STRANGER THAN COMICS: WARREN ELLIS' GENRE-BENDING WORLDS
Six or seven months ago, I reread "Planetary" for the first time since reading it as single issues, lengthy delays and all. I wrote about one of the issues in detail, in an essay for this column called "Bleeding Between the Lines." I'm pretty happy with how that column turned out, and that essay is now part of a larger collection of pieces on Warren Ellis and "Planetary." You can find it soon in "Keeping the World Strange: A Planetary Guide," which should be available to order from your local comic shop -- I believe it's in Diamond Previews this month.
The editor of that book, Cody Walker, and I started bouncing messages back and forth, and planned on getting together for some kind of extended Warren Ellis chat. Walker's a teacher like me, and he blogs at Popgun Chaos. I suspect that this Ellis book is just one of many works you'll be seeing from him in coming years.
While we had planned to review Ellis' career in a "Dialogues"-style discussion this week, the conversation quickly circled around "Planetary." There's a reason the guy edited a book about it -- as he points out, as a comic book series, it's damned unique.
Tim Callahan: I'm curious -- what was the first Warren Ellis comic you read that made you think, "this is a writer worth paying attention to"?
Cody Walker: "Planetary" was my first encounter with Warren Ellis, and I can still remember picking up those first two hardcovers all those years ago. "Wizard" had run a story about all of the inside references "Planetary" made, and after that article, I thought it was worth picking up. But I only collected the series in hardcover, so it obviously took me awhile to get the whole picture of "Planetary."
After "Planetary," I went back and bought the trades to his "Authority," and I was strangely antagonistic towards the series because I wasn't a fan of the darker take on heroes. Today, I can appreciate the series for all of the advances it made to the industry, but back then I was more than happy when Joe Kelly's Superman made a statement by taking down the Authority's DC analogue, the Elite.
I appreciated these books, but it wasn't until I read "Orbiter" that I realized how much of a genius Ellis really is. There was so much passion in that book. I still believe that it should be required reading because it says so much about humanity. Though it starts in an incredibly dark place (that really isn't too far off from where our world is heading), it ends on such a hopeful note that I love it.
TC: I have to admit, I've never been much of an Ellis guy. He has huge, monumentally important comics, but he also has really bland, obviously work-for-hire jobs on his resume that I certainly don't begrudge him, but make him a much less consistent force of comic book goodness than some of his peers. He just produces a lot of comics, and so much of his work is just white noise, the onslaught of it, even if it's consistently of a higher standards than your run-of-the-mill comic book writer. I think he's a victim of his own prolific output, in some ways.
The first Ellis comic I ever noticed was his short run on "Hellstorm: Prince of Lies." I flipped through a bunch of those issues as they were coming out, and it looked like the kind of book that was trying to do something different from what was going on in the superhero mainstream in the mid-1990s. But it never quite hooked me enough to make me want to buy it. The first Ellis comic I ever bought was "Ruins." And that's one of the most cynical, all-around terrible, comics I have ever read. Just page after page of despair, without any story of substance.
So I ignored Ellis' output for quite a while after that. Honestly, it wasn't until "Planetary" #1 that I started paying attention to him at all, really. I picked up "Authority" starting with issue #4, a few months after "Planetary" debuted, then quickly got caught up to speed on what had come before in the "Authority" saga.
I still can't ever seem to see the appeal of "Transmetropolitan." Well, that's not true. I can see the appeal of Hunter S. Thompson in the future -- I just don't think there's much to the series beyond that premise and the screw-you attitude it wears so proudly.
CW: I'm ashamed to say I've never read "Transmetropolitan" beyond the first trade, but that's more because I've been distracted by other things rather than from an avoidance of it.
I appreciate the level of fun that Ellis brings to his comics. Characters just seem naturally more cool when they are written by Ellis because his dialog just feels crisp. Unfortunately, I think this comes at the cost of depth of character. I've never really felt emotionally attached to any characters that Ellis has written, which is strange to me, given that he has created some very powerful characters over the years.
