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PROFILE: Warren Ellis Interview
by Christopher Butcher

Life and Times - Part 1
Warren Ellis and the Comic Book Industry - Part 2
Avatar, Image, and the Pop Comics Manifesto - Part 3
Spider Jerusalem Gets the Message Out - Part 4
The Future - Part 5

PopImage: Can you tell me a little bit about your upbringing, your educational background, and how you think that affected how and what you write now?

Warren Ellis- Um, in a sense I mean it's almost an obvious and a redundant question at the same time. Because everyone's upbringing is their writing.

For North Americans it's a little hard to imagine the British class system in particular though. Do you think that affected your writing? You write a lot about class politics, the "New Scum" arc in Transmetropolitan, for example.

NEW SCUM isn't really class politics. I don't think a basic split between the haves and the have-nots is a class system. The class system was never quite real. The demarcations were entirely imaginary, aside from the obvious very very rich people and the very very poor people. That's just a basic split. We weren't starving, when I was a kid. But we weren't rich. We were definitely at the poorer end of the scale, but we never had to y'know, find rats for food or anything.

Well, there are Grant Morrison's characters who are all fabulous superstars, models and what not. But you've got Spider Jerusalem, who came up from the docs, the slums. I've seen that theme play heavily in your work, and I wondered if that was intentional.

I think partly it's a case of the old adage "write what you know". I mean, I never knew any rich people, until I started working in comics. I was poor... Pretty much with one or two exceptions, everyone we knew was poor. It's just the way of things, it's the same everywhere.

What do you think is the greatest single experience to have happened to you, that you draw on to create your work?

[Sighs] I don't know if there is one. [Pause] I don't know if there is one. I can't think of any single experience in my life that stands head and shoulders above the rest - with the possible exception of seeing the birth of my daughter. I don't know, outside of fiction, if anyone is profoundly affected of one single experience. I think it is the accretion of single smaller ones.

You've become notable, particularly in online circles, for espousing somewhat controversial views. Both participating in forums like Usenet and your discussion forum, and in the capacity of a paid columnist. Do you think you suffer backlash to your work, your sales, or your regard because of this? You're one of the loudest creator voice right now, speaking out about creators rights and demanding massive overhauls to the industry.

I think what bugs me the most is that I'm really not saying anything new. I'm really not. I'm using my position as a writer of some notoriety (relative to the business we're in) to re-state fairly basic concepts and views that have not yet been attended to, despite their presence in the cultural discussion of comics for some 20 odd years. And yeah, I think I do suffer a backlash in terms of personal regard - it really doesn't affect the sales, sales continue to go up, whatever I do, which if anything probably indicates that the comic fans who hate me the most are insincere swine and buy the shit anyway. [Laughs] I mean, it happens all the time. When I was back on HELLSTORM I'd get these letters from hillbilly Christians who live up in the mountains, they'd say "YOUR COMIC MAKES US HURL. WE BUY IT EVERY MONTH". I've actually got that letter at home from these hillbilly Christians who were genuinely sickened by the work, and bought it every month to be sickened. And that's the comics fan.

That's the comics fan, sadly. Especially where alternatives exist.

Oh yeah, well what bugs me is that I'm really not saying anything radical.

Well, you are, because you're the only one saying it right now too. We've got very few comic historians who look at anything besides the history of the characters, or the history of the prices of the comics. Reinventing Comics really took a lot of people to task, for ignoring things like Will Eisner's push for graphic novels...


Ignoring stuff like...

...Will Eisner's entire career is ignored. I once got derided as quite mad for suggesting that comics would have gone in a radically different direction if for instance Jack Kirby had not existed, or not reached that kind of prominence. And instead the business and the medium went in the ways that Will Eisner had established. It musn't be forgotten that he had a phenomenally large readership because THE SPIRIT was in newspapers. It was a comic book, a short comic book published in newspapers. And then he made business comics, and he made educational and informational comics, stuff like that.

He made comics for the military...


