Sunday, January 27, 2008

The Sunday Open: Strange Killings is Not Dead Yet

A Warren Ellis Sunday this week with Strange Killings and his four-issue Wolverine story from years back.

Strange Killings, Strange Killings: Strong Medicine and Strange Killings: Necromancer

So far, three of the four Strange Killings collections have arrived from Chapters; I'm missing The Body Orchard, but Ellis and artist/script assister Mike Wolfer are very good at making each of these books self-contained. Yeah, there are references to previous books a little, but nothing that makes the story hard to understand. The basic premise is that William Gravel is an SAS officer waiting for manditory retirement at the age of 40 and getting the ass duties because the service doesn't want him to fade quietly away. He's also a combat magician, which means that anytime there's a problem that seems a bit too strange, a bit otherworldly, they call in Gravel--and then second-guess his methods, of course.

Gravel first appeared in Strange Kiss where he killed a giant not-quite-real lizard thing that was impregnating people in an effort to keep his species alive. Gravel killed him, because the lizard killed Gravel's friend. Ellis followed this up with Stranger Kisses, which was Gravel versus the city of LA when he comes across men who surgically alter people in weird sexual ways. With Strange Killings, Ellis wasn't able to fully write these series, so artist Mike Wolfer helped with the dialogue, much as he's doing on the new Gravel series. The most impressive thing that one can say about Wolfer's scripting work here is that you can't tell what lines are Ellis's and which ones are Wolfer's. I had avoided the Strange Killings stuff because I knew Ellis only plotted and did some of the dialogue and I didn't want anything that wasn't up to the normal Ellis standard. Thankfully, that's not the case here.

The first series, just Strange Killings, has Gravel entering a prison that has been taken over by black magic, turning anyone inside into zombies that power the spell. There's the built-in fun where the colonel in charge orders Gravel to resolve the problem, but, at the same time, looks down on him for his methods. This conflict between "men who get the job done" and "people who need the men but despise them for what they do" pops up in Ellis's work from time to time. Red was built around that conflict, The Authority hinted at it a little if you look at that book within the larger superhero context, and Black Summer builds on that theme in a different way. This story is mostly Gravel killing zombies--you know, nothing too deep, but it's good fun. The ending is pretty damn funny, too.

Strong Medicine breaks from that idea when a police officer need Gravel's help in solving the murder of a child that appears to have been killed in a ritualistic manner. The officer uses knowledge of Gravel's past operations to blackmail him, keeping with the theme, but, as the story progresses, the detective becomes more and more willing to go along with Gravel's methods as they produce results. Here, we have a character that changes his opinion over the course of the story as he realises the necessity of men like Gravel when dealing with problems beyond the normal scope of human understanding.

This series also deals with race relations in a cursory manner. Ellis doesn't comment on that issue much, but it's worth noting that this is the only Strange Killings book (that I've read--The Body Orchard could prove me wrong) that takes place in London and the only other Ellis work where I remember heavy racist tones showing up was his first Hellblazer arc, also set in London. Everyone likes to think of cities like London and New York as above such petty concerns, but Ellis reminds us that, yes, London has serious problems with race, too.

Strangely enough, Necromancer doesn't have much race discussion despite taking place in the Phillipines, which could lend itself to discussion of colonisation. Actually, there's a vague hint of British colonisation in all of these books as Gravel has suggested that the British Empire still rules the world, it just pretended to fall apart as that's an easier way to run things. You'll note that, often, Gravel is in places he shouldn't be, doing things he shouldn't be doing, all for the glory of the Empire. In Stranger Kisses, he suggests that his mission in the US was to kill an army general.

Necromancer is more zombies and is the longest of the stories (so far) at six issues. These additional issues don't add much to the story, they just allow for Gravel to spend more time killing zombies in the jungle with an American journalist he was supposed to kill. In this series, the colonel doesn't like Gravel, but uses him because he doesn't want an officer sitting on his ass.

This series also has Gravel using his powers in the most open ways as he see him teleport, kill without being near anyone and causing bullets to fly around. All abilities seen before, but they're used with such frequency here that it's a little jarring.

If you enjoy violence, sarcasm and the occasional naked breast, check these books out. They're pretty fucked up, but entertaining.

Wolverine: Not Dead Yet

In late 1997/early 1998, Warren Ellis wrote four issues of Wolverine and they're not bad. Ellis doesn't do anything revolutionary with the character, telling a straight-forward revenge story (well, two revenge stories, actually). Ten years ago, in Hong Kong, Logan was seeing a woman and spent some time drinking with an aging assassin named McLeish. Well, McLeish killed the girl's father (a movie producer) for the Triad and Logan responded by seemingly killing McLeish. Right now, it turns out that McLeish may not be so dead and is out to kill Logan.

We get four issues full of killing until Logan finally kills McLeish. Again, pretty straight-forward and nothing too special. It's a decent enough story, though.

It's also worth checking out for early Lenil Fracis Yu art where characters actually look how they're supposed to.

Tomorrow, an interview with Mark Millar from 2001.