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Tuesday 29 June 2004

Ellis's Wonderlands

by Claude Lalumière

A Brief History of Warren Ellis

Warren Ellis's work began showing up in 1990 in the pages of UK comics magazines such as Deadline, Speakeasy, and Judge Dredd Megazine. The first installment of Lazarus Churchyard, his first major work, appeared in Blast! Magazine #1 (1991). Already his signature themes were evident: information overload; cynical, burnt-out adventurers with hidden streaks of compassion and even sentimentality; the erosion of conventional societal taboos; posthuman technology run amok; a dysfunctional relationship between, on the one hand, human consciousness and, on the other, technology and culture; the exploration of the inherent contradictions of transhuman philosophy; protagonists with substance addiction problems; an urgent desire for utopia in the face of overwhelming dystopian trends; and an outrageously extreme sense of humour.

In 1994, Ellis began to write for US comics giant Marvel, most notably Doom 2099, in which he could address his utopian/dystopian concerns, and numerous runs (all cut short by the publisher) on supernatural titles such as Hellstorm, Doctor Strange, and Druid. Most of his work for the next two years would be for Marvel, including various contributions to a number of titles in the popular X-Men franchise. In 1996, his writing started to appear in comics from several companies, but landing script duties for Wildstorm's Stormwatch would prove to be a career landmark, although we would have to wait for 1998-99 to see the spectacular outcome.


In the meantime, in 1997, for DC Comics, Ellis began Transmetropolitan, the first time since the early Lazarus Churchyard that the writer would embark on a major personal project (as opposed to short stories and corporate properties). Transmetropolitan would end up running sixty issues, ending serialization in 2002, with the final collection, One More Time, released in 2004.

Initially, Stormwatch was a rather generic superhero title from the Wildstorm studio; under Ellis's stewardship it began to explore the consequences of having covert government agencies creating secret posthuman task forces. Things took an especially interesting turn in 1998's Stormwatch vol. 2 #4 with the introduction of Apollo and the Midnighter (homosexual doppelgangers of Superman and Batman), two idealistic posthuman fugitives on the run from the corrupt organization that created them. Eventually, this would lead to the transformation of Stormwatch into The Authority, i.e., from a UN-controlled task force of posthumans to an independent posthuman group with an explicit, activist political agenda: to make the world a better place. The Authority, melding Ellis's utopian dreams with action of apocalyptic proportions, would become a huge hit and cement Ellis's standing as a major voice in comics.

In 1999, a few months after the launch of The Authority, Ellis embarked on another project for Wildstorm: Planetary. Although Planetary, a conspiracy thriller filtered through more than a century's worth of adventure fiction and pop culture, is ostensibly part of the same superhero universe as Stormwatch and The Authority, it barely intersects with that setting and, despite being corporate-owned, counts as one of Ellis's most important personal works.

1999 also saw the beginning of Ellis's association with Avatar Press, for which he would write several (relatively minor) gory noir thrillers.

2000 saw the long-delayed release of a major Ellis work: City of Silence, originally created for Epic Comics (a defunct imprint of Marvel Comics) but never seen before Image Comics published it. Conceptually, it's the bridge between Lazarus Churchyard and Transmetropolitan. Ellis's first (and so far only) SF prose short story also appeared that year in Nature, as part of its "Futures" series of short shorts; other contributors included SF stalwarts such as Arthur C. Clarke, Kim Stanley Robinson, Gwyneth Jones, Robert Silverberg, David Brin, Stephen Baxter, and Bruce Sterling.

In 2001, the first two (of three) issues of the alternate-history series Ministry of Space came out as part of a planned program of short series and one-shot comics novels. But by the middle of 2001 Ellis's prodigious output suddenly slowed, reportedly due to health problems. Although Transmetropolitan and minor series from Avatar continued apace, Planetary, Ministry of Space, and a host of announced projects suffered massive delays and cancellations.

