Monday, July 13, 2015

A Fistful of Warren Ellis Comics

Conceived and used with the permission of Matthew Constantine and Brad Gullickson, the original dorks .

Everyone has a “Top 5.”  But Brad and Matt, choosing to walk a different path, amended that to “A Fistful…” over at their blog, In the Mouth of Dorkness.  A film-centric blog where they also discuss comics and books and TV, these two regularly share their top 5, ranging from “Heroic Kids” to “Spies” to “Summer Movies” to “Punches” to all things in between.  Always fun, often insightful, and something I hope to regularly pilfer for Warrior27.  As they say:  If you’re going to steal, steal from those you know relatively well, who will not sue you.

Warren Ellis is as well known for his online presence as for his writing.  I couldn’t say whether I came to appreciate that or the writing first, and I couldn’t say, for certain, what my first Warren Ellis comic was (though it may have been that initial Authority collection, with Bryan Hitch).  Regardless, Ellis has become one of my favorite comic authors, as well as one of my favorite prose writers. 

Like Harlan Ellison, another of my literary heroes, Ellis is fiercely dedicated to writing, and, for me, that comes through in much of his work.  Characterized by uncompromising protagonists who lack (or actively eschew) any kind of social filter, with a leaning toward the future and inventive extrapolations from today’s cutting-edge technologies, Ellis’s writing can be harsh and unflinching, but there is always an emotional heart at its core.  Writing across genres, with his distinct voice, Ellis has placed his stamp on the contemporary comics landscape and influenced a number of writers working today, including Jonathan Hickman, Greg Rucka, and Brian Michael Bendis. 

Ellis’s body of work is broad and far-reaching, and I must admit to not having read a lot of it (mainly his early work or a lot of his “cape” work, including the bulk of his Marvel superhero stuff or his Stormwatch run).  That caveat out of the way, here are my five favorite Ellis works, in no particular order: 

·         Frank Ironwine #1 (Apparat Singles), with Carla Speed McNeil, from Avatar Press:

Ellis wanted to do a series of “first issues” of imaginary series, ones that might have been created if the comic industry had followed directly from the pulp magazines and not been overtaken by superheroes.  This was his detective story. 

Frank Ironwine is a detective whose personal hygiene leaves something to be desired, but whose analytical acumen is on par with Holmes.  He understands that it isn’t the lifeless evidence and data that will break a case, but the human interactions.  He listens to people, is sensitive to their emotions, understanding them almost better than they understand themselves, and he also hears the world around him in a way that is almost supernatural.  Juxtaposed against his new partner—young and impatient—readers get to see him work a case and put it down quickly, because of his ability to see and hear what most overlook, because they are either unwilling to take the time or too preoccupied with the wrong things. 

Frank Ironwine is a lovely paean to Columbo, a show that inspired Ellis, which I also adore, with beautiful artwork from McNeil, whose deft handling of body language and facial expressions wonderfully realizes this story.  Buy this already!

·         Planetary, with John Cassaday, from DC/Wildstorm Comics:

As described by Alan Moore, and others, Planetary is an excavation of the fantastical history of the twentieth century by a trio of “archeologists of the impossible,” as they work to reveal the secret history behind this formative century while working to prevent “The Four” from using these same secrets for their personal gain, as they have done for decades. 

With Planetary, Ellis gets to play with all the pulp/superhero/fantasy icons of the twentieth century through analogs created for this series—including the Shadow, Doc Savage, Superman, the Fantastic Four, Captain Marvel (Shazam), Godzilla, Tarzan, and many others—affording a platform with which to critique and update these characters. But this is not a series of “essays” but a single, coherent narrative full of intrigue and drama and emotion, with some kick-ass action thrown in for fun. 

Cassaday, as artist, really shines on this book, too—the book that made him a superstar.  His meticulous linework, coupled with Laura Martin’s lush coloring, enhance the series and make it distinct.  Love this book!

·         Fell, with Ben Templesmith, from Image Comics:

Another detective narrative, this one finds Richard Fell shunted to the bad side of town, stuck in a detective’s office with hollow officers who’ve long since given up trying to make things right for the citizens.  Throughout the nine issues that have been published so far (fingers crossed it will continue, someday), Ellis & Templesmith offer dense, one-and-done stories that reveal the ugliness of the world. 

Like, Ironwine above, this is a tightly plotted series that tells a complete mystery in a single issue, while narrative threads expand across the broader series.  With distinct characters and a harrowing setting, this was one of the most entertaining and engaging comics I was reading when it was being published. 

Utilizing a “slimline” format, as coined by Ellis, each story was 16 pages long, with short essays in the back to accentuate the reading experience.  And yet, they never read slowly and never felt slim.  If you’ve never read this, check it out.  Now!  

