Warren Ellis is the latest in a line of British writers who have made it their business to redefine the whole philosophy of American comic books. Before him came Alan Moore whose work (particularly Watchmen) served to lend comic books a maturity they never had before, and Neil Gaiman who, in the Sandman series, layered his work with profound insight and literary allusions. Ellis, however, is more visceral, direct, and political, though also being the next logical step beyond Moore and Gaiman. His work has a motive: it says, 'Yes, you've grown up, and yes, you understand the world around you. But now that you do, what are you going to do about it?' Ellis creates stories that demand a response. Clearly, he wants to change the world, and remake it in his image. Oh, and he doesn't write about Superheroes. Not anymore, anyway.
Born in 1968, Ellis started to make money out of writing comics in 1990, and it was in the following year that he sold Lazarus Churchyard, his first comic mini-series. The main character of that strip is Lazarus, a 400-year-old former terrorist who now resides in a plastic body. As such he cannot die, though as he watches his friends die, and the world change around him, he desperately wants to. This early work shows a dark edge that became more apparent in passing years, and displays the development of his storytelling style.
Shortly after finishing Lazarus Churchyard, Ellis started to work for Marvel Comics, picking up any work they would throw at him, just to make some money, and therefore, not starve. Several pieces of work he did during this time never saw print, but at least he got paid, so he was happy. His rise to prominence really got underway in 1995. In that year he revamped the Thor title with his World Engine plot and started a run of issues of Excalibur1. This included the four month-long crossover of The Age of Apocalypse, a storyline that affected all eight (ongoing) X-men comics so much so that all the comics' names were changed for this period, Ellis's comic having been renamed X-calibre for four months. He wrote a mini-series re-inventing Druid2, in a similar vein to Neil Gaiman's re-invention of Sandman. The original character of Dr Druid was little more than a magician, but Ellis reworked him to make him more, well, druidic. There was a longer series planned, but the story was too dark for the public to take at that time, and the plans were dropped. However, equally dark is his writing on Doom 2099, which is perhaps the most interesting work from that year, especially when viewed through his later output.
In 1992, Marvel created a range of titles separate from their main lines. They hypothesised the world of the year 2099, and the kind of heroes and villains that would inhabit this futuristic world. Many of the superheroes were variations on the mainstream heroes: Spider-Man, Punisher, The X-Men, Hulk and Ghost Rider were all recreated for this range. But one character was not changed at all: he was pulled through to the world of 2099 wholesale. Doctor Victor Von Doom, the great arch-villain of the Fantastic Four was relocated to a new age, and given, for the first time, his own book - Doom 2099. Ellis took over the writing of this book on issue 26, and started arguably the most ambitious storyline in comics at the time. Under Ellis's patronage, Doom invaded America, bombed the senate, and declared himself President of the United States by right of revolution. Though clearly a megalomaniac dictator, Doom initiated various reforms that generally improved the lives of characters across the 2099 range. The environment was improved by use of hi-tech gadgets, several heroes were given cabinet posts or other jobs, and all large corporations were nationalised. But Doom's presidency did not last long, and he was ousted by using technologies kept secret by the heads of the corporations, and they set up Steve Rogers - Captain America - as a figurehead president. Though in a further act of subversion, Ellis portrays Captain America as a drug-addicted homicidal psychopath, instead of the clean-cut superhero he is supposed to be. Ellis's work on Doom 2099 demonstrated his desire, and ability, to craft popular tales with a political edge. A tendency that has come to dominate his career since that time.
Once he finished working at Marvel, Ellis took over the reins of the flagship title in DC's WildStorm imprint, StormWatch, a book about a United Nations sanctioned super-team. During his tenure on that book he created some characters that have become iconic in the industry, most prominent among them being the white-suited Briton - Jenny Sparks. In her first appearance she seemed to just be a superhero that could control electricity, but Ellis slowly revealed his idea that she is the spirit of the 20th Century. She was born at midnight on the 1 January, 1900, and her life mirrored the years3. During the Depression she was herself depressed, in the 1960s she was hopeful, and during the 1980s she was very argumentative. But it was in The Authority that she really came into her own.
