Warren Ellis is one of my favorite comic-book authors. He’s best known for Transmetropolitan, a ten-volume sci-fi epic in which a latter-day Hunter S. Thompson does battle with the Smiler (a political creature something like a cross between John Edwards and Vladimir Putin) armed only with journalistic truth and a bowel disruptor ray gun. At the moment he’s writing at least five ongoing titles that I know about–FreakAngels, Gravel, Anna Mercury, No Hero, and Doktor Sleepless–on top of his endlessly disturbing blog.
Apart from all these he’s been writing a series of one-shot “graphic novellas” riffing on historical topics. The first of these, Crécy, looks pretty good, but I haven’t read it yet.
The second, Aetheric Mechanics, came out just under a year ago. It’s steampunk sci-fi, built around Sherlock Holmes and John Watson (under different names). In London, 1907, Britain is at war with Ruritania (name borrowed from The Prisoner of Zenda). While the bombs fall, Holmes attempts to find the murderer of several experts in “aetheric mechanics” (roughly physicists, if physics worked the way it does in H.G. Wells novels), a man who flickers in and out of invisibility. It’s a fun mashup of 19th-century pulp novels, although that concept does smell faintly of Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
The new one, Frankenstein’s Womb, quite frankly sucks. I read it twice to make sure I wasn’t missing anything good, and I’m pretty sure I’m not.
Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin and her not-yet-husband Percy Bysshe Shelley are on the road to meet Lord Byron somewhere or other, and Mary decides she wants to stop and explore a ruin called Castle Frankenstein. There she meets a monster created a hundred years earlier by Johann Conrad Dippel, considered by some to be the inspiration for Frankenstein the novel. The monster gives her a long account of Mary’s own history—the death of her mother, feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, in childbirth; the philosophy of her father, political reformist William Godwin; her future marriage and Percy Shelley’s death—followed by a glimpse of the future, a person in an emergency room being shocked back to life by a defibrillator. (It’s a scene sort of reminiscent of the one toward the end of Alan Moore’s From Hell in which Sir William Withey Gull commits his final Jack the Ripper murder and is granted a terrifying vision of a late-twentieth-century office building. It’s hard to avoid ripping off Alan Moore.)
The problem is that none of this seems to go anywhere. If there’s a meaningful engagement with the actual themes of Frankenstein (a warning against the advance of technology and industrialism, especially by those like Victor Frankenstein who refuse to take responsibility for their creations), I missed it after all, and I was looking. It’s not even a particularly good history lesson, since it doesn’t tell you why Mary Wollstonecraft, William Godwin, or Percy Bysshe Shelley matter. It has some nice gloomy drawings (preview here), but that’s really about it.