Where strange fact and stranger fiction collide
Do you have a go to guy for comics? You know the guy who may or may not have made your favorite story or arc, but who you know that when you see their name on the cover you are going to get at least a good read. Who is it? Frank Miller? Mark Millar? Alan Moore? Or maybe Neil Gaiman? For me it is Warren Ellis.
Now he didn’t create my favorite character, that would be Frank Miller’s Deadly Little Miho. He not the writer who invest me the most emotionally, that distinction would go to Greg Rucka. He doesn’t write my all-time favorite title, that is Nick Spencer’s Morning Glories. Ellis is more like a favorite bartender who knows how you like your drink and makes it perfectly every time.
I knew Warren was prolific but until I started researching for this piece I didn’t know just how much he has put out. He even wrote a lot of the back story and contributed to the creepy vibe on the video game Dead Space. But a lot of his stuff is in the main DC and Marvel ‘verse. That why I missed so much of it. I have stated over and over that I am not a real big fan of the Big Two. In fact of the seven titles I discuss here only one belongs in the World-616 Marvel cannon, and that one had to fight tooth and nail to get accepted in their main world.
OK, let’s start with Ellis’ brilliant deconstruction of the classic comic book team. I already said in previous post that I wish the Next Wave team had more screen time. So as said by the band Thunder Thighs in the team’s theme song (Can you name another twelve issue series that has its own theme song? I can’t.) “Next Wave roll call!” Monica Rambuae: She is the black female ex-leaders of the Avengers, ‘Earth’s mightiest heroes.” Relegated form the leader of the best of the best, to a team that at the best takes suggestions. It is like going from an officer in the army to herding like cats. Arron Stack: AKA Machine Man, a sentient robot who was created by the grand master himself Jack Kirby. Of course Kirby would probably role over in his grave if he saw what Ellis did with his creation, turning Aaron into a beer swigging anti-organic robo-supremacist. Tabby Smith: Was the X-man known as Boom Boom, here she is a cop hatting kleptomaniac who can blow things up with her mind. Elsa Bloodstone: Once a Buffy the vampire slayer clone, Ellis gave her a complete makeover with an English accent and red hair and the ability to kick the butt of robotic Samaria with a shovel. The Captain: His name is the captain. The only Ellis original creation on the team. He went by Captain (Insert curse word here), until captain America kicked the crap out of him on behest of every superhero who ever used the word captain in their name.
Next wave is a parody of the Superhero genre from an insider. OK, I got to warn you it gets silly. How silly. Parachuting kolas of doom silly. But under all the silliness, super-villains wearing a pail as a helmet there is undoubtable British wit. Many comic book foibles are address. Like the team leader being a competent woman of color who has experience leading THE team of the MU, who is now relegated to the C-list of mainstream titles. The team has more women than men, and well the men are Neanderthal goat lickers.
This is what Ellis has to say about it. “I took The Authority and I stripped out all the plots, logic, character and sanity. (…) It’s an absolute distillation of the superhero genre. No plot lines, characters, emotions, nothing whatsoever. It’s people posing in the street for no good reason. It is people getting kicked, and then exploding. It is a pure comic book, and I will fight anyone who says otherwise. And afterwards, they will explode.” I guess I am destined to meet Warren Ellis and get kicked in the face by him, and then explode because I think it is genius.
One of W. Ellis first super hero teams was the Authority. This team is different from the JLA or the X-Men In that they will do whatever it takes to make a better world. Up to and including topping the US government. T heir’s is a world where super powerful menaces routinely take out entire cities. And well the Authority probably does just about as much collateral damage. They think more like soldiers than a traditional four color superhero team. In ways this makes them more realistic. They aren’t out to kill innocents but realize that it is the price that may have to be paid when you are dealing with super powered enemies.
Jenny Sparks is one of my most favorite characters ever. A foul mouth alcoholic, she is the spirit of the Twentieth Century, allowing to live for a hundred years, and her mood is affected by the times she lives in. (She becomes depressed during the depression and selfish in the seventies.) The cynicism of the era allows her to develop a world view that believes she can make a better world by use if force. Apollo and Midnighter are the tams Superman and Batman expys (and gay lovers) Jack Hawksmoore has the power to tap into the genius loci of a city. The Engineer has had her blood replace with nannies and unlike many other supers is also out making the world better by building wind farms in Africa, and trying to cure diseases between fighting city destroying entities. Swift has wings and claws, and though not being a titan like the others more than holds her own. She is also the only non-Ellis created character on the team.
This title can be dark, but in way it is more realistic because of this. the world view not the city destroying enemies. The team got its name because they feel that their powers gives them authority. Their hearts may be in the right place but they can defiantly be anti-heroes. A good alternative world view of them can be seen in the movie Superman Vs. The Elite, based on the comic what’s so Funny About Truth Justice and the American Way? When a thinly disguised version of the Authority takes on Supes in a battle of will and philosophies.