In late 2002, the next Ellis project for Wildstorm, Global Frequency, hit the stands and was promptly picked up as a potential TV series by the WB. The new title continued to explore themes and concerns introduced in Stormwatch, The Authority, and Planetary, although with a new twist. It also marked Ellis's return, and new projects began showing up with increasing regularity in 2003, including two SF comics novellas, Switchblade Honey and Orbiter, and numerous mini-series released through DC Comics' various imprints. For the most part, these shorter works did not provide the best showcase for Ellis's talents, coming off more like (admittedly skilfull and clever) pop-culture exercises. Ellis is a writer with big ideas, and longer serials are more likely to give him the time and space to properly articulate his compellingly idiosyncratic visions.

Planetary resumed publication in 2003, while Ministry of Space finally reached its long-awaited conclusion in 2004.

Throughout his various works, from Lazarus Churchyard to the recent flurry of three-issue limited series, Ellis has, more than any other comics writer working in English, shown himself to be a serious speculative writer, brimming with intriguing and resonant ideas about the effects of technology on consciousness and culture and prone to articulate his vision via multiple sciencefictional subgenres.

In much of his more personal work, Ellis combines the superhero genre's transhuman/posthuman concepts with cyberpunk, singularity theory, mythic archetypes, noir fiction, espionage, postmodernism, and anything else that can break the mold and reveal hidden truths about both the genre and the culture that spawned it. He has a knack for stripping away the conventions of the superhero genre as it has developed in its primary medium — comics — and reconceptualizing transhuman/posthuman adventure fiction without those trappings.

Currently, Ellis is involved in various multimedia projects, working on a number of SF comics, writing a science-fiction prose novel due to be published in 2005 from HarperCollins, and scripting superhero stories for Marvel's Ultimate imprint.

Thumbnail Reviews

Absolute Authority, illustrated by Bryan Hitch (Wildstorm/DC Comics, 2002) — collects The Authority #1-12 (Wildstorm/DC Comics, 1999-2000)

Uncompromising left-wing superheroes take on the world, trying to make it a better place to live while saving it from catastrophes of apocalyptic proportions. Superb hardboiled dialogue, incisive characterizations, spectacular action, unabashed utopian yearnings, mindblowing multiversal concepts, and gorgeous artwork all combine to make Ellis's The Authority the definitive template for early twenty-first-century superhero teams.

Atmospherics, illustrated by Ken Meyer, Jr. (Avatar, 2002) — serialized in Calibrations #1-5 (Caliber, 1996)

The pacing and overall style of this horrific alien encounter story bring to mind early collaborations between Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean (such as Violent Cases), but the bluntness of the violence and the wryly savage humour are pure Ellis. Very effective and suspenseful, this is one of Ellis's strongest shorter works. (The story itself is thirty pages long; the book contains extras, including an amusing afterword by the author about the genesis of the story.)

City of Silence, illustrated by Gary Erskine (Image, 2004) — serialized as City of Silence #1-3 (Image, 2000)

City of Silence is perhaps Ellis's most idiosyncratic offering. Published five years after it was initially created, it is still a radical work, dense with avant-garde speculative ideas, delirious violence, weird tech, noir attitude, and unabashed sexual perversity, it presents a world rotting with urban decay, where cybertech and pagan mysticism mingle surreally.

Global Frequency: Planet Ablaze, illustrated by various (Wildstorm/DC Comics, 2004) — collects Global Frequency #1-6 (Wildstorm/DC Comics, 2002-03)

Global Frequency is Ellis's latest major work, a twelve-issue series about a global task force of experts so intensely specialized they border on the posthuman. The Global Frequency handles catastrophes no-one else is equipped to deal with. Each chapter is drawn by a different illustrator, capturing the essence of the specific disasters and/or experts at hand. In the manner of Planetary, each episode explores a new set of ideas that alter assumptions about the structure of the world. At first Planetary, as mindbendingly exciting as every episode was, seemed like a sequence of unrelated investigations, but, when the shoe dropped, it became obvious (with hindsight) that Ellis had in fact been dropping clues all along and constructing a complex extended story arc. Is Ellis pulling a similar trick here? Impossible to tell with this frustratingly incomplete collection. The entirety of Global Frequency, which totals only twelve issues, would have fit comfortably in one volume. Unfortunately, DC Comics chose to split the story in two, thus needlessly fracturing the story's momentum. Only this first volume has been released, and it's a slim one. Waiting a few months and releasing the whole thing together would have been more respectful of both the work and the readership.

