Left Desolate

Desolation Jones #6


I notice between this and the last issue of Planetary that Warren Ellis has apparently captured the same pamphlet-format privilege that Alan Moore used to have with his Wildstorm books: all of the ads have been pushed to the back, so there’s no interruptions in the flow of the story. Unless this is a recent development across the board for Wildstorm, and it’s just the Ellis books that are kicking it off. Interesting.

This title is still the best thing Warren Ellis is writing at the moment, better than Fell, better than Nextwave, and finally wrapping its initial storyline after a bunch of delays (yes, it’s an ‘ongoing’ book of as yet indeterminate length, if you’ve forgotten). And, as I’ve said for every issue of this book thus far, an awful lot of the success rises from the keen interplay of story and art. The script for Desolation Jones thus far was written over a rather long period of time, having been started years ago without penciler/inker J.H. Williams III or colorist Jose Villarrubia in mind; it’s but one more fortification as to the status of those two as at the top of their visual game that they’ve managed to devise such an intuitive visual style for the book, adding extra layers of information atop what we directly read, visuals subtly (and unsubtly) shifting to meet the mood of each sequence. Ellis has noted that “I just freed him up to go his own way with layouts whenever I wasn't requesting a specific effect, find his own way into the work,” in regards to his writing process after knowing Williams was on the team, and this has proven to be a wise decision.

There’s one moment in particular that makes particularly great use of Williams’ and Villarrubia’s visual schema, a bit of culmination, and probably the bit Ellis has been alluding to in his recent Bad Signal mailing as to how this issue’s bound to upset some people - at the end of the story, Jones’ associate Robina gets shot through the head by a sniper while driving Jones home. Throughout the book, Williams and Villarrubia have been using a red and white color scheme to signify moments of Jones in intense, often violent concentration (the technique is pretty much explained in issue #3, where Jones provides an interior narration that matches up nicely to what we’re seeing, thus explicitly connecting the visual technique to a certain state of mind for the main character). Often, Williams will provide a little box to highlight certain particular points of impact. So, for example, Jones is shot at the end of issue #4 - a box captures the bullet’s point of impact, everything inside all white and red while the rest of the page remains fully colored. Or earlier in that issue, in the opening fight scene, little boxes constantly point out where Jones is concentrating his attention (or sometimes to draw attention to Jones’ eyes themselves; the reader’s point of view is colored by Jones’, but it’s still essentially omniscient).

And in issue #6, the world turns white and red when Robina is shot. The bullet trails through the air, captured in a frame on the page - Jones can see it, but he’s impotent. He can’t stop it, though his senses are extraordinary enough to watch it. And for the rest of that page and the next, every shot of Robina is in white and red, even as the rest of the world remains otherwise. We’re not told his attention is fixated on her, but we don’t have to be. The art and color tells us everything. The only words we get are Jones’ utterly helpless “I’m sorry,” which serve as punctuation at the end of the sentence.

There’s some problems you can run into with such a tight reign on your sense of visuals - the argument has been raised that Willaims’ art is “almost pornographic” in its depiction of violence, though I strongly disagree; setting aside the fact that the actual nitty-gritty explicitness of the violence is rather modest by the standard of the Warren Ellis bibliography at large (or even entries in the Warren Ellis bibliography released this week), there’s a canny use of the properties of the comics form at work here that places this material well above mere prettification of killings. I’m not even convinced that the violence is even beautified - the bloodbath at the Nigh estate is largely washed out with deep red (and the occasional box of white, of course), which lends a sickly tone to the proceedings, not unlike the visual trick pulled at the climax of Taxi Driver to both dull the immediate impact of the killings, and add a sickness to the air. Regardless, there’s careful attention paid.

The notion of pornography, though - it runs strong through this work. Indeed, this issue pulls together all of the little topics of conversation brought up throughout the story: pornography is constantly used here as a cover for darker things, abuse and mind control and evil notes and murder. People are used, like Jones - he satisfied a certain need, and maybe he’ll be asked to do it again. In fact, he's done it once before, sucked dry for a year in the Desolation Test itself. When read from front to back the story ties together very nicely, and in a plot sense as well. I particularly liked issue #3's introduction of a very important character before we have any idea who she is - everything recurs here, returning to bite Jones on the ass.

In fact, there’s a pair of explicit bookending effects at work in this final chapter, two things joining this last issue to the first - fittingly, one is provided via writing, the other pure visuals. Robina is killed at the behest of Filthy Sanchez, a character who appeared in issue #1 and witnessed Jones’ arguably over-the-top use of violence against one of her henchmen (Jones’ and Robina’s lives were being threatened, but Jones has since proven that he can escape such situations without simply killing people - “Hell, I wasn’t going to let them shoot me,” Robina notes in response to Jones’ actions). Thus, in retaliation, a person who can be viewed by some as Jones’ underling is killed. Sanchez’s stated motivation: “I want to see if he really can feel pain.” Jones’ use of extreme violence in this issue is far from arbitrary - he’s been killing people in disgusting fashion since issue #1, and Robina’s ultimate fate can be traced directly back to that initial act. And the effect is immediate - the storyline’s running gag of Jones bumming rides off of Robina pays off at the end, as Jones is forced to walk all the way home, alone with his angels (and demons), his friend gone.

And that leads into the second bookend - the return of the red line guiding Jones through the city, as applied by Williams in issue #1. In that earlier scene, Jones spoke of Los Angeles as a place designed not to be lived in, but to be passed through. If you want, you can extend this notion to the delicate lives of the characters in this book, their time limited and sorry, their lives always liable to end, like Robina’s. Just passing through. All of this is suggested by Williams’ red line. And we pull back, and Jones’ trajectory vanishes into the map of the city, and all is encircled in the symbol of the Desolation Test - his vision was ours throughout this story, and we are left with the notion that this damaged point of view will suffuse everything, everywhere he goes. It’s an ‘open’ prison on the west coast, but there’s no escape for the damned.