Posts Tagged ‘Warren Ellis’

Spider Jerusalem - a writer's writer, if that writer is a drug-addled psycho

Spider Jerusalem – a writer’s writer, if that writer is a drug-addled psycho

Last week, podcast Writing Excuses reached story structure in their year long writing course. The exercise for this episode was:

Take a favorite piece of media (but not something YOU created,) and reverse engineer an outline from it.

I’m not going to do this one in huge depth. It’s an exercise you could potentially keep working at indefinitely, and I’m a bit strapped for time. So I’m going to have a look at what’s happening, and what’s being promised, in the first few pages of one of my all time favourite comics – issue 6 of Waren Ellis and Darrick Robertson’s science fiction series Transmetropolitan, a story called ‘God Riding Shotgun’.

Page 1 – Bring on the Crazy

The first page is a splash page – a single large image of journalist Spider Jerusalem typing a rant about religion while dressed in a fake beard, a tin foil halo and a robe made from a stolen bedsheet.

The promise it’s setting up is obvious – in this issue we’re going to see Spider’s take on religion. And because Spider can’t write about anything without getting in people’s faces, that means he’s going to end up fighting, verbally or physically, with priests.

But there’s something else as well. The story Spider is writing involves a taser-wielding priest of the Official Siberian Church of Tesla. This indicates that religion has got pretty weird in Spider’s city, and sets up the expectation of more weirdness to come.

Page 2: Subplot Time

Page two sees Spider waking up his assistant Channon, who isn’t happy at the disturbance. The religious angle is temporarily set aside to set up another plot thread – developments in the relationship between Spider and Channon.

This issue sees a turning point, in which the usually abrasive Spider breaks down his assistant’s defensives and is then forced to admit that he’s been acting like a jerk. This page sets that up by showing the status quo we’ll be moving away from – Spider being a jerk and Channon accepting it.

Pages 3 and 4: Pick a Fight, Any Fight

On page three, Channon realises that Spider, high as a kite, has woken her up at 5:30 in the morning. It’s a way of throwing in a conflict early on to keep things exciting, giving the issue’s main plot time to develop more slowly, and promises future friction between these two characters.

It also moves along the sub-plot about their relationship – the status quo is disrupted by Channon arguing back.

The end result, for now, is Channon questioning how much longer Spider’s body can take the abuse he’s giving it with drugs and lack of sleep. In terms of the series, this is foreshadowing a problem further down the line by pointing out to the reader that their might be a downside to Spider’s wild lifestyle.

Page 5: And Now The Main Action…

Page 5’s central point is a conversation about the huge number of new religions springing up in the city, and ends with Spider demanding that Channon find him churches. The conflict with religious representatives promised on page one is now about to turn into action. The drug-addled journalist is going to go out into the world and find, or make, a religious story. It’s the turn that leads us into the plot proper.

Understanding What Other Writers Do

This exercise made a change from the previous ones, in which I got to be creative. Even just doing it briefly, it helped me to understand what Ellis was doing structurally in building this story, and so to think about how I could use similar tricks. The early conflict in the sub-plot to buy time for the main plot was a particularly neat touch.

If I have time later I might come back and analyse the rest of this issue, because this was interesting and I love reading Transmetropolitan, in all its foul mouthed and angry grandeur.

Anyone else had a go at this exercise, or feel like giving it a try now? Just have a think about the chapter you’re reading or the program you’re watching and see if you can work out what’s going on structurally. Let me know how you get on – share your results or a link to them below. It’ll be interesting for me to see what others got from this.

I love Warren Ellis’s comics. The wild and vivid settings, sharp dialogue and fascinating characters make for a great read. Transmetropolitan is a fabulously pointed piece of science fiction as crazed social commentary. Planetary is a great exploration of popular culture through its own story forms.