Lazarus Churchyard: The Final Cut, illustrated by D'Israeli (Image, 2001)

Lazarus Churchyard: The Final Cut collects all the Lazarus Churchyard stories illustrated by cocreator D'Israeli, taken from various sources, and adds a new one, "Finality", that serves as a touching epilogue to the eponymous degenerate immortal's adventures. This is angry, deranged cyberpunk, drenched in perverse nihilism. Lazarus Churchyard is a reluctant antihero who, despite his best efforts, cannot die, stuck in a future in which doing the right thing has no value. This is a compellingly strange creation.

Mek #1-3, illustrated by Steve Rolston (Homage/DC Comics, 2003) — collected in Reload/Mek (Wildstorm/DC Comics, 2004)

In the near future of Mek, the easy availability of cyborg enhancements creates deep cultural rifts. This is an intriguing story that sets up a lot of pertinent questions; unfortunately, it doesn't explore these sufficiently and ends with an abrupt orgy of violence that leaves the story hanging. Also, the artwork, which looks like a cross between manga and Matt Howarth's style, doesn't really convey the tone of the script. Mek is nevertheless a worthwhile read, but it's a bit lighter than its events and themes demand.

Ministry of Space #1-3, illustrated Chris Weston (Image, 2001-04)

What if the UK had developed a space program instead of the US? Ministry of Space posits a near-utopia founded on atrocities — a worthy premise. Unfortunately, Ellis never really tells a story here. The series unfolds rather dryly, like a series of expository fragments. There's a lot of fascinating material here, but little storytelling.

Orbiter, illustrated by Colleen Doran (Vertigo/DC Comics, 2003)

Orbiter, a story of a space expedition gone wrong, is a very passionate work, fuelled by an obvious love of space travel and its potential. Sadly, the execution of this work doesn't hit the same height as the passion behind it. As usual, Ellis injects of number of fascinating reality-bending ideas into this tale, but the plot is much too linear and simplistic. Things are not helped by the artwork, which tends to overplay emotions that, in the context of the story that unfolds, are clearly intended to be subdued.

Planetary, illustrated by John Cassaday (Wildstorm/DC Comics) — 19 issues since 1999

A team of "archaeologists of the impossible" investigates outbursts of strange phenomena, which readers will recognize as archetypes for the past century's output of imaginative fiction. The first few issues see the team plunged into situations that reveal the hidden secrets behind the Planetary versions of pulp heroes, Japanese monsters, a hybrid of Chinese ghost stories and Hong Kong action movies, the original Captain Marvel (i.e., "Shazam!"), the Fantastic Four, the supernatural universe of DC Comics' Vertigo imprint, and Cold War SF movies. Slowly, a bizarre conspiracy emerges, and nothing is what it seemed to be at first. Planetary is a grand tribute to decades of imaginative creations from various cultures and media, elegantly rendered by John Cassaday. This series is reminiscent of Philip José Farmer's Wold Newton Universe, but with the stakes and the scope magnified exponentially. Each issue patiently and tantalizingly peels away a thin onion layer of the overarching mystery. The covers of the issues are often pastiches of relevant poster art, comics, and magazines, such as Dave McKean's covers for The Sandman, Jim Steranko's Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., James Bama's Doc Savage paintings for Bantam, The Strand Magazine, etc. Planetary is an utterly hypnotic and compelling saga, executed with an infectious love for the wide array of material being evoked.