This is a four episode mini-series set in the current real world. I picked up all four issues a few years back in a local comic book store’s quarter a title bin. It stars Dianna Ransome and undercover cop who has a berserker button that is set off when men hurt women. On one mission she went of a shooting spree, when a thug killed a woman. Her bosses instead of putting on trial give her an option. It seems that the current crime lord of NYC was an uncover cop who went native. They want her to assassinate him.
Dianna is an interesting character because she walks the tight rope between two opposing forces, each trying to seduce her, to their side. For Dianna her personal code of honor is more important than the law or personal feelings and loyalties. She is hard wired to protect and avenge other women. And in classic comic book form when she is given two no win options she creates her own third choice.
My first contact with Red, was the trailers for the Bruce Willis movie RED. I bought the title before I saw the movie and as in most cases the book is better than the movie. I like the movie, it just isn’t as intense of the comic book. In the movie Bruce Willis’ Frank Moses, is a hyper trained agent with a congenial live and let live, but you miss with me and mine you will be sorry attitude. In the comic book Moses it a literal kill machine. Not just a good agent but someone capable of taking out entire squads of Special Forces without wrinkling his suit. He is symbolic of the American war machine, unlimited over kill, but completely amoral, he is just a weapon, the right or wrong of his use is decided upon by those who send him out, he is indifferent, once told what to do. Another difference is in the movie RED stands for Retired and Extremely Dangerous. In the book red is the color code for an agent actively on a mission.
You can kind of get the idea that Ellis, who is from England has a thing against us Americans. I don’t see it that way. I think he has a more cynical few of American institutions like the CIA. And I don’t think that is necessarily a bad thing. Sometime if you are too close to something then you can’t see the flaws in them. And Ellis’ world is interesting not despite the flaws, but because of them.
This is the first title that I consciously associated with Warren Ellis, and until Morning Glories came around it was my favorite title. It has two main recurring characters. Amanda Zero the enigmatic mysterious covert op, who runs a team of 1,001 agents that are specialist on, well among all of them, they have an expert on everything, from computer science, nuclear physics to aggressive interrogation. And her computer/coms women Aleph. There is literally up to 999 supporting characters. Global Frequency is mainly high tech techno-thriller, but they did on occasion venture into sci-fi, and realm of the paranormal.
Global Frequency is often called the most popular show that never screened. The pilot stared Michelle Forbes as Amanda Zero. I eagerly awaited for it debut but only to be crushed when the network dumped it because the pilot go leaked on the internet. You can find it out there it is worth checking out if only to see how are entertainment universe if a sadder place without it.
I love Portland because its motto is “Keep Portland Weird.” That is the same reason that I love Planetary with its motto of “It’s a strange world. Let’s keep it that way.” In this world things that happened only in books and movies here really happened. So there is an island full of Godzilla like monsters. Main character Elijah Snow, who is ageless, is taught how to investigate by Sherlock Holmes. The planetary field team investigates these bizarre mysteries with dual gun wielding Hong Kong ghost cops, copies of James Bond and Doc Savage. All the time battling an evil version of the Fantastic Four.
I love pop culture and I love literature, so of course I love Planetary. Among other things this title is fun. Yes it has Ellis’ darkness, but it is still a fun world. It sort of diverged from the Wildstorm world it was originally set in and developed a personality of its own. To the point that key world shaking events that happen in Authority (Also set in the Wildstorm Verse) are never referenced. But who wouldn’t want to live in a world where your favorite movies and books are all true and span said world looking for artifacts?
Ministry of Space
A friend loaned me his copies of Ministry of Space, saying it would be right up my alley. And he was right. It is based on an alternative world where the English bombed the American teams capturing the Nazi rocket scientist who in the real world gave the US, a hand up in the space race. This is shocking for the intentional ‘blue on blue’ violence but also because how it could have changed the world.
This changed world is much more Buck Rodgers than the real one. It is a world where the UK monopolized space travel. Landing on the moon in 196, and sending an atomic space ship with a crew of 700 to Mars. It is revealed that the British secretly funded its space research, by using a recovered stash of gold taken from Jews by the Nazis. And that the Empire as thrived in space but has digressed many ways including a black female pilot having to sleep in a ‘non-white male’ quarters in a space station.
Thank goodness that the Estacada Oregon public library has all the Transmetropolitan TPB’s. The main character is Spider Jerusalem is a cyberpunk Hunter S Thompson. An old school gonzo journalist in the future. He takes on an evil crazy and murderous president of the US. I am not a big fan of X+Y=Z descriptions of books, but Fear and loathing in Las Vegas + Necromancer = Transmetropolitan is a pretty right on description.
Now Spider is not alone in his holy crusade. He has his two filthy assistants. Abused rookie reporter Yelena Rossini. And ex-nun/ex-striper/current body guard Channon Yarrow. Spider may be the star but these two put upon girls are the stories’ heart. And true to form they can give back to Spider as good as he gives. Even such worthies as Sir Patrick Stewart (Who would make an awesome Spider in a Transmetropolitan movies) has publicly said he wanted to have sex with the filthy assistants. They are awesome characters. And with Spider and the girls out there fighting the good fight, I feel better about the future.
