Warren Ellis Starts A Revolution In "Black Summer"

Wed, March 14th, 2007 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Arune Singh, Staff Writer

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"Black Summer" #0 cover and promotional image
It's been said that morality is defined by perspective, not by a universal moral code that all are meant to follow, with arguments for consequentialism and deontology often present. After all, one can murder in self defense and walk free, while another who murders in the heat of the moment is to be punished - there are certainly societal perspectives that influence how we view seemingly similar actions. With that in mind, how does one define a hero and the limits to which it is acceptable to break the rules for what is "right?" That question is at the very core of the new mini-series "Black Summer," written by superstar scribe Warren Ellis with art from Juan Jose Ryp and published by Avatar Press. CBR News spoke with Ellis about the June shipping project and revealed details on the core concept of the series.

"First there were the Seven Guns: a group of young politically-aware scientist-adventurers who modified their own bodies for street-fighting in order to take back their West Coast city from a corrupt police force, criminal local government and rapacious private security forces," Ellis told CBR News of the story behind "Black Summer." "One died. One was crippled. The others drifted apart. And today, John Horus, the most committed of the original team, is walking into the White House. He's worked with the President on social justice issues. He is the Good Guy. But he's been thinking about his role in the country for a long time. And he's not here to say hello.

"Black Summer" #0, page 2

"He's been asking himself the question that informs the book: where do you draw the line? If you're totally committed to the idea of covering your face and taking on a fake name and standing outside the law in order to fight for justice – where do you stop? Crime pervades society. We're all aware of corporations that behave in a criminal manner. Is that as far as you go?

"If, in fact, your perspective is such that you believe your President to have prosecuted an illegal war and thereby caused the deaths of thousands of people – isn't that a crime? Do you let that pass?"

There's a diverse cast to be found in "Black Summer," a fact that shouldn't surprise readers of Ellis' nuanced work on "The Authority" and "Planetary," but the scribe isn't going to give away too much away quite yet. "I've covered John Horus a little. There's the guy who used to be Tom Noir; now missing most of a leg from the carbomb explosion that killed his lover and fellow Gun, Laura Torch, a few years back. He hasn't left his apartment in a year and is steadily drinking himself to death. Which means he slept through most of the first day's events, and woke up as a wanted man. John Horus acted alone, you see, without consulting his old friends: but the government and the people don't know that. So he wakes up to find that the remaining Guns are now considered the greatest threat to life and liberty in the United States. And, as an alcoholic cripple, he's absolutely the weakest link.

"Black Summer" #0, page 4

"Because, to make it clear: John Horus, a man with the personal destructive capability of a fleet of Apache helicopters, walked into the Oval Office and killed the President."

Though Ellis is no stranger to superheroes, the impetus for making "Black Summer" came from a surprising place – a bet between Ellis and Avatar head honcho William Christensen. "William and I have an easy, longtime friendship and we do this a lot," revealed Ellis. "And he bet me I couldn't come up with a high-concept superhero 'event' book that naturally featured all new characters and ideas, but also hit some of the notes of a standard Big Two event program. Huge technical challenge, and I like those, because they keep me sharp. It took me more than a year, mind you... Until I hit on the two ideas. What if a superhero killed the President? And the underpinning: where do you draw the line?"

"Black Summer" #0, page 5
From there, Ellis said the story developed naturally and relates to one of his most popular works. "I spent months casting around for the angle. In a field as well-mined as the superhero genre, it's hard to find questions to ask that aren't also complex or self-referential, and I wanted something direct that stood on its own two feet. I like to try and find something to say about a genre without just finding a navel to gaze into. I mean, the broader point of 'Planetary' was very much asking people to look at the roots the genre sprang from and understanding the primal quality of the 20th Century myths we wrote. So when this hit me – and I'm pretty sure I was standing in my garden at three in the morning with a glass of whisky, smoking furiously and swearing at the sky, reduced to waiting for the thunderbolt to hit – it spoke to me not only of the reasons why someone might put on a helmet and find justice their own way, but also why we read these myths of social justice ourselves. Where would you draw the line?"

Though you might expect otherwise, Ellis said that "Black Summer" wasn't influenced by current world events and politics. "That was just a useful chassis to roll the thing out on, and it throws some useful spin," said Ellis. "Half the potential audience is going to see John Horus as the bad guy, and that's not without merit. Half the audience is going to see him as the Good Guy, and I can see where they're coming from too. I take no public position.I'm writing it from both angles at once and letting people make up their own minds."

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"Black Summer" #0 wrap-around cover
The wrap around cover for issue #0 features a striking image of Horus standing in the Oval Office, bearing more resemblance to a murder scene than the seat of the free world. When asked if he's worried about raising the ire of Americans or, not so unrealistically, the United States Secret Service, Ellis responded, "I dunno.Garth and Jacen had George Bush shot in the head in '303,' and Garth still got his green card. That TV film 'The Death Of The President' still got made –it wasn't very good, mind you. If I get stopped at LAX in July and prevented from continuing on to San Diego, well, it'll do wonders for sales, and it'll save me from the nightmare of Comic-Con. Which I'm dreading, because the change in temperature is going to blow out my trick knee and I'll be doing the entire show on my cane.

"Honestly, I'm more worried about the things I say in my novel, 'Crooked Little Vein,' which is also out this summer."

"Black Summer" #0, page 6

While some may see a comparison to Ellis' Marvel Comics series "Thunderbolts," featuring some questionable characters, they're hardly as morally ambiguous as you might think. "I don't think there's anything morally ambiguous about the Thunderbolts," said Ellis. "They're all monsters, maniacs and moral mutants. Even Songbird's a freak, bless her little heart. Who says, 'I know what my path to redemption is! I'll shag someone called Baron Zemo!?'"

With Marvel's "Civil War" and even DC Comics' "Identity Crisis," it seems that the oft-romanced vigilantism of superheroes is being called into question. "Well, it's hardly new," said Ellis."All these things are cyclical. And I'm not sure you can characterize DC's current output like that, they seem really focused on classic broad-sweep superheroics right now. It comes down, I think, to what I said before: what are the questions left to ask? And a lot of the questions left to ask are sociopolitical. It's an aspect of these decadent days we find ourselves in. Pigs with two heads are abroad in the land. The British military is trying to loft a communications satellite grid called Skynet. These are the End Times."

CBR's Jonah Weiland contributed to this story.

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