When Words Collide: The Ellis Top Ten

Mon, November 2nd, 2009 at 2:28pm PST | Updated: November 2nd, 2009 at 4:42pm

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer

Last week's column stirred up the most negative responses I've ever received for anything I've done on CBR. I thought the response to my "X-Factor" review was bad, but it turns out that as much as some people like to defend Peter David, even more people like to criticize Geoff Johns or anyone who dares to even create a Top 10 list of the guy's work.

I find that exceedingly odd.

I mean, I could come up with a Top 10 list of anyone's work, and it doesn't automatically mean that I think all of the things on the list are great. They're just the Top 10 things done by that creator. I could rattle off a Top 10 list of Robert Zemeckis movies, even. Okay, maybe I couldn't. Not with a straight face. Everything after "Back to the Future" would be a lie.

Blade Runner!

But Geoff Johns hasn't done anything as grotesquely annoying as "Forrest Gump" or as embarrassingly wrong as "Beowulf," so give the guy some credit. "Not as bad as Robert Zemeckis," may not be a t-shirt we'll see Johns wear anytime soon, but that's okay. He'll have last week's Top 10 list to keep him warm on those cold winter nights.

The original discussion that sparked this whole Geoff Johns vs. Warren Ellis debate was never really about Johns vs. Ellis. As I said even in that original chat with Chad Nevett, I like them both. They're very different in their approach to comics, and clearly Johns is more of a populist and Ellis is more often doing work on the fringes, even when the latter is working in mainstream comics. At one point, in my comment section of my blog, I said that Johns is "Star Wars" while Ellis is "Blade Runner," and I stand by that comparison. Johns' comics can be kind of dorky in their sincere straightforwardness, but they are about emotion and spectacle and often move along so briskly that you don't even notice the seams. Ellis' comics are dark, deeply ironic, sometimes meandering, and alternately razor-sharp. He doesn't often leave you cheering in the end, but he makes you think a bit.

I like both approaches.

So, because I paid tribute to Johns' comics last week, now it's time to pay attention to some of Warren Ellis' greatest hits. To be honest, I haven't read as much Warren Ellis as I've read Geoff Johns, proportionally. Sure, I've read more physical issues of Ellis' stuff, but he's also produced a hell of a lot more titles than Johns has. I'll tell you right now that I haven't read all of "Transmetropolitan," and that comic is suspicious in its absence on my list, I know. I'm also particularly weak in the early-Marvel Ellis, having only sampled his work on "Hellstorm" and the various X-Titles of his younger days, and I've not kept up with the majority of his Avatar stuff, mostly because I think the art seriously detracts from the storytelling. As you'll see, some of the Avatar stuff has cracked my Ellis Top 10, but in those cases the art has served the story and not made itself an amateurish bother.

I have read plenty of Ellis, though. More than enough for a lifetime of Top 10 speculation, so let's get on with it, shall we?

THE WARREN ELLIS TOP 10

10. "The Ultimate Galactus Trilogy"

This entry slid around in and out of the Top 10 quite a few times as I was trying to nail down this list, but it made the final cut -- just squeaked into the number 10 slot -- for a few reasons: First of all, it's pretty good, at least in the opening, "Ultimate Nightmare" chapters, when Trevor Hairsine and Ellis create an evocative sense of dread in the once-meaningful Ultimate universe. Second, it seems fair to list at least one Ultimate title in his Top 10, just as an emblem of the overall good work he's done on various titles in that Marvel line. Third, it's interesting to see the Ellis spin on so many Marvel icons.

The three mini-series that comprise this mega-story -- "Ultimate Nightmare," "Ultimate Secret," and "Ultimate Extinction" -- get progressively worse as the story unfolds (and the slippage seems to come right around the time Steve McNiven got stolen away from "Ultimate Secret" so he could work on "Civil War"), but it's en entertaining read throughout. Nothing can top Lee and Kirby's Galactus, but at least Ellis' version is grounded in some kind of comic book reality, and probably more palatable to the masses. Even if it's not as downright cool as a giant dude in purple.

9. "Desolation Jones"

This series may be little more than "The Big Sleep" with 100% more Nazi porn, but it's also Warren Ellis and J. H. Williams III, and the strange post-Cold War California they evoke is a wonderful place indeed. Not wonderful good, but wonderfully odd and devilishly savage.

