In the late 90's, when comics were still recovering from the atrophy of the early 90's boom, Ellis was there trying to blow things wide open. He challenged his fellow creators, he tried to do comics differently. He experimented with formats, structures - he worried about how comics looked and felt. He wanted them to last longer. He stayed ahead of things. When comics were wordy and shrinking, he created 'widescreen' comics in "The Authority," big stories told in splash pages and daggers of dialogue. He stripped away needless description and captions, threw out anything excess to make his comics lean and mean. As with any innovation, most of his peers lost the point and just saw the flash, but not the substance.
In "Planetary" he reconsidered the individual issue, taking a long twenty-some part story and breaking it into unique issues that were tied together but still stood alone as individual stories. He jumped genres from issue to issue, from story to story. When he finally convinced other creators to work long form and look at bookshelves instead of spinner racks, he jumped back and did a book like "Fell," that was a sleek and nasty little book aimed squarely at comic shops. He sold it at a lower price, put the extras in the individual issues instead of the trades.
Ellis has written a lot of stuff, that's for sure. So much of it is some of my favorite stuff in comics, I decided to throw together a list of my favorites.
The one book that will be noticeable by its absence is probably "Stormwatch." Frankly, I've only read it in bits and pieces and don't have it on hand to even re-read.
Otherwise, I've read (and RE-READ) most of Ellis's comics. At this point he's also written novels, screenplays and most anything else.
A lot of people react to the sort of over-the-top violence and sarcasm in Ellis's books. They see the Spider Jerusalem-types everywhere and he certainly plays to the tropes of the biting British character a lot. But, for me, there's always a deep emotional pull in Ellis's work. There's sadness, which is something I always react to. There's tragedy that isn't just 'oh, the noblest hero sacrificed himself to save the universe.' His protagonists fight and they lose and they accept a fate that isn't always meant to involve riding off into a sunset. More than anything, Ellis's protagonists keep going, even when their mission or role brings them nothing but misery and isolation.
10. FRANKENSTEIN'S WOMB
Again, when comics were getting longer and everything was becoming six-part sagas that were easily blocked into TPBs, Ellis went off and did a small handful of independent one shots that were about 48 pages. Thin books with a real spine that would be an inexpensive alternative on the bookshelf.
In "Frankenstein's Womb," Mary Shelley visits Castle Frankenstein (before she's written the "Frankenstein" story) and encounters a monster. They have a long dialogue about life, electricity and creation. There's no action whatsoever.
ART BY: Marek Oleksicki
9. MINISTRY OF SPACE
Ellis has a love for space travel, both in science fiction and as it relates to world history. It's the 60's quest by nations to be the first and best nation in space that drives "Ministry of Space." Again, not an action story so much, but one gorgeously visual, especially as drawn by Chris Weston. "Ministry" is about the seedy side of World War II and post-war politics
ART BY: Chris Weston
8. GLOBAL FREQUENCY
"Global Frequency" was a high concept book that would have allowed Ellis to tell one-off stories forever. There was no real cast or specific plot, it was built around an invisible organization that when needed would rise up and handle situations that needed them. The stories were Ellis's mix of end of the century paranoia, shady government organizations and wild science fiction comics. It was grounded, though. The threats were immediate to us, not to some fictitious world of science and fantasy.
Each issue was illustrated by a different top comics talent, written specifically by Ellis to highlight their skills.
7. NO HERO
Ellis has long said he doesn't love super heroes and tries to write stories about them that interest him. "No Hero" is one such story. In it, the world is monitored (and controlled) by a small group of super-powered individuals. They're not necessarily nice about it. They're also an elite organization that find you and then decide you're worthy of getting powers, assuming you can handle the physical demands of converting your body into one capable of moving mountains. While there are certainly sexy super heroes in the world of "No Hero," their souls are corrupt, overrun by power and ego. When our protagonist becomes a hero and his body crumbles into something horrifying, a power struggle ensues with the safety of the world at its core. "No Hero" is a story about power and whether or not heroism is even needed in a world with so much power.
