By Melanie McBride
28, 2002 | There has never been a better time to read
the work of comic book legend Warren
Ellis. From the formulaic pornography of news coverage to the
on-going ineptitude of our world "leaders", Ellis delivers
an intelligent and savagely funny antidote to global idiocy. The
creator of Transmetropolitan,
and Global Frequency
talks to Mindjack about his work, our times and the future.
Melanie McBride: Why do you write?
Warren Ellis: Why does anyone write? I want to talk about
what I see. I'm compelled to. I understand that all writing, really,
is about where the writer is today and what they're seeing in front
of them, and I'm compelled to bring my perception to the table.
It's a lunatic's job, basically. If I wasn't doing this I'd be walking
the streets with a placard on a stick and wetting myself in public.
The only real difference between me and the signboard guy in San
Francisco who rants about the Clintons betraying 16 galaxies and
a zegnalogical rocket society is that I get paid for my perception
of the world. And I own better suits.
So much of what's going on in the world today is right out of
Transmetropolitan. Like the speculative fiction of novelist JG
Ballard, your writing is as much about the future as it is about
the present. How would you characterize your approach to storytelling
in terms of the ultimate goals of your work?
strongly believe in science fiction in its Wellsean frame as
a social fiction, using the future as a tool with which to examine
the present. - Warren Ellis
My ultimate goal is to find a new, interesting and hopefully revelatory
perspective on the contemporary world. I strongly believe in science
fiction in its Wellsean frame as a social fiction, using the future
as a tool with which to examine the present.
So why aren't you reading comics these days?
Really, it doesn't seem to me that there are many comics being
written for me. I want something with a little more muscle and bite
than standard-issue power fantasies, whimsical romance, the autobiographies
of people who never do anything and things with elves. The Western
medium has cycles, and it's currently in a creative downturn. That
doesn't mean there isn't excellent work being done. That simply
means there's not much of it. And, on a personal level, little of
it is talking to me. Not many comics reflect the fact that I live
in a multicultural society fitted with a global communications net,
nor do they reflect the fact that I don't own a pair of Superman
many comics reflect the fact that I live in a multicultural
society fitted with a global communications net, nor do they
reflect the fact that I don't own a pair of Superman underpants.
- Warren Ellis
According to media theorist Marshall
McLuhan, every new media creates new sensory orientations. Do
you think these new orientations have affected the way we experience
or understand comics?
I don't think so, simply because so much of comics happens "behind"
the senses. A comics page requires actual cognitive action to draw
narrative sense from its many elements -- what Scott
McCloud calls "closure" -- where (say) film requires little
more than the experiential processing demanded by everyday life.
I think audiovisual innovation like the modern music video has had
an effect on how comics are created. When I was devising a new series
of stories, GLOBAL FREQUENCY, I was combining the music video with
modern action-film cutting and early American comics scene transitioning,
looking to create a sense of urgency and informational rush.
Before Spider Jerusalem receives his call to adventure we find
him hiding out in a revised Walden. Yet, despite the dystopian world
of Transmetropolitan, Spider manages to avoid the lazy stance of
the nihilist and rages on. How would you describe the relationship
between utopia and dystopia in your work?
I think -- I hope -- that both concepts are dismissed as adolescent
thinking. There are moments of pure, heart stopping beauty in the
most tragic and broken environments. And the loveliest community
on earth will not be able to eliminate the dog turd. I have attempted
to reflect this in TRANSMET: the understanding that the world can
be neither perfect nor doomed. But that it can be better. And the
people who get to decide if it's going to be better or not are the
people who show up and raise their voices.
Life after Transmetropolitan: where would you like to go after
that journey has ended?
To bed, mostly. [With Transmetropolitan] I've completed a 1300-page
political science fiction graphic novel over a five-year serialisation,
and that club is pretty small, mostly because you have to have some
kind of brain damage to even attempt something of that scale (and,
crucially, finality) in the Western comics medium.
I'm writing shorter works for the next year or so. Playing with
some other genres, recharging, deciding where to go next.
When I first saw Transmetropolitan I thought it was a comic
about Michel Foucault! I realize Spider is not Foucault but it seems
like the writing has a really post-modern quality to it. What role,
if any, has critical theory played in your work or thought?
Hard to say, really. My approach is really to take in as much information
as I can, from as many different sources as I can, and let it all
kind of distill and fester in the back of my brain. That said, I've
gone through a couple of phases of reading cultural theory, from
through to the little brainbombs you can find at www.ctheory.net
and the like. It's all part of being as aware of the world, and
of the tracks of the future, as I can.
There's something to be said for questioning the discourse: my
problems with avowedly postmodern fiction is that that is usually
reduced to an excuse for an ironic gag.
In what ways has technology affected the way you create or your
sense of direction and themes as an artist?
The internet changed everything for me. All the things I wanted
to know about but couldn't obtain through traditional media or communications
are right there. I would have killed for this when I was 19 with
no money and dying to fill my brain with new things from all over
the planet. With this electric window, I can literally see across
What is your favorite technological diversion?
I have a Handspring Visor. It has a module that turns it into a
mobile phone and modem. It has a full-size keyboard that folds up
into something pocket-sized. It has a module that turns it into
a camera (I did a book with it, of short stores and photography).
The phone/modem works all over the planet. It's a piece of science
fiction in my pocket, and I love it.
What do you think we need to learn in order to survive this
world we have created?
There is such a thing as truth. Non-relative, unassailable, valuable
truth. Do not let people relativise the concept of truth into vapour.
McBride is a Toronto-based writer, editor and educator
who specialises in interactive educational new media. She can
be contacted via her website.