Wednesday is for Warren

*And it's not a bad one.

Nextwave #1

I hope it makes some people smile.”

-Warren Ellis, from today’s Bad Signal mailing, on Nextwave #1

In the same message as quoted above, writer Ellis expressed some concern as to how this new series, his latest Marvel superhero effort, will be received by fans at large. About a week ago (January 17, to be precise), Ellis was apparently even less certain, asking readers to wait until reading issue #2 before deciding whether or not to continue purchasing the book, as only the conclusion of the initial two-part storyline (the uniform length of all stories in this series) will offer the questioning reader a fully informed viewpoint. Naturally, this will deter nobody from commenting on the half of a storyline we have right now; perhaps some tonal/narrative switch-up is in store?

Regardless, as of now Nextwave is quite determinedly a comedy. There’s some action in there too, but this is probably the most predominantly comedic book Ellis has written in a long while. And the humor takes several forms: I was genuinely surprised at how antic some of this is, complete with funny props (look at that gigantic telephone!) and overtly absurd dialogue ("No no not doing this no no no run away run away this is my special run away song so I do not get killed by scary girl."). One can practically hear the snorting behind the omniscient narration ("Fin Fang Foom! Has been burning with the need to mate since 1956!"). Dirty words are blocked out by tiny skull-and-crossbones symbols. Annoying little dogs are lit aflame. It’s really quite a silly book.

Yet it’s really very much a Warren Ellis book too, which leads to both problems and rewards. Comedy isn’t the most objective thing in the world, yes, but I feel secure in declaring that Ellis is at his most amusing here when he’s willing to dive head-first into self-parody. Funny term, that - usually it’s meant in a pejorative sense, often denoting the presence of unintentional humor as summoned by a hopelessly self-fixated talent. But for intentional comedy I think it can be a worthwhile exercise, even if the risk of alienating the non-devout with opaque yuks runs higher than average; and I don’t really know if everyone will take humor out of the sight of a tough-talking badass bellowing something like:

Every day I smoke two hundred cigarettes and one hundred cigars and drink a bottle of whiskey and three bottles of wine with dinner. And dinner is meat. Raw meat. The cook serves me an entire animal and I fight it bare-handed and tear off what I want and eat it and have the rest buried. In New Jersey! For H.A.T.E.!”

But I certainly know I’ve read enough of Ellis’ work to appreciate the amping up of what some would call overly familiar characterizations. The politics are also farcical, which leads us nicely into the plot: the unpleasant Beyond Corporation, who apparently used to be a terrorist cell but are now really a very respectable corporation don’t you worry, has been using America’s formidable Highest Anti-Terrorism Effort (H.A.T.E.) division as unsuspecting distributors of Unusual Weapons of Mass Destruction (“It was an open bidding process!”). H.A.T.E.’s elite anti-terrorism Nextwave squad, comprised of various and sundry lesser-used Marvel Universe personalities, takes off on its own with some nice weapons and winds up dealing with Beyond’s monkey business, like awakening Fin Fang Foom.

There’s plenty of jokes there too, though they’re of an easier type; as always, Ellis gets a bit shivery around the less gracefully-aged aspects of the Marvel U, and this time it basically comes out in the form of jokes about how silly things like Fin Fang Foom are (the purple underpants are pointed out twice). This is maybe preferable to the Ellis Ultimate approach of giving things fresh names (Finf-Ang-F’om, let’s say), but one still can’t escape the feeling that the writer is laughing at the very toys he’s merrily playing with; contrast this with the similarly (if far more explicitly) punchy, over-the-top superhero hi-jinx of James Kochalka’s Super Fuckers, which also had a lovely theme song, and one can’t help but marvel how the latter seems poised to roll in the metahuman sandbox, while the Marvel exhibit sometimes looks eager to wash its hands.

But still, this is a funny book. Stuart Immonen’s art nicely meets and enhances the tone, characters flipping thrown the air, legs flailing, when hit by villain-driven cars. The destruction is never less than poppy and crumbly, and the jut-jawed character designs are a lot of fun. Two-issue waiting period be damned; even with the occasional reason to pause, or maybe just slow down, you might be more eager to stick around for the long-run than you are with any of Ellis’ other Marvel titles. Unless, of course, it all changes next issue.

Blackgas #1 (of 3)

I hope it makes some people sick.”

-Warren Ellis, also from today’s Bad Signal, on Blackgas #1

UPDATE 1/26/05 10:06 PM: You know what really makes me sick, everyone? The fact that I'm obviously a functional illiterate and cannot properly read the credits of a comic book, which is why I switched up the names of Max (penciler) and Sebastian (ink assist) Fiumara in the following review. What a day!

I managed to score the final copy of Jacen Burrows’ ‘Gore’ variant cover (out of the 16,731 alternate covers that accompany each and every Avatar release), depicting a horde of hungry ghouls lifting a tiny Aryan-type child in the air and feasting on his dangling intestines, among other pleasantries. I win!

Positioned nicely to compliment the hyperactive Ellis-plus of Nextwave, we have the supremely straightforward first third of this new zombie miniseries. It is possible to discern Ellis’ voice flowing from some of the characters’ mouths, especially the feisty girlfriend character Soo, but otherwise this story is largely missing most of the writer’s favorite tics and techniques - instead, we’re treated to a never unpredictable but entirely capable working over of some vintage shock horror chestnuts. One gets the feeling that Ellis’ eyes are turned at least halfway to Italy - not only is the isolated atmospheric island setting and semi-historical half-explained origins of the obligatory flesh-eaters sharply reminiscent of Lucio Fulci (one hopes the old zombie-on-the-boat trick is coming soon), but some more ‘advanced’ exploitation tactics are duly explored, including some nasty up-close animal slaughter. Ellis’ use of such tropes is not as entirely gratuitous as it’d appear in the average Umberto Lenzi cannibal epic, though - the head-crushing and flesh-stripping of an atypical animal food source neatly presages all of the chowing down on human guts to come. The zombie is already in all of us, you see.

In the interests of exactitude, I should say that it’s not wholly typical zombies here, not yet - the skin-starving ghouls here can still speak coherently, though awful ichors pour from their eyes and mouth, as if their bodies are cruelly allowed not to decay while their innards melt into tar. All is nicely detailed by penciler Max Fiumara (recently of Avatar’s Nightjar), with an ‘ink assist’ by his brother Sebastian. Fiumara provides just the right shadowed visual élan to his character designs, certain panels taking on an almost Jae Lee-type ‘night-filled eyes’ quality as our hapless pair of young lovers retire to a secluded cabin in the woods to enjoy the company of one another. Oh yes, of course there’s a pair of young lovers, and of course they’re secluded when the zombie massacre begins. Really, we only see the beginning of the attack in this issue; Ellis dutifully doles out exposition and anticipatory build, with just enough grue to keep the fans in their seats, just like in the films but adapted crisply to the comics form.

True, this is all very fundamental gore horror stuff, enough so that those not attracted to the genre will have little to capture their specific attentions, popular writer or not. This is Ellis gone nearly undercover, which doesn’t equate to his talent vanishing - he manages to intuitively grasp the appeal of the subgenre, and largely plays it straight. This leaves relatively little to discuss, though a no less pleasant a time reading for it. Strange that such a turn for the upfront in genre comics creation should fit in well with a day of little changes in the new Warren Ellis books.