Elijah Snow and Jenny Sparks are the only two characters that I can think of where Ellis has tried to invoke a sense of sentimentality (and with Sparks, he only tried to get sentimental during her death). Snow is a character where it seems like we should connect more to him than we do. Ellis goes to great lengths to establish that even though Elijah Snow is allegedly a (pardon the pun) cold bastard, he is still a great guy deep down -- after all, his function in the world is to "save" people. Still, besides being in awe of Snow's adventures, I never felt emotionally connected to him as he saved the Drummer or Ambrose Chase.
TC: Elijah Snow is that dignified-hero-of-few-words type that's hard to connect with, yeah. The half-Hemingway hero, half-Sergio Leone protagonist, the wise man of mystery who's also an incredibly badass, teamed up with Jakita Wagner, who's all motion and action, and Drummer, who is all emotion and reaction. It's a fine trio to base a series around, particularly when the first half of "Planetary" is an exploration into genre forms with an overarching mystery.
But what about the second half of "Planetary?" Do you think the promise of those first dozen-or-so issues are fulfilled in the end?
CW: The series definitely changes, but I don't mind so much because it still lives up to the idea of being a history book for science fiction. While the overall conflict with the Four feels a bit anti-climactic given how easy it is for Planetary to defeat each individual member of the team, I still find the exploration of genre to be a thrilling experience.
I mean, how cool is "The Torture of William Leather?" It naturally connects analogues for the Lone Ranger to the Green Hornet/the Shadow to the Human Torch. Again, it may not be terribly deep, but it is infectiously cool.
While the initial mystery of the Fourth Man took up the first twelve issues, the secret history of the Planetary universe (please note that I don't write "WildStorm" because after issue eleven, the series makes no attempts to connect to the overarching WildStorm Universe -- a point that I make in my essay in "Keeping the World Strange") still unfolded through the rest of the series and its just as interesting as the first twelve issues to me.
The Open Conspiracy in particular could have been explored more as they were a group not unlike Planetary, to a certain extent. Both organizations had their own ideas on how to improve the world, but the Open Conspiracy's ideas of scientific progress just happened to include eugenics while Planetary was firmly rooted in the acceptance of the beautiful, the strange and the weird.
So while I understand the many complaints that fans had about the shift in tone of the series after the revelation of the Fourth Man, I don't really mind the shift because I felt that the story continued to be interesting. In fact, the later issues (the aforementioned "The Torture of William Leather" in particular) were what solidified my resolve to put together a collection of essays about "Planetary."
TC: Okay, I'll head down this road, and advocate on the side of the devils...
Beyond being "cool," what else is there about the genre explorations that make "Planetary" so special? Is the William Leather anything deeper than just, "Hey, here's how these generations of heroes are related!" I'm putting you on the spot here: what makes "Planetary" work as a system within which genre can be explored meaningfully? Does it even work that way?
CW: We're sort of stepping into the territory of my essay for the book, but there are a few ways to look at this.
First, if we view "Planetary" from Ellis' original intent of it being the secret history of the WildStorm Universe, then the exploration of genre acts as a framework for a much needed history that had never been created before. While DC and Marvel had decades of stories to draw upon, the WildStorm Universe was established in the 90's, so it lacked all of the eras of history that touch our nostalgia sweet tooth. By exploring these different genres, Ellis was able to create a voice for the WildStorm Universe and give it a level of sophistication it didn't have before. By looking at the elements of the secret history, one can see that the WildStorm Universe could have stood on its own in comparison to the optimism of the DCU and the realism of the Marvel U. WildStorm was the dark reflection of these ideals, with superhero analogues being corrupted and misused.
Beyond this, "Planetary" shows that it's unnecessary to compartmentalize genre. Think of all the comics out there in their respective universes that have to exist within their own vacuum. If such a diverse range of characters exist in the same universe, then they should be able to coexist with one another. Yet, there are times when DC and Marvel place certain books in their own little bubbles so that the majesty of the rest of the shared universe doesn't infringe and create a conflict of genre.
