Warren Ellis Interview

(October 2005) Warren Ellis is the popular writer of such books as DC's Transmetropolitan, DC/WildStorm's Planetary and Desolation Jones, and Marvel's Ultimate Secret. This month, he and artist Ben Templesmith team up for Fell, a crime book from Image. Westfield's Roger Ash recently caught up with Ellis to find out more about the book.

Westfield: What can you tell us about Fell and who are the main characters?

Warren Ellis: The main character in Fell is Richard Fell, a police detective transferred from the big city over the bridge into Snowtown, a collapsing urban district whose single police precinct house has exactly three and a half detectives prior to his arrival (one has no legs).

As a detective, Rich Fell has a single angle of approach: everyone's hiding something. There's no cynicism in it, and he's not a moody, gloomy guy. Just an understanding. He's usually found carrying a battered paperback on psychology or neurolinguistic programming around; he looks for tells in body language, tics in speech, clues in the things we choose to surround ourselves with. He's not Sherlock Holmes - just a smart guy who's trained himself to look for the things we hide by habit.

Everyone's hiding something - and that includes Richard Fell. Something happened back over the bridge that led him to be transferred to Snowtown, and there's hints of a special understanding between him and his superiors back in the city. He works without a partner. He may well have been put out of sight in Snowtown for a reason.

Snowtown itself is a character; it's one of those places where the civic services are falling apart and the social fabric is fraying. In poverty-stricken areas, and cities that are going "feral," life gets weird, and Fell, coming from the big city, isn't what you'd call well-equipped to deal with it.

Westfield: What can people look forward to in upcoming issues?

Ellis: Every issue of Fell is a self-contained story -- like any episode of Law and Order. There are skeins of development running through the books in the background for regular readers, but, really, anyone can enter Fell with any issue. It'll be easy to pick up the thread of Fell's awkward almost-relationship with bar owner Mayko, and even regular readers won't know quite what's going on with That Creepy Nun In The Nixon Mask.

These are straight contemporary crime stories, sourced out of extensive research: the crimes in Fell are often very strange, seeming almost unreal, but taken straight from the news or history.

Westfield: How did this book come about?

Ellis: I wanted to write a straight crime book -- it needed an element of strangeness, because I think life has an element of strangeness that mainstream fiction tends to shy away from for fear of being painted as fantasy or "magic realism." But I didn't want crimes solved by Holmes-like magic (which is great fun to write, but not always satisfying to conclude).

I'd also been playing around for a while with a different format and approach. Sixteen pages of comics inside a 24-page unit retailing for US $1.99. Whenever I do a signing, the same thing happens - people turn up with a t-shirt or a scrap of paper, telling me they love my work, but they've gotten it all from the library because sometimes three dollars means choosing between buying a comic and buying some food or bus fare. I personally remember when I had choices like that. So, a complete story, densely told, with several pages of text backmatter, for a dollar ninety-nine; someone can walk out of a comics store with a real slab of content for pocket change. I liked that.

It's an experiment, of course: God only knows if it'll work. But, for a hair under two buck American, Ben and I can give you a complete experience that, if we're good and we're lucky, will take you longer to read than most other comics.

Westfield: The artist on Fell is Ben Templesmith. What do you think he brings to the book?

Ellis: Ben, to my mind, picks up the gauntlet thrown down by artists like Bill Sienkiewicz in the Eighties - brilliant, boundary-pushing multimedia art that never forgets how to tell a story as clearly as possible. I know that, if I want to cut out three panels of exposition and stick down a bit of map with notes doodled on it to explain a bit of travel, Ben's right there. Fell's a hobby photographer, and all the establishing shots are Fell's photos - Ben just nails that. Fell is all about boiling the story down to its essence without losing it or the characters, and Ben's just the perfect artist for it. An Australian guy doing a fusion of American, European and Japanese comics - there's nothing quite like it.

Westfield: You're also working on Desolation Jones for WildStorm. Is there anything you'd like to say about that book?

Ellis: Hitler really did have a thing about pornography, you know. Also, JH Williams has taken another quantum leap in his art since Promethea. LA is the real sin city - if you're not checking it out for the groundbreaking illustration, you're seriously missing out.