Warren Ellis’ debut All-New Marvel NOW! series “Moon Knight” hit stands this week, marking a new era for Marc Spector. Ellis is a great choice for the character, given the writer’s pedigree and previous work. For decades, Ellis has brought his unique, mind blowing, snarky and sublimely brilliant sensibilities to comics. With his scathing social satire and sense of action and character, Ellis seems like a perfect match for the somewhat insane Moon Knight. Although the writer’s heroes are often dark, broken and sick, they are — thanks to Ellis’ brilliant characterizations and dialogue — always compelling, and make for a great story.
In celebration of Warren Ellis’ latest ongoing series launch this week, CBR takes a look back at some of his most brilliant, subversive, ridiculous and insane series from across his career.
“Thunderbolts” #110-121 (2007-2008)
With Mike Deodato
In the post-“Civil War” world of the Marvel Universe, the government used the Thunderbolts, a team of unrepentant villains and madmen, to embark on special missions that only the truly sick and insane would attempt. Their leader was none other than Norman Osborn, also known as the Green Goblin. Very few times in comics was there a better writer, character dynamic than Osborn and Ellis. Ellis’ Norman was gleefully vile, a man who was ten steps ahead of any of his opponents, and even though he seemed to be in complete control of any situation, in truth, he was controlled by a bug-eyed green mask he kept in his desk drawer. This perverted version of the Avengers concept saw Ellis pull together diverse characters across the history of the Marvel Universe. Characters like previous Thunderbolt and master manipulator Moonstone; Penance, the broken hero formerly known as Speedball; the deranged and almost uncontrollable Bullseye; the brilliant and deadly Radioactive Man; the monstrous and cannibalistic Max Gargan version of Venom; the altruistic Songbird; and a new version of the Swordsman.
With this team, Ellis took one part Frank Miller, one part Stan Lee, one part Thunderbolt history and one part Spider-Man lore, and pulled it all together into one cohesive narrative. Ellis did an amazing job highlighting Osborn’s manipulative skill, controlling killers, cannibals, wannabe heroes and criminal geniuses. After “Secret Invasion,” it was Ellis’ version of Osborn, the master manipulator, that became the top cop — and major antagonist — of the entire Marvel Universe. Ellis’ work on “Thunderbolts” helped drive the direction of the Marvel U for a long time after he exited the book, a testament to his ability to craft strong characters. Wherever Osborn has appeared since “Thunderbolts,” there is always a little of Ellis’ Machiavellian madman in the character’s DNA.
“Wolfskin” #1-3 (2006-2007), “Wolfskin” Annual #1 (2008), “Wolfskin: Hundredth Dream” #1-6 (2010-2011)
With Juan Jose Ryp, Mike Wolfer and Gianluca Pagliarani
Since Conan the Barbarian made his debut at the beginning of the Bronze Age, there have been hundreds of sword and sandal barbarians. Unfortunately, they all became derivative and reptative after a while — one loin cloth clad, bronzed badass after another. Ellis’ Wolfskin was not a cookie cutter Robert E. Howard riff. He was, admittedly, a Conan archetype, but Wolfskin was shown through the lens of historical perspective, a man from another time at the crossroads of history. During Ellis’ time with the character, he began to witness the inception of modern religion, means of commerce and technology, and he saw his simple and honest way of life start to become a thing of the past.
Wolfskin is one of the first modern barbarian characters to fully deal with a realistic encroaching of modern civilization. Thus, he did what any man of action of the era would do: go into a berserker rage and bisect his enemies. Seriously, Wolfskin is one of the most violent and graphic comics of any era. Sex, gore and a gleeful celebration of pagan naughtiness all grace its pages. However, the themes of history and progress are not lost. Wolfskin stands as an honorable man attempting to survive in a confusing time that no longer embraces his kind.
“Red” #1-3 (2003)
With Cully Hamner
“Red,” a simple three-issue mini-series, was a germ of an idea. A tight short story told masterfully in three issues was an in-the-face actioner that hit every genre beat with perfect precision. It was short, like the quick slash of a razor, and it speaks volumes about Ellis’ acumen that this little quick germ of an idea was turned into two hit films. “Red” is the story of Frank Moses, a retired (extremely dangerous), elite ex-C.I.A. operative who has to survive being burned by his former bosses. “Red” demonstrates what happens when a world-weary former killer is forced to use his skills again to survive.
The film took the idea and Hollywooded it up a bit, playing the old age angle in a less subtle manner than Ellis, but the film was a testament to Ellis’ abilities as a writer, where his idea fragments arrive so wholly realized that they could spawn a film franchise with some major Hollywood celeb talent. Not bad for a short mini-series. “Red” was a perfect example of how to play in a given genre that showed a master’s understanding of pacing and plot twists. With “Red,” Ellis proved — in an age of writing for the trade — that sometimes, less is more.