·         SVK, with D’Israeli, from Berg Eneterprises:

In an alternate London, two former intelligence officers come back together when one—a successful businessman working on the latest surveillance technology—calls on a favor from his old comrade.  Their latest piece of tech has gone missing, signed out by an employee who did not return after the weekend, and who should not have taken out this one-of-a-kind prototype, SVK.  Through the course of a single 44-page issue (with interstitial essays and replica ads), readers learn what this bit of tech can do, what the bad blood between these former colleagues is, and how the world has changed since their falling out. 

This single issue encapsulates everything that makes Warren Ellis a favorite of mine.  He packs into a single issue more story and history, emotional entanglements and double-crosses than a typical six-issue storyline from the “Big Two,” while incorporating ideas and extrapolations from the latest technological research that makes it feel new and vibrant in the manner that most readers crave their science fiction to be.  And, he manages to incorporate the UV-light (or torch) that Berg wanted as part of this package into the actual storyline so that it makes sense and does not come off as a gimmick.  That, I found impressive. 

Then there’s D’Israli (or Matt Brooker) on art.  Ellis & D’Israeli created the much-loved Lazarus Churchyard series, years ago, and his art perfectly conveys this alternate timeline story.  His London comes to life through the details he includes within the panels, without cluttering them.  And when we hit the final reveal—that explains the rift between these former intelligence agents, as well as how this world is different from ours—it is a kick in the gut, conveyed through the juxtaposition of the protagonist’s casual remarks and the image of destruction on that final page, masterfully done by Ellis & D’Israeli.  Great book!  (but good luck finding one)  

·         Transmetropolitan, with Dark Robertson, from DC/Vertigo:

This is Ellis’s magnum opus, his big, long Vertigo series that put him on the map.  And it’s wonderful.  In a dystopian future, journalist Spider Jerusalem is dragged (metaphorically) down off the mountain where he’s been living and back into the city, in order to fulfill his publishing contract.  A foul-mouthed, arrogant, unrelenting, and unapologetic bastard, Spider’s writing is infused with vitriolic righteousness that speaks to the people and pisses off all the right people in power. 

Through the course of 60 issues, Ellis & Roberson attack every moral crime they can, while Spider Jerusalem works to reveal the corruption upon which the next U.S. President, “The Smiler,” has built his powerbase, in order to bring him down.  It’s a deftly handled cat and mouse game between Spider and the Smiler, that is engaging and entertaining, while again revealing the ugly underbelly of society. 

Robertson perfectly complements Ellis’s narrative with detailed art and packed panels that help to flesh out this fully realized dystopian America, as envisioned by these creators.  If you enjoy dystopian science fiction or gonzo journalism or social justice or reprehensible characters who plumb the depths of decency and still manage to be the hero (or heroic, to a degree), then this is the book for you.  Highest recommendation!

There are also a number of Honorable Mentions that should be … mentioned (ahem).  So, here we go: 

  • All the other Apparat titles from Avatar --- the single issues and the graphic novellas, including Crecy, which I spotlighted on the Pulse that included an interview with Ellis.  Check that here:
  • Ellis’s “space” comics, including Ministry of Space, Ocean, and Orbiter.
  • Desolation Jones
  • Red
  • Global Frequency
  • Freak Angels, available in print, or for free, online:   
  • Doktor Sleepless
  • G.I. Joe: Resolute (the best animated G.I. Joe series I’ve ever watched)
  • And his novels, Crooked Little Vein and Gun Machine.  Highly entertaining, with that dark twist I appreciate in Ellis’s writing.


These are all great reads, and there are many more.  I definitely prefer his “indie” work, but I’ve also enjoyed a lot of his superhero books too.  So, check out Warren Ellis.  I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.


Monday, July 6, 2015


Conceived and used with the permission of Matthew Constantine and Brad Gullickson, the originaldorks.

Everyone has a “Top 5.”  But Brad and Matt, choosing to walk a different path, amended that to “A Fistful…” over at their blog, In the Mouth of Dorkness.  A film-centric blog where they also discuss comics and books and TV, these two regularly share their top 5, ranging from “Heroic Kids” to “Spies” to “Summer Movies” to “Punches” to all things in between.  Always fun, often insightful, and something I hope to regularly pilfer for Warrior27.  As they say:  If you’re going to steal, steal from those you know relatively well, who will not sue you.

This week is Comic-Con and all the Dorks—less Matt, the Omega Dork—are heading across the country to attend. 

[cue jealousy music]

During the run-up to this monumental task, the ITMODcast released their COMICCONcast , which was a great combination of reminiscences and advice (heavy on the reminiscences, which includes some great stories).  If you’re planning to attend any convention this year, or just want to experience it vicariously, you should check this episode out.  And, in honor of their recent episode, I’m sharing my own “Fistful of Convention Moments.”  They may not stack up to helping pull John Landis out of his rickshaw, but they’re pretty close, for me. 