I don't know what happened with the aborted Danijel Zezelj follow-up arc, but the first six issues of this series are really where it's at. It's all about Ellis and Williams III doing Chandler in the post-superhero age. Maybe it's too faithful to the Chandler source material, but it's still a very good comic book series. Or six issues of a very good series, at least.

8. "Crecy"

I'm a sucker for the simplicity of this comic, as it tells more than it shows, and it does it so well that it gets away with breaking that primal rule of storytelling. In this slim volume, Ellis gives us what basically amounts to a visual essay on the Battle of Crecy and the implements of war used to spur the English victory. It's vicious and, as far as I know, true, and because its both of those things its a powerful slice of narrative.

I like that the first three Ellis comics I've discussed are so completely different from one another. A superhero cosmic event, a bizarre private detective story, and a history lesson? Yeah, that's nice to see. Ellis can mix it up and still do great work, no matter the genre, no matter the genre preconceptions.

7. "Astonishing X-Men"

Ellis' as-of-now relatively short run on "Astonishing X-Men"has been absurdly underrated. The complaints about the delays and the high price point on the thin "Ghost Boxes" material have some merit, but the Ellis/Bianchi run was even better than the heralded Joss Whedon/John Cassaday run. Cassaday's work was so clean, so precise, so pleasant, that it was easy to say that his work with Whedon was good comics, but Bianchi is a more formally inventive storyteller, and Ellis' story -- with the X-Men investigating strange goings-on and Forge revealed as a key figure in the battle for reality -- propels the narrative more briskly than the decompressed Claremontianism of Whedon. Some people say they can't follow Bianchi's pages, but that doesn't make any sense to me. It's decorative, sure, but the stuff's all there. It's all there and Ellis gives it a spark that has gone unnoticed by many.

Years from now, readers will look back at the Ellis/Bianchi issues and say, "yes, this was the good stuff." And with Phil Jimenez on board, this series might get even better.

6. "Aetheric Mechanics"

This one's sneaky good. It's seemingly conventional -- some kind of rehashed steampunkery or zeppelin sci-fi at first glance -- but it's a decent read even at that surface level. A bit stale, perhaps, but solidly engaging. Yet it takes a twist for the oh-so-much-better in the end, one of those twists that changes the meaning of all the previous pages and makes everything work on a completely different level.

I generally don't care about spoilers, and I don't see the point in worrying about spoilers a year or two after something's released, but even I won't spoil this one for you. The pleasure is in its surprise, and I've told you too much already.

5. "Global Frequency"

You'll remember that this series came out right at the height of Warren Ellis' influence. Post-"Authority," right at the end of "Transmetropolitan," in the midst of "Planetary" -- Warren Ellis had the attention of the comic book reading world, or the attention of the ones who were paying attention to quality at least. And with a batch of artists like Steve Dillon, Glenn Fabry, Garry Leach, David Lloyd, Jon J. Muth, Lee Bermejo, Simon Bisley, Gene Ha, Chris Sprouse? With each story a done-in-one and yet an overarching connection between all the issues?

Yeah, that's good stuff. It never achieved the masterful transcendence that seemed implicit in the advance press -- and the anticipation -- but "Global Frequency" was one of the highlights of 2002, right in the center of the Age of Ellis. I need to go back and reread it sometime soon, because it deserves repeated looks.

4. "Thunderbolts"

The Kurt Busiek "Thunderbolts" genuinely surprised me when it debuted. I was, what? In college at the time? And this was the pre-internet days, when "Comics Buyers Guide" and "Wizard" were the only source of news for the discerning comics reader. (Sure, "The Comics Journal" was by far the best of the bunch, but even then its news always seemed months out of date.) So I remember reading something about this new team from Busiek and Mark Bagley, and it all seemed so incredibly lame, and yet I checked out the first issue and, WAIT! The Masters of Evil pretending to be heroes? Loved it.

(That's surely not a spoiler for anyone, is it? If so, too bad.)

But I loved it for only a few issues, when the quality of the stories (which was lacking) outweighed the brilliantly-pulled off switcheroo of a premise.

