I’ve caught up recently with a bunch of Warren Ellis “graphic novellas.” (Or, less pretentiously: comics). These are all short, compressed narratives: a complete story in 72 or 96 pages. Each one packs a punch and explores just one mind-blowing idea. Comics like these deliver entertainment + technophilosophy in a package that Hollywood (due to its high budgets and consequent need to play it safe so as to attract the largest possible audience) can’t match.
- Dark Blue, drawn by Jacen Burrows, is a horror/crime story with a VR setting. The main character’s psychotic world, in which he is a vengeful and violent cop, turns out to be a collective hallucination generated by a DMT-like drug. A virtual place “is encoded within the drug itself.” The drug shapes consciousness, even as consciousness shapes the drug. But strange and gruesome things start happening when consciousness at the point of death is caught within the drug’s feedback loop. A terrific, and terrifying, anti-utopian nightmare. If anything is possible in virtual reality, or in heightened psychedelic consciousness, then we’d better watch out for the worst.
- Red/Tokyo Storm Warning. Two stories back to back in a single volume, like those old SF and crime cheap paperbacks.
Red, drawn by Cully Hammer, is about the stupidity of the CIA, and the last dignified stand of a retired hit man. It could also be read as a premonitory fable about the current Iraq morass. You can always develop more destructive weapons, but watch out or they will blow up in your face: you are never really in control of them. Here the weapon is a human one, a highly skilled and ultra-powerful killer; so we get to feel the emotions of the “weapon of mass destruction” itself. We empathize with the killer, whose very real anguish contrasts with the lack of remorse or humanity on the part of the powerful people who set him into motion.
Tokyo Storm Warning, drawn by James Raiz, is all about cool monsters and robots in an alternative Tokyo. We know that Godzilla was invented in response to the trauma of the atomic weapons dropped on Japan. But Ellis literalizes this idea, bringing us to the very heart of one of the twentieth century’s great traumas. Childlike fantasy confronts the unimaginable horror of total annihilation, with strange results. Can there be poetry after Auschwitz? Can there be comics after Hiroshima?
- Orbiter, drawn by Coleen Duran, is in contrast deliciously light and upbeat. The romance of space travel, the mystery of First Contact. The aliens don’t want to take us over or anything. They simply want to meet us, and hang out with us; if only we could get over our panic aversion. We can’t really understand them — or vice versa — but that only adds spice to the encounter. The unknown is neither a threat of annihilation, nor a transcendent resolution of our problems, but rather a transversal dimension to explore. If we are children in the cosmos, the aliens are not benevolent parents (as they are in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and in 2001), but kids like ourselves, who just “want us to come out and play.”
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: comics writers like Ellis, and Grant Morrison, and Alan Moore, are really thinking about our culture, and our future, in ways that mainstream novelists and academics and critics cannot match. I get far more from them than I do from “serious” writers like Martin Amis and Richard Powers and Don DeLillo, good as the latter sometimes are. Comics are an oddly marginalized form, even in “popular” or “low” culture (think about how few people actually buy and read Spiderman comics, compared to how many go too see the movie version). But comics, with their low budgets, their innovative mixtures of text and vision, and their unabashed genre thrills and chills, are thrashing out the metaphysics of the twenty-first century.