Big Wheel: The Breaching of Morality

Warren Ellis has proven himself as one of the most influential graphic novelist of the 20th and late 21st centuries. Global Frequency has been one of his most defining works. It is a visceral graphic novel that features a variety of short stories with only a couple recurring characters throughout. Warren Ellis is capable of making a variety of political and social comments in the form of a turn of the century, action sci-fi tale.

The chapter of particular interest to me is “Big Wheel”. The title page perfectly showcases the main themes of the chapter. The title page contains a slightly see through hand with a variety of mechanical images on the inside. It shows the tight relationship between our hands, and the technology that it is capable of building. The desert below the hand as well as extensive yellow coloring alludes to the most destructive technology created, the atomic bomb. All technology is built using our hands. Yellow is the prominent color for radiation warnings as well as being shown in the sandy, dirt landscape of the American west. One other highly intriguing image is that of the compass, which can be seen next to and surrounding the hand. According to the symbol for Freemasonry, “the compass, to circumscribe and keep us within bounds with all mankind” shows the relation that it has to humanity’s morals. The Big Wheel compound, another circle metaphor, has breached this boundary of morality by creating a living, breathing weapon.

One of the most visually striking scenes in the chapter was the reveal of the enhancile, or cyborg. The interplay between the various colors was able to enhance the impact that the reveal ultimately had. In the page leading up to the reveal, the dominant color in the panels was blue. The various light and dark shades of blue create this ominous feeling that something bad is going to occur. It also is able to red of the violence and gore to pop and stand out in each of the panels. The first shot is of him standing in a pool of his victims blood covered in shadow as Aleph rattles off all of his enhancements. The next shot is of his torso and is in the form of long vertical shots to force the reader to scan up then down slowly analyzing this monstrosity. The next shot is that of his eye staring back and the teeth bared in a symbol of universal aggression. The final reveal is a full page utilizing cold, blue steel meshed with the hot red flesh. The blood in the background splattered against the wall shows his extreme violence.

As the cyborg is being described, Aleph mentions each part of his human body that is being replaced with some sort of mechanical or cybernetic enhancement. This very much like the Ship of Theseus thought experiment which originates all the way to the first century. The thought experiment details how Theseus’ ship underwent various repairs until at one point, every part of the ship had been replaced with something new. The question asked during this thought experiment is at what point did that ship become something else or is it still actually Theseus’ ship? This can be extended to what Warren Ellis shows us in Global Frequency. If every part of the cyborg’s body is replaced with some sort of “enhancement” is he still human? I would posit that he is definitely not human, but at one point do we draw the line between human and cyborg?

In Manifesto for Cyborgs, “The main troubles with cyborgs, of course is that they are the illegitimate offspring of militarism and patriarchal capitalism.” I took this quote to mean that most technological advencements are due to humans desire for more advanced forms of destruction. The most advanced technology developed, the nuclear bomb, was developed during one of the most deadly wars that our planet has seen. During this chapter of Global Frequency, this cyborg has shown that man has ceased to operate the weapons and instead has become slaves to the weapons themselves. Even the cyborgs sexual response is programmed to reward him for every kill. Ultimately the main hinderance to a military is its human element. Its ability to feel or sympathize with the enemy runs contrary to what the military is organized for. This weapon is the most deadly in that it removes the human element. Captain Quinn is rewarded at a primal level for each kill he commits.

“The machine is not an it to be animated, worshipped and dominated. The machine is us, our processes, an aspect of our embodiment. We can be responsible for machines, they do not dominate or threaten us. We are responsible for boundaries; we are they.” It can be argued that Big Wheel has been irresponsible with its boundaries, and as a result, created something that is detrimental to society as a whole. These boundaries are also relatable to what the compass on the cover of the chapter serves to establish.

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3 Responses to Big Wheel: The Breaching of Morality

  1. useltime says:

    Your attention to the title page of “Big Wheel” is extraordinary indeed. After reading your post I actually went back and re-examined all of the title pages to look for deeper meaning and found that I had mistakenly overlooked a major foreshadowing tool. You took the old saying “don’t judge a book by its cover” and turned it 180 degrees and used it as a useful tool to get a feel at the beginning of the episode of what lay underneath the cover page. I both appreciate and agree with your interpretation of how the cyborg is revealed piece by piece as Aleph describes the enhancements. I didn’t realize until you brought this point to my attention that as the cyborg was slowly revealed, I too was slowly looking for the aforementioned sites of enhancement on the cyborg in the pictures and imagining the tremendous damage they could potentially inflict. Lastly, the parallel that you draw between how truly dangerous Captain Quinn is and to the atomic bomb is very nicely done. The real defining difference between man and machine really is the aspect of empathy and once this is lost, can something be called even slightly human anymore? It is because this “line of humanity” boundary is crossed that the captain is viewed as the threat he is and in regards to who you see responsible for the creation of this monstrosity- ourselves- is right on.

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  2. kab248 says:

    When I hear Big Wheel, I imagine myself rolling around on a red, yellow, and blue tricycle, but you hit the nail on the head with your description of the bionic man. I especially liked your analogy to Theseus and his ship. I would argue that because the bionic man is still part man because he is capable of feeling sentiment. You touched on this when you were describing man’s role in political wars. Military agendas don’t have time for sympathy (shoot first, ask questions later). The bionic man was programmed to enjoy killing, but he is not blind to his atrocities. I believe the bionic man feels remorse, and his inner conflict of grief and satisfaction of death ultimately kills him. When I say it kills him, I’m saying that he allowed Zero and the rest of the Global Frequency to terminate what little human life remained. The bionic man could have easily killed the members of Global Frequency (he just killed 183 people single-handedly with his very large arsenal of weapons), but he didn’t.
    I don’t know about you guys, but I was pretty terrified when Zero was describing the bionic man as he was being displayed to the reader.

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  3. danwillisdan says:

    In spite of all the collaboration in Global Frequency, it’s still very much Warren Ellis’s project. Brian Wood, who designed the covers for every issue, had this to say:

    “Warren [Ellis] sends out a few lines of text, a general description of what he wants, and I take it into consideration… some things he asked for were miles out of my range of capabilities. But he never asked me to change anything and as far as I know, he was happy with all of them.

    I did these all way in advance, so I didn’t know who any of the interior artists were.”

    It’s certainly fair to say that the covers are rich with metonymy, and really reflect Ellis’s vision. Another cover that really struck me was the one for Harpoon, which depicts the GF logo alongside other graffiti on a wall that says ‘POST NO BILLS’. It really explores the tension between the anarchic, democratic space of expression that is graffiti, with the rigid structure and governmental ties of the Global Frequency. This also speaks to Alexander Galloway’s treatment of distributed networks, so it might be nice to revisit some of the visuals in Global Frequency once we’ve discussed Protocol.

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