July 2015

Matt Terl

fiction

Injection by Warren Ellis, Declan Shalvey, and Jordie Bellaire

There's been an unusual trajectory to Warren Ellis's comics-writing career. He came into the American comics scene on weird occult horror-tinged superhero books for Marvel in the mid-1990s, an assignment that seemed to position him as a de facto inheritor of the Alan Moore/Neil Gaiman mantle of "British voice writing smart, slightly adult, slightly horrific stuff within the confines of the American comics market."

And his initial work seemed to bear out that description. On books like Druid and Hellstorm, he honed his own bleaker version of Moore's modern gothic narrative voice, and married it with elements of over-the-top gross-out horror that seemed in line with where other British writers (notably Preacher's Garth Ennis) were taking DC's Vertigo books.

But Ellis also showed a real facility for working the mainstream superhero books, turning in runs on Doom 2099 and X-Men spinoff Excalibur that were enjoyably propulsive but not in any way spectacular or gamechanging. He bounced around Marvel doing an assortment of forgettable (and largely forgotten) miniseries, and then rocketed into comics superstardom in the mid- to late nineties with a brilliant burst of work that followed multiple parallel paths.

At DC Comics, he launched the creator-owned Hunter S. Thompson-influenced sci-fi journalism book Transmetropolitan with artist Darick Robertson, which would run 60 issues and live on as an evergreen collection of trade paperbacks.

At Wildstorm Comics, he revamped the moribund, derivative superhero team book Stormwatch into a smart, brisk book of ideas, toying with formatting and approaches to superteams as he went. It was a seemingly insignificant book, but as Ellis's work on the series continued through a relaunched second volume, it became clear that his ideas were outpacing the backwater, quasi-black-ops superhero title he was using for them.

And so he killed off the bulk of the Stormwatch team, added some new characters to the survivors, and relaunched them with much fanfare in a book called The Authority, and wound up, for all intents and purposes, defining the superhero comic book for the next 25 years, and incidentally setting the direction for Marvel's wildly successful cinematic universe in the process.

And, just for good measure, while he was building this creator-owned success and also redefining superheroes for the twenty-first century, Ellis also wrote (with artist John Cassaday and colorist Laura Martin) Planetary, a gorgeously rendered action comic that doubled as Ellis's desconstructive statement on pulp, genre, and fiction.

In his spare time, he built an eponymous Internet forum into something that was a cross between a comic-book-focused Algonquin Round Table and Jonestown which, not coincidentally, also served as an incubator for some of the most popular and creative voices working in comics today.

It was as high a pinnacle of comic book success as anyone could possible reach, the moment in a Behind The Music where it all comes crashing down. But, to all appearances, that's not what happened to Ellis. Instead, he diversified.

He went back to body horror comics for a smaller independent publisher. He played with the form, doing three-issue miniseries as little standalone action movies and toying with the idea of monthly comic as a vehicle for serial standalone stories in the case-of-the-week TV model. He explored webcomics, wrote novels and videogames and cartoons, and became a noted essayist and futurist.

But his comics work never again achieved the same heights. His style had so thoroughly permeated the industry that what once made his superhero work stand out now just felt rote and formulaic. He did a fair bit of work for Marvel in this period, much of which felt desultory, and even the best of that work was gamely readable but somehow perfunctory.

The last mainstream work of Ellis's that achieved real critical note was a 2014 run on Marvel's Moon Knight book. Working with artist Declan Shalvey and colorist Jordie Bellaire, Ellis turned the perennial fourth-tier Batman clone into a stylish, slick book with a distinct visual hook and a willingness to use the form in interesting ways, albeit in the service of quick-hit standalone catch-the-bad-guy stories. Ellis stayed on Moon Knight for six issues and then left, taking the entire creative team with him.

Which brings us to Injection. In this new series (published by Image Comics), Ellis once again swings back to his creator-owned mode, and once again turns to cynical, creepy, science horror as his genre.

It's somewhat fascinating to directly compare this to the same team's work on the corporate-owned Moon Knight superhero -- looking at it from a certain point of view, that move is a microcosm of his entire career. Much of what made the Moon Knight run notable was how it stood out from the pack at Marvel. It was a book with ideas, and a point of view, and straight-up style.

All of those elements are still present in Injection, but they don't stand in contrast to a generic house style. Or, perhaps more charitably, expectations are higher now, and this simply meets them rather than exceeds them.

Shalvey and Bellaire are beyond reproach. Shalvey has the crucial gift for artists on a Warren Ellis story: he can draw two people engaged in a conversation, incorporating body language and facial expression, and keep it visually interesting, and then turn around two pages later and draw weird coral structures and horribly mutilated bodies. Also, he draws a variety of excellent cranky faces, another must for Ellis's artists.

Bellaire's colors set the tone and the mood, airy and blue for flashbacks and ominous blacks-and-greens with shocks of red for the present day. The weird coral structures are eye-catchingly bio-luminescent, and the horribly mutilated bodies are evocatively drenched in inky blacks and crimsons, lit by the sickly grey glow of computer monitors. All of that is terrific. It's also all very familiar from previous Warren Ellis projects, and it's hard to put the blame for that anywhere other than on Ellis.

There's the group of smart-but-damaged people who will solve problems even if they have to be bastards about it. (The main character on FOX's long-running TV show House was very much built on a Warren Ellis-character wireframe.) There's the encroaching weirdness -- even more indistinct this time than usual, but just a first issue, and Ellis is clearly in slow-burn mode. There's the pitch-black iconic diegetic logo -- in this case a syringe-in-a-capsule-shape that turns up in-story as a tattoo and computer crash screen, and on the back cover of the product as a catchy icon for the series. There's a body horror scene closing the issue that is hard to believe Ellis hasn't done before. The characters speak in familiar, clipped, cranky Ellis-ism. ("Don't speak to me in acronyms," one character snaps to a not-helpful-enough scientist. "This cane could easily become a weapon for beatings.") Even the quasi-poetic descriptive captions ("These are the veins and arteries of Britain") displayed here in a clean, bold typeface are very different from the average comic, but very much in line with Ellis's previous innovations in that area. The book's entire design sensibility, credited to Fonografiks, is lovely and very contemporary, but Ellis has always been very particular about the design on his books.

So on the one hand it feels too soon to say much about Injection. The characters are just being sketched, the plot is barely beginning to ramp up, no central mystery seems to have been fully introduced. There's a mysterious Thing that the (apparent) main character is looking into for her employers, whom she doesn't quite trust. She and her team were involved in some Things in the past that may have somehow caused or influenced the current Thing. We begin to meet the people, and begin to see the current mystery -- but at the moment, the mystery of what happened in the past is more immediately gripping than any of the current-day action.

And then on the other hand, it doesn't feel too soon to say anything at all, because it's a late-period Warren Ellis comic, with all the pluses and minuses that implies. At its worst, it will be a well-designed, well-illustrated, perfectly effective diversion. At its best, it could change the course of the comics industry. So far, Injection looks closer to the former, but that's the thing about Warren Ellis: you just never know which project is going to end up being the latter.

Injection #1 by Warren Ellis, Declan Shalvey, and Jordie Bellaire
Image Comics
24 pages