Like I said Ellis is a pretty prolific writer. So there are a lot of stuff I haven’t read yet. Among them are Black gas, Black Sumner, and Switch Blade Honey. I am just glad I still have more Warren Elis titles to go to.
Woah, this was extensive! Look forward to reading it more carefully when I have a bit more time on my hands, but I read far enough to see your question about whether I have any comic writers that I just trust anything to be good from, and that made me start wondering. I’m not sure if I do.
Brian Michael Bendis, Brian K. Vaughan, Gail Simone and Ed Brubaker are probably the four closest. I’ve read a fair bit by all four, and I can’t recall anything ever disappointing. But I’ve not read anywhere near a large enough percentage of their stuff to claim I’ve got a representative selection. I’d also mention Greg Rucka, or Matt Fraction, but I’ve read even less by them — and nearly nothing by Ellis, only “Planetary”.
Neil Gaiman, I’ll read anything by. But I can’t say I know for sure up front if I’ll love it. I just know I’ll at least like it.
But otherwise, the writers of my favourite comics tend to disappoint me in other places. I looove some of Jeph Loeb’s older stuff, but in recent years he got repetitive. Still readable, but nowhere near as great. Mark Millar’s written some really great stuff, but other things he’s penned I find rather a bit obnoxious, so I definitely don’t trust him. Frank Miller’s even worse — oh, I love “Sin City” as much as anyone, and he’s got other stuff from that era that’s quite great too, but whenever he puts anything out now it reads like a sad parody of himself. Alan Moore’s gone the other direction — instead of being a bleak shadow of what he once was, his current stuff now reads as overly self-indulgent intellectual exercises. All the intelligence and creative joy of his earlier works, but so very little of the narrative drive necessary to make the reader care to appreciate the deeper qualities. Moore’s subtext is becoming text at the expensive of the stories, just as Miller’s subtext seems to be disappearing entirely.
Then there’s Grant Morrison, who’s indubitably a creative genious, but who (a bit like Moore) indulges his own desires for what the story should be to the point where it becomes hit and miss for me as a reader, and I never know for sure if I’ll love or dislike whatever he puts out.
And other comic writers … I know mainly from one single story/property or another. Like Mike Carey on “Lucifer” (I’ve read one volume of “The Unwritten” but I never kept going for some reason) or Keno Don Rosa on $crooge McDuck comics. And in those cases, it’s tough to know whether it’s just their handle on that one story/character that’s great, or if the writer him- or herself would be great regardless of what property they wrote for.
Woah, this comment grew large. I’ll comment again once I’ve read your actual post more carefully. 🙂
Oh, bad typo: that should be “at the expense of the story”, not “expensive”, obviously.
LOL Kind of works both ways.
That’s generous, but only kinda. 😉
Thanks for the comments. Pretty much agree with all of it. As for Gaiman I just listened to his Grave Yard Book on CD, and not only did I thoroughly enjoy the story. I loved how he read it himself, and is obvious love of his characters and the English language.
I struggle with having the attention span for audio books — I think about something else for half a second, and then have no idea if I’ve lost one sentence or twenty. But Gaiman’s reading voice is absolutely great, and I loved the Graveyard Book too. Admittedly, “The Jungle Book” was my favourite book growing up, so I’m somewhat biased on that one.
Well, I’ve read it! Thanks for the thorough pitches! I’ve now added “Global Frequency” and “Down” to my list of things to hopefully one day check out (and “Authority” and “Ministry of Space” on the backup-list for if I find I love the other two), “Transmetropolitan” was already there but keeps being postponed due to its length. Also added “RED” to my list of gift ideas for my fiancée (she loved the movie and tends to be curious about reading source material), dunno why I haven’t thought of that before.
Glad you liked it so much to read so little time.
Ain’t that the truth. My reading list is so long now I sometimes go to add a book or an author only to find I already have them listed, even though I was sure I had never heard of it before.
I love Warren Ellis. I can’t wait for his “Trees” book from Image this month.
He is always worth a read.
I would love to have a comic book conversation with you over some BBQ someday. You would school me so hard. This was awesome.
Thank you. I just wish I was as good at real world stuff like taxes and job interviews.
Hahaha! Yeah. I get that. Trust me.
Warren Ellis is my go-to comic writer as well, and creator of many of my favourite comics and characters. The Drummer is a favourite, and Tansmetropolitan, as well as one of the comics that got me into comics, is my all-time favourite. Such wonerful characters and world building.
If you haven’t read it then keep an eye out for Two-Step. It’s a mini-series he did about ten years ago. I picked up the issues from bargain bins before it was collected, and it’s fun, with a Transmet-style near-future setting and weirdness but without that book’s vicious edge – so not one of his greatest, but a really good read.
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