“I Was This Era’s Cassandra All Along”: A Q&A with Warren Ellis

Warren Ellis has been one of the most prolific comics writers of the last twenty years, and he's spent the last few years working on any manner of different books. John Maher caught up with him about the books that most recently escaped his pen. 

John Maher: Your new webcomic, Finality, just had its fourth chapter released recently, and the first issue of Cemetery Beach came out last month. When working on two—or more—works simultaneously, does the one inform the other? Or are you able to keep the projects entirely separate?

Warren Ellis: Oh, a year or two separates the development and writing of those two projects. They just happened to come out at the same time.

Sometimes, of course, I am working on two or more projects simultaneously. Either they are so different that they can't inform each other, or, sometimes, I'm attacking the same themes from a couple of different angles. It's probably easier when they're very different.

Do you take a different approach to writing webcomics than to writing comics? How strongly do you see the forms differing?

Finality is written in the special form LINE Webtoon uses, which is a scrolling vertical strip.  I also wanted to be able to re-assemble it into a print comics page in the future. So I adapted the four-panel grid I used on Freakangels, which I developed at the time because one panel filled a phone screen. There's not, for me personally, a strong difference in the form beyond the shape of the page. I could probably have gotten more experimental with Finality, but I know I have a section of audience that isn't going to read it on digital.  

The simple answer is that, for me, it's all comics. Just different choices for reading clarity. That's just my personal position, and just for right now.  

What’s something about each of those new works you think might surprise your longtime readers?

Cemetery Beach is one big non-stop action story of the kind that I cannot imagine readers of The Comics Journal being remotely interested in, and I haven't written anything quite like that in some years. It was a necessary palate-cleanser for Jason and I after two volumes of Trees. Jason expressed a desire to do an action story, and our process involves him doing a version of mood-boarding where he just sends me a shitload of art and photos he likes. There are no pauses in the story from around page 4 to page 140, which, for me, was the challenge, because I have become a minor duke in the art of "people sitting around in rooms talking to each other for ten pages."

In all honesty, Finality is kind of comfort food for me -- Colleen expressed a preference for that sort of very composed crime story with an eccentric lead, and, while I've done a lot of that sort of story in the past, I hadn't done it too recently. So there is probably nothing surprising about it for the three longtime readers of my work. I'm just having fun writing a story for my friend to read, and have greatly entertained myself with the initial premise of "what if Will Graham from Hannibal was played by Mad Madam Mim from The Sword In the Stone."

So basically nothing.

How do you think comics have changed since the internet? How do you think comics writing, in particular, has changed since the rise of Twitter?

The rise of crowdfunding and micro-patronage, and before them the adoption of merchandising strategies, have provided tools for marvelous new voices to gain audiences and produce books.  The internet created those opportunities.

But what I always tell people is that your inbound communications from the internet can be tuned. I never looked much at Comics Twitter. Why would I? When I'm in comics full-time, the last thing I want to do is look at people talking about comics. And when I'm not full-time in comics -- writing and co-running a show, writing a novel, writing a film -- these things have such a cognitive overhead that I just want to listen to ambient music podcasts and look at pretty pictures of Norway on Instagram.  

Comics creators have traditionally been more accessible to their audience than people in other media, and Comics Twitter seems to continue and even expand on that. I don't know that that's done anybody any good. I go months without using Twitter - I have to switch it back on in a couple of weeks for the Castlevania Season 2 launch.

You’ve long been vocal about the internet as a tool that could greatly benefit humanity. Do you feel differently about it now, in our current zeitgeist?

I think we can separate "the internet" from "social media."  Social media kind of exposed all the sloppy thinking about "emergent democracy" in the digital space at the top of the century. I still find the internet extraordinarily useful and generally a benefit to my life, and there are any number of ways it's benefited many sectors of the world population, some broadly and some local. The thing is not conflating "the internet" with "Facebook."

You’ve been writing comics for a long time now, but have written straight prose as well, and for television and video games. In what ways did you have to tailor your techniques and your voice to those platforms?

From a standpoint of starting as a comics writer, working in other media... well, I've come to think of it like this. The first stage is an exercise in withholding information. In comics scripts, we need to find the picture for the artist --  even if the picture is demonstrably stupid and wrong, we need to find it first, so the artist isn't left thrashing around trying to work out what we want or need, which is a waste of their valuable time and energy. So there's some particular specificity in describing the visuals, written in a pretty informal way. In screenwriting, that's called "directing on the page." In prose, it freezes the image so it can't take flight in the reader's mind. So there's a certain stepping-down of the informational load in order to take advantage of the effects that other media afford.

That's the craft-based example I use when I'm asked about this, just to illustrate that every artform operates in a different way, and effects don't always translate between them.  

Do you think Marvel and DC building these massive superhero franchises on the big and small screen are going to have a long-term effect on the comics form? Or do you see them as being independent?

I tend to think they're largely independent, and a popular Marvel movie only affects the Marvel comics of the period. The big cinematic franchises do occasionally encourage comics publishers to hothouse their own extended universes, presumably with an eye to movie or tv sales. Which seems to usually end in tears.

