Our love of Warren Ellis' brilliant sci-fi satire Transmetropolitan
is well-documented on these pages. Suffice it to say that if you haven't yet
ventured to your local comics shop and become addicted to the trials and
tribulations of Spider Jerusalem, you have no idea what you're missing. If
you are already a Transmet junkie, then you'll probably get as big a kick
out of reading Warren's thoughts on his comics masterpiece as we did. We
were fortunate enough to conduct an E-mail interview with Warren, touching
on everything from censorship in the comics industry and the cancelled End
Times project at Marvel to Spider Jerusalem's current whereabouts. We were
also fortunate to escape with a minimum of scrapes, bruises and saucy
When did you decide you wanted to become a comics writer?
God, I don't know. I'd always had an interest in comics, had
self-published and been published in my teens, but I lost
interest until my early twenties when I, first, fell into comics-
related journalism, and then comics writing (when the
magazine I was writing for decided to become a comics
publisher, and dared me to submit something). It's all been
a long, horrible accident, Matthew...
What's your favorite part of your job?
Buying tons of books and writing the cost off
against tax. Or the travelling. I get to get paid to do things like
talk about comics and the Internet in Italian universities, give
talks in bars in Norway, and swear copiously at the Icelandic.
No. The best part is the writing. There's no better job on Earth.
Who are some of your big influences--both in the industry and
Oh, many and varied. Within the industry, certainly people like
Alan Moore, Bryan Talbot, John Wagner, Moebius, Druillet,
Will Eisner, Frank Hampson, Matt Wagner, Eddie Campbell,
Outside comics, the list gets too long; JG Ballard, Jack Kerouac,
Philip K. Dick, John Brunner, James Ellroy, Raymond Chandler,
Dennis Potter, Troy Kennedy Martin, Tom Wolfe, Hunter
Thompson, Umberto Eco, William Burroughs, Hemingway,
Orwell, Iain Sinclair... certainly, musicians like Lou Reed,
Laurie Anderson, K Shields, Nick Cave and the Pixies had
an effect on the way I write...
Let's move to Transmetropolitan, which might be one of the most
hilarious titles on the stands today. What were the seeds for its
Might be? Cheeky bastard.
It came from a phone call from Stuart Moore, asking for an ongoing
sf title for his Helix imprint... and from me wondering what the hell
to do with science fiction. I'd written adult sf before, but in its
adventure-fiction form, for short duration projects. I knew I wanted
to do something of scale, a thousand pages or so. The story,
whatever it was, needed meat to survive a run like that. And the sf
I'd always enjoyed most, from HG Wells through Michael Moorcock
to Norman Spinrad, was also social fiction; fiction that talked about
life as it is lived today, no matter what the trappings. I wanted to
use the future as a tool with which to lay open and examine
the present day.
Being commercial comics, the series needed to be character-driven,
requiring a single protagonist (especially after years of writing
team books for Marvel!). I needed a single figure who could
be my device for exploring my fictional future -- and therefore
my view of the present day. Someone who could explicate,
both to his world and to my audience, what was going on. And
that seemed to beg a journalist. I've always had a keen
interest in journalism, from Ben Hecht and Hunter Thompson
(obviously) to Tom Wolfe, Woodward and Bernstein, and
the English pop journalists of the Eighties like Chris Roberts
and Simon Reynolds. In terms of the prose-narrative devices
of comics, it made a lot of sense; all I had to do was make it
work in visual terms. The same problem Cronenberg had
in NAKED LUNCH -- making writing look interesting. Solving
that problem, or attempting to, led directly to the scene at the
end of BACK ON THE STREET, with Spider perched precariously
on the corner of the stripclub roof with his laptop, overlooking
the riot as he types...
Did you turn to any outside sources for inspiration in drawing
up the futuristic landscape of the City?
It was more a case of drawing up lists for myself. You see, The
City flies against all the current thinking on population distribution
in the future. Everyone who counts is pretty much agreed that
the buzzword for the next century is "decentralisation" -- that the
big cities will break up as everyone makes a run for small
communities away from the metropolis. In pure tough
science fictional extrapolative terms, TRANSMET is just plain
wrong. Luckily, I never gave much of a toss about steely
sf extrapolation. It's no fun.
So I made it up as I went along. I needed a cultural mix
unseen in any city so far. I didn't need tall buildings because
the City is so broad. (Avoiding BLADE RUNNER-esque
notes was a big part of my work here). And so on. I
needed it to be open, I needed it to be light-filled, I needed
it to be alive. And I ignored all the outside sources on
future cities to do it.
