I am a huge fan of Warren Ellis. I own every major release the man has uh…released, as well as some of the smaller, lesser-known stuff. He’s probably the biggest inspiration for my own work there is. His work on the Authority was what got me back into comics again after I’d stepped away for a little while.
That said, I’m going to run down my 10 favorite Warren Ellis comics. Here we go…
10) Desolation Jones. The art by J.H. Williams III might alone be enough to make this a favorite, but the story is classic Ellis: Michael Jones is a washed up alcoholic British intelligence agent who think he’s been invited into a simple research study, but is subjected to a process called the “Desolation Test”, which forced him to stay awake for a year while being subjected to non-stop images of violence and death. This resulted in his body and mind being warped, and he ends up a frail figure that is almost remorseless and quick to violence. He’s sent to Los Angeles after the test, which is a secret “open prison” for former intelligence agents. They have the run of the city, but aren’t permitted to leave. Jones becomes an official private investigator in LA, working jobs on behalf of the other prisoners. His job in the first story arc is to recover the private porn films of Adolf Hitler.
9) Nextwave: Agents of HATE. Again, Ellis gets all the best illustrators, and this time around he’s got Stuart Immonen riding shotgun, before he hit it big with Avengers and Fear Itself, using a more cartoony style that’s perfectly suited to the inane material. Nextwave follows a bunch of D-list Marvel heroes as they strike back at their former employer, the SHIELD-analogue called HATE. This is probably Ellis’ most blatantly funny story, with dozens of laugh-out-loud moments, like when Monica Rambeau, the former Captain Marvel, has a flashback to working with Captain America, who tells her to “go back to Avengers mansion and make my dinner”. But my favorite character here is The Captain, who is retconned into being every shitty Captain-Something character in Marvel history, a guy who gets given incredible powers by a pair of aliens who he then proceeds to beat the shit out of in a drunken rampage.
8) The Apparat Singles Group. Ellis created a brand new group of titles, each with their first issue – with no issues to follow, apparently ever, which was the point. The reason why I have this on my list of favorites is because of the title Simon Spector, with art by Jacen Burrows. Spector is a crime-fighter in the pulp tradition of the Shadow or Doc Savage, a guy who takes specially-designed drugs to make him “think faster” and determine the outcome of his cases in a matter of moments. He can also kick ass and take names. I love the setup of the Apparat titles, it’s something I’d love to try, to create a series of first issues of non-existent titles.
7) Fell. This time Ellis teams with Ben Templesmith to create a pretty fascinating bunch of crime stories centered on disgraced detective Richard Fell, who gets assigned to work in the fictitious city of Snowtown, a place where crime rules, the police are barely there, and strange things happen all over the place. The design of Fell is what I love, all done-in-one stories and a pretty rigid 9-panel grid setup for each page, which is especially interesting when you’re working with a guy like Templesmith, who could easily bang out 22 splash pages and make a brilliant looking comic.
6) Global Frequency. Goddamn, I love this comic. The Global Frequency is a loose collective of 1000 agents, all with their own special talents and expertise. The idea is that anyone could be an agent of the Global Frequency, your best friend or that guy you don’t like at work. The series was 12 issues long, each issue illustrated by a different artist. And as always, Ellis gets the best of the best here. Glenn Fabry illustrates one of my favorite stories in the series, about a realistic take on a cyborg, how the integration of metal and cybernetic parts into a regular person’s body would affect you. It’s a pretty brilliant idea, looking at the outcome of severely modifying someone’s body and brain.
5) The Authority. As I mentioned, I got back into comics with the Authority. Ellis’ run on the Authority, the original 12 issues, is one of my favorite superhero runs ever. The creation of the team out of the ashes of Stormwatch Black, some of the classic Midnighter lines, the staggeringly good Bryan Hitch artwork, and the way the Authority decide to use their superhuman abilities all made me look at superhero comics in a new way. I think some of the following takes on the Authority got it all wrong, focusing mainly on the fact that Apollo and the Midnighter were gay. That seemed to become a major focal point for the series after Ellis left. (I do like some what Mark Millar did with the Authority too, and him having Frank Quitely on board didn’t hurt either.)
4) Red. Yeah, it got turned into a not-too-bad movie with Bruce Willis, but the original 3-issue miniseries is really pretty fantastic on its own. I love secret agents, I love the idea of retired secret agents coming out of retirement to kick more ass. The story is about Paul Moses, who was once a top government assassin, now retired and living a quiet life. With the election of a new president, the new director of the CIA is shown top secret footage of Moses in action, he decides Moses needs to die so none of the horrific secrets ever get leaked. That just pisses Paul Moses off, and he reactivates himself and starts killing his way back to his new CIA handlers. And Cully Hamner’s art is incredible.
3) Black Summer. I think Ellis really started to cut loose when he started doing books at Avatar. Some of this stuff feels really “no holds barred”. Black Summer is about the Seven Guns, a group of self-appointed crimefighters who all modified their own bodies to a superhuman level. One of the group, a nearly indestructible man named John Horus, murders the president in the openings pages, and the rest of the series deals with the fallout of that action for his former teammates. The best part is all the science involved, Ellis makes it seem plausible and realistic that each of these people could actually create their own superpowers. The Juan Jose Ryp art is stunning as well. This guy is like Geof Darrow on crack.
2) No Hero. Ellis’ second collaboration at Avatar with Juan Jose Ryp, No Hero is a look at creating superhumans through drugs. The Front Line are the world’s only known superhumans, but someone’s started to kill them off. In order to fill out their roster, they bring in a young, idealistic local vigilante, and shit goes right off the rails. The idea of creating superhumans through drugs is explored with as much detail as the body-modification stuff is explored in Black Summer. God, these are such great books. Black Summer and No Hero are consistently being re-read, they’re that good.
1) Planetary/Transmetropolitan. Without a doubt, my favorite Ellis work is Planetary. Or Transmetropolitan. I can’t decide, so they both sit at number one. Planetary is a mind-boggling piece of work that makes me want to forever give up writing comics when I read it, because I know nothing I attempt will ever be as perfect a comic book as this is. Elijah Snow, Jakita Wagner and the Drummer are Planetary, archaeologists of the unknown. They work to uncover the secret history of their world, which incorporates analogues of classic comic books stories, like the creation of the Hulk, Thor’s hammer, or the four scientists who go into space and come back different. There were a lot of scheduling issues with the end of the series, but man, when you read it all together, it’s a brilliant piece of work that remains one of my favorite stories ever. I met John Cassaday a few years ago at a convention, and as he signed my Planetary hardcovers, I asked him if Warren was as much of a madman as he seems. “Sort of, but not really, he’s really a nice guy” was Cassaday’s answer. But he was sweating while he said it, like Ellis might have been watching…
And Transmetropolitan? I think this is the longest work Ellis ever did, and yet again he gets the best art possible in the form of Darick Robertson. Transmet is all about renegade journalist Spider Jerusalem as he reports on/investigates the upcoming Presidential election with the aid of his filthy assistants. It’s hard to describe Transmet. It needs to be read to be understood. There are moments of “holy shit, I can’t believe he just wrote that”, right alongside some genuinely heartwarming parts. Transmet covers a full range of emotions, and as much of an asshole as Spider is, you can’t help but root for him, and hope he shoots everyone with his bowel disruptor.
If you haven’t read any of the titles listed above, you really should check them out. Also worth mentioning is Ellis’ novel, “Crooked Little Vein”, and his eager-anticipated new novel “Gun Machine” due out early next year.
Do yourself a favor and go listen to “The Boatman’s Call” by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.