You’ve mentioned Cormac McCarthy a bunch lately—in Finality, in a talk you gave at the Thought Bubble Festival in Leeds last month, and in your e-newsletter, Orbital Operations. What’s something he does as a writer that sticks with you?

One thing? That absolute uncompromising nature. I mean, I could talk about his use of language, but that's going to get fuzzy and indistinct because I am a much poorer writer. But when you're in McCarthy's grip, his only responsibility is to the story - never to the reader, never to expectations.

I know everyone asks you about and our current political era, but still, I must. What is one specific way Transmetropolitan or Planetary was prescient about our current era that now surprises you, if there are any?

Oh, god. I remember thinking at one point, writing Transmet, that a bit needed to be broad or weird but if I went *all* the way over the top I'd break it. I'm an idiot.

Molly Crabapple keeps telling me I was this era's Cassandra all along. I would prefer not to be. Between a US President who does things I could never have sold in fiction ( yes, yes, "truth is stranger than," but still) and a UK Prime Minister who appears fundamentally broken in ways unseen by the British political system... I didn't go far enough.

You’ve said in interviews that you thrive on the horror of this era. Is it helping your writing? Or just confirming things you already suspected about human nature?

Mostly confirming. It's not boring, is it?  

What is one thing, in spite of all the energy you have in the face of everything being terrible, that you’re afraid of?

Cancer. Climate change. Economic collapse. The rise of the nationalist right. And so on. You know, the same list as most other people. My daughter turns 23 this week, and I would like her to have a long life that doesn't involve selling her organs for grain. Have a kid! You'll be afraid of everything for the rest of your life.

How have some of the philosophical or economic theories you hold changed from the beginning of your career until now? How does that affect your characters or world-building?

Well, I'm fifty now. I'm hoping I haven't ossified into someone with fixed views, and that I'm able to keep moving with the culture. But who the hell knows? I know I've fucked up before, and I know I'll fuck up again. I think the main thing that changes is that you realize you always underestimated the complexity of pretty much everything.  

The trick is to attempt to evolve as a fat bald old white male human while not letting it distort characters or world building. Characters can be parts of you, but they should never be most of you. Closely-held views of society transposed into fiction become polemic, and, unless you're very good, tracts get boring fast. So I'm kind of directly not answering the question, because providing keys to elements of stories is close to authorial interference. Leave me alone and let me live in my cave.

I talked to a sci-fi editor at Tor in late 2016 about dystopias and their popularity in eras fraught with political disaster, and he said something that stuck out to me: “I think one of the underrated reasons that people read science fiction in particular is that it’s a great tool for figuring out what you think about how the world works.” Do you think that’s true? And if you do, what, after all these years, have you figured out?

I do think that is largely true. Speculative fiction is an early warning station for heavy weather, that tests what might happen if lightning strikes at a certain place. In that operation, it exposes systems, from different angles, and asks you what you might think about them.

I could refer to the previous answer. I learned from fiction and from personal experience that systems are always more complex and more fragile than you think they are.

The thing about dystopias - I had this conversation with some futurists in Norway this time last year, which is why I'm looking at pictures of Norway on Instagram, because I miss it, which brings this to mind -- is that they also make more engaging stories than utopia. A utopia, by its nature, is absent conflict, and conflict, as everybody who ever wrote a book about screenwriting will tell you, generates drama. One thing about Transmetropolitan that I never got was that people called it a dystopia, whereas I just considered it the present day writ large, with joys and pains.  

The important part of that quote of yours is that it's a tool. Not the truth. Dystopias distort some central parts of the present condition so that we can see them better, and what they might swell into. But they're still a distortion. You need to learn, for yourself, how to use the tool and avoid parallax error.

What do you think comics can do in today’s media-saturated climate that no other form can?

Comics, at their best, have purity of intent. There is no visual narrative form that has so few people between the creators and the audience. Depending on how you're publishing, there are few or no filters. In comics, for better or worse, what you get is what the creators intended to say to you. And you have to engage with the comics page, for it to work -- you can't just sit back and expect comics to just do it to you in the way that tv or film do.  

How has it been to be reunited with Jason Howard? Have you found your creative exchange processes have changed with the subject matter?

It's actually quite similar to the Trees process. The only real difference is that we have enough of a creative shorthand now that the scripts are a lot looser. We're still experimenting. There are issues of Beach where I've taken the panel numbers off the descriptions, written in tranches of pages rather than calling it panel by panel by page, just to see what that looks like and how it works. The things that work will be carried back over to Trees Volume 3, which already has a couple of issues written.

In what ways do you think your portrayal of technology and conspiracy in Cemetery Beach differ philosophically from the ways you portrayed such things in previous works?

Well, in Beach, this is a society that stopped shipping new technology to the site some time in the 1960s. It's a situation where there's no real evolution happening in the technological space, just adaptation and jerry-rigging. It's a lot less hard realist speculation and a lot more hand-waving pulp science fiction for the hell of it. Not really my usual thing, but we all have to relax sometime, right?