(In theaters, November 2010) By now, the action/comedy genre is so familiar that everyone should cheer whenever a quirky off-beat project tries to do something differently. While originality isn’t always an advantage (Knight and Day showed that quirkiness can’t replace solid screenwriting), films like Red can tweak the usual formula and make it feel just a bit fresher than usual. The story is familiar (a renegade secret agent tries to find out who wants him dead, accompanied by a reluctant love interest), but the details aren’t as overused: The agent is retired, his allies are old and paranoid, his enemies are deep within the government and his would-be girlfriend initially has to be tied, drugged and dragged along before she comes to appreciate the action-comedy lifestyle. Red flies around the United States, literally showing postcards along the way –which may give you an idea of its particular sense of humour. Bruce Willis may be the Red’s headliner, but the real appeal of the film is through Mary Louise Parker’s wide-eyed evolution from house-bound kitten to adrenaline junkie. Helen Mirren is delightful as an aging assassin, while John Malkovich has a typical turn as a deeply paranoid retiree. Action highlights include a shootout in New Orleans and the use of heavy artillery in a Chicago hotel parking lot. Much of the plot is routine, but the film is a lot more enjoyable during the comedic moments between the characters. Fans of the original comic book may want to forget all about the source material, because Red is quirky and light-hearted whereas Warren Ellis’ story was sombre and nihilistic. While Red often goes spinning too fast in all sorts of directions to be truly effective, the result isn’t too bad as long as you don’t expect the sort of straight-ahead action-with-quips blockbuster: Red is handled with another kind of sensibility, and if the result is often a bit too off-beat to be fully enjoyable, it delivers what is expected with a little bonus that no one asked for.
Morrow, 2007, 280 pages, C$27.95 hc, ISBN 978-0-06-072393-4
It’s been a long time since I’ve read Warren Ellis’ blog, but it had one feature that I remember clearly. Once every few days, a link called “Don’t click here!” would appear. These days, “Don’t click” is usually an invitation to see how jaded you can be. Thanks to the Internet, everyone now think that they’ve seen more of human perversion than the Marquis de Sade himself. Well, Warren Ellis meant it when he tells people not to click. Goatse is mere fluffy comfort compared to what he proposed under those links. Most people learned quickly that if Warren Ellis said not to click, you didn’t click.
For more than a decade, Ellis has written almost exclusively for comic books, racking such hits as Transmetropolitan and becoming something of a net.personality thanks to his work and an active on-line presence. His prose fiction debut, Crooked Little Vein, was eagerly anticipated. Would the book live up to the hype?
I can probably answer that question with two words: Godzilla Bukkake.
- If you don’t know those words, Warren Ellis isn’t for you, and I’m not the one who’s going to explain what they mean. (Also: You’ll regret knowing. Don’t click!)
- If you know those words and recoil at the thought that they could be combined, Warren Ellis and Crooked Little Vein aren’t for you. But at least you already know that.
- If you know those words and wonder (maybe queasily) how they could follow one another, get Crooked Little Vein and turn to chapter 4. Your questions will be answered. In detail.
- If you’re hollering and clapping “Godzilla Bukkake! Hell, yeah!”, you probably read the novel before I did. (Also; please stay at some distance until I get to know you better.)
To see a pope of pop perversion like Ellis turn to novel-length fiction is fascinating on many levels: How will his sensibilities adapt to prose? How will he handle the structural demands of a novel relative to comics? Would be he able to sustain a narrative over hundreds of pages? (Albeit barely: I’d be surprised if the book goes much longer than 50,000 words.)
The answer is surprising in its cleverness. First, Ellis takes on a standard boilerplate noir template to kick off the action: His narrator is a hard-boiled Private Investigator who’s asked to find an important national relic. Michael McGill is a protagonist living out of his time: He may be in 2006, but he truly belongs to the classical pulp era. His ability to attract the weirdest elements of contemporary society is a handy excuse for Ellis to trot out the worst of what he can find on the Internet, but it also sets up the novel’s examination of what’s weird. The stated assumption, at least at the beginning of the narrative, is that America has lost its way. That the ills of American society are caused by permissiveness and encouraged by the broad availability of amoral depictions.
But from this hard-boiled premise, Ellis turns to the road novel as inspiration. Chapter by chapter, McGill heads west from New York to (inevitably) Los Angeles. Every step along the way, he meets richer and more amoral characters. From Godzilla Bukkake, we go to genital saline injections, naked animal wrestling, Jesus-themed sex toys and even worse. I would say that delicate natures should abstain, but that should be obvious by now. But it also minimizes the fact that the novel is very funny. McGill’s narration is impeccable, and his mixture of world-weariness and “you’ve got to be kidding me” bewilderment at what he sees is the perfect middle ground for the readers.
