Tag: Warren Ellis

Best American Comics 2011 and FreakAngels TPB vol. 6

by on Oct.25, 2011, under Comics

A week ago I went to a panel discussion for the release of America’s Best Comics 2011, hosted by the year’s editor Alison Bechdel and featuring contributors Gabrielle Bell and Kevin Mutch.

Both Bell and Mutch primarily published their stuff online, in Mutch’s case later collecting it into a print volume, Fantastic Life. I got a chance to ask all three of them how they thought the changing distribution channels of comics (originally newspapers for Bechdel, experimental print books for Mutch, and always Web-first for Bell) had influenced the way they tell stories.

The answers were not at all what I expected. Bell said she started publishing online because newspapers are dying and it’s impossible to get a newspaper strip. But a newspaper strip is what she really wanted and for quite a while she conceived of her Web comics in a newspaper-strip-like vein, where there had to be a concluding beat for each page she published. Mutch said that he always imagined Fantastic Life as a printed work, with the aspect ratio of a traditional book, and serialized it a page at a time with that in mind, though he said that working directly in digital makes it much easier to achieve certain effects with color.

He pointed out that despite Scott McCloud’s prediction a decade ago of “the infinite canvas“—of online comic writer/artists making ever-greater use of the Web’s infinitely scrollable page, interactive graphics, simple animation—in fact the comics published online have remained for the most part faithful to traditional, print-derived formats. Probably (and this is my interpretation) that’s because there’s no money in online comics, so smart authors always have an eye toward the print collection. Mutch noted that the rise of tablet readers as a viable endpoint for publication might change that, though there, too, the aspect ratio is that of a traditional book. (Alison Bechdel mentioned Chris Ware’s new iPad-only comic Touch Sensitive for McSweeney’s as an example of an author exploring these new boundaries, but then Ware has always been about testing formal boundaries.)

Certainly, when I look at Bell and Mutch’s work in Best American Comics, there’s nothing about it to suggest a Web origin.

I had all this in mind when I picked up the sixth and final volume of Warren Ellis’s FreakAngels. FreakAngels was the first foray into Web-first publishing I know of by an author who’d built a major reputation for himself first in print. I assume he was the first because, alone of the famous comic book authors of his era, Ellis was a blogging pioneer. I’d bet that at one time at least as many people knew him through his regular collection of disturbing and disgusting stories and pictures at warrenellis.com as knew his comics.

Here’s the product description, because it’s easier than recreating it myself:

Twenty-three years ago, twelve strange children were born in England at exactly the same moment. Six years ago, they used their psychic powers in unison and accidentally flooded the world. Today, they live in and defend Whitechapel, perhaps the last real settlement in soggy London.

Now, FreakAngels does show that it was written with the plan of being collected into trade paperback–sized print books. There’s no crazy formal experimentation with layout or design, though it could be argued that the limitations of computer display led artist Paul Duffield to select bold colors and fairly simply compositions with lots of angles and attention to perspective, almost reminiscent of architectural drafting.

I have noticed a lack of act breaks. A lot of authors writing for issues nowadays have one eye on the trade paperback, where I think most of the money is made, and so structure their stories in four- to six-issue arcs. Every so many issues you come to a stopping place that resolves some conflicts and perhaps sets up ones to come, and as a result the trade paperbacks have a natural structure, with each volume telling a more or less self-contained piece of the story.

FreakAngels, which was serialized steadily in six-page episodes biweekly, doesn’t work like that. The story has dips and turns, but there’s no natural rest at the end of each volume, the new one just picks up at the same place it left off. That’s a style that works very well for a continuous story on the Web but doesn’t work so well in books. Every time I’ve bought a new volume of FreakAngels I’ve had to go back and review where we are.

On the other hand, I tried reading it on the Web, too, and a six-page episode every other week is no better way to maintain a continuous sense of story. A lot of that probably can be put down to Warren Ellis simply trying to service too many characters at once—a dozen is simply too many to give distinct voices and interesting development, especially in the serial format, and by never breaking into discrete chunks Ellis never gave himself the opportunity to focus on one or two for an extended time.

As a result, in the end we get a plot climax without much accompanying character resolution, and the whole exercise feels a bit unsatisfying. That’s too bad, because as usual for Ellis the books were packed full of ideas and inventiveness, and had a great setup. I just wish it had had a chance to deepen more before the end.

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Ignition City

by on Feb.26, 2010, under Comics

I didn’t think so much of the last Warren Ellis alternate sci-fi history I wrote about, Ministry of Space, so I’m happy to report that the new collected trade paperback of Ignition City is a whole lot better. Where Ministry of Space let its business be telling its alternate sci-fi history, Ignition City leaves that alternate history in the background to tell a character-based story.

This time it’s the mid-1950s, and the people of Earth have had regular flights into space and contact with aliens from Mars and Venus for years. That contact hasn’t gone so well, though, so all the governments of Earth have one by one suspended space flight, leaving only one spaceport operating, a government-free island called Ignition City. There live the inveterate spaceboys and spacegirls who went up in the early days and can’t get anyone to take them back—and there’s where Mary Raven, a young spacegirl herself, has to go to reclaim her just-deceased father’s things. It’s a straightforward, hoary tale of a new sheriff coming to spacetown, but well told.

No previews, but you can see samples of the artwork at the Flickr page.

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Ministry of Space

by on Nov.19, 2009, under Comics

Ministry cover

Ministry of Space was originally published in three installments from 2001 to 2004, really far too extended a schedule for a limited series. It’s just been collected and reissued as a trade paperback by Image Comics. I’m not sure why now except maybe Warren Ellis has gotten so popular that some people will buy any old thing with his name on it. Including me.

The comic lays out an alternate history in which it was the British rather than the Americans who spirited home Germany’s rocket scientists at the end of World War II, giving England an edge in space exploration and leading to a glorious new British Empire in space.

There are two main problems with it. First, speculative history and sci-fi are usually used to make some comment on actual politics, history, or human nature in the world as we know it. I don’t see Ellis even trying to do any of these. It’s a thought experiment without a result.

Second, there’s a supposed big mystery all the way through surrounding the secret origin of the funds used to launch the Ministry. Except that anyone with any knowledge of the Holocaust will guess the answer as soon as the question is raised, making the big reveal at the end no revelation at all.

I love Warren Ellis, but this was not his best work.

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Aetheric Mechanics/Frankenstein’s Womb

by on Aug.07, 2009, under Comics

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.

Aetheric Mechanics

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.

Frankensteins Womb

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.

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