Come In Alone: Issue #42

Fri, September 15th, 2000 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Warren Ellis, Columnist

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Mark Waid was, for the last half of the Nineties, the embodied zeitgeist of commercial comics. Where he went, there was the superhero medium. Alex Ross was KINGDOM COME's guts, but Waid was its heart and mind. As a writer, he informed a return to a clean emotional involvement with superheroes, as well as a direct and classic plotting style produced by toxic exposure to stolid three-act Silver Age superhero comics. Both of which might have been less of a target for readers had they not come with the snap and crackle of Waid's bullets of polished diamond-hard dialogue.

He's worked in comics journalism, he's been a comics editor, and he's dressed up as superheroes for money. And he is not what you expect:

What's your view of the market for the Western medium right now? Downward spiral, holding pattern, what? And do you like it that way?

Yes, Warren. I want it all to turn to dust so I can go back to being a lounge singer. Of course it's spiralling downward, and of course that gives me fits. And I'm sick of the argument that we're merely experiencing a pendulum swing and we're simply at the nadir of an arc right now. It's probably true. But I READ "The Pit and the Pendulum." Eventually, that pendulum HITS SOMETHING and STOPS DEAD.

Devin Grayson has a great quote. She believes that "for the medium to survive, the industry will have to collapse." And she's not wrong. I'm not sure we DESERVE new readers with the craftless crap we're shoveling out now that we cater exclusively to the Legion of Diamond-Account Drones. (And, yes, I know there's some excellent work out there that CAN be enjoyed by an audience new to comics, but the odds of them stumbling across it while browsing a comics store are roughly akin to the odds of being hit by lightning. Twice.) The medium's survival depends primarily on two things: being able to build (or, to be charitable, "rebuild") an audience, and SIMULTANEOUSLY - not AFTERWARD, 'cause without the latter, you don't get the former - and SIMULTANEOUSLY being able to produce a product that your GRANDMOTHER could read and understand if she so desired.

Doesn't mean the work has to be unsophisticated, doesn't mean it has to be for kids, but my GOD...even the lamest TV show introduces its characters and situations better and more reliably than most of the best comics do. Worse, as far as craft goes, the public gives comics far less rope with which to hang themselves than they do TV shows. TV is so passive (and free!) that it just kinda spills over you, and if Joe America doesn't "get" a show, he'll just slip into a semihypnotic state, stay tuned, and watch the girls. Comics, on the other hand, are WORK - you have to READ - and they cost insane-for-what-you-get amounts of MONEY - so casual readers will be TREMENDOUSLY less forgiving if they're not QUICKLY getting comprehensible entertainment in return for their effort and cash.

And, of course, getting back to Solution The First, once we rethink the craft, we need to find new markets and new ways of marketing. As a freelance writer, I have some limited control over crafting for a new audience...one book at a time...but no control over getting it distributed to anyone new. With CrossGen, I can be in a much better position to address both problems - bad marketing and bad product - and if we can make some inroads there, maybe we can then go to work on this stupid goddamned 32-page format, which is absurd and less than useless, but (at least to my mind) a slightly lesser evil that can be prioritized (but not for long).

What is your ideal comic right now? Which currently-published book most closely resembles your notion of the best of the medium and encapsulates the zeitgeist and all that?

Now that ACME NOVELTY LIBRARY, PREACHER and HATE are gone? Probably THE ADVENTURES OF BARRY WEEN, BOY GENIUS. Irreverent, edgy without being impenetrably hip and subtle, clear in its storytelling without being stupid or predictable. Expressive of a distinct creative POV. And as brilliantly funny as anything this side of the all-too-infrequent DORK!

So what makes a perfect comic book?

A unique point of view communicated in an interesting and comprehensible manner, probably written and illustrated by the same person. WATCHMEN was arguably the best comic book of all time - next to, of course, DOOM 2099 - but I'd argue that DARK KNIGHT was purer in its vision.

The way I see it, you're on a long-term exclusivity at CrossGen and EMPIRE will complete initial publication within a year from now. Are you precluded from launching new Gorilla projects?

New ones? Yeah, but more by the shallowness of my own pockets than by any CrossGen deal. The reason EMPIRE is (theoretically, and I thank everyone for your patience) bi-monthly is because that's as often as I can afford to put it out. As I've had to explain to a couple of the hammerheads on your Caligulan message boards - what a fucking funtime group you've got THERE, my friend -

- tamest bunch on the Internet, who didn't harp on the point once they actually got the correct information, but off you go -

- had the Gorilla partners planned on financing these books from the get-go, we would have done a lot of things differently: started with more modest budgets, not spent quite as much on initial promotion, started at $2.95 instead of $2.50 to lower the break-even to something less unreachable, etc., etc....but we were led to believe we were spending someone else's money. Actually, we were told point-blank. But THAT money, as we discovered AFTER SOLICITING BOOKS, never actually existed. The money we HAD been spending? We found out that, in a perverse and byzantine sort of way, it was MY money - that's right, I was the secret benefactor of Gorilla Comics and wasn't even AWARE of it - and, man, THAT had to stop IMMEDIATELY. (And, yes, that little anecdote undoubtedly brings up many, many follow-up questions that I can't really answer without incriminating others and risking legal action, but live with it. I'll get to be Schwartz's age and write a book. But buy me a beer and I'll tell you enough to make you weep.)

At any rate, we'd already solicited books by that time and didn't feel it was right to stick retailers and fans by saying, "Oh, well, turns out we don't have any money after all, and we know we made fans all excited and tied up retailers' advance-order budgets...but we quit." Instead, we dug into our own pockets and made it work - and the Gorilla line, including EMPIRE, will consequently continue for as long as market forces will allow.

