Until about a year or so ago, I hadn’t read much, if any, of Warren Ellis’ work. His rise to fame overlapped my time out of comics, so I missed his early Marvel work and his rise to fame with The Authority and Transmetropolitan. (I still haven’t read Transmet, though I have the first volume of his run on Authority.)
Over the last year, though, Ellis has quickly risen to the top of my list of favourite writers. I still find most of his straightforward superhero books to be quite dull, but when he’s free to experiment, he’s one of the most interesting creators around, mixing high-concept sci-fi and freaky fetishes and ultraviolence.
The last two weeks saw new issues from two of my favourite Ellis books: Desolation Jones and Nextwave. While the latter continued its irreverence and general wackiness, the former abandoned most of its quirky tendencies to descend into a very dark place.
Nextwave, along with Grant Morrison’s All Star Superman, is probably one of the most fun superhero comics on the market. While Morrison’s book is steeped in more reverential and traditional tones, Nextwave is all about the silliness and stupidity inherent in the genre.
In this issue, for example, we finally get to see the origin of The Captain (“Not actually a captain of anything.”). Already something of a buffoon, he really doesn’t improve much here: He got his powers when he got drunk one night and ran into a couple of aliens looking for a saviour of humanity. After they gave him great powers, he beat them up, thinking they’d turn into gold coins – a nod to Scott Pilgrim‘s game logic, perhaps – and then threw up on them. Back in the present, he gets shot out of a giant gun. Not a great thinking man, our Captain.
Meanwhile, the rest of the team fights the corrupt cop who’s turning into a giant robot, while Elsa Bloodstone blows up some more broccoli men. Boom Boom blows up a bunch of stuff, Machine Man shows off some more of his extendable parts, and Monica gets knocked unconcious.
It’s all terribly silly. As with most parodies, not every joke is funny, but there’s enough of them to make for a decent average. It’s still a minimalistic, lowest-common-denominator kind of humour – things blow up and catch fire, people are hit on the head, and then everyone beats up a cop. It’s a classic “I Love Lucy” kind of thing.
Consequently, much of the comedic burden falls to Stuart Immonen, who carries his burden like a particularly proud and well-endowed mule. In lieu of actually analysing his artistic contributions, I simply present this panel:
Really. You just can’t top that. Da Vinci may as well have drawn with crayons.
I’m not entirely sure how much longevity Nextwave might have – apparently the commitment is currently to a dozen issues – but there’s little question it’s one of the least sane and sensible books to be found.
Ellis was channelling an entirely different vibe when he wrote the opening arc of Desolation Jones, the story of a British secret agent in exile in Los Angeles. The first five issues were slightly dark and disturbing, but punctuated by humour and quirky characters. The lead character was an odd, off-key, and disturbed, yet still generally a likeable sort as long as you didn’t cross him.
That setup largely goes out the window with the final installment of Made in England. This is just about as dark as it gets without actually resorting to overdosing on Joy Division and contemplating suicide. Jones has finally sorted out the business revolving around Colonel Nigh’s missing Hitler porn and the Temple Farm incident. After being jerked around and nearly killed over the past few issues, he finally sorts things out: First with the would-be porn kings, then with Colonel Nigh and his three daughters.
Ellis’ story has been very elusive in pinning down exactly who Michael Jones is. At various points he’s been intelligent, charming, clever, considerate, kind, and funny. But he’s also been ruthless, brutally violent, and manipulative. He is largely a chameleon, altering his manners depending on who he’s dealing with: Go back to past issues and review his conversations with Emily Crowe, the porn actress, Robina, or Tapper. But it’s perhaps his relationship with Emily, who makes a return appearance here, that’s the most telling.
Emily plays a minor plot role here, but more significant is the reminder
of her peculiar physiology. Jones is the only person who can stand being around Emily, thanks to her genetically altered pheromones, while both Robina and Paula Nigh just want to get as far away as possible. As Jones said earlier, and he echoes here, “Nothing disturbs me.” While one can fake compassion and empathy, it’s next to impossible to pretend to like being around Emily Crowe.
And so Jones resolves the whole sordid affair in the sort of way that’s only available to a man who’s nearly cut off from his humanity. It’s the sort of thing many writers try to pull off, or at least try to hint at, but usually pull back from because they’re afraid of the audience losing touch with the tough-guy protagonist. Ellis doesn’t flinch, though: Jones is capable of incredible violence, sadism, and cruelty, and while the finale may well make him less relatable, it only serves to make him a more compelling and complex character.
Just as Stuart Immonen deserves equal credit for the success of Nextwave, so too does J.H. Williams III deserve many temples, statues, and sacrificial virgins in his honour. Even if the story weren’t so fascinating, I’d be tempted to buy Desolation Jones just for Williams’ work. He’s the sort of visionary talent we’ll all be looking back on in the years to come, and if he doesn’t win the Eisner for best penciller they may as well call off the whole thing. Williams makes the dark and dirty story feel elegant and graceful without abandoning the mood and the plot itself. He mixes traditional (and fantastic) pencils with stark black-and-white and gorgeous painting. The tragedy of Williams moving to Batman is twofold: He’ll clearly be missed on Desolation Jones, and it’s also unlikely he’ll have the opportunity to experiment with styles and layout like this on a mainstream monthly. Williams, along with esteemed colourist Jose Villarubia, turns in one of the most beautiful and disturbing books I’ve ever seen. Kudos to DC, too, for running the issue uninterrupted, with only house ads appearing at the back of the issue.
With Williams moving on to another book, the immediate future for Desolation Jones seems in question. It’s impossible to actually replace Williams, and in a way I’d rather wait for him to return – even if that takes another year or so – and continue the series with him and Ellis together. But on the other hand, Ellis has a knack for picking talented artists, and I really don’t want to have to wait any
longer than necessary for more Jones, Emily, and Jeronimus stories. While I’m a fan of most of Ellis’ work, Desolation Jones has turned out to be one of the best books on the market today, and it would be unfortunate if it lost the incredible momentum it’s gained in Ellis & Williams’ opening act. Wonderful, fantastic, and completely messed up book.