In 2001, ill health kept Warren Ellis, the industry's self-styled 'old bastard', from being as productive as he had intended. In 2002, he's signed a deal to write exclusively for DC, but he still has a host of outstanding commitments from last year to complete.
These projects include - deep breath, now - BLACK HORSES, DOWN, HYPERWAR, MAGIC BULLETS, MORNING DRAGONS, NIGHT RADIO, SCARS and SWITCHBLADE HONEY. Two of these works, BLACK HORSES and MORNING DRAGONS, round out Ellis' set of three projects for Jim Valentino's Image Central, which began with the much delayed MINISTRY OF SPACE.
BLACK HORSES is a three issue series about war crimes, murder and the Apocalypse, with art by John Paul Leon, while MORNING DRAGONS is an original graphic novel about Viking longships arriving in 12th century Japan, with art by Steve Lieber. Ellis normally favours looking to the future to exploring the past, so is this unconventional terrirtory? "Not really. What Morning Dragons is is a story of alien contact. It's a first contact story. It is two utterly alien civilisations, divided by a huge gulf, meeting for the first time."
Books like MORNING DRAGONS take a lot of research, but Ellis says he enjoys that part of the creative experience. "I'm loving it," he explains. But; "You can't let it be the end all and be-all of the work, because if you enjoy the research it can be hard not to let the research become the book, which happens to a lot of science fiction writers.
"They just get so obsessed with the cute little acronyms that they forget there's a cute little story to be told. One critic said that when they concentrate on one aspect, like the science or the technology, it's the fiddler crab syndrome. It's got vestigial limbs, apart from this one fucking great huge hook ... the rest of it is functionally useless, and science fiction writers tend to be fiddler crabs. They've got one big sexy hook and the rest of its kind of crap."
Ellis' own science-fiction story for Image is MINISTRY OF SPACE, with art by Chris Weston. The series attempts to show what might have happened if the British had acquired Germany's rocket technology at the close of the Second World War, rather than the Americans and the Russians.
The inspiration for the series came from the DAN DARE strips of Ellis' youth. "I've been fascinated ever since my teens with the original Frank Hampson DAN DARE, because he took such pains to extrapolate this future technology and make it look real - it looks 1950s real, but it looks real."
"Space has to be sexy," claims Ellis. "And this is why Robert Zubrin [president of the International Mars Society, a civilian effort to launch a mission to Mars] fascinates me. He's plainly mentally ill, and he's making some ridiculous mistakes in his recent rhetoric, but he's running around trying to convince everyone that space is sexy and we can do this, and I like him more than I do NASA.
"I'll be honest. NASA is just this over-bureaucratic beast. It throws up its own obstacles. Through e-mail I communicated with someone at NASA for another space-related project that I'm working on, and the guy said to me straight-faced that you can't do anything in space flight for less than $40 billion. ... Zubrin has costed out a Mars flight at $4 billion, using Russian boosters."
'I'm like the Jesuits. If I get you at a certain age, then I've got you for life.' That other space-related project could well be SWITCHBLADE HONEY, a 72-page sci-fi graphic novel for AiT/PlanetLar. The book is Ellis' response to the antiseptic, directive-driven world of Gene Roddenberry's STAR TREK, with art from Brandon McKinney. As Ellis told reporters, "in that kind of future, the people actually worth watching - the people actually doing it right - would be the people who knew that having guts and basic ethics were more useful than a dementedly-defended rulebook."
"It's a book where a war in space is being fought against an unsettling, arrogant and vengeful alien race by a human Starfleet-come-US Army. And we're losing. We're losing because we are corrupt and rulebound and overcompensating and stupid. ... [So] a hand-picked crew of ... court-martialed officers [is] told to fight a guerrilla war against the oncoming aggressors - who will have Earth surrounded in thirty days."
The company with the most Ellis projects on the cards - outside of DC - is Avatar Press, a company Ellis has helped bring some mainstream respectability to, persuading creators like Steven Grant and Garth Ennis to take their talents there. Avatar is best known for publishing Gothic erotica, but with titles like Ellis' SCARS (with Jacen Burrows), MAGIC BULLETS (with Marat Mychaels) and HYPERWAR, it's broadening its scope to include more crime and science-fiction titles. Ellis is also the driving force behind Avatar's four-issue anthology series NIGHT RADIO, which will provide a profile-boost for up-and-coming creators like Matt Fraction, Micaela Petersen and Antony Johnston.
And that's not all. For Top Cow, Ellis is working on DOWN, a six-issue series with Tony Harris, about an undercover narcotics cop who faces temptation when she goes after a colleague who went native and ended up in control of the city's main drugs cartel. And then there's THE OPERATION, a three-issue thriller, about which no details are currently known, including the identity of the publisher, although the smart money says it's Oni Press.
And that's just the non-DC stuff. Ellis' workload for DC, as detailed so far, includes FASTER, GLOBAL FREQUENCY, MEK, ORBITER and RED. He's also planning to finally fulfil a commitment to DC editor Joey Cavalieri for a DC Universe project. Plus, there's the small matter of completing PLANETARY and TRANSMETROPOLITAN.
That's twenty titles in total, and already he's planning for the future. "I'm stockpiling new ideas for various arms of DC, that I'll get going with once I've cleared the above off my plate," Ellis notes.
