Yesterday me and the missus went up to The Smoke to see a talk/interview/book signing appearance-slash-chimera by Warren Ellis. A writer we both admire a great deal, responsible for comic book classics such as the post-cyberpunk Transmetropolitan or the comic-archaeology epic Planetary. More recently he’s been moving sideways a little into the more conventional novel, though his approach is anything but conventional. His latest novel is Gun Machine, a crime procedural novel with a few unique twists and turns, skillfully done in a way that makes me completely jealous.
The talk was held in Foyles in London, a fantastic bookshop of labyrinthine twists, turns and nooks that brings to mind both Pratchett’s ‘L-Space’ and the enormous book theme park Powells in Portland in the US. Unlike Powells Foyles is much neater and more organised for all its dead ends and packed shelves. An obsessive compulsive’s CD collection or a germaphobe’s kitchen. We were, eventually, guided to a fairly cramped back room where we sat behind some annoying tall people and tried to peer between them to see Warren and hear what he had to say.
There were plenty of people live-tweeting the event and so, being an inveterate contrarion I decided, quite deliberately, NOT to do so. That way I could come back to it a day later and see what stuck with me from the event, what had the most impact and meaning.
One of the things that struck me was how old and – relatively speaking – normal, the crowd was. It was held at 6:30 so I imagine a lot of people came direct from work. Still, there were a lot of grey hairs and a lot of suits and relatively few weirdos, freaks and nerds. Indeed our little row of pierced, painted, hipster, goth and hippy people we came with stood out like a sore thumb which was a weird sensation to have at an event you’d think would appeal to ‘your tribe’. It was a bit like turning up at Midian to find it occupied by Mormons. I guess it just shows how that generation of alternative souls have grown up, gotten jobs and now hide amongst the general populace like little cultural time-bombs waiting for our moment to strike. Comic-book sleeper agents.
Warren was ostensibly there to talk about Gun Machine but things rambled around a bit and most people there seemed more interested – perhaps unsurprisingly – in his comic book work. A few snippets also came out about the RED sequel and that Gravel had been optioned and that a film for that was still progressing. I felt that it might have been a little frustrating to be there to promote and talk about a literary book and end up talking about everything else you’ve done but Warren was perfectly polite and candid – that candid nature being the main thing that carries over from his internet demagogue persona into real life.
What had the most effect on me, personally, was how he described needing a push to move into prose and to get outside his comfort zone. How it took repeated and annoying insistence by a legacy literary agent to get him moving on Crooked Little Vein and then Gun Machine. He also talked about the differences and difficulties shifting gears between one kind of writing and another. The limitations of genre in prose (something he felt compelled to kick against) and the limitations of the panel/bubble structure in comics which keeps dialogue necessarily terse in the graphical format. He talked about how it was much easier to write an internal character in prose than comics and that it was possible to spend whatever time was needed in a book, rather than hitting the 20 page target in a comic every month – no more and no less. You can’t, in a comic, write ‘Tallow looks sad and thoughtful for twenty pages’ because its a waste of page real estate and the artist will murder you.
I’m transitioning too. From an independent publisher and writer of games to creative director, overseeing the work of others, having to mature and compromise my visions for commercial considerations (something that happens in comics with the likes of DC and Marvel). Warren also spoke about how writing comics needs a variety of different writing skills – something I’ve often thought true of games writing where you need to be equal parts fictive, technical, journalistic and travelogue.
Another interesting point was that of the undescribed protagonist. Something that James Herbert was referenced using in his horror books. This, again, is easier in prose (though it was mentioned also in reference to minimalist manga art) and lets the reader project themselves into the place of the hero. This was a deliberate choice when it came to Tallow in Gun Machine, leaving his race, features etc – everything but his world-weary fatalism – nebulous, allowing the reader to project.
Warren spoke of hating his own work and the difficulties he has, sometimes, writing. Something else that I think any writer worth their salt can empathise with. When you hear it from someone whose work you greatly admire however, it has more meaning and effect than hearing it from other hacks who haven’t yet had their break. I don’t think I know, or have come to know, any authors, artists or musicians whose work doesn’t benefit from their own self-doubt and worry. Social Media has allowed me to make a meaningful and personal connection with a lot of other authors and artists whose work I love and it has allowed me to look back at my own work and to relax. Getting to know your heroes can be disappointing but with fellow creatives I find it more… reassuring that we all struggle and strive the same way.
Change and challenge, new characters, new situations, these are things both I and Warren seem to relish. Kicking at the corners, pushing the envelope. When he talked about tracing back that feeling to his encounters with 2000AD (36 years young this week) and TV21 I found myself nodding along. I think 2000AD is a unique and powerful cultural touchstone of British alt-culture and seems to have had a profound and meaningful effect on many authors, comics creators, artists and musicians. We have never had the same wide-array of comic books that the US has but 2000AD has always been a compilation comic, throwing ideas around, seeing what sticks and what doesn’t, constantly experimenting and staying fresh. You can see how Warren – and many others – are affected by that and can compare and contrast that cynical realism and punk rock attitude that runs through 2000AD from the more mythological and bombastic nature of the superhero comics that otherwise dominate the medium.
I came away feeling closer to one of my heroes and more part of a broader community of creators struggling with the same issues and wanting to do similar sorts of things.
Also Warren recognised my wife, remembered her name and signed her book for her. Which was great!