Even unfinished Warren Ellis comics are still great comics.
At the start of the 21st century, Warren Ellis was one of the greatest creative forces in comics. The English writer produced a string of wild visionary ideas and exhilarating story arcs. Working for both large and small publishers, his work crackled with sharp dialogue, striking imagery, and wild action.
Sadly, several of the series he started at the time were never finished. Here are four Warren Ellis comics that fell by the wayside, and the potential that each one left unfulfilled.
Desolation Jones was pure Warren Ellis comics work. It started with a high concept – discharged secret agents confined to Los Angeles. This was wrapped around a classic formula, reworking the atmosphere and plotlines of American noir with a modern twist. Throw in drug dealers, pornographers, urban sociology, and imaginatively exaggerated violence, and you had a comic that felt like all of Ellis’s online reflections boiled down into a single plot.
The first arc, Made in England, ran for a complete six issues. The second plotline, To Be in England, disappeared incomplete after only two issues.
Desolation Jones was the strongest and most interesting of the incomplete Warren Ellis comics. In the lead character of Jones, Ellis had an outlet for his English snark and futurist reflections on the world. The characters were stylishly warped, with perfect art by J. H. Williams III and Danijel Zezelj. The plot of the first arc was filled with satisfying twists and turns.
This was a comic that promised much more. Revelations about Jones’s dark background. An exploration of the ex-spy community Ellis had invented for LA. A second arc building on the themes and ideas of science fiction visionary Philip K. Dick, creator of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, the story on which Bladerunner was based.
In Desolation Jones, Warren Ellis explored his unique voice and obsessions in new and interesting ways. It combined themes from Transmetropolitan and Planetary, exploring both genre conventions and the near future of humanity. As such, it pulled together the strands of much of Ellis’s work.
Sadly it died on the vine.
If Desolation Jones was Ellis’s voice at its peak, Fell was the comic that showed that he was not confined to that voice. He could create something entirely new and unexpected.
With comics prices rising, Warren Ellis and Ben Templesmith found a way to bring them back down. Using a nine panel grid, they crammed a great deal of story into a smaller number of pages, with un-illustrated back matter providing extra reading at a lower cost.
Within these constraints, Ellis once again stepped into the world of urban noir.
Detective Richard Fell is assigned to a dead end job in the neglected district of Snowtown. There he encounters a world of grim decay that perfectly matches Templesmith’s grimy art style. Instead of the exaggerated hyper-reality of spies and porn stars that was Desolation Jones, this dealt with the low rent underbelly of society. Drug pushers. Abusive parents. Desperate people looking for any sort of hope.
For all his cynical outer shell, Richard Fell was an extremely likable character. He made friends with the lonely and downtrodden while holding a firm line against corruption and abuse. Issues focusing on interrogation, hostage negotiation, and trips to the morgue created a sense of the variety of real police work, and of law enforcement stretched thin.
With each stand-alone episode, the comic Fell offered a jumping on place for new readers at an accessible price. It also offered to explore run down cities in a way comics seldom do.
The publication of Jack Cross was odd from the start. The story of a freelance secret agent using brutal methods to stop terrorists, it would have fitted naturally into DC Comics’ mature Vertigo imprint. Instead, it was printed under the main DC banner, despite having no superhero elements or connection to the DC universe. Only a single four issue arc was ever published, despite the cover for issue five featuring at the back of the fourth installment.
Warren Ellis’s Jack Cross, featuring art by Gary Erskine, could have been the perfect comic for its time. Cross was an anti-war liberal who was none-the-less willing to use deadly force and torture to achieve his ends. The scars he inflicted upon himself were a reminder of the lives he had taken and a reflection of a scarred psyche. He embodied the dilemma of western democracies in the post-9/11 world – how could you defeat terrorists without becoming what you condemned?
It’s hardly surprising that such a difficult comic didn’t survive under the DC banner. With its disappearance, comics readers lost the chance to explore the ethical minefield of the War on Terror in the company of a character who both participated in and criticized that campaign.
Doktor Sleepless provided the most familiar experience for long term fans of Ellis’s work. It was a deliberate nod to the tone and content of Transmetropolitan, Ellis’s story of a near-future journalist battling the political and social establishment.
Transmetropolitan is well known as the seminal cyberpunk comic book series by writer Warren Ellis and artist Darick Robertson, published by DC comics (through their Vertigo imprint). Though Transmet concluded its run in 2002 and takes place in the 2300s, the themes of technological alteration of humanity and the rise of totalitarian democracy are extremely relevant to our current political and cultural climate today.
The Transmetropolitan comic depicts the cigarette-fueled journalistic rampage of Spider Jerusalem, [Click here to read more…]
Returning to his home town of Heavenside, John Reinhardt brings disruption through his mad scientist alter ego Doktor Sleepless. Taking over the airwaves of the town, he vents his frustration at the lost possibilities of the future. He seems to hold out hope that a brighter future could still come, but there are cracks at the edges of his rhetoric, signs that the man is not all he appears.
An exploration of counter-culture, transhumanism, and Warren Ellis’ hopes for the future, Doktor Sleepless felt like a manifesto in comics form. It didn’t provide as much that was fresh and new as his other lost creations, but it gave his opinions voice. It promised to grow in complexity as the story expanded into the rest of Heavenside.
Like Transmetropolitan before it, this promised to entertain readers through the angry, offbeat voices of its characters and the extremes their stories took them to. In short, it promised a return to the style of one of Ellis’s greatest successes. That in itself was something worth waiting for, but a computer crash stalled the story, and both Ellis and artist Ivan Rodriguez moved on to other things.
Lost Endings But Still Great Stories
While we never got to find out how these Warren Ellis comics would end, they’re all still well worth reading. Started when Ellis was at the peak of his creativity, they showed his talent for wild ideas and smart execution. There are complete story arcs to be enjoyed, as well as fragments of what could have.
Even incomplete, a Warren Ellis story is a great story.
Featured Image: Doktor Sleepless / Avatar Press