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Q and A with Warren Ellis




May 1999 Interview by Matt Springer   Author


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 one-liners.

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 outside it?

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, Dave Sim...

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 literate and hilarious titles on the stands today. What were the seeds for its creation?

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 already written.

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 comics?

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 know, right?

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 your work?

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 a lot.

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 strength.

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 interviewers 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.


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