Sunday, May 29, 2011

FYC Replay: Crecy by Warren Ellis

Another one from the archives. I was first introduced to Warren Ellis's writing through the first Authority trade. I became a reverent fan when I finally picked up Transmetropolitan (all 10 trades at one shot) and started buying Planetary. With those two books alone, he had a fan for life. So, getting the opportunity to ask Mr. Ellis a few questions via email was a big deal for me. And he didn't even curse my name in any of our missives, which is sadly disappointing.
I hope you enjoy.


FRONT PAGE:

History has never been so interesting as Warren Ellis’s graphic novel, Crecy. A scathing report on French/English relations of the 14th Century, a point by point analysis of military tactics of the time, while also being a damn exciting read, Crecy is a graphic novella that runs through uncharted waters and succeeds on all accounts. If you haven’t read it yet, click inside to find out why this book belongs on your shelf.

The 411:

Crecy

Written by Warren Ellis

Art by Raulo Caceres

48 pp. b/w

$6.99

Avatar Press

What It Is (with apologies to Dave the Thune):

1346. Almost seven hundred years in our past. An English army comprised of villagers from across the United Kingdom marches across the French countryside. They despise their neighbors to the South. Led by King Edward III, the twelve thousand men are running roughshod through the French villages, leaving burnt-out husks in their wake.

Since the Norman invasion of 1066, when a French arrow shot through the eye of King Harold II severed the English royal line, that hostility has bubbled hotly under the surface when it has not erupted into pitched battles. And now, three hundred forty years after that fateful time, England is taking the fight to their “frog-eating” neighbors. The differences between these two peoples are minor, but gestating in this xenophobic time when the people of one village perceive those in a neighboring one as subhuman, everything is magnified, creating an enmity that is both deep and unwavering.

As they have spread their swath of destruction, the English have encountered little resistance. But now, the French have amassed their army, one comprised of the aristocracy, which is in stark contrast to the common men marching with the English. The French King, Phillip, has also bought the services of six thousand Genoese crossbowmen, mercenaries who march with the highest bidder. They are pushing the English forward, gaining on them quickly, forcing Edward and his forces to choose a spot from which to engage them or be herded like sheep into the sea. The place where they make their stand is the tiny village of Crecy.

The addition of the Genoese to the French forces would seem to have tipped the scales into the Frenchmen’s favor. With their crossbows, these Italians should be able to slice apart the English with terrifying ease. Not only does the crossbow launch an arrow with far more force than the English longbow, but these soldiers are also equipped with tall shields called pavises. A descendant of the Roman Centurion’s shields, the pavise stands almost as tall as a man’s shoulder and is curved on its vertical edges so that it can stand on its own, providing its bearer hands-free protection. They can also be locked together in a makeshift wall so that hundreds of trained crossbowmen might stand safely behind this pavise wall while they draw back their bow strings. Once the arrows are set, they can then stand up and fire at will – deadly and efficient.

On the other side, the English stand tall with their longbows clad only in leather and fabric jackets padded with wool, not nearly the defensive equal of the French armor. They are also at an apparent disadvantage with their weapon of choice, the longbow, which is not made for accuracy, and when put up against an armored opponent can fare poorly as arrowheads will glance off if they do not fly true. But knowledge of the deficiencies of the longbow and an understanding of the weapon’s strengths are what could make all the difference for the English.

Years before, the King decreed that all men over the age of twelve were to practice with the longbow for two hours every Sunday after church. In these sessions, the men do not practice for accuracy but for range. Knowing they cannot pinpoint their targets due to anomalies such as the wind or inclement weather, the English strategy consists of eyeing the range of the enemy and loosing their arrows in concert, raining them down on their enemies. This strategy, along with a good helping of luck, will be needed if the English are to be victorious in Crecy, and once the battle is over, modern warfare will be changed forever.

Warren Ellis is one of the most inventive writers working in the comic field today. No subject is out of bounds for him, and the ideas he drops into his narratives are as inspired as they can be mind-numbing. Tired of the same old tripe, Ellis is a writer who works to push the medium forward and throughout his career has created very personal stories that mix genres and literary styles while continuing to entertain readers. Having cultivated a loyal audience, Ellis is an author willing to experiment with his projects, and his audience seems intent upon following wherever he leads. Crecy, a piece of historical fiction set in the 14th Century that involves a time in history of which most people have no idea, is one of his most interesting experiments to date, as well as one of the most entertaining and informative stories I’ve read in a long time.

