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.



Don McMillan said...

Planetary and The Authority continue to rock my world and are part of my self-imposed, Lifelong Annual Reread program. Man…that final issue of Planetary gets me every single time .

Fell also blew me away, and I need to get ahold of that ninth issue outside of the trade. Dang, I hope he returns to this world someday. Dark, grim stuff, but so good.

I just reread Black Summer and Supergod a couple months ago and still like those. I need to finish Freakangels and reread Global Frequency. Ack…so much great stuff!

Thanks for posting, and thanks for ruining my life as I begin my futile search for SVK!


Chris Beckett said...

Good luck in your search, my friend. And, for what it's worth, Micronauts has always been lurking at the back of my "comics to possibly check out one day" list, but your effusive praise for that series has lifted it to the "must check this out sooner rather than later" list. Once I gather Rom, I am going to embark on a great Micronauts search. So, thank you for that, Don.