Come In Alone: Issue #9

Fri, January 28th, 2000 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Warren Ellis, Columnist

I'm a big fan of novelty.

And I don't mean novelty as in, say, a Christmas record or Joe Dolce singing "Shaddap Your Face." Novelty in the Terrence McKenna sense: new things. I'm a neophile, by definition. I like change. I like new things. And I work in a neophobe business. An artform that, in its Western incarnation, tends to be dominated by male readers of one genre and a fanatic bent who went to work in its related industry or became its most outspoken -- or at least loudest -- barrackers. I mean, here's an example: Frank Miller's career. Everyone nods and applauds politely when he does a 300 or a new SIN CITY book -- but mention that he might draw The Batman again and watch the ejaculate fly. There's a huge chunk of the business that's happiest when the business is seen to be going backwards. The new buzzword at the major companies, "editorial vision", is really just asking for a return to the days of editors telling writers what to write and mad scum like Mort Weisinger getting away with horrible abuse. People on the net have been seen to bitch about Alan Moore's ethical opposition to working at DC because it means he won't write fucking Superman again.

"Everyone nods and applauds politely when [Frank Miller] does a 300 or a new SIN CITY book -- but mention that he might draw The Batman again and watch the ejaculate fly."[The Dark Knight Returns]

Alan Moore must drive those people nuts. One of my more pleasant comics-related experiences of last year was watching him launch the America's Best Comics imprint. Five new books -- three dealing in self-contained single issues with limited narrative ties between episodes, one the beginning of a series of miniseries, one an anthology. That is a lot of new material.

There's a pure manic pop thrill to be had out of new comics, particularly new comics by known and admired creators. (The technical term for discovering new comics by new and unknown creators is "manic indie thrill", in case you were wondering.) I like being able to grab up brand new slabs of their work just to see what they're thinking about right now, how they're seeing the medium and their role in it and the world around them. I mean, I'm happy to wait a few years between Bryan Talbot books, say. I don't resent Bryan for not working fast. But at heart I'm a pulpster. I write fast, and I like to write fast. I like to spill it all out onto the page. Alan's a split personality; every now and then the pulp writer mugs the Serious Literary Figure and you get a burst like America's Best Comics. Michael Moorcock has talked about this -- I think it's in DEATH IS NO OBSTACLE, a book of interviews conducted by the sf author Colin Greenland. Mike, who lives in a similar dichotomous state to Alan (Here MOTHER LONDON, there TIME OF THE HAWKLORDS), describes it as the Joycean compulsion as opposed to the Dickensian. Dickens was the überpulpster, writing novels headlong in serialisation, under deadline, clearly opening some of his greatest novels in weekly improvisation, trusting to luck and skill and providence that it'll turn into something that makes sense. Popular fiction, social fiction, fiction that reacted to the world around him in real time. Mike, described once as "possibly the last of the great clippers," holds the notions of both fast fiction and the "great symphonic" Victorian social novel close to his heart. But, in the death, his most compelling, dynamic, relevant fiction, the fiction that shows Mike reacting to and answering his world, comes from Jerry Cornelius and Elric, the twin chambers of his bad little pulp heart. "My model can't be Joyce", he says, "it has to be Dickens." (Not that MOTHER LONDON isn't anything short of brilliant and a milestone in English fiction.)

The pulp writing is fast fiction. It sacrifices deep complexity and perfect sculpture for vitality and multiplicity without giving up essential intelligence. PROMETHEA is not a stupid comic. What it is, is short and uncomplicated. It's the equivalent of the perfect three-minute pop single (which gave rise to my term "Pop Comics", as discussed elsewhere, back in the summer of '99).

"The pulp writing is fast fiction. It sacrifices deep complexity and perfect sculpture for vitality and multiplicity without giving up essential intelligence."

