Whitechapel Squad: The Detective Comics of Warren Ellis

I’ve long believed Warren Ellis is a crime-fiction writer at heart.  The first series of Wolfskin was a clear example of sword-and-sorcery comics, but had that distinct Yojimbo/Fistful of Dollars feel, a dyed-in-the-wool crook playing both sides.  Comics like Aetheric Mechanics and Captain Swing are solid steampunk works, yet revolve around cops-and-robbers shenanigans.  One of the driving tenets of our work here at Boomtron is that any good story is going to have a vital aspect of crime fiction in there, even if it’s a small one, and the oeuvre of Warren Ellis is about as nearly perfect an example of that as I can find.

But what of the standard detective story?  Good, old-fashioned, book-‘em-Dano procedurals?  Those may not have the flash-and-bang, the gee-whiz of Ellis’s Doktor Sleepless or Gravel, but they are still a very important aspect of the man’s body of work.  Taking genre fiction and twisting it and blending it and making it do horrible, unnatural things is great fun for a weekend.  But what about those quiet Tuesdays when you just wanna sit and read a nice, tidy detective story?  Well, as a personal favor to you, I spent a good chunk of my vacation poring back over Ellis’s bibliography, and I have compiled here a list of some examples of Warren Ellis’s (more or less) straight-up crime fiction.  So grab a seat, roll call is about to begin.

And let’s be careful out there.

Detective Richard Fell—Ellis’s most highly regarded foray into crime comics thus far has probably been the Image series Fell, deftly illustrated by Ben Templesmith.  Its format alone makes it an important entry in how comics are made, read and distributed, but that’s enough of a topic for a whole other essay.  Suffice it to say, Fell by its very nature has to be lean, stripped down to the very basic essentials of storytelling, which has been a major factor in the crime genre since Poe put it on paper.  Detective Richard Fell, like many literary detectives, is a man on his own, just the cop and his badge versus the long, cold night.  Snowtown, the fictional city to which he’s been assigned, is as bleak and noir as any in the genre, making Ed McBain’s Isola look like a warm Acapulco evening.  Over the course of the first nine issues, readers follow Fell as he chips away at the frozen heart of this city, and naturally for the genre, this mirrors his own failed attempts to enact some control over his own life.  We have yet to discover just how Fell has found himself in this sorry state, but with a bit of luck, the book will soon be off hiatus and back on the stands.  In the meantime, the trade paperback edition of Fell numbers 1 through 8 should be available where finer comics are sold.

Detective Frank Ironwine—In 2004, Ellis and the good people at Avatar brought to the comics community an experiment in single issues, one-shot stories meant to be to comics what hit singles used to be to pop music.  Each issue was an example of a different pulp construct, and of course, the crime one turned out to be my favorite (though the art of Carla Speed McNeil may have had more than a little bit to do with that).  If, as mentioned above, brevity is the soul of crime fiction, then this particular experiment is relevant in that we should expect no further adventures of the eponymous Frank Ironwine, the NYPD’s finest and drunkest detective.  But don’t let that sadden you too much: at least we have this book.  Ironwine is what I would call a typical Ellis protagonist in that he is smart, able to see patterns where others can’t or won’t, and has a beleaguered underling to kick his ass for him.  Also, the case Ironwine solves in his one appearance proves that Ellis is likely the only man to save police-procedurals for the boring sameness that Dick Wolf has unleashed upon the form.

Agent Paul Moses—This fellow might be a bit off the beaten detective path, but Red, the comical book in which he stars, still falls within our circle of interest here.  Moses is enjoying his retirement after serving the Central Intelligence Agency for his entire adult life.  But since the bulk of those years of service consisted of him performing many gruesome acts of murder, the new 21st century CIA is having serious doubts that a man like Moses should even be allowed to exist.  Red, like much crime fiction, examines notions of masculinity in this, our gun-fuelled society, our modern day Wild West.  And as often happens, the man who exudes the old masculinity, who lays claim to the truly macho and looks down his nose at the powder-puffs who pass for real men today also happens to be such a ruthless and efficient killer, he is more of an animal than anything else.  There is no moral high ground in this comic, and that is as it should be.

Agent John Craske a/k/a Jack Cross—Again with the company men, yes, but Jack Cross is a comic that hews more to the traditional aspects of crime fiction than does Red.  Where as in, say, Fell does the city in which our hero finds himself define the man and vice versa, the city for Jack Cross is the whole of the United States of America.  Cross is a shadowy ex-government agent, allowed free reign to organize protests against his government by occasionally killing terrorists for it.  In this patently post-9/11 book, Cross finds a CIA mole in the Department of Homeland Security, which leads him to uncover a plot to make Americans even stupider.  Literally.  The detective in crime fiction is often the thin line between the Powers That Be and Those That Ain’t.  In Hammett’s Red Harvest, Continental Op was that line between feuding criminal factions in one town.  Jack Cross is that op on a national scale.  Plus, as a bonus, this book has some of the best interrogation scenes set to paper.

Detective John Cain—In what is my favorite of all the books listed here, we have Scars, featuring Detective Cain, a man about to completely lose his shit.  And he has a gun.  The cop in crime fiction is often only one shit day away from being the bad guy.  When you have squeaky-clean, morally indefatigable police officers, you don’t have crime fiction so much as you have propaganda for the ruling classes.  Cops are people, and as such, they are slaves to all the same circumstances that all people are subject to: lust, greed, hate, and guilt.  Det. Cain is shouldering so much guilt that it practically oozes from his pores, and as is often the tragic case with guilt, it is completely uncalled for.  As the story progresses in Scars, we discover that Cain is guilty of nothing less than caring too much, a condition that can be ravaging to the afflicted.  And the reason this book is my favorite is that Ellis slowly and subtly lets the back-story of Detective Cain work itself into the narrative.  This not only heightens the suspense of the entire story, but is simply the mark of a mature writer with a serious grasp of the craft.  We are left with an example of what crime fiction can be, more than just crimes and misdemeanors, but a peek into the oh-so-human condition.

– originally published 4/2/2012