Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Oh Warren, You and Your Ideas

Writer Warren Ellis launches a new volume of Moon Knight for Marvel this week, with art by Declan Shalvey. In many ways, Ellis is the perfect writer for this character, whom he previously worked with in a six-issue run on Secret Avengers in 2011. Ellis is a man who loves throwing high-concept, futuristic, pseudoscientific ideas at the wall to see if they stick, and Moon Knight is the vessel of vengeance for an Egyptian moon god or something. In a recent CBR interview, Ellis said of writing MK, “You can get really weird. Also, you can provide, as an entire plotline, the sentence ‘punching ghosts,’ and nobody bats an eyelid.” Stop. You had me at hello, I’m Warren Ellis.

As we look to Moon Knight’s future, let us also look to the past, to but a small sampling of Ellis’ most outrĂ© ideas:

The alien race that killed its own god (Excalibur): In 1994, Marvel gave Ellis the then-third-tier X-book Excalibur to infuse with his dark, distinctly British sensibility. Among his first acts was creating the snarky but haunted spook Pete Wisdom and teaming him up with not-a-girl, not-yet-a-woman Kitty Pryde. Together they discovered Wisdom's employer, Black Air, was experimenting on an alien race called the Uncreated, self-named because they killed their own deity as a means to conquer their inferiority complex. After doing so, the race traveled the stars looking to exterminate any lifeforms that did not embrace their atheism. Ellis next used the Uncreated in 1995's Starjammers miniseries, in which the titular space pirates defeated the nasties by projecting an image of their god, leading the Uncreated to commit seppuku. (For more on Ellis’ Excalibur run, read Matt’s Recommended Reading column from last May.)

The most obvious visual representation of Darwinism ever? (Storm 1-4): Ellis and Terry Dodson did a four-issue Storm mini in early 1996 that picked up a few dangling Morlock/Gene Nation plot threads from earlier in the ’90s. Storm is shunted into an alternate dimension run by Colossus’ brother Mikhail Rasputin, last seen flooding the Morlock tunnels and disappearing with the undercity dwellers. In Rasputin’s pocket world, where time moves in erratic patterns, the Morlocks were trained to become Gene Nation terrorists by climbing The Hill. Literally, every denizen of this world had to scale and survive a giant hill to prove their fitness and worth to Rasputin.

The bowel disrupter (Transmetropolitan): “Now, what setting? Watery, loose … prolapse.” One of Ellis’ greatest triumphs and crazy-idea farms is this 60-issue Vertigo series starring Spider Jerusalem, a futuristic Hunter S. Thompson whose work for The Word uncovers the dirty deeds of one president after another and puts a big old target on his back. It’s a near-future world in which people fight for the right to change species and there’s a children’s show called “Sex Puppets.” There’s also a gun that makes people poop themselves, which Jerusalem uses to threaten stripper turned “filthy assistant” Channon Yarrow and actually uses on the president known as The Beast in issue #4 in 1997.

Superman and Batman as a gay power couple (The Authority): Ellis ported Superman analogue Apollo and Batman analogue Midnighter from Stormwatch to The Authority. In their new book, the two were revealed to be a gay couple. Back in 1999, this didn't happen all that often, and so the book received a GLAAD award. Arguably these two paved the way for other gay couples in comics such as Northstar and Kyle Jinadu, Batwoman and Maggie Sawyer, and Wiccan and Hulkling.

Right-tool-for-the-job expert-dispatch service (Global Frequency): This 2002-04 Wildstorm book may be the best example of what happens when Ellis favors concepts over characters. Global Frequency was a 1,001-member organization (about on par with Jonathan Hickman’s Avengers cast) of the world’s foremost experts in their field, who are called in as crises warrant based on field of expertise and proximity. In a way it was like a super-serious version of G.I. Joe, with a mix of military, intelligence, scientists, ex-cons and the like all working to save the world, except the characters didn’t stick around long enough for anyone to decipher who the Shipwreck and Roadblock analogues were. Even the artists changed from issue to issue. Also it was almost a TV show.

The guy who buggers cars (Two-Step): In 2003-04, Ellis wrote a quickie three-issue miniseries for Wildstorm with Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti about a bored, cheeky London camgirl named Rosi and a zen gun-for-hire named Tony who run afoul of a gang whose trademark is having artificially large wedding tackle. Among their number is a Baby Huey of a man named Ron who enjoys having sex with cars to the point where they explode. According to TLC’s My Strange Addiction, this is a real thing.

Having Iron Man inside you (Iron Man: Extremis): In 2005-06, Ellis got to tinker with Iron Man's origin, tying the creation of the first Iron Man suit to the war in Afghanistan as part of a six-issue arc that introduces the concept of Extremis, a nanotech virus that allows fir the constant healing and enhancing of the body in the latest attempt to re-create the Super Soldier Serum that transformed Steve Rogers into Captain America. Tony infects himself with Extremis and in so doing becomes one with Iron Man, allowing parts of it into his bones and give his brain a complete upgrade. Elements of the Extremis story were used in the Iron Man movies, including the updated origin story.

Supervillain marketing (Thunderbolts 110-121): Ellis took over Thunderbolts after Civil War in 2007-08. During that period, the ’Bolts were Colorado’s Initiative superteam and were run by a Tommy Lee Jones-looking Norman Osborn. Osborn used his business acumen (when he wasn’t using his crazy acumen) to market the team through Saturday morning cartoon commercials, brainwashing kids into rooting for psychotic killers like Bullseye, Venom and the Strucker twin who was in love with his dead sister.

Honorable mention: Warren’s novel ideas (Crooked Little Vein, 2007; Gun Machine, 2013): Ellis’ two published novels are every bit as idea-rich as his comics. Without going too deep into either, it should be noted that in Crooked Little Vein, the two main characters inject saline into their genitals to artificially swell them and then have sex, and in Gun Machine, a Wall Street financier explains that the key to the future of financial-market real estate is pingback, the time it takes information to transmit from a given location, to ensure the fastest, most competitive buying and selling.

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