Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Top 25 Warren Ellis Comics

Well, Tim took me up on my challenge to him in our most recent Splash Page and created a top 10 (or, more accurately, top 10.25) list of Geoff Johns comics. I think it's a pretty bottom-of-the-barrel sort of list... when you're including Infinite Crisis, it gives that impression. But, good on him. Next week, he'll be doing a top 10 list of Warren Ellis comics... so, today, I'm going to do a top 25 list. If only because, even at 25 spaces to fill, we won't reach the low-point that is Infinite Crisis.

My rules are, basically, I'm only judging based on what I've read (and, yes, there are some big gaps like Ellis's early Marvel work and... well, the odd Avatar thing like Blackgas, Dark Blue and Wolfskin), and nothing with a co-writer (except for the Gravel stuff where Ellis does write the material, Wolfer just expands Ellis's 'scriptments' into full issues... I'm counting it, shut up), so no "Counter-X" stuff. Also, I sometimes combine stories or runs in somewhat debatable ways, but that's because I genuinely think they belong together as a single unit -- and as an extra way of showing the breadth of quality. Beyond that, it's all up to me and the order of this list could change on a whim, really. As much as I love lists, they are very random at times. The best and worst are set in stone, while everything in between floats around a bit. Oh, and I don't talk about art much -- only because this is a writer-centric list and I want to focus on that. However, you will note that Ellis has had a fantastic run of working with amazing artists.

25. Ultimate Galactus Trilogy: Ultimate Nightmare is the only part of this story that really works for me in a big way, which makes sense since the other two parts weren't meant to be written by Ellis. However, he pulls together a good modern interpretation of the Galactus concept, something that would actually be terrifying and not as goofy as giant man in dumb purple hat. Ellis distilled the concept of 'planet eater/killer' and created something alien, something different. His handling of the Ultimate characters is solid, too.

24. Ocean: A somewhat minor work that is this low because I'm not sure it warranted six issues. But, it fits nicely into Ellis's love of space travel and space stories. Corruption, corporate evil, and an ancient alien race that wants to kill us all. A fun, decent read -- and it's easy to see why someone would want to turn it into a movie since it reads like a decent popcorn flick.

23. Anna Mercury: This was an odd series since the first three issues read like one of Ellis's much-loved three-issue minis... and then there were two more issues that weren't exactly unnecessary, but seemed more about establishing Anna Mercury as a character than anything else. Otherwise, this was a fun, action-packed series with a great core concept. Not quite metafictional but close. The second series is currently two issues in and just as entertaining as the first one. Like a lot of Ellis's output, not high art but good fun.

22. Reload: One Ellis's five three-issue minis for Wildstorm. This one had a Secret Service agent assassinating government officials after learning that the mob has basically used its resources to infiltrate politics and take over legitimately. Throw in an FBI agent (or was it CIA?) and, again, a fun action story with a cool concept/twist.

21. Thor: Worldengine: I'll admit, this is a sentimental/nostalgic inclusion, but having reread this earlier this year, I think it deserves to be here. Probably Ellis's first somewhat high profile revamps, he took Thor and changed him radically, making him mortal and Earth-bound, while still referencing the mythological aspects of the character heavily.

20. Global Frequency: A very hit-or-miss series, but one of ambition and vision. That it's this far down the list is a testament to how much quality there is here, because this is the sort of work that would make the top ten for almost anyone else. Even the low points of this series of one-off issues about an organisation of 1001 citizens dedicated to saving the world are still decent reads. But, the high points are amazing. The first issue is dense and an example of just how good Ellis is at the craft. The issue with art by Jon J Muth is fantastic, as is the one with the guy in the asylum/hospital who gets infected. Or, the girl in London who runs through the city? How this didn't become a TV series still fails me because it's a concept perfectly suited to the medium.

19. Orbiter: Probably the most pure love letter to the space program Ellis has ever written. I haven't actually read this in years, so I'm a bit foggy on the details, but I remember a lot of passion and cool science bits. Also, an interesting cast of characters and Colleen Doran art.

18. Ministry of Space: More cynical and dark than Orbiter, but better because it has the same optimism and love of space travel only filtered through the British. Showing that progress comes, almost always, through horrible, monstrous deeds and at a great cost. Full of wonder and awfulness.

17. Ultimate Human: Ellis writes Ultimate Tony Stark better than anyone else. Not quite as obvious and over-the-top as Millar's version, more charming and entertaining... plus, his update of Pete Wisdom is pretty good. He explains the Hulk in a way that makes sense and ends the first issue on a joke that shouldn't work but does anyway. Still probably my favourite 'Ultimate' book.

16. Desolation Jones: The first arc is a clever rewriting of The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler with gorgeous JH Williams III art and starring a skinny albino former SAS man in the Marlowe role. The second arc had promise, but only two issues were released before various problems put the book on hiatus. This would probably rank higher if it had had a chance to go longer -- and hopefully it will -- but I really dug Jones as a character. A very Ellisian hero: a horrible bastard with a hidden heart of gold and belief in seeing what's right gets done. Plus, Ellis exploring Los Angeles is entertaining.

