Warren Ellis once oversaw one of comics' most lively discussion boards, but it seemed to collapse under its own weight. Now he's making a second attempt with The Engine, but with its 'no capes' rule, is it trying too hard to be cool?
19 September 2005


My hometown, as I've probably mentioned a hundred times before, is a nice little city in the north of England. It's renowned for it's drinking and caters to just about every taste known to man. There are goth bars, rock bars, indie bars, hip-hop clubs and trendy clubs; there are meat-markets, sausage parties, sports bars and dirty dives and everywhere in-between. And because it's such a small city, geographically, you could sample any or all of them in a single night.

And just when I thought there truly was somewhere for everyone, I discovered, in my old age, that what I really wanted was not what I thought I wanted. My girl and me fall into the indie category, and while we'll happily go to trendy indie clubs full of perfectly coiffed hair and outfits worth more than my monthly wage, my problem is always the music. There's a lovely club called World Headquarters, which caters for the indie crowd, but every time I've been clubbing there it's been a night of acid-jazz, early 80s weirdo hip-hop, and John Peel-baiting obscuro-rock.

I don't get it, my girlfriend doesn't get it, nobody I know gets it. My tastes aren't mainstream, but they're not that obscure. Why not play some songs I'd know? Guaranteed crowd-pleasers? But it's not about pleasing the audience musically; it's about creating the right ambience. I have to be made to feel cooler just by being there.

It's all about perceived cool - the club has to be cooler than it's clientele. And the cooler the clientele, the more the club has to try to be cool.


The need to be perceived as cool is a problem that doesn't dog every entertainment medium. It's a problem for music - and, I've often felt, the root cause of all music journalism - but I don't worry about what's cool at the cinema. I can go see DUKES OF HAZZARD without worry. It's also not a problem for TV; I can sit and watch BIG BROTHER with the worst of them. So why does music have such a problem? Is it an inferiority complex? A lack of confidence in itself as an artform?

But there is another artform that suffers terribly from 'perceived cool'. And, of course, it's comics.

'Is the need to be perceived as cool based in an inferiority complex?' The opening of Warren Ellis' new internet forum, The Engine, got me thinking about this recently. If you've ever subscribed to Warren Ellis' mailing list, you'll know he has a habit of changing his mind. He said he'd never go back to superheroes, he openly called out his colleagues for doing so, and then... ULTIMATE FANTASTIC FOUR. He also said he'd never open a message-board again after the closure of the Warren Ellis Forum and then... go and check out The Engine! G'wan!

If, like me, you have a very forgiving boss, a super-fast connection to the interweb, and more than enough spare-time at work, you'll lap up any excuse to peruse for comics chat online. The opening of a new message board like this should be a cause for celebration for people like me, but I can't help feeling underwhelmed. For those of you who missed the previous iteration of the Warren Ellis Forum, it went something like this:

1. Fans and professional artists slowly converge in a new forum offering broad scope for conversation.

2. The cult of Ellis builds.

3. Ellis buys into his adoration and starts handing out proclamations.

4. The forum becomes a veritable minefield of rules and regulations designed to herd you towards Ellis' mindset.

5. Ellis realises that a lot of people disagree with him anyway and shuts down the forum in disgust.

Now, admittedly, it was his forum to do with as he pleased. There's no reason why he shouldn't demand everybody post in the nude, wearing deerstalkers and saying 'arsebiscuits' every third word. He'd be within his right.

But at its height, the WEF transcended a mere forum for discussing a certain creator's projects; it was a discussion forum unlike any other at the time. Ellis and his moderators stripped out the more belligerent cattle until there was only a hardcore of intelligentsia who provoked conversation on a fascinating range of topics.

When the realisation of what he'd created made Ellis attempt some social experimentation in the vain hope of improving the industry, he was working from an utterly sound place. The fact that his ideas of improvement and most fans' ideas were utterly disparate wasn't anyone's problem. But it soured both Ellis on conversing with his fans, and a lot of fans on conversing with Ellis.


With the opening of a new forum, Ellis has decided to dive back into direct conversation. This time, his intent is stated from the offset; No conversation on or tangentially related to superheroes or all-ages fiction.

It's this that instantly got a lot of people's goats. Of course, there are other places to talk about superhero comics, but then there are other places to talk about indie comics too. And while it's still his forum to do with as he pleases, the WEF at its height transcended the interests of its creator to become an entity of far more import to the industry than any Ellis PR machine.

'The forum soured Ellis on conversing with fans, and fans on conversing with Ellis.' While some have rushed to declare this the perfect evolution of Ellis' masterplan, and an essential service the industry needs to move on, I'm still left feeling that it's just hip posturing. What does excluding superhero conversation prove? What does it achieve? Any advances or innovations introduced to the medium through that genre are utterly excluded under Ellis' new rules.

The forum itself is an interesting proposition. It seems filled almost 80/20 with wannabe creators and regular fans. The vast majority of active members seem to be young creators hopeful that Ellis will notice their work and spread it across his fanbase like a plague. Those creators should know by now that that's unlikely to happen, as most of their works just aren't up to standard. I'm a firm believer that if I haven't heard of your work, it's not because I'm not doing my job, it's because you're not doing yours. It's too off-hand to say that good comics speak for themselves, but it's unlikely that anyone is going to get discovered just because they've got an Engine account.

The forum still has merit, as all these new creators are sparking some genuinely interesting conversation about the artform, how it works, how to get published, et cetera. Of course, most of it happens to be in the form of, "If I were to send this submission to DC - er, I mean Top Shelf - how would I go about getting my story about Batman - er, I mean, Emo Autobio Kid - published?"


The problem with much of theoretical debate in comics is that it takes place at a very surface level. There's no critical thought, merely discussions of how to get published or how to write a script. As a place for young creators hoping to break in, The Engine may yet provide a valuable service. In terms of genre/industry discussion, it's hamstrung by Ellis' blinkered vision of what the medium should be.

I'm not a superhero apologist, but I feel that cutting them off completely so you can take some hip lofty stance of superiority is counter-productive. Rather than taking a Magneto-esque stance that 'superheroes must die', I favour a Professor X-style integration policy. I like a lot of superhero books, just as I like a lot of indie books. There's no line in the sand for most readers. We're not all caught up in the race to be cool.

The Engine's success will ultimately be dictated by how tight a rein Ellis keeps on its visitors. He'll presumably never back down from his anti-superhero stance - despite taking Marvel and DC's money for writing them - so it may fall to someone else to create a venue where you can talk intelligently about every aspect of comics without worrying about how cool you are.

Being perceived as part of the hip crowd may bring some small pleasure to some readers, but there's more enjoyment to be had from actually reading comics, be it in Ed Brubaker finally producing a workable modern interpretation of CAPTAIN AMERICA, or in David Lapham's ensemble tangle of plots in STRAY BULLETS.

All I want is for my favourite medium to be free from the 'perceived coolness' problems I face every weekend when choosing a nightspot. The man who can create a nightclub where I can listen to Arcade Fire, drink Budvar and read THE LOSERS will be my hero for life.

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