ART BY: Juan Jose Ryp
As modern Marvel and DC Comics have become earnest to the point of atrophy, Ellis came out with "Nextwave," a book that laps up the sheer ridiculousness of the Marvel super hero universe. Who wins and loses is completely irrelevant to the foolishness of the characters trying to save the world. That they succeed is entertainment enough. Ellis took a bunch of mostly forgotten Marvel heroes and villains and made them into modern vapid pop heroes. It couldn't have been more irreverent or more entertaining.
ART BY: Stuart Immonen
5. DESOLATION JONES
Comics history has all sorts of unfinished projects. None break my heart like "Desolation Jones." What was supposed to be a 36 issue story, ended up only being 8 issues. But what an 8 issues! Counter to the notion that Ellis's protagonists were always bad ass, Desolation Jones is a broken ex-agent who keeps busy taking side jobs in the seediest sides of Los Angeles culture. It's a story about porn stars and cult victims and people who fight because they don't know how to do anything else. Of all Ellis' work, Jones is, to me, his most sensitive. The characters are broken and hurt and emotionally drained. And all they have is each other. Powerful stuff, for sure.
ART BY: JH Williams and Danijel Zezelj
4. BLACK SUMMER
At the peak of George W. Bush's America, Ellis wrote a story where a super hero kills the President in the name of the greater good. It was designed to piss people off without reading it. Really, as was a common theme in the super hero stories Ellis was doing at this time for Avatar Press, this was a story about the limits of power and where super heroes might fall in that if presented more aggressively than they normally are. Again, the powers are technological, the powers aren't gifted from some fluke of magic or karma. Instead of power falling to the right people at the right time, the characters in "Black Summer" know they have more power than one person should.
In "Black Summer" a super hero puts himself above the law to the level that he assassinates the President. Most of the book, though, is the fall-out. John Horus, the assassin, is not presented as a hero, he's an outcast who's own team turns against his extremism. In the end, the remaining heroes have to redefine themselves and accept the consequences of their power and what prices they paid to get and maintain that power.
ART BY: Juan Jose Ryp
3. THE AUTHORITY
In "The Authority" Ellis and Bryan Hitch redefined the action hero comic for the new century. Instead of dealing in small panels and excessive exposition, Ellis opened comics wider than they'd ever been opened and told all out action stories with massive splashy images and daggers of dialogue. As is often custom, though, people missed the point. In the wake of "The Authority" Marvel and DC Comics became dumber and less complex, ignoring that "The Authority" was a complicated social and political story, told with a great deal of nuance and character. The Authority fought a man, a race of men and then a God of men. They had no problem fighting power with power. They weren't worried about collateral damage. They understood that winning was the only option. And sometimes they won by being willing to just annihilate their enemies. The Authority ignored the dim witted morality of mainstream super hero comics in favor of a modern, explosive story of the end justifying the means.
ART BY: Bryan Hitch
Sort of the opposite of "The Authority," "Planetary" is a quiet meditation on the heroic fiction of the 20th century. There's action, sure, but that's not the point of it. In fact, the action sequences are sometimes almost an afterthought to the analysis of the tropes. In "Planetary," Ellis showed off what he knew about pulp fiction, science fiction, horror, b-movies, all of it. And he took it all and weaved it into a story that was a celebration of the past but also the closing of the book of the 20th century that opened up comics to the future. It was a love letter and a eulogy all at once.
ART BY: John Cassaday
Those of us who love Spider Jerusalem are a brotherhood. Spider was the pissed off hero we all needed in the late 90's. He cussed, kicked and fought anyone and anything that got in his way, all in the name of seeking the truth. He looked out for his allies and spat in the face of his enemies, and there was no in between. You were either with him or against him.
Gloriously illustrated by Darick Robertson, "Transmet" took place in a breathing, thriving city of the future that was as hopeful as it was tragic and filthy. As with reality, the winners were huge in "Transmet" but the losers were brushed aside and fighting amongst themselves in the much. Spider Jerusalem stayed in the muck, looking for his answers.
And, man, he was funny. For five years, Spider stomped through The City. Over the course of his story his body and brain gave out on him but he kept pushing until the job was done. That's why Spider Jerusalem was a hero.
ART BY: Darick Roberson
Anyway, those are my 10 favorite Ellis comics. All are worth a read and hold up to MULTIPLE re-reads!