Last week I wrote an article for The Steampunk Journal on some of Ellis’s retro-futurist comics, and it starts like this…

Captain Swing and the Electrical Pirates of Cindery Island

Author spotlight: Warren Ellis

Though he’s probably best known for his work on superhero stories such as Astonishing X-men, writer Warren Ellis has dipped his comic-scripting toe in a wide range of genres, from history to crime to science fiction. So it’s hardly surprising to find that he’s written some steampunk, and that it’s really rather good.

Captain Swing and the Electrical Pirates of Cindery Island

Captain Swing is the most completely steampunk of Ellis’s books. Illustrated by Raulo Caceres, it tells the story of Charlie Gravel, a policeman in 1830 London who finds himself on the trail of a criminal with baffling and powerful technology.

This is steampunk living up to punk’s anti-authoritarian roots…

 

You can read the whole article here, but I realise now that I missed out one of the best examples – Ministry of Space*. This mini-series explores an alternate history in which the British won the space race. It has a Dan Dare-inspired aesthetic which I love, but beneath its hopeful exterior lies something darker, a balancing of achievements and costs. If you’re interested in 1950s science fiction or alternate history or just great comics then I really recommend it, along with the other comics mentioned in that spotlight article.

Other comics fans – do you have any recommendations for comics that dip into steampunk or reinvent the past? Or favourite Warren Ellis works? Leave a comment, share your recommendations with the rest of us.

 

* For some reason Ministry of Space is reasonably priced on Amazon.com but insanely priced on the UK site. So UK readers, try a comic shop instead, because this is a good comic, but not hundreds of pounds good.

It’s Saturday, it’s the weekend, it seems like this should be a break from my usual ramblings. So here are some other things to read and enjoy:

  • Warren Ellis is my go to comic guy, from Dave’s Corner of the Universe. Some good discussion of Ellis’s comics that explains why my favourite comic writer is so awesome. If you’re wondering what to read next, or considering dipping your toe into comics for the first time, then you could do far worse than to pick things from this list.
  • An article on Tor that should have come from a steampunk story but covers a real thing – New York’s pneumatic post system of a hundred years ago. As Alan Gratz says win his article title, it’s like the internet before electronics.
  • Review: The Adventures of Hergé on Beachcombing’s Bizarre History Blog – turns out there’s a biography of Tintin’s creator in the style of a Tintin comic – how cool is that?

If you’re still stuck for something to read after all that, why not try my booksMud and Brass and Riding the Mainspring, out now through Smashwords and Amazon.

And let’s finish with some music, from the ever excellent Postmodern Jukebox:

I love the comics of Warren Ellis, have done ever since I first picked up a volume of Transmetropolitan. He is like some angry god, hurling thunderbolts of wisdom and profanity down on his fear-stained yet adoring worshippers. His deeply researched, fascinatingly plotted comics are full of dialogue that, while often unrealistic, is always sharp and amusing.

So of course his new series Trees was near the top of my list once I got Comixology.

So it’s a story about trees?

Trees, written by Warren Ellis with art by Jason Howard, is very much an Ellis story. Set some unspecified but relatively small distance into the future, it begins ten years after the arrival of the Trees, vast alien monoliths that have planted themselves in the Earth’s surface, apparently ignoring the humans who scamper around their bases.

trees

This is a collage of a world-building story, showing moments in the lives of characters around the globe, living in the literal and figurative shadows of the Trees. Italian criminals, Latin American slum dwellers, a New York politician, the technocratic president of Somalia. And probably most importantly (certainly most prominently) the inhabitants of an Arctic research station who may be on the verge of a new discovery about the Trees.

This is a high concept science fiction story, but one that is very much focussed on understandable human lives.

Keeping it alien

One area where a lot of science fiction falls down is in failing to make the alien truly alien – showing us people, worlds and ways of thinking that are genuinely strange and un-knowable to us. It’s hardly surprising – as humans we tend to write human.

But this is something that Ellis is particularly good at. His wild imagination and fascination with the strange and unsettling comes across in his depictions of the other, from the story world seen in an issue of Planetary to the swarming hive form of Ultimate Galactus. Trees is a great example of this. The alien presence just sits there, its motives, meaning and behaviour unknown to readers and characters alike, having an impact on the world unlike anything else.