Would it terrify you if our reality shaped up to become that
of the City?
Yes and no. Obviously, the political situation there is untenable --
but, then, so's ours. Socially, the City's a bit of a disaster, but
that's nothing new here either. But if we did grow into a place
where history is preserved physically, where foglet humans can
toss miracles down the street, where most disease appears to
have been eradicated, where you can phone Mars, and where
dogs are tortured and destroyed with the mercilessness of
true justice... well, that wouldn't be such a bad place to live.
What amazes me most about Transmet is the way you're able to
craft such sharp satire and at the same time offer realistic,
moving and compelling characters. It would seem that sometimes, the
needs of the characters and the needs of the satire might be at odds;
it's rare to find satirical fiction that doesn't simply abandon any
hope of sensitivity in going for the jugular. Do you find it difficult
to juggle the dual responsibilites of crafting sharp satire and creating
compassionate characters in your writing?
I've never been interested in creating compassionate characters
because, bluntly, most people are horrible. What I've always tried to do is
create real characters; people whom you know, figures who are fully realised
as complete people, with good and bad. And, while not wanting to toot
my own horn too loudly, I think that's what people have responded to
in TRANSMET; that the characters can be strong and weak, kind
and violent, good and bad, thoroughly bloody imperfect.
Satirical or not, all stories worth their salt must ultimately be about
people. In TRANSMET, the people come first -- everything
else comics second, be it the satire, the science fictional elements,
or whatever. Which is probably why I get awards from horror
guilds instead of science fiction associations.
You have Transmet plotted out to conclude in 2002. What kind
of a journey can readers expect as the series develops and
draws toward its conclusion? And do you forsee any spinoff projects
leading from the Transmet title?
From here, the ride gets bumpier. Year Three sees life getting
rough, and Year Four is frankly going to be a fucking nightmare.
Year Five is fairly loose, aside from the final issue, which I've
I only have two spinoff books in mind -- one-shot prequels, that I
may or may not pitch. One is called TRANSCONTINENTAL,
and is the story of Spider and Royce in Europe, concluding with
that terrible night on the telephone in Prague. The other is
called TRANSOCEANIC, and is the story of Spider's year in
retreat on St Lucia. Maybe I'll do them, maybe I won't. Either
way, these are the only two spinoffs you'd ever see.
What's the status on the Transmet film project?
The status is, there is no status. I had dinner with a rather well
known actor and his fiance the other night to discuss it,
lawyers are duelling, and there's a 60% complete first draft
screenplay, but there's no "status" at all...!
You're also currently working on a crime novel about the Marvel character
Daredevil. How do you find prose fiction writing as opposed to
Bloody difficult. Comics are about cutting away; about conciseness
and exactitude. In prose, you can stretch your legs a bit, take some
space, take a little time. I've spent so long in the comics discipline
that uncrunching and unbending myself from it has been hard work.
But I'm getting there.
Speaking of Marvel, what went into the decision to abandon the End Times
project? The script available on your site would have made a fantastic
book, IMHO... Was that an upsetting creative loss?
As far as I know, Marvel simply decided that they couldn't get a toy
line out of it or something... it was just dumped, after something over
a year of development and writing following a direct request from
Bob Harras. Marvel management just got gutless again. The idea of
a 12-issue series without superheroes in it scared the shit out of
them, I suppose.
It was a pain in the arse, and annoying, more than upsetting. You get
used to the knockbacks. I still think END TIMES would've been a
good thing for Marvel (but then, I would, wouldn't I?) -- going
sideways from all expectations and producing a (hopefully) strong
piece of adventure fiction that relied on none of the things that've
kept Marvel superhero comics propped up all these years... that,
ultimately, didn't rely on the superhero subgenre. But what do I
It seems as though you've fallen
victim to a lot of rewriting and forced compromise--and even pseudo-
censorship, as on the Satana project--throughout your career.
How do you deal with the interference of editors and "suits" in
By creating a climate of fear, usually.
