Warren Ellis/ Phil Hester: Shipwreck

Ellis, Warren; Phil Hester et al. (2018), Shipwreck, Aftershock
ISBN 9781935002802

If you read comics, you will have come across Phil Hester’s work here or there – he’s inescapable. And not like the ubiquitous mediocre artists. Hester’s work is always excellent. Shipwreck is no exception. Every panel, every page works. There’s a touch of J.H. Williams III about the panel layouts here, and a couple of younger artists have produced similar work, particularly in the way Hester relies on his inker here for depth and stature. And then there is the writing. Shipwreck is one of many projects by Warren Ellis, who has something of a renaissance these days – he has never gone away of course, but the recent creator owned comic books published by Image Comics (Injection, and, more relevant for this book, Trees), as well as his work on characters like Karnak or Moon Knight has been exemplary. Shipwreck is unusual among all these titles by being self contained. It’s a 6 issue comic, collected in one trade, published by Aftershock. The tendrils that Shipwreck extends towards other comic books are too numerous to list, but the book never feels derivative. It clearly feels like part of a longer comics conversation, yet its structure and character is quite unique, and Hester’s bold pen contributes to this certainly.

Shipwreck, like many great contemporary comic books, is high concept: a man lands on a strange world. As it turns out, he built a machine that can jump to a parallel earth, an attempt made in order to save the ballooning population of “regular” earth. This parallel earth is a strange hellscape – Ellis’s depiction draws from various ideas of postapocalyptic landscapes. The tropes are all there as expected: strange bars, unexpected encounters, no large communities – this is about isolated individuals strewn across a large vista of rocks and ruins. At the same time, we learn that somehow this world of destruction and mystery has a high level of technical expertise, plus a level of organization that allowed them to insert a spy in “regular” earth’s mission, there to sabotage it. This parallel earth is an earth of violence tropes, of fear. Towards the end of the book, a character from parallel earth says to the protagonist: “nobody understood you back there because you were afraid of everything and they weren’t. you’ve come home.” This insertion of fear here points to what Ellis is doing with the tropes and narratives here – he’s condensing them into one sharp image: the leap. It is a Kierkegaardian leap, this leap from one earth to the other, and Ellis has exposed it as such, with all the implications it has for other texts in this vein.

To my mind, the comic books that I thought most immediately about were Ivan Brandon and Nic Klein’s Drifter and Jeff Smith’s Rasl. Drifter ran through multiple trades until it ended beautifully last year. It is about a man who lands with his ship, seemingly dropped out of time – traveled through more than just space. There are contradictions and mysteries that Brandon wraps around an engaging story. While Brandon’s story, in turn, shares a lot with many other recent comic books about space-as-wild-west (Copper is one excellent example), his inversions of time and identity made his book stand out. The dominant narrative – who shoots who, who does what, all of these are diversions in the greater mystery of time and place. Drifter is full of leaps, and even engages the idea of religion, but manages to still wriggle out of it, boiling it down to a personal journey of melancholic self-discovery. This comic, towards the last trades, has some of the loneliest and emotionally gripping panels I can remember reading from a comic in this genre. Nic Klein’s art is essential to this. I’ve been meaning to do a review of Drifter for a while, but I never quite got around to it. The book’s final revelations aren’t real revelations in the sense that we are genuinely surprised – instead, we can kind of guess at everything after the first trade, but Brandon manages, with great skill, to use the majority of his run to carefully tease out all the implications and turns in his concept. The result is a wonderful comic that everybody should consider reading.

In many ways, Shipwreck uses very similar moments of revelation, the landing of the ship, the alien-but-familiar landscape, down to the way Hester renders moments of surprise, and mental strain. Another book that is similar, though in less immediately obvious ways, is Jeff Smith’s Rasl, which he published in four volumes a few years back. Smith is most well known for Bones, but I’d argue that Rasl is a greater accomplishment. RASL is a book about science, indirectly referencing various debates about the Manhattan Project and the viability and exploitability of various forms of scienti´fic progress. But more relevantly, it is about a man who straps a device to his body that allows him a form of interdimensional travel. The protagonist in Shipwreck also has a device that allows him a specialized form of travel – it allows him to jump short distances – i.e, disappear and reappear somewhere not too far away. Like RASL’s device, this one takes a toll on its user. There are a couple of scenes that read like direct references to Smith, but it’s hard to tell with such a broadly allusive book like Shipwreck. Smith does tether his story to religion, but more in the sense of a general meaty mysticism rather than something more specific. Smith’s book is effusive and inspired rather than precise and direct. Ellis’s book is the latter, more than supported by Hester’s inorganic, angular lines.

