Writing is a fun way to make a buck but, in order to make a living at it, it’s usually necessary to think outside the box. Something is needed to hook the reader'a new spin on old clichÃ©s like “thinking outside the box.
Warren Ellis has become something of a master of the new spin. Like other British writers such as Alan Moore or Neil Gaiman, he’s been able to look at American culture from an outsider’s perspective and find ways to twist the story'or in cases like Fell, twist the entire way the book is presented'into unexpected territory. Whether it’s the sci-fi-fueled political commentary of Transmetropolitan or the government-sanctioned supervillain team in Marvel’s Thunderbolts, Ellis continues to push the boundaries of what comics are capable of.
Having been actively writing comics for over a decade, Ellis is also one prolific writer. He has more trade paperbacks (collected single issues sold in bookstores) available than any other active comic-book writer, and most of them are creator-owned stories. He produces a steady stream of work-for-hire at Marvel, most notably whenever they need help resurrecting a long dormant property'like the New Universe'or a reboot of a popular character like Iron Man.
When working on his own original comics, he’s always looking for a concept or idea that might attract more than just the average guy in the comic-book shop. He created what is now known as the Image Comics Slim-line when he launched his down-but-not-quite-out detective comic Fell with artist Ben Templesmith. Each issue is a complete story told in 16 pages, with an extra eight pages of essays or other “bonus” material, all for $1.99'a dollar less than what most monthly superhero titles sell for. It was considered a gamble when first announced but ultimately proved successful. Each issue sold out numerous times and has gone back for reprints, and the concept inspired other creators to try something different.
Like most of Ellis’ current body of work, Fell is set in America. It’s not uncommon these days for a foreign-born writer to set his or her stories in America, but it is noteworthy that most of them observe our culture with a clarity that homegrown authors sometimes can’t match. Like Alan Moore did with Watchmen, Ellis enjoys playing with the notion of the American Dream and dubbing the American government as the bad guys. Of course, in the current political climate, no one could blame him, but he’s been doing that kind of thing since he started Transmetropolitan in the late ’90s. Some of what he touched on in that book, while at the time criticized as ridiculous, have become eerily prophetic when read today.
While comic-book readers hope that his primary job will remain in comics, he’s been garnering requests for projects that will take his talent into different formats as well. He’s currently developing a science-fiction TV show for AMC; his first novel debuts this summer; and he’s writing a direct-to-DVD Castlevania screenplay. He’s also getting ready to launch two more comic-book series this summer. In Black Summer, a world-renowned superhero kills the president of the United States to retaliate for his crimes against humanity; Doktor Sleepless is a futuristic take on the mad-scientist genre.
There will always be a Superman or a Spider-Man book on the shelf, but it’s nice to find a new title that has a little of the unexpected in it. It’s what keeps things exciting and moving forward. And with creators like Warren Ellis constantly playing with expectations of what comics can and should be, the future is in good hands.