Most, if not all, the stuff you cite came from my time working at
Marvel. I spent a lot of years working at Marvel, mostly because
I couldn't pick up any paying work elsewhere, and couldn't even
get arrested at DC. (TRANSMET came as a result of a phone
call from them to me, at a time when I wasn't even talking to
anyone at the company.) So I spent my time trying to make
Marvel the company I thought it should be, along with friends
and advocates in editorial like Marie Javins. Which meant I
got rewritten a lot, got censored a lot, got arbitrarily cancelled
These days, I get minimal interference. There was some trouble
with Vertigo a while ago, and a large argument brought them
to an understanding of my position -- which, by and large, is
"I'm thirty-one years old and I will not put up with this
kiddie bullshit gameplaying any more" -- and so things were
settled. It's early days with me and Vertigo yet -- they didn't
really know me, and a clearing of the air was required. There's
been no trouble since, and I really don't expect any. They are
intelligent people, doing their best -- and in Stuart Moore and
Axel Alonso, I have two of the best editors in the business.
Vertigo are a much underrated resource -- who the hell else
is devoted purely to putting out intelligent adult fiction in the
comics form? Fucking nobody. I think Vertigo are in a
position now where they can only go from strength to
I've been having a few problems at Wildstorm since DC took
over, as DC move to bring Wildstorm content in line with
their own guidelines. The violence is getting toned down,
and I now appear to have a "bastard limit" -- I think I get
three "bastard"s per issue now. That's irritating, but I'm
sitting still for it, for the moment. Choosing my battles.
How do I deal with interference from suits? I quit the job.
You have no idea how much money that can cost them.
How serious a problem do you find censorship to be in the comics industry?
Fairly serious. Even at Vertigo, we have language limitations.
They can be arbitrary and stupid. Some are simply part and
parcel of American culture; the word "cunt," in London, is
used practically as punctuation, but I understand that in America
the word can kill people stone dead with shock.
Obviously, I don't agree with censorship, and I don't agree
with limitations on language. We've spent a lot of fucking
time on this language, and as writers we should have access
to it all, from bum to cunt. As it were. Anything less is a
crime against the culture.
What can we expect from The Authority, your new superhero
series from Wildstorm?
Property destruction on a massive scale. It's a superhero book gone
widescreen, it's $200 million just on the special effects, it's a Jerry
Bruckheimer production with script by Sylvester Stallone, Cecil B
DeMille and Timothy Leary. It's as big and mad and beautiful as
Bryan Hitch and I can make it. If teenagers need superhero
comics, then this is what they should be like -- pure bloody
adrenaline, strange days, and big things blowing up. And why not?
Do you ever anticipate yourself giving up writing superheroes
and "standard" comics fiction?
Yes, and soon.
I'm not, and never was, a big superhero fan. I had to learn how to
write them. While I've found a niche or two in the subgenre that
I can enjoy and exploit, the enjoyment is fading fast. I just don't
have that teenage energy that needs to be imparted to the
subgenre anymore, and I don't have the strength to fake it. I
suspect that, to successfully write superhero books through your
thirties and forties, you either have to have genuine brain damage
-- Grant Morrison and Alan Moore come to mind -- or be genuinely
infantile. Grant and Alan and a bunch of others write great superhero
comics because they are mad and that sick energy infuses
the work. Too many others look more and more to me like
confused, ageing writers-become-hacks making a vampiric
living off the young. I'd rather not end up as the comics version
of Art Linkletter. Or Krusty The Klown.
Within the next couple of years, I'll be leaving superhero comics
pretty much for good (I have a couple of outstanding promises
to make good on, and those will be the exceptions to the above-
stated rule). I entered the comics medium as a writer of
exclusively "mature readers" works, and I've been trying to
claw my way back to that ever since. The difference, this
time, I hope, is that this time I'll have a bloody audience...
What comics do you read on a regular basis these days?
PREACHER, THE INVISIBLES, HITMAN, BERLIN, PULP,
CHANNEL ZERO... I'll pick up pretty much anything that
Alan Moore does, though I enjoy the serious works, like FROM
HELL, more than (the entertaining, don't get me wrong) TOM
STRONG or whatever... Frank Miller's SIN CITY books...
anything Bryan Talbot does, any new Will Eisner... when Steven
Grant writes a crime comic, I'm there...
Think quick: name your five desert-island discs.
TRANSFORMER, Lou Reed. LOVELESS, My Bloody
Valentine. MURDER BALLADS, Nick Cave and the
Bad Seeds. The first THIS MORTAL COIL album. BAYAKA,
the music of the Babenzele Pygmies.
This list will, of course, be different tomorrow.
And finally, if Spider Jerusalem lived and wrote today, what
would piss him off more than anything? (Other than insipid
like this one.)
Ah, well, you just stole my first answer...
The lack of guts in public life; where even the activists
seem to shuffle and scuff their heels and wait politely
to be addressed, these days. If Spider were alive today,
he'd probably be in a shack in Colorado making bombs.