You’re not alone — you’re on the Global Frequency
Solitude is the essence of the human condition, the one unassailable fact that we spend our entire lives railing against. Almost every human activity not directly related to the basics of survival — food, shelter — is devoted to overcoming crushing loneliness. For each of us, our minds, the totality of our selves, are perfectly and permanently sealed inside a bag of soggy, slowly rotting meat and bone. The soul, if you want to call it that, is caught in that corporeal prison and can only know others through the imperfect tools of our senses.
Language is an attempt to reach some understanding of our fellow humans. Religion is the desperate rationalization against loneliness — there’s not just a god, but one that listens to us and knows us, that gets into the solitary confinement of our skulls. So much advertising is about fighting loneliness. People who drink this beer, wear these jeans, eat at this fast food toxi-rama, all have more and better-looking friends than you do. Pony up the pay from your days slogging in the cube farm and you could be as popular, as attractive, as exciting. And art — People make art to share what’s in their heads, to put it out into the world and break the isolation. People consume art to see into other lives, to understand ideas and experiences beyond their own. Without that driving fear of loneliness, we could all just eat, shit, fuck and cower in caves without need to tell stories, paint pictures or drag our asses to happy hour after another soul-shriveling day on the time clock.
Warren Ellis understands this, and has been creating little islands of hope in comic book form for several years. Global Frequency, his best attack against the feeling of isolation in an impersonal and often scary world, would be on a TV near you by now, but the Powers-That-Be in tee-vee land are evil. Or stupid. It’s hard to tell sometimes.
Global Frequency was a 12-issue comic book series, released in 2003, now collected in two volumes. The concept? When the world, or the chunk nearest you, is about to be destroyed by something way beyond normal, members of a 1001-member worldwide network are summoned—whoever’s nearest or most needed. A special cell phone rings, you answer it, and a woman you’ll never meet says, “John Doe … You’re on the Global Frequency.” And you put down your bacon double cheeseburger and help your ad-hoc team save the world.
Global Frequency is also a television pilot produced in 2004 and rejected by stupid, stupid TV executives in 2005. Then someone with the true spirit of the property leaked the pilot onto the Internet, where it became the hot BitTorrent of the early summer. The show is creating enough buzz that there’s the dimmest hope it can pull a Firefly — getting its still-warm corpse defibrilated by rabid ‘Net fandom.
Is it worth all the fuss? The comic book was a consistent mixed bag: Every issue worked marvelously on several levels, and fell short on several others. More or less the same levels every time, reflecting the strengths and weaknesses inherent in writer Warren Ellis‘ concept. The pilot, a loose adaptation of the first issue of the comic, is not the tragically unrecognized work of ineffable genius more than a few of the online fans claim. But anyone who could watch this one episode and not see the potential for greatness, for the next X-Files (to go for a fairly obvious comparison), would probably be just unimaginative enough to run a TV network.
Yes, goddamn it, Global Frequency is worth the fuss. The pilot has its rough edges, but at its heart it has a concept so compelling you’d have to be a TV executive not to be moved by it. Warren Ellis has created a wide range of comics in the past decade ““ Transmetropolitan, The Authority, Planetary, Orbiter, Desolation Jones ““ and may be known largely for shock value.
Some of his recent shorter works have seemed aimed at getting high-concept sci-fi or action ideas out of his head and down on paper before his head explodes. He has big ideas and hits you with them hard and fast. He will take apart a science fiction notion and show you its writhing guts until you have to look away. He’s got your Six Million Dollar Man right here, and you’re not gonna want to buy the action figure. In the pages of Global Frequency, he lays out Cold War military science gone horribly wrong, delivers a truly disturbing take on alien life forms, and unravels a mass religious revelation that drives people insane. And in between, he confronts real-world horrors: A terrorist attack on London, a crackpot suicide cult, violent criminals. Really, really violent criminals. But while it’s easy to get caught up in the flash of his machine-gun plots, that’s not the secret sauce.
At his finest, Ellis trades ““ brilliantly — in two of the core concepts of speculative fiction in particular: Community and wonder. Global Frequency is arguably his best and most accessible handling of those ingredients. The wonder is something Ellis excels in. Planetary, which he writes for DC’s Wildstorm imprint, excavates our mundane world’s secret history. It’s a dense tapestry in which analogues of Godzilla, Sherlock Holmes, Doc Savage, the Fantastic Four and a host of alien marvels are revealed. And while Superman or the Green Lantern take it all in stride, Ellis’ characters never fail to stop and smile at the sheer gorgeous insanity of life.
A lot of the best genre fiction, adventure fiction, is explicit in promising connections to a larger world, a sense of belonging. Buffy Summers is the new girl in school until she’s called to join an ancient lineage as a superpowered vampire slayer — breaking the rules to pick up a tight-knit family of friends along the way. Luke Skywalker, orphan, escapes the lonely desert of Tatooine and is summoned to adventure with new friends and a link to an ancient order of warrior monks. The X-Men take the trope of the teen outcast and give him powers, a mission, justification for society’s rejection and, most importantly, a family of fellow outsiders. It ain’t the magic that makes Harry Potter the ridiculous mega-industry he’s become. It’s the lonely, misunderstood — abused, in this case — child who gets pulled into a new society, an entire school of fellow sorcerers who understand and accept him.
Who hasn’t read Harry Potter and wanted to be at Hogwarts? What X-Men fan hasn’t wanted to be part of that team? Show me anyone who really enjoyed the Star Wars movie, and I’ll show you someone who wishes he or she could be a Jedi. At least until they got all explicit about vows of celibacy and all that crap. And who watched Buckaroo Banzai without wanting to be a Hong Kong Cavalier? Come on, people. Even the characters that don’t create that kind of explicit community deal with issues of solitude. Superman, Batman, Spider-Man? Orphans. And name a fairy tale character to ever earn bastardization in a Disney movie that didn’t come from a broken home. You start out without a mother and end up living with a hairy husband and talking teapots.
Which brings us, finally, back to Global Frequency. The Global Frequency is an independent civilian rescue organization headed by the dark, mysterious Miranda Zero. She has passed out 1,001 cell phones to experts the world over — doctors, scientists, cops, tech geeks — and told them to be ready for the call. When a disaster beyond the capacity of traditional agencies occurs, Zero’s chief assistant, Aleph, rings the experts needed. You pick up your special phone, and she says your name. “You’re on the Global Frequency.” And just like that, you’re connected to a huge network committed to saving lives and making the world a better place. You, sitting there doing data entry, or sacked out in front of the TV still in your work boots.
Well, okay, an unstoppable laser sword would be pretty cool … But Miranda Zero would kick a Jedi’s ass any day of the week.