Planetary: Crossing Worlds (Wildstorm/DC Comics, 2004) — collects Planetary/The Authority: Ruling the World, illustrated by Phil Jiminez (Wildstorm/DC Comics, 2000); Planetary/JLA: Terra Occulta, illustrated by Jerry Ordway (Wildstorm/DC Comics, 2002); Planetary/Batman: Night on Earth, illustrated by John Cassaday (Wildstorm/DC Comics, 2003)

Three stand-alone stories somewhat tangential to the main Planetary storyline are collected in Planetary: Crossing Worlds. None of these equal Planetary itself in terms of suspense and sense of wonder, but they're all fun reads. The lesser of these is the joining of Ellis's two major Wildstorm series, Planetary/The Authority: Ruling the World, in which both concepts are somewhat diluted and the Lovecraft-injected story ends up feeling fragmented. Most unusual is Planetary/JLA: Terra Occulta, which is an alternate reality tale in which a distorted version of the Planetary team rules the world ... until that world's Clark Kent (Superman), Bruce Wayne (Batman), and Princess Diana (Wonder Woman) decide to do something about it. The story is rushed, and its intriguing ideas are all short-changed to a degree; that said, there are many memorable scenes and exciting moments. It may also contain some clues to help decode the ultimate truth behind Planetary's complex conspiracies. The best story here is Planetary/Batman: Night on Earth, in which the Planetary team travels to its world's Gotham City and ends up caught in a shifting multidimensional warp that puts them face to face with the different interpretations of Batman, including Bob Kane's original 1938 version, Adam West's take from the 1960s TV show, Frank Miller's Dark Knight, and many more.

Red #1-3, illustrated by Cully Hamner (Homage/DC Comics, 2003-04) — collected in Red/Tokyo Storm Warning (Wildstorm/DC Comics, 2004)

Red is the most intense and satisfying of the recent spate of three-issue series Ellis has released through DC Comics' various imprints. It's the story of a retired secret agent, someone whose abilities are not unlike many of the operatives seen in Global Frequency, although the nature of his work is very different. He's a hyper-efficient killing machine who has perpetrated covert atrocities in the name of the US government. In return for his silence, the CIA has agreed to let him live his retirement in peace and isolation in a comfortable country home. However, the new director of the CIA learns of his existence and his past work and promptly orders his execution. Of course, it all goes horribly wrong. The characters are perfectly developed, and the story is deftly paced, spiced with thought-provoking political subtext.

Reload #1-3, illustrated by Paul Gulacy (Homage/DC Comics, 2003) — collected in Reload/Mek (Wildstorm/DC Comics, 2004)

Reload is an excellent espionage/conspiracy thriller, illustrated by veteran spy comics legend Paul Gulacy. Ten years from now, a rogue secret agent assassinates the president of the USA. The investigator on the case uncovers more than a few ethically confusing twists in the course of the high-octane, ultra-violent story. This a top-notch action story, done with intelligence and verve.

Switchblade Honey, illustrated by Brandon McKinney (AiT/Planet Lar, 2003)

Switchblade Honey, a rather lame subversion of the Star Trek concept (with lifeless artwork, to boot), is a minor effort. Ellis himself fesses up in the introduction: "This isn't me at my most blisteringly intellectual."

Tokyo Storm Warning #1-3, illustrated by James Raiz (Cliffhanger/DC Comics, 2003) — collected in Red/Tokyo Storm Warning (Wildstorm/DC Comics, 2004)

A sloppily told and confusingly illustrated take on Japanese SF pop culture (i.e., big monsters and giant robots) that also manages to be overly simplistic. Ellis fared much better on the same subject in the deeply resonant and mythic Planetary #2, "Island".

Transmetropolitan: One More Time, illustrated by Darick Robertson (Vertigo/DC Comics, 2004) — collects Transmetropolitan #55-60 (Vertigo/DC Comics, 2002)

Warren Ellis's longest saga, Transmetropolitan, comes to a close after sixty issues and ten collections. The war between the president of the USA and the enraged and engaged gonzo journalist Spider Jerusalem (a hybrid of Hunter S. Thompson and Peter Milligan's Johnny Nemo) reaches its climax in the dystopic future setting of The City. Absurd technology, casual violence, extreme substance abuse, polemical politics, and almost sweetly sentimental nihilism combine in this entertaining end to an always intelligent and probing series.


Claude Lalumière edited three 2003 anthologies: Island Dreams: Montreal Writers of the Fantastic, Open Space: New Canadian Fantastic Fiction, and, in collaboration with Marty Halpern, Witpunk. Based in Montreal, he writes opinionated criticism and weird fiction. He runs the webzine Lost Pages.

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