15. Black Summer/No Hero: Two different stories, yes, but they're the first two parts of a thematic trilogy, so they go together, especially since I see them as being very closely related. They both spring out of similar concepts: people becoming superheroes to clean up their city, to fight corruption and evil whether the usual kind or oppressive authority. Both examine the role that superhumans can play in the politics of the world, both emphasising that superhumans are part of humanity and have a responsibility to do the sort of things regular people do (like get involved in politics). Black Summer rants on not getting past violence in an effort to make the world better, while No Hero explores how superhumans could rule the world, piss people off in the process, and have no one truly know how far their reach extends. I'm curious to see what Supergod is like (and am still a little sad that Juan Jose Ryp won't be drawing it to complete the trilogy). Both stories, though, never felt like they had enough room to really explore their ideas, focusing on side issues or other less important bits.

14. Doktor Sleepless: The conceptual follow-up to Transmetropolitan, this book is hurt by its slow release schedule since the pacing of the story is slower, too. However, when you read it in chunks, it will blow you away as Ellis crafts a terrible, monster of a character that is determined to destroy everything -- and, then, we watch how he sets out to do it. Intermingled are various concepts about the future, crazy characters, thoughts on journalism, and gang wars. The darker, pessimistic little brother to Transmet.

13. Aetheric Mechanics: One of my favourite books of last year, this graphic novella is wonderfully entertaining and thought-provoking. It seems like a Sherlock Holmes with future tech pastiche... and it is but for good reason. The final pages are absolutely brilliant and it contains one of the most perfect panels I've ever seen.

12. The Apparat Singles Collection: Four first issues for series that don't exist, all inspired by different pulp genres. My favourite is "Frank Ironwine," the detective, because Ellis does cop stuff well and Frank Ironwine is an entertaining character. "Simon Specter" is a solid Doc Savage/Shadow type of story that has Ellis update him for the 21st century well. "Future Stomp Angel" is less a story than a bunch of insane concepts thrown out at the reader. "Quit City" is a good character piece, but it's my least favourite of the bunch. Again, Ellis doing something fun and different, pushing himself beyond the typical means and expectations. Worth it especially for the little essays he writes for each story and the longer one he includes for the entire collection.

11. Thunderbolts: The idea that Iron Man would set up a program where supervillains hunt down unregistered heroes was a stupid one that wouldn't work. Ellis recognised that and proceeded to spend 12 issues showing why it wouldn't work as the team devolved into in-fighting, madness, death, and destruction, barely accomplishing anything. This series also paved the way for Norman Osborn to rise to power as Ellis set the new standard for the character. And, man, I sure do love the end of the first arc where Bullseye gets his ass handed to him... and, then, how it's reversed in the second arc. A nice symmetry.

10. Scars: A straight cop story that's about the horrors one can see on that job and what it will do to you. Haven't read this one in a while either, but it's rather good. Haunting and conflicted, willing to portray cops not as heroes or scumbags but as regular people trying to do a good job that can't help but get beaten down by it.

9. Fell: A bit too heavy on the formal experimentation to really register on an emotional level, this is another extension of Ellis's series of cop stories. All done-in-ones, the best issues have been the ones where Richard Fell is stuck having to talk his way out of a problem or talk a suspect into confessing. Fell is an interesting character, one instantly recognisable as an Ellis creation. This is one of the only comics I've given to my girlfriend to read and she liked it.

8. Hellblazer (#134-143, plus the unpublished "Shoot"): Until he took over the book, Ellis was probably the most high profile Brit to not write John Constantine and I'm a big fan of his short run. It was a run where we got to see dual sides of Ellis: the romantic and the creepy bastard. His focus was restoring the horror elements of the series, his one-off issues focusing on that more than the initial "Haunted" arc did. He wanted to take things away from the magical with the devil and evil fairies and whatever else, showing what sort of monsters humans can be, how fucked up and horrible we are to one another. "Haunted" and one of the short stories showed off his romantic side as they dealt with John reflecting on ex-girlfriends, preferring to remember why they were together in the first place than what drove them apart. Oddly touching at times. The "Shoot" issue can be found online and is a solid issue (though not as good as people like to say it is -- the banned/unpublished thing usually makes people overdo it in praising things).

7. Lazarus Churchyard: The precursor to Transmet in its depiction of future technology and weird science. Lazarus Churchyard is a man whose brain is in a body that cannot die. Image put out a collection that features a lot of stories, it's early Ellis work, a little rough, but also a place where you can see lots of his later work hinted at. This is like his first album and it's pretty good. Some funny bits and the final story is just heartbreaking (while also being a bit 'out there').

