Revisiting "Orbital," Orzechowski's Lettering


The third and fourth volumes of the "Orbital" series (published by Cinebook) take us back to earth, where a peaceful conference celebrating the diverse confederation of alien civilizations is, of course, under threats both foreign and domestic. It'll be up to Caleb to negotiate his way around the political nightmare while keeping the conference on schedule without open warfare breaking out. Sylvain Runberg and Serge Pell seamlessly blend the political aspects of the situation with strong action elements to give us a science fiction story that's both beautiful to look at and easy to read and enjoy.

As Cinebook is wont to do, they've broken up the complete story here into two parts. You'll need to buy books 3 and 4 at the same time (at $13.95 a pop) to get the whole story. My recommendation is to do so and then to read them back to back or as close together as you can. There are a lot of moving parts and alien races at play in this book. Keeping them all straight in your head will help you enjoy the story. It's not wildly chaotic or disorganized, but if you're anything like me, you start losing the little details after 24 hours or so. Each book is less than a half hour's read, so you can pull this off in one sitting. For the sake of this review, I'm talking about both books as one cohesive whole.

Putting aside for a moment how twisty the politics are and how intriguing the different alien races act, the art is star of this book. Serge Pelle is an amazing cartoonist. His aliens look alien and not like makeup-encrusted humans on a television show. Yes, they're humanoid, but stretched out enough to be impossible to believably replicate with a simple makeup job. They come in all shapes and sizes, many of them vaguely animal-influenced. They look cool and they look interesting. There's a quote on the back cover that compares the series to "Babylon 5" and "Farscape." It does have the good alien creatures part of the latter along with the politics of the former.

The ships the characters fly have a cohesive look to them, like they belong to a specific period of time. They're not a bunch of random spaceships. They're sleek, rounded, and float easily over surfaces. They have textures and cockpits and little details that make you want to see more of them. (And, yes, being an action piece, they also break apart and explode nicely.) Even though the vast majority of this story is set on earth, those designs are still evident in the vehicles that float across the land and in the water.

Pelle backs those ships up with highly detailed backgrounds. It's the kind of breathtaking art that I read European comics for. Even when the backgrounds aren't necessarily Francois Schuiten-influenced architectural renderings, the way they're drawn in with textures and colors (slightly faded to recede) suggests more than there might actually be on the page. It's a neat trick. Everything looks organic, too. He didn't achieve this look with Google Sketchup and a Cintiq tablet. Or, if he did, he used it in such a way that he adds character to the sterile wireframes he would be starting with.

The final artwork looks like it's drawn with a very tight pencil line and finished in color pencils and watercolor. The pencil lines add great textures on the page. It preserves the energy of the art and keeps things from getting staid.

The colors are much brighter than in the first story (volumes 1 and 2). Owing to the different environments, the color scheme is filled with lighter blues and oranges. (It's nowhere near bright and shiny, but it's a step up from the first two books.) The art looks better in that light, never fighting to break free from the clutches of a dark color that hides the finer lines. Kudos to Cinebook for printing the book at a slightly larger size, on a stock of paper that holds the colors as well as this stock does.

Story-wise, there's a lot to chew on. Caleb is under fire from all corners, including his from alien partner. When local Asian fishermen are killed and a nomadic alien presence is presumed to be at fault, tempers begin to flare on all sides. Caleb is forced to make some difficult decisions to keep the peace and keep events moving along on schedule. But they come at a price, as his job is on the line, his partner doesn't always agree with him, and some of his decisions might backfire in an explosive way. There are no easy ways out in this book, and Sylvain Runberg does a good job in keeping the tension ratcheted up.

Volumes 3 and 4 of "Orbital" are available today through only the finest of comic shops and on-line retailers. Volume 5 is due out in the fall, most excitedly. Given the cliffhanger ending of this story, I'm anxious to see how they work their way around the apparent ending there. It can be done, I'm sure, but we'll see if they can keep their credibility while finding a reset button to hit.


Trust me, this will wrap back to comics shortly. Bear with me.

