What this is, see, is actually an eulogy of a sort, as Warren Ellis and Paul Duffield’s wonderful digital epic FreakAngels has since come to a close, as of August 2011. The last batch of pages have been posted, and the story has ended, and they have each moved on in their lives and their works, and thus, in their particular way, have the denizens of Whitechapel.
A lot of people have written a lot of things, some of them very, very smart, about the work of Warren Ellis, a man who is – not coincidentally – also very, very smart. I don’t know Warren as more than a professional colleague, understand. We’ve met twice in person, each time for less than a minute or so, and the one concerted attempt we made to get together for drinks was back in London in 2002, and ended in failure. We’ve corresponded briefly in the past, always cordially, and we’ve always approached one another’s work with, I believe, a mutual respect. Our crossover in subject matter and style is, I think, fairly limited, but every so often we seem to stray across our vaguely defined borders of ‘what we write’ and nick one another’s fenders as we’re cornering too wide.
Took that metaphor a little too far, there, I suppose. Warren’s influence. He is the modern master of Taking It Too Far. Yet somehow, some way, he always seems to make it work.
Even when I write big, I end up writing small. Me, I’m fascinated with how the boots are laced, and what the hull of the ship is made of, and how it feels to touch the Aether. I pursue these things long enough, sometimes a larger context is revealed to me, a bigger story, a grander scale. But, honest to God, I get nervous when things get too big. I get uncomfortable, and I have to push myself to raise the stakes, to ratchet up the conflict. More than once, I’ve had a comics editor say, “Greg, you’re on an unlimited budget,” which is their way of saying, “BIGGER! IT’S SUPERMAN FOR THE LOVE OF MIKE, BLOW UP A PLANET ALREADY!” And I shrink back into my dark writing hole, and maybe, instead of blowing up a truck, I’ll blow up the gas station, too. Fact is, I’m happiest when I’ve got a mugger and a stick; give me a dozen of them and I start asking questions like who’s in charge here, and why are they together, anyway.
Warren Ellis lives in Too Big. He is the Mayor of Too Big. He runs Too Big, because nothing is too big. He writes as if fearless. Universes go to war when Warren Ellis sets his pen to paper. A single individual can devour spacetime when Warren Ellis is around (witness this post, about the possibility of the Higgs Boson leading to, quite literally, the end of the universe. Or an universe. Depending on where you are in your theoretical physics). Too Big wets its fucking pants and tries to hide behind God when Warren Ellis gets rolling. Seriously.
That he can do that, write a story as large and – in many ways – as profound as FreakAngels and still bring me to tears over the plight of his characters… that’s writing, man. That he can tell a tale about these children touched with the power to create and destroy, and never once forget that they are children, that he can make a single strawberry not only a profound moment but an elegant metaphor… that takes skill.
It also takes collaborating with one hell of an artist to pull it off. It takes someone like Paul Duffield who has the storytelling chops to let the small moments resonate and the big moments awe. I’ve said it before, but it cannot be said enough; comics are – for the most of us, at least – a collaborative medium. In Duffield, Ellis has a sure-handed and elegant collaborator, one who delivered on every level, from storytelling to design. That he did so at the punishing schedule of six pages a week for over two years speaks volumes to his commitment and skill. (Mr. Duffield is at work on a new web/print project, The Firelight Isle, and I’m eager to see what he’ll unleash.)
The waters of FreakAngels, like many of Ellis’ other works, are deceptively deep. The coming of age of young gods would demand nothing less, of course, but there is a tenderness hidden within the story unlike any I’ve found in his other works. Nothing in an Ellis world comes without a price, that is a law of the land. Yet, in FreakAngels, there is a promise not only of hope but of redemption. Ellis and Duffield together take something very big, indeed, and turn it into a story that is ultimately, elegantly simple, and easy to hold in the hand or the heart. It is surprisingly, and genuinely, sentimental.
And that makes it rather wonderful, really.