Warren Ellis is the best writer of science fiction stories in all of comics. There, I said it. I mean it too. His comics are regularly intelligent and well-paced. He’s very skilled at taking big and sometimes complicated ideas and simplifying them enough to make them easily digestible. He manages to do this (exactly how, I don’t know) without dumbing it down or changing the idea to fit the story he’s trying to tell. Instead, he uses scientific ideas as the starting point for his stories and builds the rest around it. His entire comic book writing career has dealt with scientific ideas whether or not he’s writing a strictly science fictional story. This style of writing is often paired with a large dose of realism all of which gives his writing a very specific flair.
In order to understand Ellis’s approach to writing science I need to give a quick overview of two important movements in comic books: revisionism and reconstructionism. The 1980s saw the emergence of several highly regarded mature comic book works such as The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen. Their impact on the comic book industry was a nearly immediate attempt to recapture the same feel of those comics but it was done so by creative teams that lacked the crucial understanding of those influential works. Comic books of the early 1990s were plagued with what is now known as the “grim ‘n’ gritty” aesthetic. Writers and artists would try to emulate the harsh realisms and brutality comics such as Watchmen only to end up with senseless violent and poorly thought-out comics of their own.
What made those critically acclaimed mid-to-late 1980s comics so good was the use of realism in telling in storytelling. By adding social, political and real-world physics to comics the revisionist movement was born. This use of intelligent storytelling was often combined with experimental narrative techniques. The Dark Knight Returns used a 16-panel grid as the basis of every page while Watchmen did the same with a 9-panel grid. Both works also considered the realistic implications of having superheroes. In The Dark Knight Returns this is mostly apparent in Frank Miller’s use of news media while in Watchmen Alan Moore took superheroes as the foundation for his world building of an alternate America. Taking fanciful ideas and treating them with the utmost seriousness and concern for verisimilitude was one of the driving forces behind such revisionist works.
After the many failed attempts at recreating revisionist comics a second movement was created with the release of Marvels by Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross in 1994. This movement, called reconstructionism, had the intent of recapturing the wonder and awe of superhero comics which used to inspire them as young readers. This wasn’t just a return to form for superhero comics. Instead, it was a counter movement to revisionism since it kept the intelligence of revisionist works while imbuing them with a more hopeful tone. I must point out that revisionist works like Marvels and Busiek’s later series Astro City weren’t simply about having fun with superhero comics. They had emotionally potent and often literary stories to tell but they did not shy away from using highly fictitious elements (superheroes and pseudo-science, primarily) in their stories. They were not concerned with the often stark portrayal of reality that was often found in revisionist comics.
You might be wondering what any of this has to do with Warren Ellis. His comic book writing career began in 1990. By 1995 he wrote a companion comic to Marvels called Ruins where he presented highly revisionist and scientifically accurate (at least in theory, we do not have real superheroes to provide any additional prove) depictions of various super-powered beings in the Marvel Universe. He presented Invisible Woman as being blind when using her invisibility powers since her eyes new longer interact with light correctly (I apologize for being vague or inaccurate on this point, it’s been a while since I read Ruins). Wolverine is the victim of adamantium poisonings, the Hulk is essentially a walking tumour, etc. Rising to fame as an important and skilled comics writer during the nineties would result in Ellis’s entire career dealing with aspect of both revisionism and reconstructionism in his work.
Warren Ellis used a realistic approach in his science fiction writing which often brings him to deal with revisionist motifs. Yet, Ellis is also quite capable of including reconstructionist ideals in his stories, too. A lot of his superhero comics are characterized by his realistic approach to science in his stories while also employing a sense of wonder and awe to the science and his storytelling. A lot of that has to do with the tone of a specific story. Ellis is as capable of writing a revisionist work at the same time that he is writing something purely reconstructionist. He’s a an oddity amongst comic book writers since he’s written series that combines the style and content of both movements into under one title, with little or no narrative and storytelling conflict. Planetary is probably the best example of that.
Both these movement are tied to superhero comics (for the most part) it’s difficult to apply them directly to his non-superhero work. Most of his non-superhero work is science fiction and since a lot of superhero comics are a sub-genre of science fiction you can see echoes of revisionism and reconstructionism in his science fiction comics.
Warren Ellis deals with hard sciences and near future science fiction. Some of the very first lines in his Wikipedia page say that he “is well known for sociocultural commentary, both through his online presence and through his writing, which covers transhumanist themes (most notably nanotechnology, cryonics, mind transfer, and human enhancement).” Sometimes I think his mind lives in the near future while he body occupies the same time and space as the rest of us which allows him to write so convincingly and intelligently about complex ideas that have their roots in the sciences (social, technological and natural).
