Comics review: Shipwreck by Warren Ellis

Shipwreck is not for everyone.  It is a difficult, but rewarding work.  Its twisted story that leaves the reader guess till the last moment, weird characters and quirky worldbuilding, as well as the amazingly appropriate art style, all combine to make this a compelling book for the discerning reader.

A man finds himself walking through a desolate wasteland.  His hand is horribly mangled, and he does not know why.  He doesn’t know where he is, what he is supposed to do, or why those damn carrion birds circle overhead.  Something simply compels him to move forward.  He comes across a diner.  Inside, he meets a strange man who introduces himself as The Inspector and fills him in about the finer details of this life, as he interrogates him about crimes past and future.  He also meets a deranged cook who tries to harvest his meat.  And that’s only the beginning of his meetings with individuals who hardly deserve to be called humans.  And with each new encounter he discovers a little more of his past.

Dr. Jonathan Shipwright developed the technology to jump between two points in an instant.  He had the prototype implanted in himself, allowing him to quickly move from place to place.  When he scaled it up, however, he found out that his machine allowed for jumps between dimensions.  He builds a ship and with a small crew heads to explore an unpopulated alternate Earth, as a place of refuge for mankind.  The new Earth isn’t as empty as he’d wish, though.

Once there, an infiltrator from this second earth sabotages his craft, killing everyone and leaving Shipwright for dead.  Our protagonist survives, though injured, and sets to find the saboteur and exact his revenge.

This, in essence, is the story of the six issues that encompass the entire book.  There is a conclusion, which I won’t spoil.  And in the usual Ellis fashion, there are twists and turns, and more of the storyline is implied than actually spelled out.  This is the greatest strength of the book.  You can finish the story in an hour, but then you may be back for a second, far more careful reading.  There are many layers, personal stories and implications to enjoy during the second and even third walks through the book.

At the very least, the world is truly unique.  The alternate Earth is very sparsely populated, and looks like it went through its own ecological catastrophe.  The climate is dry and arid.  The once bustling road Shipwright walks along is empty, save for dilapidated buildings or outright ruins, harboring the weirdest characters ever.  I once read that the book was a combination of Through the Looking Glass and The Dark Tower, and I think the analogy is very apt. Many of the side characters have their own stories, but one has to read carefully between the lines and meditate to uncover all the details.

The only problem I’ve had with the story was its conclusion.  It left me unsatisfied.  Not because I wanted more; I was glad the story was so self-contained, but I felt that it disposed of the main characters a little too easily, compared to their rich background and personal stories.

The book is very well illustrated by Phil Hester.  His signature style, angular and rough, with deep shadows, is very appropriate to the story and worldbuilding.  It adds a lot of atmosphere to the already gritty story, and even though sometimes it gets a little too weird, it matches the overall feeling of the book very well.

All in all, Shipwreck was a very pleasant read.  As an Ellis fan, I knew what I was getting into, but even I was surprised at the degree of ambiguity in this story.  Ellis used to be an in-your-face writer, but in the recent decade or two he drifted more into the implied and mystical.  He has outdone himself here, allowing me to reread his work multiple times to get all the nuances.  If you prefer your comics to be weird and convoluted, Shipwreck is a good title to pick up.

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