Warren Ellis‘ new comic book series Fell — the first issue of which came out last week — is grim, downbeat, and quite powerful. Here there is none of the high-tech futurism Ellis played with so gleefully and cleverly in Transmetropolitan and Global Frequency. Instead, the main character is a homicide cop, Richard Fell, who’s been assigned to work in Snowtown, a totally depressed and decrepit and ruined city “over the bridge” from anyplace that is economically prosperous or technologically advantaged. Moving from high-tech-land to Snowtown is like moving from yuppified and WiFi’ed Seattle to rust-belt-depressed Detroit (as I did a bit more than a year ago), only more so. Snowtown is one of what Manuel Castells calls the “black holes of informational capitalism,” a place that has been disconnected from the grid or the network, yet whose misery remains a counter-effect of the global system it cannot access. Everything is shabby and broken down in Snowtown; and, at least in the first issue, it always seems to be night. Ben Templesmith‘s drawing is just blurry and sketchy and monochromatically gray (for the most part) enough to suggest a collapse of the comfortable outlines and boundaries we take for granted, but without suggesting the hope of anything supernatural breaking through. Fell gives us violence and drugs and detritus, but without any of the glamorization or hipness such things took on, for instance, in the cyberpunk novels of the 1980s. Rather, Ellis and Templesmith suggest a relentlessness, a repetitiveness, that continually gives us unpleasant surprises (even when we thought things couldn’t get any worse) without offering the prospect of escape.
Richard Fell is doggedly persistent, has his own severe code of ethics, and is observant and prescient enough to be good at what he does, which is ferret out secrets and catch people. His motto is that “everybody’s hiding something,” and he clearly (as another character suggests to him) gets off, at least a little on the power that ferreting out those secrets gives him. Centered around this character, Fell is genre fiction that gives us genre satisfactions, but with odd little twists that we don’t expect. I mean that it’s like the best of 40s/50s film noir — but like those films were when they were first made, not like they are now with a half-century of resonance and reputation that makes us feel so self-congratulatory about liking them.
Fell is also an experiment, both formally and commercially. Each issue is 18 pages, instead of the industry-standard 24, and sells for $1.99 instead of the industry-standard $2.99. Each issue is also entirely self-contained in terms of narrative: Ellis says that there will be no multi-issue story arcs. This leads to a harshly compressed sort of storytelling. Every detail counts, and the narrative is tight and powerful, even though story per se is less important than character and atmosphere. Designing an ongoing comic on this basis is a risky thing to do: both because the dramatic intensity is hard to sustain, and because it is economically difficult to sell comic books at such a low price point (if sales can’t be sustained issue to issue, the book will go under). There’s probably more to be said about how a comic like this negotiates both formal and commercial demands, how it fully acknowledges its own commodity status, while at the same time retaining that deep negativity that Adorno believed popular-art commodities to be incapable of.