6. Strange Kiss/Stranger Kisses/Strange Killings/Gravel: Nearly 40 comics starring William Gravel, combat magician. Strange Kiss was a fucked up comic: Gravel's buddy gets impregnated with little lizards and dies when they burst out of him. Giant lizards in people suits are killing people and winding up in a morgue. Turns out that a giant lizard creature, a mystical god-like thing is reproducing this way. A very disturbing comic. Stranger Kisses was bigger and had more action, and was about men in LA who perform surgery on people so they can be beyond male or female for sex purposes -- or, so rich, famous people will have new and exciting things to fuck. The four Strange Killings series never really approach the first two minis in terms of quality, but are entertaining reads. Gravel just finished up its second arc and has been one big story as William Gravel rises through the ranks of Britain's magic ruling elite. A witty, bloody, sometimes disturbing series of series that make William Gravel one of Ellis's longest-running creator-owned characters. The quality has even remained strong with Ellis writing 'scriptments' that Mike Wolfer expands into full issues. Gravel in particular has been a great read as Ellis explores class conceptions in Britain, something he hasn't really addressed much to date in his career. It's nice to see him dealing with England more directly.

5. Red: An odd choice to rank this high, but there's a reason for that: a lot of Ellis's career has been spent on high concept action books and this is the best one by far. Not only that, it's the best of the three-issues minis he's written. Paul Moses killed people for his country for years and now just wants to live in peace. The new politically appointed director of the CIA has learned of his existence and wants him killed. This choice results in Moses killing a helluva lot of people and Ellis, again, pointing out that there are costs for things that we all like to pretend don't exist -- but they do and moralising about them isn't necessarily the right course of action when we benefit from those horrific actions. One of the tightest, most skillfully written stories Ellis has done -- and Cully Hamner knocks it out of the park.

4. Nextwave: Agents of H.A.T.E.: Funny, wacky, off-the-wall, funny, funny, funny, funny, insane... this comic was both a celebration of the inane stupidity of superheoes and a mockery of them. It was 12 issues of insane KICKSPLODE fun, great jokes, mean characters, and Dirk Anger. An instant classic. Ellis just having a laugh and proving that, man, he is one funny guy. The pinnacle of comics' recent Age of Awesome.

3. Planetary: I like the second half of Planetary, by the way. I do. Some don't like how it went from a series about delving into the 20th century's popculture and how it intersects with comics, and became a story of Elijah Snow taking on the Four, but it worked for me. The first, though, is brilliant. Sad and haunting, also uplifting. My favourite issues are the Vertigo one and the fictional man one. The Vertigo one had Ellis reuse his storytelling techniques from Hellblazer with Jack Carter and turned into a little story about Vertigo needing to get past Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman's influence, move into the future. The fictional man story was nice because I like Ambrose Chase. The series was large and expansive and sweet and sad. Plus, there were the three wonderful crossover specials that I have a fondness for. The one with the JLA was entertaining as Planetary becomes the Fantastic Four that beat the crap out of DC... hah.

2. Transmetropolitan: This should probably be number one the list, honestly. It is the purest example of Ellis that I can think of, Spider Jerusalem the best example of an Ellis protagonist. A series of larger stories and short one-offs. Of crazy idea and optimism. In the future, newspapers still matter! Journalism still affects politics! Good people can work hard and bring down bad people. A great cast of characters, all suitably horrible and sweet in their own way. Ellis put Spider through his paces and left us hanging until the end that maybe Spider beat the bad guy but still lost. My fondness for Hunter Thompson makes me appreciate Spider quite a bit -- though it was Transmet that got me into Thompson's writing. "Year of the Bastard" was the first arc I read and it steals so much from Thompson's book on the '72 primaries... but it still works. The later issues falter a little, but not as much as people like to say. I just think people didn't like it when it got away from Spider off being ranty and having stupid little adventures and became about something bigger... and, even then, Ellis still found room for fantastic one-off stories. The two specials and inclusion of Spider's column also gave Ellis an excuse to stretch himself a little and throw out even more mad ideas. Someday, I promise I'll give this series a proper reflection.

1. Stormwatch/The Authority: This tops the list because it was more influential. Pure and simple, this three-act run changed the way mainstream superhero comics were written in the early 21st century. Ellis moved progressively through storytelling formats from done-in-ones to three-part stories to four-part stories, expanding the scope and concept of the series with each. Taking a small, laughable superhero book and turning it into something worthwhile and hugely influential. His work on Stormwatch vol. 1 was solid and a good mingling of superhero and politics, culminating in the brilliant "Change or Die," while volume two continued, but made things bigger as the group eventually had to confront working on a more than global scale. This lead to The Authority, the finest example of 'widescreen comics' you're ever going to find. A natural, organic progression over the course of a few years into something that made others change the way they do things and, then, became instrumental in making Bryan Hitch, Mark Millar, and Frank Quitely well-known creators. I think Transmetropolitan is better, but Stormwatch/The Authority is more important (and not much worse, honestly).

There you have it. My top 25 Warren Ellis comics.