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Words by Leo Graziani
Part 1 (of 2) of a series on Warren Ellis
It’s a rainy and slightly snowy late March night when I find myself at the Toronto Underground Cinema. The theatre is literally underground, on Spadina just north of Queen. It’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it kind of place; there’s no immediately visible signage on the doors. When you look through said doors, you’ll see a sign waaay in the back and an arrow indicating to go to the lower level.
I’m here to see a documentary about one of my favourite comic-book writers, Warren Ellis. The film is Warren Ellis: Captured Ghosts. The theatre is old and dingy, perhaps not unlike the infamous one found in the pages of Ellis’s Crooked Little Vein. I half-expect to see lizards cleaning detritus off the floors.
I fall in love with the place immediately. There are movie posters everywhere, but not the massive, slick ones you’ll find at a Cineplex—if a teenage movie aficionado owned a theatre, it would look like this. It’s clearly run by people who love movies to the point of obsession—they mean it. Posters of old horror films line the walls, and at one point, cloth tentacles burst forth from the ceiling. Old video games occasionally dot the hallways. The carpets are a faded grey and red, stained. Action figures decorate the concession stand—which has reasonable prices and uses real butter on the popcorn—and the ticket booth. Everyone here seems to greet each other with an understanding nod of the head. I go in, expecting to see a crowd of devoted fans…
…and there are 12 people here. I wonder: did I miss an earlier screening? Does no one know this screening is happening? Does no one care? I find it hard to believe that more of Ellis’s fans haven’t shown up. Aren’t we fiercely loyal? I thought we were legion.
Here’s the trailer for Warren Ellis: Captured Ghosts. Watch out: language.
So the film starts, and my inner fanboy grins. It’s loaded with anecdotes from his peers and interesting ideas about writing from the man himself, as I would expect to see in a documentary. There’s even an Ellis puppet.
Ellis has several strong themes in his work. First of all, there is a thrust of anti-authoritarianism. His severe distrust of government and those in power is a result of growing up in Thatcher’s England, and his characters often hate authority* in every form—government, church, police, what have you. They are almost always rebels or outcasts. You see it in Transmetropolitan, Fell, Freakangels and dozens of other works. (For those not acquainted with his oeuvre, we’ll be releasing a primer on his work tomorrow.)
There’s also his interest in transhumanism, the idea that the human body is merely a blueprint and not the final product, and thus is subject to manipulation. This is especially evident in Doktor Sleepless, Transmet, No Hero, and his brief run on Iron Man. A lot of Ellis’s work is science fiction, but he also dabbles in detective tales.
Then there’s the writing itself—particularly his dialogue. It’s acerbic, profane and loaded with social commentary, but also fun. You always know when you’re reading a Warren Ellis comic or novel. There’s just no mistaking that distinctive tone.
An hour and a half goes by far too quickly for my taste, and then the film is over. I’m outside with my friend, waiting for him to finish his cigarette as he curses the end-of-March snowfall, and something clicks for me as we discuss the movie. I’m a big fan of Ellis, because on the surface, his stories are entertaining, they have something to say, and they’re usually no-holds-barred affairs. Yet there’s more to it than just that—it’s the quality of his characters. Perhaps that seems obvious at first, but when you write stories about rebels and outcasts who despise authority and then throw in a bunch of mind-bending sci-fi—well, you’re speaking my language.** On some level—and that level varies depending on the work—I identify with his characters. But there’s heart in his work, too. Read Transmetropolitan #8—the one with the Revivals—and question your humanity if you aren’t moved.
I wish more people had shown up. The reality of the situation is that it’s an obscure documentary in a niche market, but there’s brilliant stuff going on here. There are truths to be found in Ellis’s body of work. It’s well worth your time.
*Except The Authority, whom he describes as clearly the bad guys in that story—they just happened to be fighting even worse people.
**It’s the same reason I listen to a lot of metal.