From page one, it is obvious that Ellis is leading readers into uncharted waters. The narrator, William of Stonham, breaks the literary “fourth wall” and speaks directly to his audience, relaying the story in a matter-of-fact style replete with the righteous disdain for ignorance that weaves its way into much of Ellis’s work. Told in a scathing manner, it is this vulgar superiority siphoned through the funnel of an intelligent protagonist – for as William of Stonham states, “We have the same intelligence as you. We simply don’t have the same cumulative knowledge you do.” – that is so entertaining.

With Crecy, Ellis also manages something that is fairly difficult regardless of medium. He teaches his readers something about the history of England, and specifically the battle at Crecy, while telling an exciting tale. This graphic novella is a moving history lesson that keeps readers engaged while relating various military tactics of the 14th Century. The importance of the Norman invasion, the differences in arrowheads used by the English, the tactics utilized to enhance the killing efficiency of these “primitive” weapons – these are all topics touched upon by the narrator and they flow seamlessly through the telling of this story while remaining true to the first rule of writing, which is to tell an exciting narrative, something Warren Ellis makes look easy with this latest addition to his Apparat line of books from Avatar.

Raulo Caceres, the artist on Crecy, is someone with whose work I had no previous knowledge. I bought this book on the strength of Ellis alone and was equally impressed by the incredible art from Caceres. His work shines in Crecy and complements Ellis’s story perfectly. The detail showcased by Caceres is admirable, and despite needing to delineate hundreds of soldiers marching through large forests, his panels never seem crowded or muddled. He also manages to convey the grimy nature of 14th Century Europe, an accomplishment that is subtly achieved and may not even be truly appreciated until William of Stonham interacts with the Black Prince, the son of Edward III. The figure of the prince is defined with very precise lines and a clean look, while the soldiers are more bedraggled with stubble on their chins and creases in their clothing. It’s something that readers may be aware of on a subconscious level as the proceed through the first part of the book, but when the soldiers are set against the sleek look of the prince and his father, the King, it is starkly obvious how much thought Caceres has put into his artwork for this book and adds another layer to an already excellent comic.

Crecy is one of those books that defies convention and succeeds on many levels. It is a wildly entertaining story; the dialogue alone could keep readers enthralled. It is a history lesson, relaying so much information that the audience will discover something new with subsequent readings. And it is an amazingly beautiful book. Having “discovered” Raulo Caceres with this book, I will be seeking out more from this talented artist in the future. But for comics, this is an important book, one Ellis designed exclusively for comic stores where he feels the graphic novella could be a nice middle ground between the periodical pamphlets common to these shops and the large trades that do well in bookstores. Crecy is a thoroughly satisfying read – beginning, middle, and end – that does not ask readers for a previous knowledge of characters, nor does it extend past this single tale. It is the equivalent of the bookstores’ paperback novels, an economical alternative to the large hardbacks (or trade paperbacks) that populate their shelves. But even more importantly, it’s a damn fine read and a book I would heartily recommend all fans of the medium seek it out.

An Interview with Warren Ellis:

Chris Beckett: Setting a story in Europe, 1346, isn’t exactly a common occurrence, especially for the American comic market. What was the genesis of this story for you, and was there anything specific that led you to believe it would be well-received?

Warren Ellis: Well, you know, for me, setting stuff in America in the present day is still the weird bit, for me.

I knew the story of Crecy, of course, but what made me think there was a book in it was a British TV show called Weapons That Made Britain, made by an amazing combat historian called Mike Loades. He actually got out on the field, timed the distance between the armies on horseback, tested longbows against crossbows...and the details started building up in my head. That and the creeping realisation that what the English pulled in 1346 was essentially Shock And Awe -- an astonishing display of murderous power on the very edges of what was possible. The more you look at Crecy, the more you see it resonate down through history.

And, of course, it's one of those great old English stories -- by which, of course, we mean a story about the English thrashing lots of those terrible foreign types.

Beckett: At what point did you make the decision to write Crecy in a first-person narrative, and did you have any worry that readers would not accept your main character breaking that “fourth wall” and speaking directly to them?

Ellis: No, not at all. "Fourth wall" is a long-established mainstream narrative technique, frequent in theatre, famous in cinema and far from completely unknown in comics.

Beckett: With Crecy being a graphic novella and not something readily found within bookstores due to its slim format, what was your objective in creating this book in the format you chose?

Ellis: I have this notion that the graphic novella format can be considered a comics-store-exclusive format. It doesn't work in bookstores. It is, however, perfect for comics stores. It's a permanent-shelf-life item, like a graphic novel, but comics stores experience no competition on it, and there's no trade to wait for. I tend towards the short-form anyway, and 44-48 pages is, for me, the perfect length for the expression of some ideas. I'd like to see the notion of the graphic novella catch on as a specific format, one that we give just to Direct Market comics stores.

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