Friday, September 19, 2008

Mad doctors, rogue superheroes and foul-mouthed soldiers: Warren Ellis at Avatar

I've long been a fan of Warren Ellis, but it's been a while since any of his work has really surprised or excited me the way it did when I first read his run on Stormwatch (which later developed into The Authority) or Transmetropolitan. In the years following those groundbreaking series, Ellis has done a ton of work (he's nothing if not prolific), but a lot of it has seemed like the sort of jaded, knee-jerk hipster cynicism that his critics most often accuse him of. Or, alternately, when he returned to company-owned superheroes after a self-imposed exile, it seemed like phoned-in contract fulfillment, random weird ideas grafted onto characters he doesn't care about. I've avoided most of Ellis' mainstream Marvel work since being unimpressed with his issues of Ultimate Fantastic Four and the first part of his Ultimate Galactus trilogy, although I've heard good things about his run on Thunderbolts (which is about to conclude), and I am picking up his Astonishing X-Men, which I'll probably address in another post.

The two recent Ellis works that have impressed me both appear to be on indefinite hiatus: Fell, his Image cop series with Ben Templesmith, releases one issue every five months or so, and Nextwave, his gonzo superhero send-up/homage with Stuart Immonen at Marvel, is apparently on hold until Immonen frees up some time in his Ultimate Spder-Man schedule to draw another arc. Both of these series showcased facets of Ellis' writing that hadn't been beaten to death already, whether it was the police-procedure detail of Fell or the absurdist, giddy humor of Nextwave, and both were supported by strong, distinctive art. In the meantime, Ellis has been pouring his energies on the creator-owned side into a number of works from Avatar, most of which feel like more of the same, even if they have their moments.

The big launch, theoretically, is Doktor Sleepless, an ongoing series which just reached its eighth issue, and one that was touted when it started as the spiritual successor to Transmetropolitan. Like Transmet, it's a sci-fi series set in a fictional, corrupt city, although it lacks the sick humor, rich tapestry of characters and detailed, immersive art of the Ellis/Darick Robertson classic. Even after eight issues, I can barely remember who each character is, and none of them comes off as a real, three-dimensional person, even in a heightened-reality sense. The title character is a cipher, not nearly as fascinating as Spider Jerusalem, although the latest issue's revelation that he is essentially out to destroy the world puts an interesting twist on things.

The art from Ivan Rodriguez is serviceable but not spectacular, and his character designs are all very similar, contributing to the confusion as to who's whom. There have been some powerful moments, especially the issue with the Nurse assassinating her former boss, but they're buried in a series that shifts tone with each issue and still doesn't seem to have a handle on what it's about. Still, I'll keep reading for those occasional flashes of Ellis genius, and because he's actually quite good at longform storytelling, and very rarely puts that skill on display anymore.

Launched around the same time as Doktor Sleepless, Black Summer was Ellis' twisted version of the superhero event miniseries, starting out with a lot of hype about its high-concept premise (superhero assassinates president for supposed "war crimes"), but then devolving from there into Ellis' standard take on superheroes as dysfunctional near-psychopaths who've been warped by their powers. The series was like an overcaffeinated version of The Authority, with the standard shadowy government bastards and plenty of carnage. The political and moral implications of the initial act got lost pretty quickly, and by the end I couldn't even tell you what the point was (or, again, tell most of the characters apart). Black Summer did feature excellent art from Juan Jose Ryp, whose work is almost Geof Darrow-like in its detail. He drew some nicely intricate entrails as the violence escalated.

Ellis and Ryp have another nihlistic superhero series, No Hero, which has released a short teaser issue and looks to be more of the same: cynical, amoral "heroes" twisted by power, oppressive government, copious gore. These stories have their moments, though, and Ryp does consistently top-notch work (he'll surely get snapped up by Marvel or DC soon), so I'll probably pick up the rest of it anyway.

To his credit, Ellis is still always experimenting with format, and the 48-page graphic novella Crecy is an interesting approach to storytelling. It's sort of Ellis' version of 300, recounting the true story of a battle between the English and the French in 1346. He uses an interesting narrative device, having an ordinary English soldier basically narrate in an anachronistic tone, explaining all of the customs and conventions of battle and of his society as if he's traveled forward in time, learned everything about the present, and then applied it to his own life. It's an oddly distancing effect, but it is informative, and it's certainly something different. I don't know that it entirely works, but I'm always interested in seeing Ellis branch out like this rather than fall back on his familiar tricks. Most of his Avatar work, disappointingly, seems to be rely on the latter.

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