Sometimes The Buzzword’s Wrong

November 4th, 2006 by | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

I was talking with dub, or hermanos, or 4thletter, or David, or Janet, or Ms. Jackson if you’re nasty, and the topic of Warren Ellis came up in the conversation.

I’ve seen a lot of people just this week talk about Ellis’s work as “cynical,” to the point where it seems to be the word you use to describe him. It’s an overused adjective used to discuss the body of his work.

The thing is that I don’t think that’s accurate, and I never have. Talking to dub, I figured out why.

For dramatic overthinking of funnybook swearing, read on after the cut:

Ellis definitely writes stories that take a dark view of humanity and of human nature. There’s no arguing with that.

Transmetropolitan was, on some level, about the unfortunate truth that in a future where nearly anything is possible, people will A) not really have changed, and B) use these elaborate technological dreams for harder and weirder sex. Ocean and Orbiter and Planetary are about people trying to exploit the weird and beautiful, a theme that reappears to some small extent in his Ultimate Fantastic Four. Desolation Jones speaks for itself, really.

The thing is, if you read enough of Ellis’s work, and I have, trends and themes become obvious over time. If you just read one or two of his books, you might brush off what you’re looking at as “cynical,” but it’s not quite. Ellis’s protagonists don’t seem to be cynics; they’re frustrated utopians.

In a way, Ellis’s Authority is the ultimate expression of that theme, and it’s a note running through the book that none of the subsequent writers really seemed to pick up on (or at least, when they did pick up on it, it was with enough sturm und drang to drown out the original point). When Hawksmoor says “…you have to fight and kick and bite for a better world…” or Swift says she’s not a pacifist anymore “…because it’s just not a good enough world that you can work for it without sometimes hurting people badly,” it’s the team’s mission statement in a nutshell. The Authority are here to fight for a better world.

Most of Ellis’s protagonists are a little further along in their mission than the Authority is. Jenny Sparks is at the end of her evolution; she’s been a utopian, and with Stormwatch, she finds her way through her period of doubt and cynicism, and comes back to the original mission for a time before she dies.

The larger point is that if you look at Ellis’s work as a whole, it is almost always, in whole or in part, about the disparity between the world we have and the world we wish we had, or the world we are capable of having if we weren’t being held back. There’s a moment in most of Ellis’s work, I’ve noticed, where the cynical hard-bitten protagonist hauls off and either shows or informs you that he’s not just cynical for the sake of being cynical: he’s this way because of something, and the situation at hand represents a way to, in some small and perhaps eventually meaningless fashion, get what he’s wanted all along.

Jenny Sparks and Elijah Snow are foulmouthed chainsmokers, British and British-educated, respectively, who’re tired of the world, but they’re also here to save it. The captain from Switchblade Honey is given a chance to remove himself finally from the humanity that isn’t really worth his presence, and he turns it down; “…I need the human race,” he says, and his crew snaps to. The protagonist of Ocean is a United Nations weapons inspector, who says he wants to take people’s guns away (and he lives in a universe where guns are far more disquieting things than they are today); he’s been forced to use guns himself, and more lethal things, in order to perform his job. Richard Fell, in the eponymous book from Image, is a bit more open and friendly than a typical Ellis protagonist, but is still determinedly competent in an environment that does not reward competence; one can imagine him in twenty years, smoking one foul cigarette after another and ranting on a streetcorner about why the world is not what it should be.

Global Frequency is a dialed-down espionage Authority, about saving the world by any means necessary, with Miranda Zero as the typical Ellis protagonist who’s willing to build utopia with the barrel of a gun. It’s an interesting book for this day and age, with its common theme that the government cannot be trusted to do some things, so it’s up to the ordinary people to become great and do them themselves; this is spelled out nowhere as clearly as it is in the final issue, with the doomed astronaut’s speech before dying (“…we’ll build our own dreams,” he says, just before dying in the explosion that saves Chicago from the last century).

