Few artists have had as broad an impact on twenty-first century culture as noted comic book scribe and sometime-novelist Warren Ellis. His brief six-issue stint with Adi Granov on Iron Man informed the superhero genre-recharge that was the 2008 Robert Downey, Jr. vehicle. His epic twelve-issue run on The Authority with artist Bryan Hitch redefined superhero comics for an entire generation, one whose reverberations are still being felt today (seriously: you can trace a direct line from The Authority to Joss Whedon’s Avengers). And his satirical Transmetropolitan has proven to be a work of such political and social prescience that it’s become downright terrifying in the current climate, so much so that the “satire” label feels almost quaint.
Needless to say, when it was announced that Ellis would be embarking on a signing tour for his new novella Normal (the first the author has done in over fifteen years), and that said tour would bring him to a bookstore not even eight miles away from where I live, there was no way in holy hell I would pass up an opportunity to see the man in person.
Ellis visited the Eagle Eye Book Shop in Decatur, GA, the third of six scheduled appearances for the Normal tour. A little under a hundred people gathered in the humble independent bookstore, a standing room-only affair that still saw Ellis take the stage to rapturous applause. Ellis apologized if he seemed noticeably tired, calling Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson Airport a “black hole from which there is no escape.” He then went on to proclaim that “New Yorkers (walk) around bitching about how tough they have it. They wouldn’t last a minute in Atlanta.”
From there, the author proceeded to read two passages from Normal, which was released on November 29 from FSG Originals. The novella tells the story of Adam Dearden, a foresight strategist who is suffering from a strong case of “abyss gaze,” basically an onset depression that settles in for professionals who are paid to think about the future on a daily basis. Dearden travels to Normal Head, a reserve in an experimental forest in the wilds of Oregon, where other such individuals gather to unplug and unwind. There, a mysterious disappearance takes place, and Dearden gets wrapped up in a conspiracy that challenges everything he thinks he knows about the future. It is classic Warren Ellis, darkly humorous and eerily penetrating, and hearing the author read his own words aloud was a delight that my own could scarcely describe.
After the reading, the floor was opened up to questions, an informal affair that felt more like a town hall gathering where everyone in the room was able to engage in an open conversation with Ellis. The lively Q&A went on for a while, with questions ranging all over the place in topic and theme:
* Of course the topic of current events was brought up, as one audience member asked Ellis about the prescient nature of much of his work, and how elements inevitably find their way into reality. “When I was sent the first picture of a two-headed cat, I thought, ‘That’s weird,” he said, referring to Spider Jerusalem’s chain-smoking pet cat from Transmet. “By the hundredth, I began to seriously worry.” Ellis went on to explain that he and other science fiction writers tell these stories as cautionary tales, in the hopes of possibly preventing such outcomes in the future, but the opposite always happens instead.
* Bad news for fans of Fell, the comic series Ellis started roughly a decade ago with artist Ben Templesmith: “(Templesmith)’s had the script for Fell #10 for roughly five years now, and still hasn’t finished drawing it,” Ellis said, proclaiming that, for all he knew, Templesmith’s “under a tree somewhere in Tasmania, drawing with a stick covered in shit.”
* Ellis met with a production company early on during Transmetropolitan’s run to discuss selling the film and TV rights. Researching the company, he discovered a project they had tried to develop entitled Skate-Cop, which depicted a future where cops carried out the law on roller-skates. Shockingly, Ellis decided not to sell.
* As a prank on Marvel editor Tom Brevoort, Ellis once pitched for a team book (he doesn’t remember which one, but offered New Warriors as an example) where each member of the team went through one horrible mutilation after another. Ellis said he had a reputation of being “difficult” at the time, and so Brevoort was stuck between accepting the pitch as it was or the threat of getting into an argument on the phone over Ellis’ “artistic vision” for the series. He went on to say he waited a good six months before letting Brevoort know he wasn’t being serious.
* When asked to name his favorite work of literature, Ellis was hard-pressed to come up with a single answer, but eventually settled on Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day, saying, “It’s got everything you could possibly want.” His favorite Hunter S. Thompson book? Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, something Ellis rereads during every election cycle.
* One fan asked whether or not Ellis would return to the GI Joe universe after scripting the 2009 animated film/series GI Joe: Resolute. Ellis said it was unlikely, since he had no special fondness for the characters, although he did enjoy the challenge of writing Resolute. He went on to share a humorous anecdote about how Hasbro wouldn’t allow him to blow up a city in China as part of the plot, as that was where the GI Joe toys were manufactured.
* When asked how advancing technology has helped or hindered writers, Ellis proclaimed that the mobile phone killed the mystery story for a while there, and he feels that 24 doesn’t get enough credit for working out ways to integrate the use of cell phones in service of their plots.
* Ellis said that he was surprised when many described his 2013 novel Gun Machine as “short.” He went on to say that we’ve been conditioned to believe that something’s not a novel these days unless it’s “1,000 pages long, has a picture of a fucking dragon on the cover, and there’s seven of them.”
* I believe Ellis disappointed one fan after he asked the author to name both his favorite Lovecraft story and favorite Lovecraft-inspired story, to which Ellis replied, “No, and no.” Laughing, Ellis went on to explain that he while he appreciated the writer’s imagination, he eventually left him behind because Ellis likes language too much. The fact that he was a “woman-hating, racist basement-dweller” didn’t hurt, either. He further elaborated that Lovecraft’s “poor writing” may have actually been a benefit, as it nakedly depicted Lovecraft’s own fears of “skin… fish… sex with fish…”
* Ellis said that when he was in his early twenties, living in a cramped apartment alone and cut-off from the world, he dreamed of a global communications network, saying he longed for the internet as it is today before there was such a thing. He then went on to say that all of his dreams had come true, as well as all his nightmares.
Once the Q&A was over, Ellis departed to a room in the back for the signings, and we were led in groups of ten at a time to have our copies of Normal “defaced with my scribblings,” as Ellis put it. Once in line, we were each carefully vetted by a series of (friendly and supremely-helpful) members from the store’s staff, making the experience not unlike getting a meet-and-greet with a member of the Royal family. From there, we were ushered into a dark room where Ellis signed in an almost-funereal silence from behind a table. Intimidated by the atmosphere, I’m sad to say I didn’t manage much more than a “How’s it going?” and a “Thanks” as Ellis signed my copy, but the author was very gracious during the whole process.
After that, I retreated to the McDonald’s across the street (where I had to park after roughly twenty minutes of driving in circles in the tiny parking lot, hoping against hope someone would leave and open up a free spot), narrowly avoiding being hit by an ’89 Ford Taurus with a Trump/Pence sticker that took up almost the length of the vehicle’s rear bumper, feeling a bit like a classic Ellis anti-hero in the process. I couldn’t imagine a better way to close out the night.
Special thanks to Eagle Eye Book Shop, FSG Publishing and Warren Ellis himself for providing such a fine evening.