Tuesday, May 19, 2009
Word Balloon: Desolation Jones
For my column this month I felt the need to address a writer that I have yet to highlight. Next to maybe only Alan Moore, this author is perhaps my favorite writer currently working in the business. Warren Ellis one of the most prolific creators working in the business today. He creates books for a multitude of publishers currently, Astonishing X-Men for Marvel, Planetary from DC/Wildstorm, Fell for Image, and a slew of books from indie publisher Avatar Press including the ongoing series Gravel, as well as limited series Ignition City and No Hero.
Ellis started writing comics in the early 90's with short runs on Marvel Comics Hellstorm and Excalibur but it was his short run on Wildstorm's Stormwatch that led him to success. An action oriented team book, Ellis spun off the book into a new titled called The Authority, which coined the term Wide screen comics, making the pages seem larger than life in scope and size. He also launched his creator owned book from DC/Vertigo called Transmetropolitan around this time, a finite series that ran for nearly 5 years.
His work is often about the transhuman nature of people, often set in either the future of in an alternate past where people comes to grips with some form of the changing of human values. Whether in No Hero and the ordinary mans quest to be extraordinary or in the Authority, where the world looks at superheroes in a more realistic light. He is a writer singularly plugged into the Internet and the information age around us like no other, often taking his work into dark places and casting the light on parts of the world that don't see it. Warren Ellis addresses the changing values and cultural norms in such a fashion as to allow the normal reader a peek into an increasingly maddening and bizarre world.
He has many great books to choose from and it pains me to say that I am a bit late to the Warren Ellis party, having only discovered his work a few years back. His magnum opus, Transmetroploitan, is currently out of print and I have been scouring the Internet to find a copy recently so I thought I would start with my favorite book of his to date, Desolation Jones.
Desolation Jones was published by DC/Wildstorm in 2005 and was written by Ellis and drawn by J.H. Williams III and Jose Villarrubia and is the story of a former MI6 agent named Michael Jones. Jones service record was littered with conduct and behavioral issues and rather than be dishonorable discharged, he agrees to what he believes to be an innocuous series of tests. Instead he becomes a human test subject for an experiment called the Desolation Test. He is strapped to a bed for a full year and not allowed to sleep. The tests cause numerous physical changes that include a frail physique, grey skin and white hair and scarring. He must avoid contact with the sun as well, though we never learn why. Jones is marked with a biohazard symbol under his arm by the government and eventually retires to Los Angles, a place the US maintains as a virtual prison for burned and retired ex-agents.
Jones takes a job as a private investigator working cases for other intelligence operatives and regularly abuses drugs and alcohol. He also mentally appears to have no emotion or remorse and can kill without regret. He heals poorly when injured but also on occasion displays super human reflexes. He also suffers from hallunications, but these side effects are never pinned to either the Desolation test of the drug abuse.
The story of the first arc is that Jones takes a case for a former colonel who is an affluent collector. It seems one of his daughters has stolen property from him, namely the lost pornographic films of Adolph Hitler. Jones sets out to track down the daughter, but realizes that all is not as it appears and he must unravel the machinations of all three of the colonel's daughter to find the tape. Along the way he is helped out by Robina, a woman skilled in explosives, and Emily, a woman as the result of a CIA test releases pheromones that cause fear and revulsion in people around her (except for Jones who Desolation tests make immune).
The book is purely Ellis, diving into the world of human experimentation and the bizarre. It dislodges the underbelly of the seedy pornographic industry and both manages to infuse a sense of disgust and fascination at the same time. Taking the bizarre plot point (the lost porn tapes of Hitler) he weaves a tale purely of the 21st Century and shows why he is one of the most revolutionary writers in comics today, afraid of no barrier or medium.
The art is incredible, from the eerie washed out Jones to the intricate panel/grid layout of each page, the book is gorgeous. Each page is the sum of the art, not just the work inside the panels, but the panels themselves often add to the page. J.H. Williams III is one of the most under-rated talents in comics today.
I cannot honestly say that Warren Ellis is the right author for everyone. He is bold and brash and often woks in a very provocative and uncomfortable medium. He approaches science fiction and fantasy and fuses them for a new generation, never beholden to the trappings of the past. What I think is really great about him though is his versatility. For every book like Desolation Jones or Transmetropolitan that pushes the envelope in terms of what we accept in comics, he can turn around and do very bold mainstream work on a title like Astonishing X-Men, Marvel's flagship X title.
Warren Ellis is possibly my favorite active writer today. Where guys like Alan Moore and Brian K. Vaughn produce such limited fare, Ellis is constantly creating and trying new things. Check out Desolation Jones: Volume I: Made in England and see if you find what I did. I wasn't sorry.
End of Line.