Come In Alone

Fri, January 7th, 2000 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Warren Ellis, Columnist

I am returned. And I bring news.

Bruce Sterling, in his follow-up message to his Viridian Manifesto of January 3 2000 (http://www.well.com/conf/mirrorshades/), crystallised in one line a vague and numinous notion that'd been floating around in the back of my head since mid-December. He refers to 2000 as "the last, phantom year of the twentieth century." Which, of course, it is. It's the year no-one counts. All of you people who measure a millennium and count it as having started a few days ago are mathematically wrong. All of you people who measure a millennium and count it as starting at the end of this year are made wrong by consensus of the masses. (And a third of the planet doesn't recognise it as a millennium-turn anyway.)

This is the phantom year, the point between ticks on a clock, a zone of transition.

This is no bad thing.

This is a supermodern point, a place that is no place, a place between places. We have the best part of three hundred and sixty five ghost days to work in.

There's money out there, and it's moving. Post Millennial Tension is, in these early days of our phantom year, having an interesting effect. People are spending money out of relief, and are also spending it looking for something new. That's why Sterling put the Viridian Manifesto out on January 3. He knew that people would be looking for The Next Thing, the new black, almost as soon as the clock struck twelve. In terms of pop ideologies, he's exactly right. Postmodernism is too old to now seem post-anything: it's over. Supermodernism has as yet no obvious use to pop culture, applying as it does to two-dimensional spaces: a way of describing something that is only nominally there, as ghostly and transient as airport lounges. The Viridian Movement is perfectly placed to become the next portable -ism. But I digress.

Western culture has, in essence, got a year off. This is something that is replicated in the history of the culture. Sleeping right through the night is a modern invention. Time was, people would go to sleep at sundown -- what was called "first sleep" -- and wake up again around midnight. They'd stay awake for a couple of hours -- eat, talk, get things done, have sex -- in this quiet time away from all their worldly concerns, before returning to sleep until dawn. An hour or two of life between ticks of the clock, a phantom time free of the demands of employment or family. The modern equivalent is Hakim Bey's concept of the Temporary Autonomous Zone.

We have a year before time starts again and we get on with the 21st Century. How do you want to spend it?

I have a suggestion. A near-manifesto, a call to arms, a hideous and blood-curdling rebel yell for all the enemies settled in my medium. In the MLK-possessed words of Benjamin Zephaniah: brothers and sisters, I have a scheme.

"We have a year before time starts again and we get on with the 21st Century. How do you want to spend it?"

If you don't like what's going on in Western comics, use this year to change it. Because, brothers and sisters, I bring news:

You can change it.

You can change it through creative action, discourse and lobbying.

The news I bring is of a new and radical nature; you can talk.

Lobbying works on people. I don't know why. I don't know how a few hundred cultural perverts manage to get abortions like SLIDERS renewed every fucking year, just like I don't know how a couple hundred mental cases managed to get STAR TREK renewed back in the dark ages. Worse, I don't know why these people wanted those shows renewed. Surely not that many children are dropped on their heads and kicked around the house like a football in every generation?

They do this simply by writing letters. Not email. No-one counts email as serious communication, apparently. I guess all you AOL users with screen names like BIGKOK69 and all you WebTV users whose vocabularies appear to begin and end with Fuck, Crapola, Rulz and Da Shit are to blame for that one. You'll be ashamed once your balls drop, I tell you.

But, hell, this shouldn't be a problem. The Internet brought back correspondence and discourse from a Victorian grave. Writing letters is once again part of the daily routine for hundreds of millions of people. Just hit the PRINT key instead of the SEND key. Tell people what you want. This is the year you can remake the Western comics medium into the medium you want to see. Shout at people. Because, for some reason, the people in charge take notice of letters when they arrive in enough bulk and contain similar material.

"This is the year you can remake the Western comics medium into the medium you want to see. Shout at people."

If you don't want monthly superhero books anymore, tell your retailer. Stop buying them, and tell your retailer why. Tell your retailer what you want to see instead. Tell the publishers what you want to see instead. Tell them why. Tell them what you do support from their publishing slate. Tell them what you want to see. This isn't "Spawn rulz" and "Green Lantern sucks, I want the old guy" back we're talking about here. I'm talking about something on the level of the intelligent conversation I see on the Net -- on comicon.com at its best, on my forum (where I maintain a Stalin-like grip on proceedings) and the smarter discourses on Usenet. I'm talking about a concerted effort by educated and passionate people to make their voices heard by the publishers. Everywhere I go, I have people asking me why no-one's supporting a major original graphic novel program, why so few people are working with the big "super-manga" format (and why no-one's doing it with original Western work), why it is that only the media-license-heavy companies are putting their weight behind finite series and trade paperback collections...

...and all I can do is create the damned things. All I can do is write stories. I can't change the course of comics publishing in America. Not alone. On my own, my voice just isn't loud enough.

But if a whole crowd of us shout at once, we'll rattle the windows.

Take this phantom year to start thinking about the medium you want to see, and start talking about it. There's a lot of us who have very similar ideas, but no-one can hear us when we mutter down here in the dark. Captive in our ghost 2000 is a medium that's already in a state of flux, currently neither one thing nor the other, waiting to be shaped and directed by whoever gets there first.

Start talking. Use the available Internet fora; the CIA message area, SEQUENTIAL TART (http://www.sequentialtart.com) and POPIMAGE (http://www.popimage.com) and the like, my forum, the Fantagraphics site, even Usenet. Have conversations: don't let it disintegrate, as it so often does, into two or three people yelling at each other about some pedant's point of order a million miles away from the subject at hand.

As I said right at the start of these columns, comics remain cut off from the general cultural conversation. But that doesn't mean that comics should not or cannot sustain conversation of the same level and quality.

I'm talking to you through a medium that has reinvented written discourse. Use it.

I can be contacted by email about this column at warren@comicbookresources.com. My website, currently undergoing an update, is http://www.warrenellis.com. There is a COME IN ALONE discussion area here on CBR.

INSTRUCTIONS: Read Saucer Wisdom by Rudy Rucker (Forge, 1999), listen to Aqaetis Byrjum (approximate spelling) by the magnificent Icelandic band Sigur Ros (Smekkleysa, 1999 -- details on http://www.sigur-ros.com), and hit the Steve Pugh website at http://www.stevepugh.com (and tell him I sent you). Today's recommended graphic novel is BLUEBEARD by James Robinson and Phil Elliott (Slave Labor Graphics, 1996). Now begone.

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