In descending order: 

5.   Paul Pope recognizing me at MoCCA (2007)

MoCCA-fest 2007 took place in April of that year, in New York City’s Puck Building.  It was a great art comics fest, with a bunch of great creators.  One of those was Paul Pope.  I’d met  and spoken with him at the previous year’s SPX, held in Bethesda, Maryland in late September.  He’d had a bunch of his self-published books there—THB, Escapo, Buzz Buzz Comics Magazine—and I’d bought every one, since I’d never found any of those at my LCS.  Pope was generous with his time, speaking with me about comics and creating, and it made a great impression on me. 

That spring, I was now writing for the Pulse website, and I wanted to do an email interview with Pope for my column.  I got in line with Dan.  And when I stepped up to his table, Pope instantly recognized me and remembered our conversations from SPX.  Yeah, it was a “fanboy” moment, but it was pretty damn awesome too.  Oh, and I got to do that interview as well.  Check it here.

4.  Meeting Joe Hill at Baltimore (2013)

Brad, at the ITMODcast, will remember this one.  But first, preamble:

The first short prose story I sold was directly influenced by Joe Hill’s short story, “Abraham’s Boys.”  I’d been hearing about Hill from friends and decided to check out his 20th Century Ghosts collection, to see what the fuss was about.  When I finished “Abraham’s Boys,” it was like Tetris blocks falling into place, for me.  I understood how he’d structured it, focusing on how Joe Hill managed to plant the “story turn” into the narrative without it being forced, and as I sat in the Borders café, I started building that first “successful” story of my own. 

So, fast-forward to Baltimore-Con, 2003.  Brad and I get in line to meet Joe Hill.  Brad has some of Hill’s work to be signed.  I have a copy of Warrior27 (my self-published comic, co-created with Dan) that featured Shane Leonard’s first photo-cover for a comic (Leonard is Hill’s best friend and did similar duty for some of the issues of Locke & Key).  I also had a copy of my chapbook, with that initial story inspired by “Abraham’s Boys.”  When we get up to Hill, I explain everything, tell him I wanted to thank him and share my story with him, and Hill, who is a generous person with fans, thanked me and asked me to sign the chapbook to him.  I didn’t notice, but Brad told me afterward, that the line started to hum, asking who I was and what was going on.  Brad shared the details—Warrior27 and all that—and I got big adrenaline boost for the rest of that day, at the con. 

3. In line for George Perez, Wizard World Chicago (2001)

2001 was the first year I hit a big comic convention.  A 19-hour drive from Maine to Chicago, and it was well worth it.  The highlight, for me, was getting to meet my all-time favorite superhero artist, George Perez.  This man is generous with his time and generous to his fans. 

Day one involved scoping out the convention hall.  Finding where creators were and making plans for attacking the floor the following days.  And it became obvious that I would need to head to Perez’s booth immediately, since the line was capped quite early.  So, Dan and I both did that. 

We were somewhere between 22nd and 25th in line for Perez.  I had my sketchbook, a few comics, and my Batman portfolio, which DC published in the late 80s.  We were in line for five hours.  And it was so worth it.  Perez would occasionally get up from the table, walk down the line, tell us how crazy we were with this huge smile, and then return to his fans.  And each one of us got time to talk with him.  He signed anything we wanted signed (I had decided which of the plates in the portfolio I’d have him sign, but he said, without hesitation, I’ll just sign them all).  And I got a free head sketch of my favorite superhero, the Flash—the Barry Allen version, which he inquired about, because Perez draws Barry differently (with a longer face) than the Wally West version (rounder, and looking a bit younger).  Definitely one of the big highlights of my convention-going.   

2. Selling books all weekend at SPX (2006)

In 2005, Dan and I tabled at our first convention, Wizard World Chicago.  It was a frickin’ disaster—standing behind our table, selling no books, wondering what the hell we thought we were doing, just terrible.  But…it did teach us some valuable lessons à  see here, and here, and here.

So, when we decided to create a second issue of Warrior27 and exhibit at a convention, we chose more wisely and went where our audience (for a black and white book by anonymous creators that has no superheroes and some prose in it) would be—Bethesda, Maryland and SPX. 

That convention was awesome. We were selling books all weekend, and in half the time we sold dozens and dozens more books than we had in Chicago.  It made perfect sense, in hindsight.  Regardless, actually having readers interacting with us and paying real money for something we created, was an amazing experience.  And it kept us both going with this “writing thing.”  This is also the convention where I met some other great creators, like Mike LaRiccia and G.B. Tran and Justin Fox, who’ve gone on to do some great work.  Google those guys, you won’t be disappointed.

