Sleepless in Southend: Ellis talks "Doktor Sleepless"

Mon, April 23rd, 2007 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Michael Patrick Sullivan, Contributing Writer

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"Doktor Sleepless" #1

Comics writer and futurist Warren Ellis returns to pure science fiction this July with a creator-owned ongoing series from Avatar Press. With "Doktor Sleepless," Ellis is trying many new concepts both on and off the page, including a unique publishing schedule and an online component.

Ellis, from his home in Southend-on-Sea in the East of England, gave CBR News a rundown on the series and its title character.

"The good Doktor appears to be a man called John Reinhardt, a boy genius with a troubled background who disappeared three years ago," Ellis explained. "When he returns to his home city of Heavenside today, he's changed a lot. He's dressed strangely, he has a peculiar companion, and he's using the name Doktor Sleepless. Three years ago, he had things to day, but no one would listen -- he was, after all, rich, living in a big house on the hills overlooking the city, and impossibly privileged. The local equivalent of a 'Trustafarian,' a slumming rich kid in the alternative culture. So, he went away and came back as someone they'd listen to. Because no one's threatened by a cartoon mad scientist, right? Who's afraid of Doktor Sleepless?

"The thing is: no one's really sure what he's up to," Ellis continued. "At least one person is certain he never even left the city. Another person is certain John Reinhardt is dead, which means Doktor Sleepless is someone else entirely. And the Doktor seems to be here to stir up the counterculture, to confuse and harrow regular society, and to implant some dangerous ideas. He's up to something.

"And he doesn't seem altogether sane."

The book also features an array of supporting characters.

"We have Sing, John Reinhardt's ex-girlfriend, now running the bookstore they founded together and trying to hold together the remnants of the counterculture in Heavenside.

"It's as much her story as it is his, because she's the only one who really knew John, and the one most surprised -- and worried -- by his return. She knows things about him. And none of them are good."

"[We also have] the Nurse, a woman of secretive and unpleasant demeanor who appears to be in the employ of the Doktor."

"Doktor Sleepless" #1 wraparound
On the surface, "Doktor Sleepless" may be seen as a companion piece to Ellis' popular series "Transmetropolitan," which followed Spider Jerusalem, an investigative journalist, in a less-than-Utopian future. Ellis acknowledges a connection. "I don't know about a companion. Something in the same form, obviously. But the attack and goals of the book are very different. You could even boil it down to 'Transmet' being about truth and authenticity, and 'Doktor Sleepless' being about lies and secrets."

Many of Ellis' creator-owned works serve a purpose to Ellis, allowing him to explore a genre or speak out on some subject. "Doktor Sleepless" is no different. "It lets me return to my occasional role as amateur futurist," Ellis said. "I'm still recovering from Bruce Sterling calling me a 'public intellectual' a couple of years ago. I needed five years after 'Transmetropolitan' to return to the subject of the future in any broad, sustained way: needed the world to roll on a bit and see what novelties were coalescing. Now's the time."

Ellis continued, "The next big assaults on privacy, for instance, are here. In fact, the current teen generation is busy becoming post-privacy humans, leaving Twitter-tracks behind them everywhere they go. You could see that happening in Iceland ten years ago, great twisting loops of SMS connecting everyone together. RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) tags are going to be a massive disruption. People who've implanted RFIDs or magnets are already finding they're being pinged by security devices everywhere they go, and when those things become 'blogjects,' on the way to Adam Greenfield's 'everyware,' well, things are going to get strange.

"So, for one thing, I wanted a place where I could take time to consider these things, as well as the general 'Death Of Culture' and the early soundings of 'The End Of The World.'" Ellis added, "Within four weeks there will be six new bands called 'Richard McBeef.'"

Placing the series with independent publisher Avatar rather than at one of the bigger publishers Ellis also regularly works with creates a special set of circumstances for both writer and publisher. "Avatar have never done anything of this complexity and scale before," Ellis said,  "I'm out on my own, there. And I like that."

Doktor Sleepless, like most of Ellis' other projects is not open-ended, but there's room to maneuver. "There is an endpoint. I know how it ends, but I don't know when," said Ellis. "I'm letting the book find its own shape, and its own way to the end. I decided, for this one, I didn't want to be constrained by a hard structure."

Another aspect of the series is that it is not strictly contained on the printed page. Ellis has established a wiki -- a user-editable online encyclopedia -- in conjunction with "Doktor Sleepless," located at www.doktorsleepless.com.

"It's there to gather up all the information inside the book." Said Ellis. "There's more information written than could possibly be fitted inside the narrative of the comic itself -- at least, not without completely distorting the shape of the narrative and doubling the book's run. It's also there for people to play with. There's a complete backdrop and mythology to 'Doktor Sleepless,' and the wiki will allow people to make connections between it all, and perhaps see what some of the characters are really up to.

"I was inspired by the 'Lost' wiki project, where the first connection was made between a screenshot of the 'boatbillies' and the Dutch scientists involved in Dharma," Ellis added. "If you work hard enough, then you can provide enough material that interested readers can find a whole new level of engagement with the work."

Another innovation Ellis is making with the series is in the publishing schedule. "I'm avoiding the structure of arcs and stand-alones for "Doktor Sleepless." Ellis explained. "It all runs together, becoming denser and more complex as it goes. We're getting a little too used to neatly parceled comics and it's taking us away from more organic, novelistic shapes. So, I'm simply finding convenient and compelling breakpoints and then breaking for four months so everyone can recover their strength and get a fresh look at the next stretch of road."

However, not everything will come to a stop during the "off season."

"People who want to play will have four months to consider the full season and look for the connections and information hidden away in the book," said Ellis. "I'll be leaking new information in there, in the run-up to the next season."

"Doktor Sleepless" ships in July from Avatar Press with a cover by series artist Ivan Rodriguez and a variant wraparound cover by Raulo Caceres.

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