Lastly, the genres are used as commentary on the history of sci-fi. We can see this throughout the series, but the most obvious comes from the first issue, where the pulp heroes battle it out with the superheroes of the Snowflake. It's a conflict that mirrors the real world in that pulp heroes faded out as superheroes gained prominence. The difference being, both sides annihilated one another in "Planetary."
The family lineage of William Leather connects to all three of these ideas. His lineage suggests that the WildStorm Universe is an incredibly dark place to corrupt the essence of heroes that we are familiar with. His lineage smashes the idea of compartmentalizing genre by showing western, pulp and sci-fi genres can co-exist with one another without seeming ridiculous. Finally, the Leather lineage is a metaphor for the evolution of genre and how one can build off of another.
TC: Ha! I honestly didn't know that we'd be treading ground covered by your essay in the anthology. Thanks for not just saying, "Um, read the book."
How about the connection to "Stormwatch" or "Authority?" It's been a while since I read that extended run, in which Ellis sets the pace for 21st century superheroes, but it does seem like it tells a similar kind of story, only with the opposite point of view. It's like the Four (the Fantastic Four analogues who are the villains in "Planetary") become the heroes in "Authority," even if the characters don't line up one-for-one. But it's that sensibility of the superheroes being smarter and more brutal than anyone else, and yet those are Ellis' protagonists when he does "Authority."
What do you think about the relationship between "Planetary" and Ellis' Wildstorm superhero comics? And is the one crossover between the two teams, "Planetary/Authority: Ruling the World," the lynchpin for Ellis' whole career, since it overlaps his two major works into a single story?
CW: Looking at "Authority" and "Planetary," it's fascinating to think about how similar but opposite they are. With Authority and Stormwatch, Ellis is looking to the next logical step in superhero evolution. They were presented as the heroes for tomorrow -- heroes that were take no prisoners and allegedly proactive (while Ellis wanted to establish a proactive team, they were more violent than the JLA or the Avengers, but at their core, they were still reactive). Meanwhile, "Planetary" very literally looks to the past with a team of superhero archaeologists, and it could be argued that Planetary does more for the entire medium by unearthing genres and reimagining them in new contexts than the Authority's take on proactive superheroes.
With this is mind, you're right that "Ruling the World" should very well be the lynchpin of Ellis' superhero career -- and it is, in a sense. It simultaneously looks to the past with the Planetary team and to the future with the Authority's narrative. Also, it subverts the crossover ,when the teams never cross paths except for a flashback where Elijah Snow and Jenny Sparks are shown to have slept together. It furthers the team agendas as well when the Authority are shown as an army of world protectors and Planetary is relegated to behind the scenes and exploring the underside of the WildStorm Universe.
TC: Speak a little more on that notion that "Planetary" does more through its archaeology than the "Authority" does with its new brand of superheroics. What exactly do you mean by that?
CW: I remember when the Authority first started, they were hailed as the next wave of superheroes, but really, the series is no different than any other superteam book because the basic formula of "villains do bad things and heroes stop them" was just as prevalent in Authority as it is in any superteam book. As far as form goes, Ellis helped define the blockbuster superteam book with concise, four-issue story arcs that featured high-octane action. This type of story-telling has been adopted across the board within the industry (with the most glaring example being the Ultimate line of comics at Marvel), but beyond this, the Authority doesn't have incredible distinction in my mind. Again, this goes back to the idea of "cool" comics -- while the action was cinematic and gorgeous and the pacing was perfect, "Authority" doesn't have much more going on than your average superhero book.
Meanwhile, there is the quiet and unassuming book that is "Planetary." For once, here is a team of heroes who aren't really heroes in the traditional sense. As the world's first superhero archaeologists (unless you count DC's Cave Carson, but I don't), Planetary existed within the fringes of the WildStorm Universe and did so to explore its secret history. They weren't staunch defenders of the status quo like the Authority -- they were an organization dedicated to the preservation of the beautiful and the weird.
