Tuesday, October 4, 2005

COMICS: Warren Ellis's three lonely men

Some days, I feel like I live in a Warren Ellis world – mean, witty, harsh and yet endlessly fascinating. Seems like every third comic on the racks these days is written by Ellis; which is a good thing if you're a fan of the man like I am. His peaks -- "The Authority," "Transmetropolitan," "Planetary" -- stand with the best of anyone working in comics right now. Ellis has his trademarks -- cynical, wounded protagonists who tend to be as much villain as hero, bursts of nasty violence, a loving eye for futuristic technology and mythic storytelling done in quasi-realistic ways. His work is both cruel and dazzlingly inventive.

Sometimes it seems like Ellis practically has a patent on the "damaged, bitter quip-tossing loner against the world" protagonist. His great misanthropic outlaw journalist Spider Jerusalem in "Transmetropolitan" serves as his template. Now over just a few months' time Ellis is the writer behind no less than THREE new "damaged loner" type comic book series -- "Desolation Jones" for DC/Verigo, "Fell" for Image, and "Jack Cross" for plain ol' DC Comics. That's a lot of lone gunmen.

Yet while you can definitely make the argument Ellis is starting to repeat himself, each of these series has interesting points -- and at least two of them are well worth checking out.

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The cream of the recent Ellis crop is "Desolation Jones," starring Jones, the battered, wounded survivor of something called "the Desolation test." It's given him some unique skills, but it's also scarred him unspeakably. Now, he's been hired as a detective for a quest through the seamy underbelly of LA for some extremely valuable stolen ancient pornography -- starring Adolf Hitler. Jones lives in a world of damaged souls like him, each with their own twisted variations. The recently released #3 is a prime example of Ellis at his best -- on the surface nothing more than a gritty, X-rated conversation about the porn industry between Jones and a prostitute as Jones conducts his hunt, it's fascinating reading, packed with odd and heartfelt subtleties. The crowning grace for "Jones" is the fantastic artwork by J.H. Williams III (also of Alan Moore's "Promethea") — mixing various mediums, it's utterly beautiful, even when the subject matter is so dirty. "Desolation Jones" is bleak, even for Warren Ellis, a mucky ride through the sewers of life. Yet it's terrific, all the same. It's superbly edgy adult comics, and I'm curious to see where it goes. Grade: A

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"Fell" is all gothic and gloomy-looking, and hardly original at first glimpse -- detective Richard Fell moves to a new and scary part of town, and gets embroiled in a mystery in his apartment building. Fell's meant to be more idealistic and less corrupted than Ellis's other loners, but after one issue it's hard to tell where that will lead. Ben Templesmith's painted, impressionistic art isn't exactly my cup of tea, but it smoothly gels with Ellis's tidy, efficient story. I like the steady, repeating use of 9-panel grids, which evokes Dave Gibbons's use of the same style in "Watchmen." I really dig Ellis's back-pages essay where he talks about the theories behind the comic (part of it based on a true story). Extra points to "Fell" for being an under-$2 comic, unheard of these inflationary days, with self-contained 16-page stories. The content may be a bit on the short side, but it's more satisfying than many other comics lately. Although one issue isn't quite enough to really judge the series on, I'm definitely in for more. Grade: B+ for #1

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"Jack Cross," so far, is the least of these three new series to me. Interestingly, it's not a "suggested for mature readers" title like most of Ellis's work, which means no cussing and less ultra-violence. Set in the post-9/11 intelligence community, titular retired spy Jack Cross is pulled out of retirement to do some dirty work for the U.S. government. Over the first two issues, this includes torturing a suspect, a few shoot-outs, and lots of shadowy corrupt black helicopters-conspiracy type talk. The plot moves forward, but "Cross" doesn't quite do it for me -- the title character is yet another Ellis damaged loner with little to set him apart, and I freely admit I'm not that into the spy genre and all its twists and turns (never read a Tom Clancy novel either). There's an effort to make Cross a "remorseful," guilt-wracked killer, but there's not much heart to it so far; I get no feel for the man, unlike Desolation Jones or Spider Jerusalem. The art by Gary Erskine is smooth, but sometimes verges on stiffness, and the book has an odd attitude toward violence -- some shootouts are rendered bloodlessly, like a PG movie, while others are given gory detail. It's kind of odd and inconsistent. "Jack Cross" still feels like a comic looking for its way. It's rather conventional, really, coming from the mind of Warren Ellis. Grade: C+

Now, once you look closer, the "lonely man" prototype Ellis uses a lot has variations here – hopeful Richard Fell is meant to be less punished than the tormented Desolation Jones, while Jack Cross (does anyone do names better than Ellis?) is a fairly typical "black ops" stereotype with hidden depths. They're riffs on a theme, but it's a testament to Ellis' talent that all three work to some degree, "Jack Cross" less than the other two for me personally. Of course, where they end will determine their ultimate success (Ellis's recent miniseries "Ocean," which started so promisingly as an intergalactic mystery, degenerated into an anticlimactic, disappointing guns 'n' quips ending).

This barely scratches the surface of Warren Ellis's plan to dominate comics - he's also doing an entertaining Justice League story in "JLA: Classified" (actually written a few years back), several horror-type things for other publishers, and some work for the Marvel "Ultimate" line. I rarely pick up an Ellis comic and regret it -- I may be filled with fear and loathing (to quote one of Ellis' obvious influences), but I'm almost always entertained, too. Among comics writers, he shines his own cryptic pale light.

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