As a young person in the industry, I'm just now discovering his work, whereas it's been in print for 40 or 50 years.

That's right. You have to dig to find really the breadth of his work... He pushed comics into some really astonishing places, but it was only him. No one was looking, y'know?

You are moving into a more commercial area, with your work. Away from something like Lazarus Churchyard which is about a suicidal nano-robot... Or, now that I think about it, maybe commerciality is catching up with your work. Is this a pressure for you? You're putting together a Japanese vs. Viking project, and a British Royal Spaceforce project. Both of these could be adapted any number of ways into the real mainstream (not the comics mainstream). Is this a pressure for you?

It is insane to me, that the term mainstream in comics, actually means a sub-genre.

Or for most people "Comics" meaning that entire sub-genre...

In any other medium, mainstream means conventional literary fiction, mimetic fiction. And you star off of that into things like historical fiction, or alternate history, or crime. It's a while before your little map gets to a sub-genre like superheroes, which are quite rightly off in the margins...

Well, they're a very specific sub-genre of fantasy and science fiction, among other things...

Crime, yeah. Their roots are directly taken from the Pulp thrillers of the thirties. The Shadow, Doc Savage, that is where superheroes spring from. [The Pulps] themselves were obviously a mishmash of crime fiction and science fiction. That is the mainstream in comics. What I wanted to do was help direct people towards the creation of an actual mainstream in comics. Which means moving back through the map. It's still genre work I'm doing, but it's genre work that is closer to conventional literary fiction. Which is of course, already being done, by... Christ... Adrian Tomine, Chris Ware and Dan Clowes and Jessica Abel. These people are already building a conventional literary mainstream. What I see my job as, as a commercial writer - and I am a commercial writer, I work for the big commercial companies so I'm a commercial writer - my job in that respect is to build a bridge between the comics mainstream and the actual mainstream. I have to be the stepping stone between Mark Waid and Jessica Abel.

It seems like a lot of days you actually are that bridge, where you'll get Mark Waid talking to people on the forum one day, and then Jessica Abel, well maybe not Jessica Abel, I don't think she's stopped by. But creators writing that sort of work...

Like Sean McKeever, yeh.

... and do you find that a comfortable position? You sell superheroes to superhero fans, but at the same time you tell them that superheroes are not the end all and be all, and try to slowly bring them back to other genres. Do you find that a difficult task?

Well... I don't think difficult comes into it. It's a job that needs doing. I mean Planetary is less a superhero book than it is a book about the superhero sub-genre, and it's antecedents and where it's been and where it's going, that's what it's always set out to be. It's a book about the genre. That's because there was a time where most superhero comics seemed to be about superhero comics, but only in the most superficial ways. I wanted to do something that actually went deeper into the sub-genre, exposed it's roots and showed it's branches. That's what Planetary was set up to be.

Do you think you've had a more difficult time making that point because of Planetary's [erratic] schedule?

Planetary's schedule has been a victim of so many things. It's been a victim of my persistent illness over the last year. It's been a victim of Wildstorm being bought by DC. I mean, time was at Wildstorm, a book went out when it was finished. "Oh! We've finished this book. We'll put that out next week." But now it's got to fit into a schedule with 120 other books. It's got to find it's slot in the schedule. But you know, something like Planetary, people seem to be prepared to wait for. But yeah, the real problems have only been here over the last 2 or 3 months, and they're going to be cured over the next 2 or 3 months. We should be back on the odd six-weekly schedule by next spring. Next Page.

Life and Times - Part 1
Warren Ellis and the Comic Book Industry - Part 2
Avatar, Image, and the Pop Comics Manifesto - Part 3
Spider Jerusalem Gets the Message Out - Part 4
The Future - Part 5 - Warren Ellis' homepage, filled with biographical, bibliographical, and other interesting inormation. - The Warren Ellis Forum, a place for fans, readers, and critics of Warren's work to discuss current events. - The Slush Factory. Comics review and discussion. Thanks to Ed Matthews @ Slush for the photos. - The PopImage Forum. Discuss this article there.

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