On Voyage in Noise: Warren Ellis and the Demise of Western Civilization

I don’t remember which Warren Ellis comic was my first. I certainly read his Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight issue, but I doubt it put the name Warren Ellis into my still-young brain. I recall that I wasn’t particularly taken with his Thor, although I thought his Wolverine was a fun, violent romp. Stormwatch, I wouldn’t read until a little later.

What probably made the biggest impression on me, out of his early work, was Ruins. It was a bit rough, but there was no denying that the mind behind it had a sort of twisted, perverse genius.

And then it was the internet, the virtual Warren Ellis who pointed me towards Colleen Doran and so many others, not only in comics but in music, in weird internet stuff, and even in astrophysics.

But it was probably Transmetropolitan, which I picked up monthly from the first issue onward, that solidified Warren Ellis as one of those select few creators (along with Transmetropolitan‘s co-creator, Darick Robertson) of whom I buy everything I see with their names on it. Soon, I was devouring Ellis’s back catalog, which still had to be done through scouring back-issue bins in those days, which now feel outright paleolithic.

I remember the excitement when Planetary, The Authority, and Ellis’s run on Hellblazer were starting, almost simultaneously. Alan Moore was debuting America’s Best Comics at about the same time, and it looked like I’d get four books a month by two of my favorite writers. I couldn’t have been more excited. Of course, things didn’t quite turn out that way: Ellis’s runs on The Authority and Hellblazer were only about one year long, while Planetary (and Moore’s ABC work) wasn’t exactly monthly. But I still remember the excitement. It felt as if a cornucopia of incredible titles were coming my way.

Perhaps the most salient feature of this memory is that, even before the Planetary or The Authority debuted, I put Warren Ellis in league with Alan Moore. Of course, Ellis hadn’t yet made the impact on the comics industry that Moore had made. Moore was an older, established, even revered author, and Ellis was an upstart in comparison. But my sheer enjoyment of Warren Ellis’s comics and the sense of intelligence discernible in his work was enough to make me as excited for Ellis as I was for Moore.

These were all excellent works. But even I was surprised as I watched how The Authority transformed super-hero comics with remarkable speed. Within months, its effects were everywhere. “Widescreen” was a buzzword that could sell anything. These were heady, exciting times.

Then came Ellis’s brilliant, brave, and edgy work for Avatar. And his creator-owned mini-series for WildStorm, each of them so different from the last. One of the marks of a true creator is that they don’t stand still; they reach out into new genres and new formats. You go along with them, and not everything works for you. But in the process, you discover whole new kinds of stories. You discover the power of new genres and blends of genres and ideas and formats for stories.

Ellis is still doing that — and not only in comics.

I think that’s the Warren Ellis that stays with me the most. Not the foul-tempered internet personality, but the writer who’s always reaching, always introducing his readers to new influences, which range from theoretical physics.

I mean, even those who were already aware of Hunter S. Thompson wouldn’t have imagined you could make a journalist into a comics hero. Hell, the alter egos of both Superman and Spider-Man are journalists, but you can count the journalism-based stories starring both of them on one hand.

Another mark of a true creator is that even their creative failures are interesting. Case in point: Ellis’s Astonishing X-Men run, which even he’s expressed disappointment about. But it’s filled with smart ideas, from the idea of “ghost boxes” to the in-universe cleverness of a junkyard for all the extraterrestrial ships that have visited the Marvel Universe. Even the worst or most minor of Ellis’s works, you could still write a book about.

Voyage in Noise: Warren Ellis and the Demise of Western CivilizationWhich I kind of did, having co-written Voyage in Noise: Warren Ellis and the Demise of Western Civilization with Kevin Thurman. This isn’t a walk-through of Ellis’s work. Rather, it’s a series of chapters addressing different themes in his work. Some of them are super-hero related; others aren’t. Some chapters address the more popular Ellis works, while others address stuff like Frankenstein’s Womb and Daredevil. Some chapters are philosophical, examining how Ellis addresses the current post-post-modern situation in which the West finds itself. But in all cases, Kevin and I have taken great pains to make sure that everything’s accessible.

I’ve never co-written a book with anyone before, and I’m not usually the collaborative type. But I’m proud to have done so with Kevin. Kevin’s an Ellis expert, and he served as the creative consultant on our documentary film Warren Ellis: Captured Ghosts. We had many phone conversations about the book, in which we teased out how ideas and themes worked through Ellis’s corpus. We’d bounce interpretations off one another, diving frenetically through one Ellis work after another. The book is in part a record of this collaboration. If even a fraction of the fun of these conversations made it onto the page, I’m sure readers will enjoy the book.

Of course, the book also means a lot to me as someone who’s followed Ellis for so long and who’s been moved by his work. I hope it’s a small way of giving something back, of pushing the conversation about Warren Ellis forward. It’s one way of honoring the joy I’ve felt as my mind swirls with thought, spurred by a Warren Ellis comic.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

In 1996, while still an undergraduate, Dr. Julian Darius founded what would become Sequart Organization. After graduating magna cum laude from Lawrence University (Appleton, Wisconsin), he obtained his M.A. in English, authoring a thesis on John Milton and utopianism. In 2002, he moved to Waikiki, teaching college while obtaining an M.A. in French (high honors) and a Ph.D. in English. In 2011, he founded Martian Lit, which publishes creative work, including his comic book Martian Comics. He currently lives in Illinois.

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1 Comment

  1. Nick Ford says:

    I just finished Trans metropolitan a few days ago and boy was it a ride. I put off reading volume 10 for a few days just so it wouldn’t end a little longer. :P

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