1. Meeting Harlan Ellison at Dragon-Con (2004)

Without a doubt, this is my ultimate convention experience.  Harlan Ellison is my favorite author, bar none (though Alan Moore, Hemingway, and David Mitchell certainly make a run for that title, depending on my mood) and he was going to be at Dragon-Con, 2004.  Coupled with the first stateside appearance of Warren Ellis in years, this convention was a no-brainer for myself, and Dan & Gibran. 

The interesting thing about Dragon-Con is that it is spread across three different venues (or it was a decade ago, when we drove to Atlanta).  And, as such, it can be difficult to figure out where creators are going to be (or it was for me).  When we finally moved out of the main convention hall, Dan and I had to walk a number of blocks to find the second hotel/conference center where guests were tabling.  And, without knowing, we stumbled upon Harlan Ellison’s table.  I started acting like a little kid. 

The line for Ellison was not that long.  Dan and I stepped up to the table.  And when we got up to Ellison, he regaled us with stories (of him marching in Louisiana during the Civil Rights movement and being imprisoned and beaten for that), told Dan he was a pussy when he tried to share his one time being accosted by the police (I kept my mouth shut, having only received a speeding ticket as my most heinous offense), shared the names of writers we should check out, like W.S. Merwin, and  generally was a gracious, outgoing, entertaining, pleasant, if foul-mouthed, host, at his table.  Great, great moment. 


  •           Meeting and talking with Morgan Spurlock, as he was walking around the aforementioned MoCCA-fest, just checking things out with his partner and their child.   
  •           Playing SPOT RICK at Wizard World – an inside joke that Dan and Gibran will get, and I’ll explain if you come up to the table at this year’s [2015] Baltimore-Con and ask nicely. 
  •           Meeting the Beast Master at Dragon-Con and being swept into the conversation he was having with Dan.  That guy is still jacked and was super-enthusiastic to meet and talk with fans.  Totally cool time.
  •           Meeting and talking to one of my favorite artists, Scott Morse, at SPX.  The guy is a phenomenal creator and super-nice (as most of the artists and writers I’ve had the pleasure of meeting tend to be)

So, there are my top 5 Con Moments.  What are yours? 


Thursday, July 2, 2015

Writing is Revising

I hit a wall in May, as far as my writing, and that slid on through into June.  I’m pretty sure I took twice as many days off from writing, each month, as I had taken in the first four months of the year. 

But I think that’s behind me now.  One weekend, a couple weeks back, while riding in the car with my son, who has his driver’s permit, I formulated the spines for four new short stories—all ideas that I want to pursue.  So, as my son drove, I did my best to get my fat fingers to punch out my notes on my [not]-smart phone.  Since then, I’ve been working on building these narratives, recently completing one first draft as I transitioned to the next story. 

Now, that preamble is all well and good.  But this post isn’t about my writing “woes” or the content of those four stories—although I would hope to be able to use them in a Maine-themed collection down the line, if I ever break through to the big publishers; we’ll see. 

Anyway.  This post is about beginnings. 

The opening of a short story, a format where you have very little space (1500-5000 words, generally speaking) to get across a full narrative and every single word needs to work toward revealing your story, needs to grab readers.  The advice to start a scene late and end early definitely applies to this. 

Sure, Harlan Ellison can write a story in a bookstore window, but it’s a challenge for me to figure out how best to tell my stories.  Which means, more often than not, my first drafts are complete dreck and often overwritten. 

Case in point, that most recent first draft I completed.  My initial opening scene ran for three pages and roughly 700 words.


I’d recently read Annie Proulx’s collection, Close Range, and the pictures she painted with her words are breathtaking and distinct.  Her writing is beautiful, and reading this collection made me want to try to write something in that same vein.


But one should also be aware of one’s limitations.  I’m not Annie Proulx.  I think my strength lies in dialogue and in concision.  My half-assed attempt at crafting an oil painting from my lexicon fell flat. 


And luckily, as I reached the halfway point of this first draft, my mind came to that realization.  I decided to do what I do best, and just excise all the flourishes and get right to the meat of that opening scene.  Here it is.  Compare that with the three pages I’ve shared here (note, all the highlighted text are my notes to myself, as I’m writing, to help with clarity when it comes time to revise)

Tim Samuels could barely hear his own voice.  “I killed her.”  The expanse of the church engulfed the phrase, but the words hit him in the chest like a thunderbolt.
The pastor did not flinch, motioned for Tim to sit down as he settled into the pew in front of him.  “Please.  Start from the beginning.” 

Only 56 words.  And I’m a lot happier with it. 

That’s writing…revising.