion. England may be rich and bountiful, but it’s colonies are barren and exploited.
Overall Ellis’ writing is sharp throughout, curt and naturalistic dialogue and he successfully writes an intriguing character who is both a driving force behind it but also monstrous and unsympathetic. He also weaves a sci-fi world which sounds incredulous but works very well when seen with the art. Equally it poses a moral dilemma. It is also at times quite beautiful (Dashwood’s story of how he became obsessed with space stands out as atmospheric). It also does some good twists on history, the first satellite in space broadcasts God Save the King in morse code, and the first words of the first man on the moon are “I claim this territory for Her Majesty the Queen and the British Empire, this is not the end of our mission, this is the beginning”. Space is no longer exploration in this alternate history but empire building.
Pros: A Graphic Novel which can appeal to those not interested in super heroes, also Ellis at his Sci-Fi best. It’s also quite cheap on paperback (£9)
Cons: Perhaps a little too short and compactly written for its own good, ironically this may need a bit more space to expand the universe.