So where do things stand with TRANSMETROPOLITAN, the only one of Ellis' books to keep going throughout last year? Well, the series - a sci-fi satire centring on righteous journalist Spider Jerusalem, with art by Darick Robertson - is nearing its final, sixtieth issue, concluding a run where the readership has climbed just about every month. "It's something I'm used to," notes Ellis. "When I was on EXCALIBUR at Marvel, we were the only X-book whose sales went up every month. It just seems to be that people come to my work slowly, but when they find it, they stay. ... I'm like the Jesuits. If I get you at a certain age, then I've got you for life."
There are plans to develop TRANSMET for other media. Possibly - but not necessarily - a film. "There is absolutely no guarantee there that a film would ever happen. I would find it interesting to be involved in a film, because it would be nice for once to have someone make the declaration that this is a different beast. This is not adapting the comic, this is TRANSMET, a film. It is going to be different from the comic. Total Fucking Different. It would be nice to have someone actually say that for once"
We're also into the last twelve issues of the 24-issue pulp saga PLANETARY for DC Wildstorm, illustrated by John Cassaday, although its schedule has been erratic to say the least. Ellis promises the second 'year' will be more intense than the first. "As Elijah Snow's memories come back, all sorts of things that happened in the first twelve issues will be brought into a very different kind of focus." The big mystery for the first year was the identity of 'the Fourth Man'. The mystery for the second year appears to be the identity of Jakita Wagner's father. "We have seen Jakita's father," says Ellis. "Somewhere in the first twelve issues."
Warner Brothers Television has an option to develop PLANETARY for a live-action TV series, but as Ellis notes, "There is no guarantee that a Planetary TV show would ever even get in front of a camera." If it did, would the comic book references present a problem?
"There's a lot of non-comic stuff [in the series]," Ellis observes. "It would be very easy to lift out the superhero references and replace them with weird fiction in general. [When] I wrote a brief outline of a PLANETARY movie ... what I did was excise all the superhero genre material and replace it all with what you might call weird-fiction material, from Jules Verne onwards. Some of it came from issue thirteen - Frankenstein's castle, Holmes and the Open Conspiracy. It introduced an action/mystery plot to the Fourth Man counterplot."
The breadth and diversity of Ellis' work suggests that he could probably get just about any project he liked made. It seems a far cry from the days of STORMWATCH, the Wildstorm series that was cancelled because it could never find a market.
"Wildstorm informed me that they would be happy to keep publishing it as long as I wanted to write it, because they liked it, but a line had to be drawn, I felt. It got to a point where it was just piracy, then I rejigged it as THE AUTHORITY for a few reasons, including to try and get back Wildstorm some of the money they lost on me on STORMWATCH."
The series has since found its market in trade paperback form, which the writer clearly finds gratifying. "I have a large segment of readers who don't read me in monthlies and read me in collections only," Ellis observes. "I don't like writing for the bin. The weird thing about comics is that a monthly comic is only on sale for seven days and then it's stuffed in a box. I would like people to have longer than seven days to see and buy my stuff."
STORMWATCH began Ellis' relationship with Wildstorm, and it will continue beyond the end of PLANETARY, with three-issue minis like MEK, a science-fiction story with Eric Canete; RED, an action thriller with Cully Hamner; and FASTER, a crime story with Brian Stelfreeze. These last two could be a long-time coming, however, as both Canete and Stelfreeze are currently tied in to other projects.
Ellis is also writing a twelve issue action adventure story for Wildstorm called GLOBAL FREQUENCY, and ORBITER, a 100-page science fiction graphic novel for DC Vertigo with Colleen Doran, set for a Christmas release.
'I'm looking for ways to ensure my main income doesn't come from comics.' With the possible exception of the work promised to Joey Cavalieri, none of these books feature superheroes, a genre for which Ellis no longer holds any affection. "My main problem with superheroes is that they dominate the medium to an absurd extent."
This is just one of the factors that Ellis believes is crippling the industry's growth. "The problem is a large one. You can't just narrow it down to bad business or superheroes or fanboys running comic shops. It's the entire culture that needs changing. Someone has got to worm their way into the culture and start changing it from within.
"If we can hold on for a few more years, then the bigger publishers might finally be prepared to make a changeover from monthly pamphlets to original graphic novels ... but we've got to keep the business propped up for another five years to get there. It's a five-year plan. But if we get into serious trouble before then, then the business is buggered, and I like making my living from comics. I mean, Devin Grayson says to save the industry we must destroy it, and that is the sound of someone who really wants a day job."
If things don't improve, will Ellis get out? "I have to be honest, the way things are, and the way the business is moving, I am looking for ways to ensure that my main income does not come from comics, put it that way."
"I don't see a time where I'm not writing comics. ... I love working with words and pictures, and comics is the medium in which you can do that with the least interference, as there are fewer filters between you and the audience than there are in film, TV or any other visual narrative medium. That's why I love comics. It's really just me and an artist and the audience."
And with the number of works Ellis has in the pipeline, it looks like that love is being rewarded. So what's the retirement plan? Where will Ellis be in twenty years time?
"By then I'll have my own island and I'll be living there in my underground base, stroking me cat. ... I've decided that I want one of those big volcano bases."
Parts of this interview originally appeared on SFX.com. Additional reporting by Andrew Wheeler.
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