Those are some of the thoughts that float in my head each time I read a comic by Ellis. This is what I had in the back of my head when I recently reread Ocean, a single volume science fiction story by Ellis with art by Chris Sprouse and Karl Story.
Ocean’s plot is pretty straightforward. Set 100 years in the future, United Nations Weapons Inspector Nathan Kane travels to a space station named Cold Harbor in rotation around Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons. A significant yet highly secretive discovery has been made in Europa’s ocean. A very large number of coffins are submerged under the planet’s icy surface, along with weapons that are capable of destroying planets. Kane’s been asked to investigate and, if need be, take action to ensure they’re not put into use by individuals with nefarious goals. It would have been a simple mission if the Doors corporation didn’t also have a station in orbit to make things complicated, and highly dangerous, for Kane and the scientists of Cold Harbor.
What makes Ocean an engaging and worthwhile read isn’t the plot. That’s actually rather run-of-the-mill. What’s truly wonderful is the tone which conveys a great sense of respect for other cultures, humanity’s future and the scientific ideas that Ellis is playing with. A big part of the tone is established by the clean and very precise art of Chris Sprouse. He’s aided by regular contributor Karl Story who handles the ink. Ellis’s distinct pacing allows Sprouse’s page layouts to be very cinematic. He also gives the interiors of the space ships and space stations are surprisingly open, almost breezy, feel.
The rest of the tone is the result of Ellis’s writing choices. Consider his charactesr. Nathan Kane, the lead protagonist, is a black man. Something we don’t often see in comics today, let alone ten years ago. Three quarters of the crew at Cold Harbor’s crew are women, professionals in their field of study. They’re skilled and intelligent but they’re also quirky (without being stereotypical) and unique. All five main characters accept and respect the people with whom they work. This isn’t the focus of the story but it anchors it and gives the story weight and meaning. Ellis builds his story starting with the science, continuing with characters and leading to the story. That’s the formula to a lot of his work. He does this while celebrating a great deal of positive things and without ever making it a sickly sweet read. We have his English wit to thank for that, I’m sure as the dialogue is filled with snark and sarcasm.
Ellis doesn’t shy away from showing you a potential future where conglomerates have delved deeper into their invasions of our individual rights and privacy for profit. He won’t hesitate to craft a story in which humanity’s roots are discovered to be a long-dormant humanoid species from the same solar system that lived to kill and destroy. In essence, he doesn’t pull his punches. He will show you the worst of mankind in most of his work but this is counter-balanced with his compulsion to show you the best of mankind. He’s cautionary as well as being hopeful. It’s all incredibly humanistic. Even the figurehead of the Doors corporation in Ocean is sympathetic in his own way. He’s delusional, sadistic and hysterical, absolutely, but also a sad and pitiful man that you’re made to understand is only trying to make the best of a very, very situation.
It’s clear that there are some revisionist elements in Ocean, particularly the realism of the technology of space flight. The science also includes the rather interesting idea of guns designed to be safely used (for the shooter, not for the intended target) in a space station or ship. The action piece in the last issue works wonders with artificial gravity and atmospherics within the station. Despite all of this, I would argue that Oceans has more in common with reconstructionism because of the comic book’s overall tone. It’s inherently optimistic. Certainly the Doors company is a frightful look into our potential future but the organization is defeated by a small group of five intelligent individuals. The comic remains hopeful and positive in face of the clearly evil and equally realistic villains (one group of villains acts more as an allegory of our past errors than as actual murder-obsessed ancestors to humanity) of the book.
The book’s main theme is to supplant positive aspects of humanity over negative ones. The Doors manager wants to harness the destructive power of the alien technology for personal gain while the scientists want to understand along with Kane who wants to understand it and make judgement on the value or lack of value to humanity. The Doors corporation wants to continue mistreating humans, even stripping individuals of autonomy in order to attain higher profit margins while Kane wants to learn from the errors of our parents and ancestors in order to build a better future for all. While Doors chooses attempts to mean their goals by crushing individuals freedoms Kane succeeds in his efforts by celebrating individual differences and unique abilities of the individuals that surround him. That, ultimately, is what makes this a hopeful story. Ellis shows a clear love and respect for science and both possibilities of developing it (negative and positive) but he suggests that intelligent, educated and determined individuals will find a way to overcome any negative aspects of future scientific discoveries.
Ocean is one of Ellis’s lesser works, that’s not really up for debate. Yet it’s still quite satisfying because it fits so nicely within Ellis’s style as a writer and deals with a fair amount of his pet themes. It’s not essentially reading for people starting to discover his body of work but it does play a role in emphasising the kind of writer Ellis is and the kind of comics he writes. It’s not just for the Ellis completest but for any comic reader that enjoys comics that are made up of equal part action and thought provoking storytelling.