Flashback: Warren Ellis interview

Originally published in issue 19 (July/August 2007)

Warren Ellis is one of the big guns in the comics biz. He is known for strange and intense comics such as Transmetropoliton and Hellblazer and The Authority. His forst novel, CROOKED LITTLE VEIN in coming out this summer. He’s been heard to say he writes 16 hours a day. Believe it.

Neal Bohl: You’re a big name comic book writer, but this is your first novel. Does it feel like starting out all over again or is it more of a natural progression?

Warren Ellis: Starting out all over again, definitely. I sell tens of thousands of comics and graphic novels a month, but remain largely unknown to a bookstore audience. It’s like learning how to walk again.

NB: How does writing a novel compare to writing comics? Especially some of your longer works like TRANSMETROPOLITAN.

WE:The method is completely different. If you’ve never seen a comics script, the format is like an absurdly overdeveloped screenplay, describing each visual with specificity and breaking it down panel by panel. There’s no flow to it: it’s like a blueprint. The way we write comics is to hold the entire page in our heads, separate out the elements that create that page, and then getting it down on paper for the rest of the team to interpret and re-assemble. It’s about as alien a process to prose as you can imagine. Forcing myself to successfully “suggest” images rather than “reproduce” them, so the novel can take on life in the reader’s imagination, was a bear.

That said, it was nice to not have to hit a breakpoint every 22 pages…

NB: You seem to have an affinity for people on the fringes of society. Or at least they provide you with good material. Have you ever run across someone who’s just too weird for you?

WE: Oh, God. All the time. Even when I was a kid: there was the legendary local guy who’d had a badly unsupervised acid trip where he was induced to hack his own undercarriage off for Jesus with a Stanley knife. Even the way my friends killed themselves wasn’t usual — one guy drank two bottles of paint stripper, put a brown paper bag over his head, and laid down in the woods to die. He was found by kids in the morning, laying there with no stomach. I like to think that everyone has stories like that, but then I ask around, and they tend not to…

NB: One of the themes of the book is that a lot of what we think of as the outer edges of society is actually the mainstream once you look at the numbers. Do you think there’s a limit to it or are we just going to keep getting stranger and stranger?

WE: I don’t think there’s a limit. Every time I think I’ve seen the end-case for humanity on the body modification blog Modblog at BMEzine, a week later something exceeds it. And if you watch the right places, it becomes clear that people aren’t doing these things for attention. A lot of the stuff I see is from diary sites, people just happily keeping a journal for them and their friends on their adventures in the field of inserting hydraulic pistons into their nuts or whatever…

The redefinition of the human envelope is ongoing and probably unstoppable.

NB: Macroherpetophiles… You made that up, right?

WE: I so wish I could tell you I did. But back in the mid-Nineties, I was writing a column on “weird websites” for a British computer magazine, and in looking for material happened upon the homepage of the loudest
and proudest of an internet community of, yes, macroherpetophiles. And the photo of the guy featured him wearing the giant green foam paw that appears in the moviehouse sequence of the novel.

In comics, I’m primarily a science fiction writer. And my problem is always that the real world is always weirder than anything you could invent.

NB: You’ve written a lot about the virtual world Second Life lately. Considering that it’s a place that can often seem like a catalog of fetishes, was that valuable research for CROOKED LITTLE VEIN?

WE: I was pretty much done with the novel by the time I started taking an anthropological interest in Second Life. Which in some ways is a shame, as parts of that virtual world are quite simply grotesque. But, in the
broad view, Second Life is just another facilitator for internet communities, and the rules of the web generally apply; if you have an unusual interest, there will always already be a group sharing that interest. The only difference is that, in Second Life, you can “be” that huge-cocked radioactive lizard stretching the abdomens of the unwary.

NB: Which of your current projects are you most excited about?

WE: I’ve got two new TRANSMET-style longform sf comics serials coming from Avatar Press over the next year — the first one, DOKTOR SLEEPLESS, launches in July, and it’s a big piece of sociopolitical sf about privacy and the death of the counterculture. Looking forward to getting that going. And I’ve written a historical graphic novella, CRECY, to come out in the same month, which is a real shift of gears for me in
some respects.

Neal Bohl works for Collector’s Edge Comics in Milwaukee. He’s a fan of reading, and as such reads everything and anything. He’s also a big fan of Warren Ellis.