As a whole this reads like a master’s comment on a whole genre – it feels less like fiction, and more like metafiction. A comic book disquisition on craft. There is a lot of “story” in the book but at the same time, the book doesn’t appear to be interested in story. That Ellis can do story is evidenced by his own Trees. Shipwreck reads more like a proof of concept, a master showing up his disciples. Or: Masters, plural. Hester, too, has been around longer than many fêted contemporary artists, and has provided great art all this time. I first encountered Hester’s work on Kevin Smith’s iconic Green Arrow run – whatever you think of Smith’s work in comics, Quiver is a masterpiece, and Hester’s art is a big part of that. His work here is recognizable – but it, too, seems to dip into current trends, but on a much higher level. As I said – a proof of concept comic, by a legendary writer and a legendary artist.

A note towards the end: this was published by Aftershock comics. I have never heard of this publisher before – but the book is well produced, and it’s not just Ellis who writes for them these days. There’s a book by Garth Ennis, and one by the powerhouse pairing of Palmiotti/Conner, as well as a comic by Cullen Bunn, who seems to be everywhere these days.

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Jeff Smith: Rasl: The Fire of St. George

Smith, Jeff (2010), Rasl: The Fire of St. George, Cartoon Books
ISBN 978-188896322-9

Jeff Smith is an extraordinary writer and artist. Ever since he started publishing the Bone comics on his own imprint Cartoon Books, he has been consistently brilliant and fun. The whole of Bone, now available in one indispensable, addictively readable volume is one of the best graphic novels of the past decade. Since the completion of that series, he has undertaken a few smaller projects, all of which are highly recommendable, but many readers have been waiting for another epic work to approach the narrative scope and power of Bone. Two years ago, Smith did just that when he published the first volume of his new project, Rasl (pronounced like dazzle). I reviewed that first volume, which collected Rasl issues #1-3, on this blog (click here), and recommended it unreservedly. Rasl: The Drift is a fascinating work, a take on an ensemble of topics and literary traditions, from the noir to time travel books; it showed us a rough, unshaven young man, the eponymous Rasl, who travels through different dimensions, to find out he’s being hunted by a lizard-faced villain in a trench-coat who can travel the dimensions with as much ease as Rasl himself, and threatens his girlfriends in several dimensions. Does this recap confuse you? Well, it is confusing, as is the book. Rasl: The Drift is a dense introduction to what promises to be one of the best contained graphic novel series of our time. Jeff Smith introduces us to a plethora of plot strands, ideas, and lots of other suggestions. The Drift is a dazzling display of the range of Jeff Smith’s mind, and at the same time, it raises very high expectations for the rest of the series. When I picked up the followup volume, Rasl: The Fire of St. George, which collects Rasl issues #4-7, it wasn’t without hesitations. The expectations that The Drift raises are almost impossible to fulfill. And yet, The Fire of St. George is a deeply satisfying read, both following up on ideas and suggestions of the first volume, as well as further raising expectations for the next volumes.

Rasl: The Drift told us little about the protagonist. We learned that Rasl has a lover, and that there’s a version of her in every dimension he travels to, which is true for other people, as well. We find out that Rasl is a nickname of sorts or a pseudonym. His real name is Dr. Robert Johnson and he used to be a physicist, working with a friend, Dr. Miles, and a female co-worker (who eventually became a lover) on an exiting but obscurely dangerous new project. We infer that their professional relationship has gone sour and that this demise is connected to his current existence as a dimension-hopping art thief. This aspect comes somewhat late in the book and the overall topic of (serious) science was but one of a multitude of tangents that The Drift proposed to us readers. Instead, while we were busy trying to make sense of all this, Smith offered us several other kinds of explanations. Masks and symbols suggested myth and religion to us, while the lizard-faced man, the variations between the different worlds and the rough-and-tumble manner of traveling between dimensions had a strong whiff of the paranormal, with its implications of X-Files-like intrigue. All this appeared to be part of the tangle of Rasl. I say ‘tangle’ because The Drift makes no serious attempt to explain anything, it just piles reference on reference and plot on plot and character on character, stringing its readers along, offering but small clues here and there. This is is stark contrast to the new volume, which at times almost seems earnest, as it slowly, carefully and patiently explains a few of the allusions and suggestions of The Drift. The aspect Smith decided to shed light on first is the science bit, but he doesn’t explain what exactly is happening, scientifically speaking. Instead he has Rasl tell us the story of how he and his friend came to make a momentous discovery; at the same time, he tells us about Nicola Tesla’s life and his discoveries, his scientific genius and his eventual downfall.