“Nextwave: Agents of H.A.T.E.” (Marvel)
“Nextwave: Agents of H.A.T.E.” #1-12 (2006-2007)
With Stuart Immonen
“Nextwave: Agents of H.A.T.E.” changed the way readers looked at superhero comics — and that’s only slight hyperbole. Dirk Anger, Elsa Bloodstone, The Captain, Monica Rambeau (Photon), Tabitha Smith (Boom Boom) and Aaron Stack (Machine Man) may not have been the classic super-hero team, but damn — were they fun. Ellis managed construct an effective humor comic while staying true to the Marvel Universe. It may have been parody, but it was parody within the parameters of the Marvel U, which not many writers could pull off. His original creations, the Captain and Dirk Anger, were perfectly played off of the more established Avengers and X-Men characters that Ellis blessed with his scathing wit. While it was satire, it was also a loving tribute to the scope of the Marvel Universe. With so many comics resorting to deep and impenetrable complex continuities that would trip up even the most seasoned reader, “Nextwave,” the Agents of the Highest Anti-Terrorism Effort, told stories that were just chaotic jokes with familiar characters sharing the punch lines. No plot, no continuity, just a celebration of the magnificent chaos of Marvel. In an age of teeth gnashing melodrama, “Nextwave” allowed Marvel readers to laugh a little bit while adding to the grand tapestry of the universe.
“Fell” #1-8 (2005-Present)
With Ben Templesmith
If one was to teach a class in how to structure a comic book story, “Fell “would be the textbook. “Fell” was an experiment in making comics less expensive by reducing the number of pages, but increasing the number of panels per page. It was a perfectly paced crime tale that brought the best out of the genre, a throwback to the times of the pulp and the classic detective structure. “Fell” had ambient gritty energy, smart use of character, whip smart dialogue and wasn’t afraid to delve into perversity. In short, “Fell,” was the perfect crime comic.
The book followed Richard Fell, a brilliant cop who came to the rotting city of Snowtown to become a member of a police force that featured three and half (one didn’t have any legs) other cops. Fell had a Sherlock Holmes-like mind and spent each story, told in perfectly structured two-issue arcs, trying to solve one of Snowtown’s unusual crimes. Like “Red, “Fell” displayed Ellis’ ability to tell a rich and grandiose tale in a very short space. A reader can palpably feel Snowtown’s rot and corruption through the characters and Ellis’ imagery so ably rendered by Ben Templesmith. Fell and Snowtown began a symbiotic relationship, a protector, realm sort of paradigm; Fell becomes Snowtown’s King Arthur, its reluctant Batman and one of the greatest cops comics had ever seen. The book went on hiatus after its ninth issue hit in 2012, but fans do pray for a return to Snowtown someday — especially given that Ellis sent the script to “Fell” #10 to Templesmith in 2011.
“Global Frequency” (DC/Wildstorm)
“Global Frequency” #1-12 (2003-2004)
With Garry Leach, Glenn Fabry, Steve Dillon, Roy Allan Martinez, Jon J. Muth, David Lloyd, Simon Bisley, Chris Sprouse, Lee Bermejo, Tomm Coker, Jason Pearson and Gene Ha
“Global Frequency” was a book about an international agency of skilled agencies, each with a unique skill set that would be activated by Global Frequency leader Miranda Zero. Each agent would be called upon if their skills were able to combat a specific and unusual threat to the world. It was story conceit that really allowed Ellis and his twelve artists — one per issue — to flex their creative muscles. It was another example of Ellis’ get-in-get-out method of constructing stories, as each issue introduced a threat, a protagonist and a crisis resolution. Every issue was an introduction to some new hero or fresh concept, and nowhere previously had there been a comic with so much constant creative newness behind it. “Global Frequency” could have been bigger, but Ellis stopped the project after twelve perfect issues. The WB ordered a pilot for a “Global Frequency,” which never made it to air, but fans will always have Ellis’ exercise in concept construction, a feverish action platform that dared to add to an industry that so often just recycles. If “Planetary” and “The Authority” were Ellis’ big budget films, then “Global Frequency” was his television show: an episodic, frenetic adventure story that would wrap up after the conflict was resolved.
(Marvel) “Iron Man” #1-6 (2005-2006)
With Adi Granov
Without Warren Ellis’ run on “Iron Man,” the Marvel Cinematic Universe would be a far lesser playground. Like Tony Stark, Ellis is a futurist, seeing trends and emerging ideas that will inform the future. In “Extremis,” Ellis’ one and only “Iron Man” story, he developed a Tony Stark the mainstream world would soon embrace. Ellis’ Iron Man was thoroughly modern; a visionary who propelled his mind and body into the potential future to battle a vast conspiracy involving the Extremis technology. In Ellis’ mind, a man in a suit of armor wasn’t fantastic enough; he turned Stark into a walking, battling example of technology servicing mankind — protecting and fighting for the future. When Robert Downey Jr. spoke his first lines in 2008’s “Iron Man,” he evoked the spirit of Ellis’ Tony Stark. Before Ellis, the glory days of Roger Stern and David Michelinie were getting farther in the rear view, and “Iron Man,” as a solo title, was slipping into mediocrity. Ellis saved Iron Man, and a universe of films later, fans are still reaping the rewards that were a byproduct of his run. Ellis’ time on “Iron Man” may have been short, and while he may not be directly responsible for the MCU, he certainly created one of the initial sparks for a cultural revolution by finding the right story and tone for Tony Stark.