There are many of them in comics; unashamedly prolific and yet hitting their chosen mark nine times out of ten. I haven't read anything by John Byrne in a very long time. That should not be seen as a slight on his work, but an expression of the fact that I don't really like superhero comics. (To be honest, the only superhero comic I like right now is JLA, because Grant has the single vital ingredient for good superhero comics -- unrestrained, childlike madness. The bit in the last issue, where The Batman overwrites the disc that contains the battle data that Prometheus uses to power his superhumanity, and replaces it with the specs for Professor Stephen Hawking so he can beat him up...) But I'm always pleased to see him working. Because he is prolific, and plainly enjoys being prolific. He seems to me to be someone who's accepted the pulpster in his guts, if you like. The inner pulp writer. And he bangs it out at speed. He provides his audience with a great deal of him, each year, and his audience obviously appreciates that. I think it's sad that he's given up on his brief career in creator-owned comics; what little I saw of things like DANGER UNLIMITED had the authentic crackle of raw American adventure comics.

If he were to give up on company-owned stuff -- which he's spent some considerable years doing exclusively, possibly almost as many as I've spent in the American industry -- and go to one of the many major publishers who'd undoubtedly have him to do creator-owned work, what then? His advance payments would approximate his work-for-hire payments. Almost no-one makes regular-comic royalties anymore, so he wouldn't be missing out. And he would be rewarded by royalties earned on trade paperback collections, which are not insubstantial for popular collections. At the risk of annoying the guy who emailed me to tell me that the problem with comics is that I earn too much money, my trade paperback royalties this year covered the costs of a very expensive Christmas and New Year that included foreign travel and a lengthy stay in one of Britain's best hotels. My personal banker is here to tell you that trade paperback collections and original graphic novels are The Way Forward.

So what then? John Byrne -- and I'm using him as a hypothetical picked out of the air, he could just as well be anyone else with Byrne's apparent cachet -- would be channelling that energy into doing something new. Not spending all his time servicing a company's property. Free to show us what else is in his head. In a position to generate new material in volume, the same volume he puts out his work-for-hire in. And, you know, I don't care if it all turns out to be superhero work, not really. Because it's him. It's an expression of his perception of the world around him shaped utterly by him, framed in the genre he feels most comfortable in. It's new. Novel. And there could be an awful lot of other people like him. A lot of solid creators, creating new works in volume, would actually make it exciting to go into a comic shop again. People who only go in monthly or less might actually be energised to go in weekly, if there were an explosion of fresh, creator-owned, intelligent and beautiful work from known creators. And if people were encouraged to pick up brand new concepts in volume from the creators they know, there might just possibly be less resistance to the indie market, which is founded on people taking risks with brand new creator-owned concepts. And the mainstream, popular side of the medium could, would, slowly (or even not so slowly) grow into a lively, bright culture of novelty.

And I'm a big fan of novelty.

And for what it's worth; at this stage I'm very nearly done with my brief consultancy on the Counter-X books. I co-own PLANETARY. I co-own TRANSMETROPOLITAN. I own STRANGE KISS and DARK BLUE. I co-own CITY OF SILENCE, due in May, originally produced for Epic back in the 90's, not long after I came to the American industry (for those who follow my work, CITY OF SILENCE is the lost missing link between LAZARUS CHURCHYARD and TRANSMETROPOLITAN). There. That should cut down on the "Yes, but" pro-hypocrisy emails. I'm doing the best I can to walk the walk as well as talk the talk. And so should you.

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 Comics & Sequential Art by Will Eisner (1985), listen to Don't Falter by Mint Royale with Lauren Laverne (Faith & Hope, 2000 -- it's a single, evokes unashamed 80's indie John Peel nostalgia in me -- a Strawberry Switchblade moment), and hit Chad Michael Ward's website gallery at http://www.digitalapocalypse.com. Today's recommended graphic novel is THE INVISIBLES: KISSING MISTER QUIMPER by Grant Morrison and various (DC Vertigo, 2000). Now begone.

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