Having known you a while, the CrossGen deal seems to be designed to make you happy. You get to write, you get to inhabit a staff position and make your presence felt on the other side of the fence... and you get to train a new generation of writers, in much the same way that Marvel has recently tried to do. I have a sneaking suspicion that this is, in fact, cultural revenge. What are you going to teach them - and why?

That being honestly in touch with your emotions qualifies you for a shot at writing as many comics as you can, but reading eight thousand comic books doesn't qualify you to write even one. Some of the most fun I have every year at conventions is at Wizard World, where I always give an informal lecture on How To Write. The lesson I most mercilessly bludgeon the classes with (besides clarity, clarity, clarity) is to write from the heart and project themselves into the characters whose lives they want to chronicle. To open up their goddamned veins and bleed into the keyboard and MAKE. ME. FEEL. It's not hard to do, even if you're writing about superbeings who are smart and powerful enough to do anything but remember to wear their underwear inside their pants. I don't know what it's like to fly, but I sure as hell know what it feels like to race out the doors of school on the first afternoon of Summer Vacation. I don't know what it's like to lift a car over my head, but I recognize the pride and glow of achievement against the odds. I don't know what it's like to face off against Dr. Doom, but I remember having to stand up to bullies.

Is my way the only way? No. For all the hell I know, it might not even be close to the best way. All I can tell students is that the greatest success I've had in this industry - and I'll be the first to admit that I lost my way BADLY for a while a couple of years ago - came whenever I decided not to care whether honest sentimentality was still hip. My job is to make you laugh and make you cry, to give you what you want but not what you expect, to present you EVERY SINGLE TIME I SIT DOWN with something you've never seen before. And if I lose the courage to use my stories to work out personal matters and answer personal questions through their characters, I may as well be writing the backs of trading cards. The best, the very best of my stories are the ones where I got two-thirds of the way in thinking that it was about something when, lo and behold, it's actually about something else altogether and my subconscious brought it out. Never be afraid to run with that, to find out where it leads. A good writer writes about what he knows, but a better writer writes about what he doesn't know about what he knows.

Your career movements of the last couple of years give the sense that you haven't been comfortable in your own skin. Your statements on leaving THE FLASH make it clear that you changed and your fictional alter, Wally West, didn't. You gave KINGDOM COME its voice and had your voice taken away from you on CAPTAIN AMERICA, wandered from project to project without any obvious direction. Is there someplace you think you should be and something you think you should be doing, or are you just headed thataway for the hell of it?

Until recently, Warren, I haven't really have any other choice. Up until earlier this year, when a major and traumatic personal life change utterly transformed me into a completely better, smarter and much happier person, there'd been only one outcome I could ever depend on when it came to following my own instincts on matters of life, love, money and career: that I would make the STUPIDEST POSSIBLE CHOICE. That I managed to carve out a successful career in the 1990s despite my unerring ability to make idiot decisions is a testimony merely to the power of dumb luck. Kurt followed MARVELS with ASTRO CITY. I followed KINGDOM COME with X-O, MANOWAR. Good plan.

Look, I've said this before: you can make fun of my less-than-lofty goals all you like, but from the time I was 17, writing Superman - or, more accurately, being able to give back to someone who, fictional or not, quite literally saved my suicidal young life - was all I ever really wanted to do. I had no grand aspirations to transform the medium. I was perfectly happy being a journeyman. But the day I was told that I would never, ever, ever be allowed to fulfill that dream - well, that's when I finally came to my senses and stopped trying to do what a 17 year old wanted to do. Now at least I'm on a road.

Any travel planned for this summer?

Yes. I'm coming to your house because Niki deserves to know that not all comic book writers are pitiless, chain-smoking alcoholics with legions of surly, elitist fans. I'll bring a cake, though.

She likes them pitiless.

Five years from now: you doing comics or not?

Sure. Exclusively? Maybe, maybe not. I do love the creative freedom. When writing, I can play by any set of rules provided those rules stay fairly stable, but that doesn't seem to be their nature when it comes to animation or TV or videogames or films - and from all my dealings with those other media, I've learned that I just don't have the temperament to deal with others' stupidity no matter how much money they might throw at me. Yes, writing an episode of a cartoon show pays better than writing a comic book. But a comic I have to write only once, maybe twice - still good money. By the time I rewrite a cartoon show for the fifteenth time, I'm making less than minimum wage for the time invested. Ghaaaaah. So, yeah. Provided we can keep comics from going the way of the automat and the drive-in movie, I'm in for the long haul. Since you asked.

This is To Be Continued.

I can be contacted by email about this column at warren@comicbookresources.com. My terribly beautiful website, updated last week with a new front-page essay and now containing an online store (carrying most things listed in INSTRUCTIONS) and a 24-hour rolling news service, is http://www.warrenellis.com.

Yes, I know I still owe a response to REINVENTING COMICS. It's occurred to me, though, that the best way to write something about RC would be to do it as a comic…

My other column, BAD WORLD, can be found at http://www.opi8.com/badworld.shtml.

INSTRUCTIONS: Read THE RIGHT STUFF by Tom Wolfe (1979), listen to anything by Sibelius and Grieg, and visit Velvet Divide, because she's a friend of mine and likes the attention, at http://members.aol.com/velvetdivide/warning.html.

Today's recommended graphic novel is LONE WOLF AND CUB Vol 1 by Kazuo Koike & Goseki Kojima. (Dark Horse, 2000).

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