Tesla has become a touchstone of geek-culture these past years, especially since the advent of steampunk fiction. On TV, Tesla has featured prominently in shows like Sanctuary, and the steampunk-fest Warehouse 13. In literature, apart from the use Alan Moore makes of him in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, the perhaps most prominent appearance of Tesla is in Thomas Pynchon’s masterful Against The Day. Tesla appeals to a certain demographic because he’s just the right amount of anti-establishment, mixed with a dash of unorthodox genius. His attraction for writers is also due to the fact that for every invention that was eventually realized and used, there is an obscure, unfinished, rumored invention. And because we don’t really know, writers are free to imagine anything, and so Nicola Tesla, whatever the facts about the historical Tesla, has become some kind of real-life Jules Verne character, just as outrageous and mysterious as Captain Nemo. In The Fire of St. George, Smith even proposes that Tesla was the inspiration behind the Frankenstein in James Whale’s 1931 Frankenstein movie that deviated quite strongly from Mary Shelley’s novel. This idea is then followed up by a short re-telling of Tesla’s life as a scientist. For anyone even remotely familiar with the man, these sections of the book will seem a bit tedious, a reiteration of what seems to be common knowledge. Telling one’s readers about some relatively well know historical fact is something that many lesser writers do in order to manufacture some fact-related credibility for their far-fetched plots. The most annoying example of this is probably Dan Brown, but these days, that’s all the rage, from Kostova’s Historian to Mosse’s Labyrinth and the books by Preston/Child, bookshelves groan under the weight of annoying, simplified knowledge. Smith, however, isn’t a lesser writer, and his use of these historical sections may seem similar, but they are in fact far more complex and intriguing than that, but they don’t wear this difficulty on their sleeve.

In The Drift, readers knew they needed to look for clues to find their way around the bewildering events of the book, and so most will have read the book with care, parsing the panels for hints and subtleties. The tone in The Fire of St. George appears to be very different, the narrative far more clear and conventional. The X-Files reference has become stronger, with a mixture of unexplained phenomena (in the 1940s, a ship vanishes in the middle of the ocean), sober scientific explanations and the beginnings of a governmental conspiracy or cover-up operation. Jeff Smith, however, is a talented and insightful writer, and so even simple-seeming stories have unexpected depths. There is, for example, the absence of mysticism or religion from this volume (with a few eerie exceptions) although the first volume strongly hinted at these issues. But in the retelling and the images thereof, there are ellipses, and smaller nudges that one could almost have overlooked, from the fact that Rasl tells us about the creation scene of the Frankenstein movie, but omits the line “In the name of God! Now I know what it’s like to be God” that is one of the central lines of the movie and is, I think, one of the underlying themes of the whole Rasl story, that will be talking about issues like the creation of dimensions and the question of the humanity of people in other dimensions. Smith’s art contributes to this, by abandoning what feels like a dark, hollow black-and-white style for an almost flat iconicity in his biography of Tesla (except for a few panels where the Tesla bio bleeds into Rasl’s disturbed own life. This is but one example of countless others. Smith has abandoned the nested detail of Bone for a style, both in the writing and in the art, that seems more simple, dominated by large swathes of black and white, with sweaty, scared, hunted Rasl aka Dr. Johnson trying to make sense of the trench-coated man who follows him everywhere, making ominous threats. For all the explanations, we are doing the same, because every answered question opens up another pack of questions.

To the mysterious symbols introduced in the first volume, a mysterious silent child is added. The symbol tied into a whole discussion about native American myths, and its speculative connections to mysticism and extraterrestrial life. Since the symbols only appear in the ‘new’ dimensions, i.e. dimensions different from Rasl’s original one, questions about the nature of chronology and the laws of cause and effect are raised. Also, skeptic doubts about the validity of referring to any world as the ‘original’ one. The child, as well as Rasl’s multiple lovers add to this questions of the body, and of its connection to intra-dimensional energies. If this makes it sound as if Smith were engaging in weird esoteric speculation, he isn’t. Instead he is using common scientific knowledge (there’s a very short bibliography appended if you happen to not know some popular books on the subject (I’m betting all of you know at least 80% of them, so common is this knowledge)) and his own inspiration as writer and artist to launch questions and suggestions at his readers, nudging them, egging them on, raising expectations again and again. To be honest, there’s so much build-up even in this second volume, that it’s hard to see how on earth Jeff Smith’s going to make good on his promises, but experience tells us that he might manage. After all, if we remember all the things that happened between the first Bone volume and the last, we might almost be confident that it works out to the best. If it does, the Rasl narrative might turn out to be one of the best graphic novels of our time, similar to writers like Grant Morrison or Thomas Pynchon, but more grounded than the former and just plain different than the latter. Already, an announcement of a new Rasl volume is a great bit of news, but so far, all we have are teasers. If Smith follows up on them, we are bearing witness to a great work in progress. Already, Rasl: The Drift and Rasl: The Fire of St. George are excellent reads, intriguing, well written, fantastically penciled and inked. I recommended the first volume in my review of it, and I do so again. Read Jeff Smith, and read Rasl. The next volume will be called Romance at the Speed of Light.