In a computer programming mailing list I'm subscribed to, the topic of using single quotes versus double quotes in code came up. There are different reasons to use each, and good reasons to default to one or the other. In the course of the discussion, though, I learned a new term. "Guillemets." Being an ignorant American, I didn't know what those were. I didn't even realize that quotation marks weren't universal.

Quoting from the one eternal warehouse of truth and knowledge, Wikipedia:

Guillemets, also called angle quotes or French quotation marks, are polylines, pointed as if arrows (« or »), sometimes forming a complementary set of punctuation marks used as a form of quotation mark.

They're used in France, Norway, and many other countries around the world. So rather than:

She said, "Hello."

They would write:

She said, «Hello.»

(All of this talk about angle brackets is wreaking havoc on the HTML of this column, I'm sure.)

And then it dawned on me: All of those foreign conversations where << and >> were used inside a word balloon in a comic to indicate a non-English language probably came from this practice. It was a staple of Chris Claremont's "X-Men" run. (Or, if you're French, his «X-Men» run.)

Any lettering historians out there know where and when this practice began? Did it begin with Tom Orzechowski in "X-Men," or was it an invention of Joe Rosen or someone earlier? I honestly don't have a clue.


  • In looking through issues of the classic Chris Claremont/John Byrne "X-Men" run for the image above, I was amazed at just how wrong the issues looked when Tom Orzechowski didn't letter them. Everyone else's letters were too big or too wild. Anytime someone tells you that lettering is best when it's invisible needs to look at those issues and see the difference the right lettering style can have on a book.
  • Everything wrong with WizardWorld in one press release headline: "Ralph Macchio Added To Wizard World Comic Con NYC Experience Sunday". This headline does NOT refer to the retired Marvel Comics editor.
  • Having not read "Age of Ultron" #1 - #9, I'm ill equipped to review issue #10. I'll just say this: It seemed simple and straightforward at the start, and then sharply veered off into non-sequiturs to set up the next event instead of telling a satisfying end to the story. The story does have an end, but then it weirdly restarts itself out of left field to create a new story to spin out. But, hey, that's what all these company-wide crossovers do today. They don't worry about telling a complete story. They set up other comics to tell other stories. It's about raising the sales of the often otherwise low-selling tie-in books.
  • Apropos of nothing in particular: For an industry with so much money surrounding it, it's amazing how little money there is IN comics.
  • We bid adieu to Kim Thompson this week, the Fantagraphics co-publisher who died far too young. He's responsible for a lot of good stuff in the comics world. Relevant to this column's interests, his activities in bringing more European comics to America were Herculean. Without him, we wouldn't have the work of Jacques Tardi or Jason available in English in this country.

    On a more "mainstream" note, he also edited "Amazing Heroes," a magazine from the 1980s which many wished "Wizard" would have done more to emulate. Any time you brought up comics magazines in the last decade, "Amazing Heroes" is one that would inevitably pop up as the format most people would like to see return.

  • Speaking of European publishers, comiXology added 14 French publishers to its line-up. There's some good news in this for American readers. While most of comiXology's French language titles are not available here in the States due to licensing issues, there are a handful of titles you can download today. The two of most interest to me at the moment are "Titeuf" and "Le Petit Prince." Just flip through the sample pages of the latter book -- now up to 13 volumes -- and you'll see why just looking at the book almost makes it worth spending $7.99 per book. Gorgeous stuff. "Titeuf" also has a lineup of 13 titles available, and is ridiculously popular over in France.

    Or, if you're feeling less adventurous, you can pick up the French language editions of books like "Kick-Ass," "Scarlet," "The Boys," or "Alec".

  • The Motley Fool website gives us tips for making money inspired by a close reading of Don Rosa's "The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck." (Hat tip to Mark Evanier for blogging this first.)
  • Snark alert! Some might say that Valiant fan-fic at Amazon is no different from the fan-fic Valiant already publishes, itself.
  • While I was busy with other things at the start of the month, Pipeline turned 16 years old. If I'm doing the math right, in another 5 years, I'll have been writing this column for half of my life. That's a plan, then.
  • "Man of Steel" Spoiler: The best part of the movie is that it now opens up the possibility for Batman to finally kill The Joker.
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