When Ellis stopped work on StormWatch he destroyed their base of operations, and killed off most of the team members. Ellis took some of the survivors, added a few others, and made his last superhero team, The Authority, with Jenny Sparks as the leader of the team. The philosophy of the book has redefined what superheroes are all about. With The Authority Ellis completely changed the rules: they aren't just here to fight super-villains, they are here to take over. They don't simply intend to save the world, but rather they want to save us from ourselves.
Back in Watchmen, Alan Moore asked the question 'Who watches the Watchmen?' In The Authority, Ellis gave a simple answer, 'We do'. If one nation is attacking another, they will stop it doing so. If some advanced technology is being kept secret, they will make it available to all. They see it as their purpose to make the world work in unity. Ellis created the team, the feel and philosophy of the book, and wrote the first 12 issues. In the first four-issue story, the team destroyed a terrorist nation. Next, they repelled an invasion from a parallel universe. In Ellis's final Authority plot, the creator of the world turned to remove the infestation of humanity. So the Authority killed the Creator. And then Jenny died, at 23:59 and 59 seconds precisely on 31 December, 1999. The 20th Century may have technically ended a year later, but the world in general thought of it as that day, so that is when the spirit of the 20th Century died.
No More [Super] Heroes Anymore?
Since killing off Jenny Sparks, Ellis has intentionally distanced himself from the standard comic book fare of superhero adventures. As Frank Miller proved with Sin City, you don't need super-powered spandex wearers to make a comic successful. There are other tales that can be told. Ellis also does not want to get involved in the usual kind of 'ongoing adventures' storytelling. Each tale he conceives has a finite length, and once he has finished each story he will write something different. Some of the more significant recent works are Transmetropolitan, Planetary, and Global Frequency.
Transmetropolitan was co-created with artist Darick Robertson, who continued to draw the comic throughout its entire 72 issue run. The plot centres on journalist Spider Jerusalem who lives in the futuristic city of Transmetropolitan. He loves it and hates it in equal measure. He observes the highs and lows of city life, and then regurgitates it as a polemic in his weekly column. In this world, gene-splicing is an everyday fact, machines can be drugged, and companies selling bombs can upload adverts into your dreams. Spider sees it as his mission to offend everyone, but once he takes a dislike to the presidential candidate that eventually wins, and that president reciprocates that dislike, things start to get difficult. It would be too public a move to kill Spider, but the president can stop him working, and implant a degenerative virus that will cause his eventual death. It is the story of one man's desire to tell the ugly truth when half the world won't listen, and everyone else is against him.
Each issue of Planetary is illustrated by John Cassaday. Planetary is a huge organisation, with near limitless resources, and an unclear purpose. At the core of the company is a three-person team of 'mystery archaeologists'. It is their mission to uncover the secret history of the 20th century; the things that nobody saw, the things that were kept secret, the story of what has really been happening. The team members, though super-powered, have no pretensions of being heroes, they just do their job. The history that they uncover is Ellis's twisted take on various comic books or science fiction films, and half the joy is in trying to work out who, or what, Ellis is referring to. One of the great attractions of this book is its quietness, as opposed to the 'loudness' of most of Ellis's output. Most of the action in the book is historical: the team is simply finding out what happened. Interestingly, one of the central characters, Elijah Snow, has the same birthday as Jenny Sparks. And the same taste in white suits.
Global Frequency is a covert crisis response team consisting of one thousand and one members dispersed around the world. Anyone you know could be on the Global Frequency, and you'll never find out. They are paid to sort out the lingering problems from the aborted or unsuccessful experiments of governments and corporations, before the public as a whole finds out. In contrast to much of his present output, a different artist provided the artwork for each of the twelve issues.
Other Recent Work
- Scars: a crime-genre story dealing with a detective trying to track down a child killer.
- Reload: a three-part mini-series about secret agents, crime and the White House.
- Orbiter: an astronaut that disappeared in orbit ten years ago returns. Where has he been, and why?
- Ministry of Space: an alternative history tale of what might have happened if Britain had picked up Von Braun before the Americans.
- Visit Warren's Website, where you can also subscribe to his email newsletter Bad Signal, or read his weblog.