(DC/Wildstorm)”Stormwatch” Vol. 1 #37-50 Vol.2 #1-11 (1996-2001)
With Tom Raney, Pete Woods, Michael Ryan, Jim Lee, Oscar Jimenez, Bryan Hitch and Chris Sprouse
“The Authority” #1-12 (1999-2000)
With Bryan Hitch
Both “Stormwatch” and “The Authority” followed the pre-established Wildstorm team, Stormwatch, and changed the heroes from a team of generic heroes into a fascinating study of the super-hero archetypes that make up mainstream comics. “Stormwatch” and “The Authority” were published by Wildstorm — an imprint of DC Comics, a company known for protecting the fundamental images of their most iconic characters — and Ellis dared to turn his Superman and Batman archetypes into out and very physical gay men. It wasn’t parody — it was presenting a truly diverse society in the parameters of a mainstream comic. Both titles were a peek at what the future of comics would look like: big, sweeping, cinematic stories unique to the medium. In the pages of first “Stormwatch” and then, after the book’s title was changed to “The Authority,” Ellis gave his stories and characters a fresh, but familiar feel. Jack Hawksmoor was the gruff, world weary detective type with a truly original power to communicate with the concrete jungles of cities. Jenny Sparks was the reader’s point-of-view character; the spirit of every century, gifted and doomed to be reborn after every 100 years to symbolize the purity and uniqueness of that era. The Doctor, a science shaman, and the aforementioned Apollo and Midnighter all were heroes for a new age, who went beyond the established parameters of the genre and into an exciting unknown.
“Planetary” #1-27 (1999-2009)
With John Cassaday
Like “Fell” did with crime and “Red” did with espionage, “Planetary” was another Ellis study: a huge examination of the superhero genre. The Archaeologists of the Impossible, bounced around the tropes of each superhero age, finding something new and exciting for each issue. Ellis didn’t expose or deconstruct the genre, he showed its potential through three well-realized archetypes, each with a complex history that served Ellis’ story needs. Ellis, with his artistic partner John Cassidy, created Jakita Wagner, a fast and strong hero who was born fully realized into the comic from her first appearance; the Drummer, a post-modern super-hero who could read digital information with a knack for computers; and new recruit Elijah Snow who could manipulate heat and cold. The three heroes encountered nearly every genre and concept comics were famous for — from a Monster Island like Godzilla send up to an alien invasion, and everything in between. All the challenges in “Planetary” were familiar and comfortable, but Ellis found just the right modern twists to make the familiar fresh. Much like “The Authority,” “Planetary” introduced a different scope of storytelling and created a new world out of the lengthy history of comics.
“Transmetropolitan #1-60, “I Hate It Here” and “Filth of the City” (1997-2001)
With Darick Robertson
“Transmetropolitan” was Ellis’ magnum opus: a long form examination of a future lost to depravity and technology, a world where filth buries fact so deeply it would take a madman to find the evasive truth under all the muck. Enter Spider Jerusalem: a drug-, booze- and porn-addled seeker of truth, the last true journalist on the shit-covered Earth. The book was poignant, important, thought provoking, industry altering and — perhaps most importantly — fun. While the book was politically fueled and dealt with serious themes like corruption, societal discontent and the harmfulness of mass culture and consumerism, “Transmetropolitan” never collapsed under the weight of its own importance. Spider was the perfect hero for this world. A moralistic man who gave into pleasures of the flesh, he enjoyed being alive, he was a man that relied on his senses rather than the digital simulations and stimulations that so many in his world used to shield themselves. While Spider’s culture used information to distract themselves, Spider used it to dissect reality, to find truth underneath oceans of lies.
Truth was his weapon, but so was his signature Bowel Disrupter — and Spider’s enemies (hypocritical politicians and heads of media and business) would frequently find themselves on the receiving end of the unique weapon. With his smoking two headed cat, his Filthy Assistants and his old school reporter’s cunning, Spider was on a mission to save the world while consuming as many mind-altering chemicals as possible. “Transmetropolitan” was one of the best dystopian comics ever to hit the market, and Ellis did a peerless job of crafting a stomach wrenching, but compelling, setting. Ellis and Darick Robertson carried Vertigo thought the post-“Sandman” and “Preacher” eras and showed the industry that hard sci-fi could be just as marketable as superheroes, fantasy and horror. In Spider Jerusalem, Ellis and Robertson created a hero of the digital age well before the era of iPhones, social media and the 24-hour news cycle. “Transmetropolitan” showed the world the truth could not be lost if a man was insane enough to look for it.