What doesn’t work so well, as the book advances, is the false conflict between America’ “new perversion” and McGill’s so-called conservatism, as given voice by arguments between McGill and the female side-kick that follows him along his trip through darkest America. Ellis is too obviously fond of off-beat weirdness to be truly impartial in the matter, and the two or three plot beats that depend on McGill being an old-fashioned moral beacon in face of contrary evidence don’t really work. The conclusion is entirely expected: Much like Jerry Springer’s series is surprisingly moral under the freak show veneer, so is Crooked Little Vein once you accept the idea that unusual acts between consensual adults can be no one else’s business. It’s interesting to see, late in the book, where Ellis ends up drawing the line between good and bad behaviour. Morality is about people being hurt, not about people being vicariously shocked or offended.
But if trying to fit Ellis’ novel in an analysis of contemporary morality may be fun for budding sociologists, it’s not where the true worth of the novel truly lies: Crooked Little Vein is the type of vibrant little novel made for the comic-book generation, a short trip through a fun-house world that first wants to entertain its target audience. I have already met people who couldn’t finish the novel, and that’s OK: Much like more of Ellis’ work so far, Crooked Little Vein is bound to offend (or disgust) just about every reader at some point. It’s hardly perfect as a sustained narrative (the episodic structure is transparent, and some passages feel forced into the story, such as the plane ride with Falconer in Chapter 42), but it’s a lightning-fast read and a delicious summer treat for jaded readers.
Just make sure that you really want to “Click here”.
Not a review
Vertigo, 1997-2002 (1998-2004 reprint), ??? pages, C$???.?? tpb, ISBN Various
Originally published as a series of sixty comic books from 1997 to 2002, Re-published as a ten-volume series of trade paperback from 1998 to 2004
Well, that was an experience.
Over the years, friends having succumbed to the Transmetropolitan bug kept pressing issues of the comics on to me. “It’s great!” they said. “Spider Jerusalem! You’ll love him!” Oh, I was convinced all right… but finding the money to buy the entire ten-volume trade paperback run was another challenge entirely. I finally broke down and went ahead in January 2006, using the thin pretext of a New Year’s present to myself. The comic book shop guy and amazon.ca were both pleased with my choices, though they probably each kicked themselves for not having the entire series in-stock when I wanted them.
So I finally sat down and read the series in full, re-experiencing the issues I had already read and tearing straight through the story. From a distance, it’s an admirable model of narrative simplicity: Journalist Spider Jerusalem comes back to a city he dislikes yet can’t live without. As a skilled stranger with a number of archetypal resemblances with Leone’s The Man With No Name, it doesn’t take a long time for him to start clearing the system. And then the system starts fighting back…
Transmetropolitan takes place in an unspecified future (even the characters aren’t too sure when) in a city obviously modeled after New York, complete with a Kafkaesque sword-raising Statue of Liberty. The city if a teeming mass of wonders and misery, and Jerusalem has a wonderful romantic relationship with it, simultaneously disgusted by its excesses, yet dependent on it to survive and thrive.
But if Transmetropolitan is such a success, it’s in no small part thanks to the character of Spider Jerusalem himself, a pushed-to-eleven take-off on Hunter S. Thompson’s model of a gonzo journalist with a cynic’s heart and a staccato vocabulary. Jerusalem is alive in a way that very few characters are, and if nothing else, Transmetropolitan is worth a look just for seeing him do what he does best. Great secondary characters complete the portrait, from a two-fisted editor to filthy assistants to a drug-addicted universal assembler to the vast cast of characters necessary to keep a 1,300-page novel running.
Surprised by the length? You should be: Unusually enough, this sixty-issues, five-year-long series was designed with a specific end in mind. As a result, the complete run of Transmetropolitan feels like an unusually satisfying complete story, along with a lengthy prologue (Book one sets up Spider; Book two sets up the series.), a few interstitial mood pieces and an issue-long epilogue. Transmetropolitan may at first look like science-fiction, and then like edgy comedy, but as it progresses it inches closer to political satire with a real heartfelt message. Fiction for budding revolutionaries, stuck between evils of differing statures.
I’m not completely sold on certain aspects of the series (the technological levels shown here seem mutually inconsistent, for instance) and I’m still smarting over the cost of the series (I could have bought six hardcover novels for that price! Six! That’s the rest of this month’s reviewed books alone!), but there’s little doubt in my mind that Transmetropolitan is one of the most important SF novel of the late nineties. Its episodic publication nature and unified story made it hard for non-comics SF specialists to evaluate properly, but now that everything is out in trade paperback format, it’s time for a critical reassessment, and hopefully a wider acceptance in the written-SF community. Here’s my Transmetropolitan low-cost guarantee: Buy the first volumes. If you can’t stop at the end of the second trade paperback, forge forward with the confidence that you’ll enjoy the rest.