Warren Ellis has a knack for taking a well-worn storytelling trope and putting a fresh spin on it to make it shiny and new. From superhero tales that feature a high concept conceits like Planetary, to cross-country adventures that happen to take darker routes across the country as detailed in his first novel Crooked Little Vein, Ellis refuses to play by anyone's rules. In Cemetery Beach #1, it seems like he's at it again, though this inaugural issue doesn't have bite you'd expect.
Cemetery Beach is the story of Michael Blackburn, a government agent (of some sort) who has been sent to an off-world colony filled with the worst of worst to act as a one man reconnaissance. The folks who call it home have been kicked out off Earth for one reason or another (or so we're led to believe) and have little contact with their home planet. This first issue doesn't give a whole lot to go on with regards to a larger scope beyond that; there are a few context clues sprinkled along the panels, but for the most part, the reader is just tossed into the middle of the situation with zero hand-holding.
Now, this isn't a complaint. In fact, from a writing standpoint, this is the most fascinating aspect of Cemetery Beach, because the series' main premise is all too familiar. For someone not familiar with Ellis' work, one might assume this is nothing more than a riff on Escape From New York, and to be fair, they wouldn't necessarily be wrong. But where some may see a derivative idea being told for the umpteenth time, longtime Ellis fans see a writer doing what does best: Make a reader feel nice and comfy with familiarity before he quickly yanks it away like a fleece blanket on a cold night.
By the end of this issue, we're still clutching that blanket, but Ellis is certainly tugging at its corner. There is weirdness coming right around the corner, and that weirdness will mostly likely be holding hands with a heavy dose of carnage and shocking twists. Now, there is plenty of mayhem in this first issue and it is presented in fantastic detail.
Artist Jason Howard is simply killing it, here. His exaggerated, sketchy style lends itself well to the dingy world of Cemetery Beach, and his eye for frenetic action is trained steadily on each page as blood and bullets spill from panel to panel. Howard has mastered the art of simplicity in detail. Character features are often simple and almost nondescript, but they are drawn with a bristled edge which makes them stand out and visually appealing. As much as I love Ellis' work, it's really Howard who is the MVP right out the gates. But more specifically it's how well these two creators are jiving on the page.
Howard's color palette is also admirable. It's limited to a lot of grays and blues, hearkening back to a lot of World War I imagery from films and television shows. This choice in colors naturally coaxes the feeling of despair for every figure on the page despite some of the characters' strangely sunny dispositions. But when a panel needs a healthy splash of blood or a good ol' explosion, those drab colors are illuminated wonderfully.
If you aren't a fan of Warren Ellis, Cemetery Beach #1 isn't going to convert you and it won't sell you on how brilliant he often is if this is your introduction to his body of work. It's a solid first issue that is pretty familiar in tone (and really does read like a slightly crazier version of Escape From New York). But the premise and the creative team behind it, do hint at something far more intriguing on the way. Come for the basic narrative, and stay for when Ellis kicks it out of a car on the highway doing ninety.