For more than 20 years, Warren Ellis has worked across comic books, novels, television, and video games, with stories often set in sci-fi near futures and exploring transhumanist, post-apocalyptic themes. Perhaps his most iconic work, Transmetropolitan, follows gonzo journalist Spider Jerusalem as he rages against political corruption in a world tipping toward dystopia. Ellis’s webcomic, FreakAngels, broke new ground by giving readers full, free access to new, weekly “episodes” each week. Printed collected editions were available for a price—and somehow the unlikely business model totally worked.
Via email, Ellis talked about the state of the comics industry, what it’s like to see one of his stories turned into a major Hollywood movie starring Bruce Willis, and how having a child changed his worldview. The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
How would you characterize the state of the comics industry today?
You’ve found the one guy in comics who can’t answer that question. I stopped paying attention to the comics industry many years ago. It’s like asking me to characterize the state of mountains: I know they’re still there, and if they’d gotten more cognitively interesting, then I probably would have seen some mention of it on the news.
How do you think about story today versus when you were getting started in the early ’90s?
How do I think about story? Well, I entered the field in the ’90s, so the job was mostly about trying to carpenter together solid boxes that didn’t fall apart if someone looked at them. I was working in a commercial field, so it was all about crafting plots. Plots have very little to do with actual writing, not least because they tend to be about the ending rather than the story. I try to always know the destination before I start, but I’m always more interested in the journey.
“I am effectively anonymous pretty much everywhere. I don’t sell a lot of copies, I don’t get press, I’m not even sure why you’re interviewing me, and I’m not remotely famous.”
Will print comics always have their place, or will it all be virtual pages eventually?
Print sales seem not to have moved in recent years, and the putative move to digital has been pretty strongly resisted on all sides. It’s going to be a good long time before digital makes a significant dent in print, in comics. Digital sales seem to be supplemental at this point.
You said in the documentary Warren Ellis: Captured Ghosts that you took 10 days to write 10,000 words of a novel specifically designed to turn off a persistent book agent, but that hardly sounds like the action of a guy trying to get out of writing a book. Is this true, and would you elaborate on that experience?
No, that’s absolutely true. I was doing other things at the same time. I knew my agent of the time, bless her, wasn’t going to let go of the idea and was going to continue to bug me. So I generated the first few chapters of this idea that had been nagging at me, very quickly, to make her go away once and for all—with the intent that, once she’d gone away, I would have generated the basis of a new graphic novel or comics series. I didn’t know she was going to sell the damn thing in two weeks.
If I understand correctly, you went to Avatar over creative control issues. What was your thinking when you got word that Red would become a Hollywood movie?
I went to Avatar because they offer interesting opportunities, and I continued to do work at DC, including Red, after I first published there. Red being the first of my works to go to film was just… strange? It’s an incredibly short piece of work. Both Cully and I were very surprised and probably slightly confused. Greg Noveck at DC really believed in its potential for film and worked to that end for years. That that film even exists is down to Greg, Lorenzo di Bonaventura and Mark Vahradian, and Bruce Willis. I don’t think it would have happened at all without Bruce signing on.
I try to always know the destination before I start, but I’m always more interested in the journey.”
I actually like the film. The Hoebers wrote a funny script that nonetheless protected all the central themes of the book. I have no issue with their additions and extensions because, as I say, the book was 60 pages long. That’s like a half hour of screen time, if you throw in a musical number. I still haven’t seen the sequel, though, mostly out of laziness. For me, the whole thing was an interesting, entertaining, and brief experience, and I got to meet some nice people. And I bought my kid a pony with the money, which will always be my real takeaway from that film.
You’ve got no problem touching on all kinds of apocalyptic themes in your work. What has you most worried about the world today, or is worried even the right word?
I have a 19-year-old daughter. I’m worried about everything. Worried about a hard lurch to the right in this country, worried about climate change and rising sea levels and coastal erosion, pollution, energy security, and the list goes on and on. Because if you have a kid it means you worry about everything for the rest of your life.
That said, most dystopias tend to look quite interesting to me. The world of Transmetropolitan wasn’t the worst place possible.
Perhaps related: Where “should” we be with respect to space exploration today?
We should be terraforming the moon right now and tooling around the solar system on nuclear space vehicles. Hell, we should be chunking lichen and rocks at Mars by now. I am very much hoping that this “impossible” EmDrive turns out to work.
“I’m worried about everything … if you have a kid it means you worry about everything for the rest of your life.”
How did your approach in writing Crooked Little Vein differ from writing Gun Machine (if it even did)?
What I say to people when they ask that is that Crooked Little Vein was about me discovering if I could write a book, and Gun Machine was about me discovering if I could write a good book. Jury will remain out on whether I achieved either of those things, to be honest.
You built a great Internet presence/fan community around yourself well before such things were common. What can you tell me about the early days of engaging with readers online?
I’ve blocked most of it out, like trauma from a very, very long car crash. But message boards did provide for long, deep conversations, the sort of thing I only see now on one Slack group and one Google group.
How do those early days compare to today, with the Facebook-Twitter-Snapchat paradigm going strong?
Feels like end-of-cycle to me. Snapchat, yes, is still underestimated as a messaging system. Funny how nobody seems to be talking about Yo anymore, when six months (a year?) ago everyone was talking about it as a new messaging paradigm.
“It’s a loud world now, because everyone’s on broadcast mode.”
Obviously, lots of things are much, much easier. I remember sending a photo to a message board from a Handspring Visor while on the street, before cameraphones (how old is that term!) or the word “moblogging” (there’s some weird history for you). And I don’t think of them as quieter, but engagement was a different thing back then in the Dark Ages. It’s a loud world now, because everyone’s on broadcast mode. It’s interesting. But it does feel like end-of-cycle. Either the next things come and destabilize everything, or we’re in for a long period of the same startup-swallowing service accretions doing the same things except worse year-on-year.
I think we passed the best period of the cycle. Or, at least, it passed for me. There was a point where I could run Seesmic Desktop and see all my networks at once. I miss that.
What kinds of technology do you use in your personal life?
Thinkpad 440 touch screen, the Dell XPS 13 2015 edition with touchscreen, Chromebook Pixel with touchscreen. iPad 2 in a clamp stand. 21-inch Asus screen. A bunch of WD 2TB external drives. iPhone 6. A variety of Anker external batteries. Jawbone Era bluetooth earpiece from time to time. Sony 32GB mp3 player and Sony earbuds. Sandisk USB drive. Basics.
Have you tried Oculus Rift, or other VR? Are you still on Second Life?
No and no.
Illustration by J. Longo