Warren Ellis is one of the greatest comic book writers of all time. He is not as critically-lauded as Alan Moore (though he does have a beard to rival him), nor is he as prolific as Stan Lee. But Ellis is, by leaps and bounds, among my favorite comic writers, hanging just below David Lapham (Stray Bullets) and Jeff Smith (Bone).
What makes Ellis so great is his completely unfiltered approach to his subject matter. Marvel Comics best made their mark on the world with the quietly politically-charged X-Men series, about a group of misfits hunted not only by their evil mutant enemies, but by the United States government at large. The X-Men were to the 1970s as Jules Verne and H.G. Wells were to the late 1800s: a way to fly under the censorship radar and comment on the political ills that were affecting the world they lived in. The X-Men was not just a superhero book, it was a fight for social equality in an extremely volatile time in history.
But now, already nine years into our brand new millenium, that censorship has receded. Some would like to see it be brought back to Joseph McCarthy levels of paranoia and hatred, but thankfully this demographic is in the minority (though they seem awfully loud when they're yelling on Fox News). And accordingly, our artists and filmmakers, and most of all, writers, have a chance to step up their game. But those who do still seem few and far between. There's more money to be made working for one of the big comic brands than publishing yourself and making your voice heard.
Which is where writers like Warren Ellis step in. Of course, Crooked Little Vein is a novel and not a comic book, but the idea is still the same. I picked up the 2007 release when I was on my way from Los Angeles back to Philadelphia, and had a few hours to kill in the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. I had no idea that Ellis had published a novel, but as soon as I saw his name on the cover, I reached for my wallet. I was half-way finished with the book by the time we touched down on the East Coast.
But by the time I finished the book, I was saddened. It was, indeed, the same sort of scathing commentary on American life (Ellis is British and is constantly shocked and amazed by what the hell we're doing over here) that I've come to expect from him, but in the end it fell short. Perhaps there was just too much going on for it to be held neatly in novel form. If anything, I think I may have loved the story if it had been delivered through the artwork of Ben Templesmith or Juan Jose Ryp--but in pure prose, it was too much to wrap your mind around.
When reading comics, no matter how wild they become, you are grounded--to a degree--in the "reality" of the frames the action is taking place within. The artwork may be Impressionist or even Cubist in nature, but it still provides a palate of reality that the story can depend upon. There are times when the palate provided does not properly coincide with the unraveling of the story, and more often than not, it pulls you completely out of that constructed reality. I recently saw the movie Midnight Meat Train which chugged along as a brilliant thriller until the last ten minutes when it was revealed that the entire plot was spurred on by supernatural demon-monsters living under the New York City metro system. Then the credits rolled and I saw the name "Clive Barker" and I kicked myself repeatedly for wasting two hours of my life. It just didn't work--the film set itself up for a twist but all it did was broke the contract it had made with the viewer some 110 minutes earlier. Not a satisfying watch.
Crooked Little Vein does not even have a chance to set up a reality to play itself out in. We are presented sheer insanity from the very beginning. And while it is hilarious at times, the nuances quickly wear thin. We get it, people do crazy things. There are fetishists and psychos bagging your groceries and running your country. But without being steeped in a reality we can neither recognize nor appreciate as even negligibly recognizable, these "crazy things" just come off as a laundry list of exactly that. Even the protagonist Ellis provides us with, private detective Mike McGill, cannot tie us to something solid as he moves through the story without much friction (despite his constant bitching and poor decision-making). He is more a vehicle to transport us through the seedy underbelly of America than a main character at all. And still, though by the end of the book I was ready to wring his neck, even someone as weak and idiotic as McGill could have provided a satisfactory window into the story if Ellis had used the comic medium instead. With the visuals of a graphic novel, I am almost certain that Ellis could have produced something far more successful, like his on-going series, Fell--a series that proves the spandex-like nature of the human mind's allowance on reality.
Don't get me wrong, I'm glad I bought the book. There are hilarious lines, there are brilliant scenes, and there is most assuredly acidic social satire bursting at the seems and threatening to burn right through the cover. But Ellis' strengths lie in creating stories to be told with pictures, lest he lose us all along the way and lose his message along with us.