My favorite example comes from "Dead Gunfighters" (issue #3). In this issue, the ghost of a Chinese policeman is seeking revenge against his killers. If "Planetary" were any other standard superteam comic book, our heroes would have done all they could in order to stop the ghost and preserve life. "Planetary" is no ordinary team book, however. Not only does the team talk with the ghost in order to understand his mission, they even help him get his revenge when Jakita demolishes a criminal's car and they watch as the cop executes him. Had this been a JLA story, the team would have gone to great lengths in order to protect the criminals because the sanctity of life is important. Fortunately, Planetary are not defenders of the status quo so much as they are the protectors of the weird and the ghost is able to find peace.
Protectors of the weird fits into the overall theme Planetary exists in in order to preserve the genres that make up science fiction. Each issue excavates a unique genre and holds it under a new lens and claims to be a superhero book at heart. Everything old is new again and Ellis shows with Planetary that in this day and age of superhero dominance, there is room for other genres, but it further shows that even the superhero genre isn't out of ideas just yet.
To me, this is so much more than "The Authority" ever did for the medium, and it saddens me to think that while the style of "The Authority" has often been imitated, the idea of single issues conveying a powerful story or that multiple genres can co-exist believably within the same universe hasn't really been attempted by anyone else in my mind (aside from Morrison's "All-Star Superman" in terms of powerful single issue stories, but outside of that, I can't think of anything else).
TC: Well, it's unsustainable, ultimately, isn't it? I mean, Ellis couldn't even sustain the one-off archaeology issues for the length of the run, and as the series progressed, it became more about its own underlying mysteries, rather than the archaeological type.
Then again, there is a series that does one-off, genre-hopping stories with regularity, and it predates "Planetary" by decades. It's on television, though, and it's called "Doctor Who," so that probably doesn't count either. But "Doctor Who" does exactly what you're talking about, by shifting up the style of the episode to match the genre it's playing with -- or at least you can see the show attempting to do that, budget constraints and all.
The "Doctor Who" comic doesn't go full-on with the genre pastiches, though, not the way "Planetary" did. It should. Then maybe it would prove me wrong about the "unsustainable" bit. But costumed heroes punching each other -- cynically or not -- is always easier to write and draw, so the "Authority" influence looms large.
We had planned to talk about Ellis' work as a whole, and we got sucked into "Planetary" after all. Any final thoughts on Ellis' career or his place in the comic book pantheon?
CW: Gah! So many things to say outside of just "Planetary!" I don't think enough people check out his work outside of mainstream superhero titles. "Orbiter" is a brilliant book about the beauty of the space program. "Ministry of Space" was a fascinating insight into an alternate history of what a British space program would have been like. "Global Frequency" was another series of single issue stories with fast-paced action. He has so much work that no one really talks about and its a shame because his sci-fi work is really fantastic.
In terms of Ellis' place in the pantheon, I've always felt he has served as the most important commentator on the form and medium of comics than anyone else. His CBR column, "Come in Alone" was written ten years ago and a lot of the ideas about how the industry needs to change are just as relevant today as they were at the time they were written. I've used his column in my own research for the Saving Comics Project at Popgun Chaos.
As a creator, Ellis has been imaginative and inventive for years, but it surprises me he's never really had a definitive run on a mainstream title like other big names. As you know, Morrison's career has gone from creator-owned works like "Invisibles" and "The Filth" to mainstream titles like "JLA" and "Batman." Bendis has balanced "Powers," and his black and white crime stories with the "Avengers," "Daredevil" and "Ultimate Spider-Man." Meanwhile, Ellis has had a plethora of creator-owned works, but never a definitive long form run on a mainstream title. "Astonishing X-Men" has been the closest thing, but while it may have been a good run, it is far from definitive in the end. A close second would be his work on "Thunderbolts," and while I think his work on that title was brilliant, it didn't last long enough to do much of anything beyond establishing a new direction for the team.
With Warren Ellis, I can't help but feel that the best is yet to come. "Authority" and "Planetary" are definitive, but he is such an innovative writer that I look forward to the day that he helps transform and redefine the industry the way he did at WildStorm.
TC: Maybe by not doing an extended Marvel or DC superhero run, he has already redefined the industry. Just maybe.
I don't know if that's true, but it sounds good.
In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.
Follow Tim on Twitter: TimCallahan