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Kapow This! Waging Warren Ellis

Written by (Editor) on 23rd May 2012

Warren Ellis has long been one of comics most forthright voices and wordsmiths. John Mosby talked to him in front of a live audience...

Being asked to chair a Q&A with comics legend Warren Ellis is somewhat akin to being told to stand in the slipstream of a jet-engine while juggling frustrated tigers and pirouetting through a minefield – you’re never sure what’s going to happen or from which direction -  and you better be ready.  But there’s one truth: The writer has never been backwards at coming forwards and quite happy to tell you what he thinks in colourful terms. That’s quite refreshing for an industry often built on unapologetic spin…

Given that Ellis is, in a good way, now a veteran of the industry (“What you’re basically saying is… I’m old, right?”) how does he assess the current state of play in the comics industry?

“What a horrible bloody question, who let you in here?” he sighs. “ I'll give you a clue; I'm not really writing any comics, right now. I'm bored by the field in general, I’ll be honest. It feels like we fought very hard for a long time, but I don’t blame anybody because it turned out that people wanted was not necessarily what WE wanted.  People wanted twice as many Marvel comics as they were.  Though when I say ‘people’ we’re talking about the shops… we don't sell to [the reader]. We sell to retail stores where they aren’t returnable, who then sell to you. So what you get is what the stores choose to show you, rather than necessarily what we are doing. A lot of the stores just don't want to sell independent comics, comics that AREN’T superhero comics because they get superior rates on those books…"

As someone who incorporates scientific theories and a sideways look at the way the world around works (or how it should and shouldn’t) he’s of the opinion that the digital age of comics can’t be ignored, but it can be improved upon…

“People talk about trans-media, saying it could be a comic, a web-series, maybe a film or tv series… what they actually mean is that it can be the cheapest of all of those first and if someone likes it, maybe we’ll get the money to do the next cheapest thing….” he shrugs.

"Anything that saves me having to leave the house is defacto excellent . They’re obviously part of the future. But the big problem with the big digital services is going to be curation," Ellis continues. "You run into the same thing if you go into a comic shop for the first time and stand back. It's just wall to wall of comics]. If you open the comiXology app for the first time, it's just a wall of tiny little thumbnails, so you can't really differentiate anything from anything else. What's going to be needed is curation, rather than product placement, which is what happens with digital services – someone pays a little extra to get a bigger box or advert. No, it needs people going through it and finding the good stuff. I would settle for tagging. I'm interested in crime comics; just show me the ‘crime’ tag and sort by that. Nothing like that exists in digital comics right now, and until it does, it’s going to remain a niche business…”

That famous world-weary, irascible exterior mixed with the reputation of pushing boundaries doesn’t mean he isn’t also wholly pragmatic about where he’s allowed to take his work once he has an idea. As well as the more unrestrained  independent titles, he’s also worked in the realm of commercial-driven  mainstream comic companies (his work on Iron Man: Extremis with artist Adi Granov is said to be part of the possible blueprint for the next Iron Man film and his RED comic was used as the premise for the film of the same name) and says there’s a fine balance between taking a character somewhere interesting and not taking them so far that the company almost has a seizure over the implications…

“You have to be aware that franchise characters in this industry are intellectual property libraries – they have their eyes on these characters for further exploitation in other media. There’s always a lot more money involved than you think,” Ellis notes pragmatically. “A lot of people say that the previous President of Marvel, Bill Jemas, [left] at least in part because he approved a Nick Fury series by Garth Ennis that involved Fury in South East Asia with lots of rape and fire. It was a fairly unpleasant book that, in fact, maybe killed what turned out to be a mooted Nick Fury film starring George Clooney. The producers got hold of it and were ‘THIS is what we bought?’  Of course, as things worked, out Samuel L Jackson is probably a very happy man…”

Away from comics, we can expect another literary novel from Ellis early in 2013. Mulholland Books’ Gun Machine has a provocative concept, dripping with potential and consequence…

Gun Machine is the story of a New York City police detective named John Tallow who whilst called out to a domestic incident that goes horribly wrong, discovers a sealed apartment filled with guns. They are all across the walls and floor in patterns… there’s just one window and curtain. It’s like  a cathedral made out of guns. They pull a random selection for ballistics and forensics, just to get an idea where they came from and who might have done such a really weird thing. It turns out that every gun in that room is associated with a single unsolved homicide on the island of Manhattan over the previous twenty years. He’s just opened the biggest cold-case in New York ever: two hundred unsolved homicides all committed by one person who then saved the guns and displayed them…”


Did Warren set out to write a novel and this idea came to him, or was this an idea that simply seemed to lend itself to a different format?

“Once you’ve been writing for a while and it turns out you’re not completely illiterate, people tend to approach you for work. In this instance I was approached by the editor of Mulholland Books and we were just talking about things to  and kicking ideas between us. There comes this point, if you’re lucky, when an idea that’s been thrown over to you, plugs into  a pre-existing idea you’ve already had and THAT’s the shape you can build a book around. That’s pretty much what happened with Gun Machine…”

His advice for up and coming talent is predictably blunt…

"Answer A, is that I don't need the competition; Answer B, kill yourself now -- it'll be quicker; Answer C, if you're not writing every day, you are not going to be a writer. The guy down the bar who tells you he's a writer is not a writer, because he should be at home f*cking writing. A huge part of the learning experience is seeing what you've done in print and you are going to hate it because you will see everything you did wrong, but you‘re not going to learn that until you see it in print. For some reason that’s how it works.  I don't care how tiny it is; get published… a small magazine, a local paper, any way you can. Once you feel like you’re getting there, get some complimentary copies to mail out because those will be your calling card for the places you WANT to get published in…"


Written By

John Mosby


John Mosby

Born at a early age, creative writing and artwork seemed to be in John’s blood from the start Even before leaving school he was a runner up in the classic Jackanory Writing Competition and began...

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