Spider Jerusalem is the character that Ellis will probably be most readily associated with for the rest of his professional life, and he’s also the clearest embodiment of this storytelling principle that there is. He’s not just a screaming would-be tyrant with a taste for drugs and an enormous capacity for casual violence, which is what a disquieting number of readers seem to take away from the book.

Maybe he’s that early on, but Spider is, as Ellis takes pains to show later on, a dangerous romantic in the style of H.L. Mencken. He has an idea that things are not as they should be, and the capacity to embarrass those above him into fixing the problems. The central conflict of the book arises because Spider tries to “fix” America in the wake of the Presidency of the politician we only ever hear described as “the Beast,” a slow-witted man who, while not actively hostile, “at least believes in something.” He tries to keep Americans fed and happy, but if fifty-one percent of the people he’s governing eat one night, “that’s the absolute fucking limit of what can be done,” in his words.

This is unacceptable to Spider, who sets out and succeeds in engineering the Beast’s defeat in the next election. Unfortunately, he’s replaced the Beast with a monster, and while the Smiler is little more than an overblown caricature of political evil (“So. The Constitution. Where do you want to start cutting?”), he’s a worse monster than the Beast could have ever hoped to be. Thus, enraged both by the Smiler’s deception and the assassination of Vita Severn, Spider engineers the Smiler’s downfall.

At the core of the book, though, is Spider finding things that simply are not as they should be, and writing about them. By the mid-point of the book, he’s on the loose, beholden to no one, and can simply do what he believes needs to be done; witness the standalone issue about child abuse and foster care, which despite its futuristic setting (and a long scene set in a fast-food restaurant that serves cloned human meat), is all too applicable to the present day. Things are not as they should be; thus, they must be fixed. Spider cannot fix them, so he’s at least out to point out the problem to those who can.

Overall, I think the problem with Ellis is that he’s working in what can largely be perceived as a superficial medium, which is occasionally backed up by his own lack of subtlety; further, some of his recent books like Desolation Jones, Angel Stomp Future and Down go past “cynical” and into “nihilistic,” without the core of utopian ideas that marginally redeemed his other work.

Even his more layered work like Transmet tends to occasionally hit you in the face with its themes (like that one issue where he buys the girl her stuffed toy back, revealing a more sympathetic, friendly Spider that never appears again over the course of the book), which is more than forgivable. In a medium known for its disposable superficiality, the occasional thematic delivery via sledgehammer is understandable.

In all, this is why Ellis is the most interesting writer of the “British invasion,” which includes Morrison, Ennis, Jamie Delano, and a few other younger British comics writers. While some of them are as layered as he is, none of them are quite as interested in pushing the medium forward the way he is, and none of them are working on quite as many levels as he is.

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3 comments to “Sometimes The Buzzword’s Wrong”

  1. I think this is why I actually have a soft spot for Marvel Ruins. Being in a different universe, Ellis doesn’t have to hold anything back and you could always go back to the regular continuities. We know what the Marvel universe and the fantastic superhero ideal are supposed to be, and Ellis gives us a tragic companion world where everything has gone completely wrong. And the reporter knows it should be different, it should be better, but is blocked by “reality” and the barriers of his universe. I think the reporter’s desire for the “better world” sort of softens the cynicism you usually get with grim ‘n’ gritty tales that are in continuity.

  2. Very astute observation you got here. I like the Warren Ellis protagonist, especially Spyder, which I’m reading right now. I just don’t like the fact that they’re all the same in practically every story.

    And what is up with the cell phone obsession?!

  3. I don’t think his protagonists are the same at all, but there’s a certain type of protagonist he does tend to fall back on a lot. He doesn’t do it as much as he used to.

    Ellis talks about phones a lot. He’s a little bit of a gadget-hound.

    It’s not surprising if you think about it. Ellis is, among other things, in unhealthy lust with the future, and a sufficiently advanced mobile phone is a piece of the future in your hand.