This is the alien as a truly unsettling presence, not just a bunch of guys with green skin.

Action and reaction

This allows Ellis to once again explore one of his favourite themes – how humans react to encounters with the alien. Will we try to use it for war and profit, as in Oceans? For fashion, as in Transmetropolitan? Will we try to hide it away to make ourselves powerful, as in Planetary?

Here we see a whole range of reactions – emotional and intellectual, personal and political, ignorant and informed, instinctive and carefully strategised. The story revolves around the Trees, but so far it isn’t actually about them. It’s about how people react to their presence, how they cope with it or even use it, how they come to understand it.

If story is about action followed by reaction, then that causal chain is what allows Ellis to make this story both alien and sympathetic. The instigating action is something dark and mysterious. The reactions are human and familiar. It makes for a fascinating combination.

Read it, but maybe not yet

A brief note on the art: It’s good, but I read with a writer’s eye, not an artist’s, and have no more to say.

Sorry Jason Howard. I know comics are a collaborative art, but any time I see Ellis’s name it’s the writing I’ll be focused on.

This is another intriguing Warren Ellis book, and one I’ll carry on reading as it comes out. But due to the nature of the story it’s moving in a slow, disjointed fashion that might read better in a collected edition.

I recommend reading it, but if you’re impatient then not yet.

So, three unrelated points for discussion. Have you read Trees, and what did you think? If you’ve read Warren Ellis’s other work what did you think? And what other examples can you think of where science fiction depicts the truly alien?

I’ve been re-reading some of Transmetropolitan, Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson’s hilarious, angry and inspiring sci-fi comic series. Last night, I reached one of the darkest chapters in the story, so dark I put it down as a poor choice for bedtime reading. It was a reminder of what this series does well, and what we can learn from it.

Spider Jerusalem - who wouldn't love a face like that?

Spider Jerusalem – who wouldn’t love a face like that?

Transmetropolitan is the story of Spider Jerusalem, a wild crusading journalist living in a near-future city that combines incredible technology with terrible corruption and deprivation. It’s a funny yet brutal book that combines political thriller, sci-fi speculation and rip-from-headlines slice-of-life dystopianism than shines an uncomfortable light on modern society.

‘Business’, the story in issue 40 (volume seven of the collected edition), is very much in that last vein. Spider Jerusalem, fresh from surviving an assassination attempt, spends a day investigating the horrors of child prostitution.

Yes, you read that right.

Child.

Prostitution.

This is a book whose average issue is a wild ride of expletives, surreality and bowel-disrupting weaponry, and it takes time out to examine an issue so harrowing even serious dramatists give it a wide berth. It’s something so terrible that even to acknowledge its existence sickens me to the pit of my stomach. But if we look away from the bad things, we leave them to fester.

This the point of the issue, and its power. The sci-fi setting creates just enough distance to let us face the problem, but the realism and sensitivity with which the children are portrayed brings it straight into our modern lives. Nothing is romanticised or glossed over. The social and psychological needs that drive these kids are there on the page, in Ellis’s dialogue and Robertson’s stunningly expressive character art. Within the story, Jerusalem will make his readers look at this terrible thing. Through depicting the story, Ellis and Robertson force us to consider it too. I’ve read it a dozen times, and every time it leaves me stunned.

This is the power of great sci-fi and of truly great humour. Great sci-fi speculates on our future while reflecting on the modern world, the real making the unreal plausible, the unreal raising questions about the real. Great humour, the dark, snarling stuff in which Bill Hicks specialised, opens us up to the serious. By making us laugh it opens up our emotions, so that we feel the serious points. The punchline that makes us both laugh and think is a barb that sticks beneath our skin.

There aren’t a lot of punchlines in ‘Business’, but the barbs are there, our skins soften by the story that preceded it. And that’s part of why it’s such great art.

If you haven’t read Transmetropolitan then you really should. If you’ve read it before, read it again. Because fiction doesn’t get much better than this.