When Warren Ellis came in to do his version of "Thunderbolts," many years later, there wasn't any of that shock of the oh-my-god, but, then again, I was a much more jaded reader by that point. But what did surprise me about "Thunderbolts" was how much fun it was, and how it was by far the best thing to come out of anything "Civil War"-related. Ellis got to push the concept of a superteam of horrible people, shepherded by the maniac known as Norman Osborn, farther than I thought he'd be allowed under the constraints of the mainstream Marvel system.

These were some deeply screwed up characters doing bad things (often to each other), and Osborn the puppet master was a treat to read about.

That the entire status of the Marvel Universe this year is based on what Warren Ellis did with "Thunderbolts" is just gravy. And it's gravy that doesn't taste as good as the original.

3. "Nextwave: Agents of H.A.T.E."

Is it possible that "Nextwave" is a relatively shallow series that never gets past its inherent jokiness and constant winks to the reader? Sure, it's possible, but even if that's true, it's still one of the greatest Warren Ellis comics ever because of Dirk Anger, Aaron Stack, and Elvis M.O.D.O.K.s. It's great because of Stuart Immonen's visual gags and the dynamic page layouts. It's great because it's Warren Ellis not trying to say anything about life or culture or technology -- it's just the superhero id unleashed.

It's silly, it's fun, and it's pound-for-pound my favorite Warren Ellis comic, even if it's not what I would consider his very best. But it's up there.

2. "Planetary"

The delays on the final issue -- the final few issues -- certainly killed my ability to write coherently about why this comic is so good, because as much as I anticipated the finale, I no longer have the whole series in my brain as a whole. I need to reread the whole thing, certainly, but even the fragments I do remember make this one of the best Warren Ellis comics ever. They make it one of the best comics ever. Period.

So take all of this with whatever grain of salt you need, and realize that my reasoning may change once I go back and read the entire series in a single sitting: "Planetary" was at its best when it was a "genre of the month" deconstruction and at its worst when it got caught up in its own mythology. Like "X-Files," it wasn't able to pull its internal mythology into a satisfying finale. But in its early days, "Planetary" was beyond great. This is the series that John Cassaday was born to draw, vaulting from one archetypal story to the next, making the whole of pulp fiction, science fiction, and superheroes into one beautiful mosaic, as Ellis acted as the tour guide.

Moreso than any of Ellis' other works, "Planetary" is about comic book storytelling, and I'm always a sucker for that sort of thing. Especially when it's done with such a facile hand, and such a nimble mind.

1. "Stormwatch/Authority"

If Alan Moore's "Watchmen" brought forth the Modern Age of comics, then Warren Ellis' "Stormwatch" spawned whatever Age we're in now. We're probably at the tail end of that post-"Stormwatch" Age, actually, with a fresh new voice on the webcomic horizon certain to pop up within the next few years, but while I'm not saying that "Stormwatch" and "Authority" (which is really just the continuation of "Stormwatch," as Chad Nevett continues to rightfully point out to those who would list them as separate series) is at the level of "Watchmen," it is surely the thing that heralded a break from the old and the beginning of the new.

Go ahead and read other superhero comics from 1996, and then read Ellis' "Stormwatch." It reads like a comic from the 2000s, while the other stuff reads like comics from 1989. The pacing of today's comics -- the use of dialogue and wordless action over narrative captions -- that's abundant in "Stormwatch." Even if you ignore the thematic essence of the story, its dark underbelly and hopefulness within the certain doom, you should be able to see the kind of comic book writing that would become the norm half a decade later.

And though "Stormwatch" is a messy story (in more ways than one), by the time Ellis relaunches the title and takes it into the logical progression of "The Authority," it has become a narrative bullet so clean that it will shoot through your brain and keep flying forever. "The Authority"has been duplicated and parodied and lionized and done poorly so often since Ellis left the series that its impact may seem to have diminished.

But it hasn't. "Stormwatch" and "The Authority" is in the DNA of 98% of the superhero comics published today, but its become so integral that you don't even notice it. Until you do, and then you say, "yes, we're living in the latter days of the Age of Ellis and what a crazy bright viciously wonderful world it is. And, Tony Stark, when are you gonna wake up and enjoy it?"

In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" (which explores "Zenith" in great detail) and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen every day at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.

Follow Tim on Twitter: gbfiremelon

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TAGS:  when words collide, warren ellis, astonishing x-men, planetary, the authority

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