Regular readers of this column will note that I have a tendency to repeat the name Warren Ellis an awful lot. I make no apologies for this. Apart from being a comics icon with one of the most diverse bodies of work in the history of the medium, he’s also my favorite comics writer. The man is in a class by himself, and every one of his works, even the shortest of them, is so packed with storytelling layers that you can read them 50 times and still not absorb everything.
Ministry of Space, Ellis’ three-part 2001 sci-fi miniseries for Image Comics, is one of those stories too. On the surface it’s a simple but profoundly intriguing alternate history story, but as it pulls you in, it becomes clear that it’s about more than the implications of one historical event on the future of humanity. It’s about how different societies react when given a colossal power to harness, how the rest of the world responds to their use of that power, and how the world changes or, in some cases, doesn’t really change at all.
In 1945, as World War II was ending in Europe, American forces got their hands on Germany’s brilliant rocket scientists and brought them to the United States, where they gave birth to our space program. Ministry of Space places the German scientists in the hands of the British, who use a clandestine funding source to form their own ministry specifically devoted to space travel. By the end of the ’60s they’ve not only landed on the moon, but established a colony on Mars, and they maintain a stranglehold on everything that exists beyond Earth’s atmosphere. Ellis jumps back and forth between 2001 (then-present day), when the Americans are finally preparing to launch their own space program, and the foundation of the ministry and its early missions in the ’40s and ’50s.
Along the way he crafts a thoroughly British space program, from the more plane-like designs of the spacecraft to the way the space travelers themselves handle their new frontier. It’s a new British Empire founded in the stars, and it’s among the most fun things you’ll ever get to explore in comics.
It’s perhaps a little shocking for some readers that the series is only three issues long. After all, with a concept like this, you could go in so many different directions that it almost seems a shame to let it go after such a brief stay. But that’s part of the point. Ellis, more than many comics writers who spend their time crafting epic 24-part metaseries, is happy to focus in on a microcosm of a new social, technological or cultural condition, explore it like a bullet point, then let it escape into the ether. Ministry of Space is a book about the future and about how it might have arrived faster, but it’s also a book how great power can dramatically alter a culture, about the ethical conundrums of the aftermath of war, and about the thirst for exploration that drives nearly every society on Earth.
All of this is held together by the crisp, detailed art of Chris Weston, who fashions spacecrafts with all the deftness of a sci-fi pro. It’s hard to imagine this book without the look he gave it. Everything is clean and bright and wide open, like a Spielberg film, and in this case that’s definitely a good thing.
I would love to take time here to explore all of the deep thematic connections at work in Ministry of Space, but I don’t want to spoil it for anyone. If you’ve ever read any Warren Ellis comic, you know what I’m talking about. It’s a work so well-layered that you can almost literally get lost in it, only to come back to the surface itching to read it again. It’s one of the most original and powerful sci-fi comics ever written, and it’s a testament to Ellis’ prowess as not just a killer idea man, but a towering Man of Ideas.