For many people who don’t read comic books, comics is largely about superheroes. In some cases, there have been sci-fi subplots to create superheroes (Fantastic Four, for example), but until the recent crop of Marvel movies featured a band of merry space adventurers (Guardians of the Galaxy), the mainstream saw comics as fantasy with weird people having weird powers, beating the crap out of each other. Those who read comic books knew better, though: science fiction elements have been an integral part of comic universes since its classic days, even if we disregard Superman as being an alien whose space ship crash landed on Earth. Jack Kirby created the New Gods of the DC universe in 1971: an alien race of superpowered beings. Marvel has multiple alien races. The Skrull were created in 1962; the Kree in 1967, just to name the most prominent ones. However, all those comic worlds are still at heart about superpowered beings, no matter how they gained their powers. The work of Warren Ellis is different. It focuses on sci-fi elements, explores futuristic societies and often features normal, or only mildly abnormal humans. More importantly, his books are fun and insightful at the same time and should be considered among the best sci-fi works in comics.
I first came across his work when reading Stormwatch, which he took over. Back then, I didn’t really register his name. Stormwatch, and the entire WildStorm universe, were different than mainstream comic books. The characters were for a large part enhanced or well-trained humans. They tended to focus on action. When Ellis took over, the series changed a bit. The characters became more interesting. Their enhancements became more prominent, often involving alien technology. The stories became overtly political. And Ellis was not shy about killing off anyone in his books.
And so it happened that most of Stormwatch was killed off, and the remaining members created The Authority. The little band of super-enhanced people took over a multidimensional ship and went on to fight some of the biggest threats humanity has ever faced in comic books. Ellis was masterful with his characters. He focused more on their personalities than weaknesses. The normal comic book trope is to establish a weakness or limitation of the hero and have the villain exploit it. Here, the threats are truly cosmic, with complete disregard for the superheroes, and the protagonists are spending more time battling their personalities and psyches as their biggest blocking points. Ellis also introduced some sci-fi concepts here that he’d explore in other series (a multiverse and rifts between various realities), as well as a mystical folklore world that parallels the real world, and which gave rise to world’s myths, legends and fairytales.
At this point I took notice of the author and started reading everything non-superhero related I could find. The first and most obvious target was Transmetropolitan. In a future society, a rogue journalist is battling corruption and political filth, and helps to bring down two US Presidents. This is cyberpunk with a trace of DNA splicing and a lot of politicking. Spider Jerusalem is a gonzo journalist living in The City. The setting is quite over the top, with flying drones, murder and smut all around, and people who splice their DNA with alien DNA to become new species. The stories are also hyperbolized, but the social dynamics are very tightly written, and the books are as believable as it gets in stories about 300 years in the future.
From The Authority, Ellis branched more into non-superhuman space. Global Frequency sees 1001 highly skilled individuals forming a mesh network around the world and going on missions to clean up the mess caused by human experimentation gone wrong. Planetary has a few people with extremely limited superhuman capabilities, exploring various events and artifacts from human history. Here, Ellis returns to his multiverse and further expands his folklorist themes, and even creates a crossover with The Authority.
Two of his most recent series are deeply rooted in science fiction, exploring societal changes and artificial intelligence. In Trees, a giant alien race descends on Earth. They are represented as giant pillars, decimating the land where they establish themselves, and often reaching higher than people can get to. They are nearly completely inert and oblivious to humans. Ellis explores the societal changes around these aliens: in a partially flooded New York City, in a Chinese city where its inhabitants enjoy their personal freedoms, in Africa where the ruler of one country wants to use the pillar for territorial gain, in Brazil where toxic sludge from a pillar kills everything living in favelas, and other places. He explores the stories of various people, important and common, who happen to be close to these aliens. The story progression has been virtually non-existent in the first two volumes, but that doesn’t stop the title from being one of the most intriguing comic books I’ve read in a while.
The other recent series is Injection. Here, a group of gifted individuals creates an artificial intelligence, infuses it with a dash of primarily Celtic folklore, and forgets about it as it lies dormant on the Internet. Then, one day, it awakens and begins creating strange phenomena based on said folklore. These phenomena are often deadly, and even though the five people are not working as a group anymore, they are still trying to explore the events, individually or in small groups, and stop them. One of the characters is an Irish hacker, and the Irish setting that I’m exceedingly familiar with is so well portrayed, to the smallest detail, that I got the feeling Ellis did a ton of research to get the books right.
Most recently, Ellis returned to WildStorm, relaunching the series. The Stormwatch and Wild C.A.T.s characters are reimagined with a deeper backstory, and to a more science-oriented origin. The Engineer, for example, didn’t get fused with alien technology as in the original series, but instead underwent a series of self-inflicted surgeries and nanobot injections. As with the previous two titles, however, the stories are still in their infancy, and it remains to see where they’ll go.
Ellis has been a very prolific writer, and when given the creative freedom, has created very unique and often likable characters. He hasn’t shied from sensitive topics – The Authority features a homosexual couple that gets married; Trees has a pre-op transvestite and very fluid sexual relations – but he didn’t push any agenda, and the characters are very natural and fit seamlessly into their environment. His books feature strong social commentary. And his science fiction elements are not just vehicles to further his stories: they often are an integral part of the plot. It’s a shame that his medium of choice is still being belittled by many. His writing is on par with many recent Hugo nominees in the novel category, but Ellis is relegated to the Graphic Story category. And there he hasn’t been even nominated a single time. If you ask me, this is the biggest disappointment in the Hugo Awards. Warren Ellis deserves the attention of all serious science fiction readers.