Friday, February 21, 2014

Ex Libris: Warren Ellis' Gun Machine

In the City of Fiction, there is a street that runs two-way. One heads toward the suburb of Comics while the other goes to the bohemian district of the Novel. On this street, there are writers who live in the suburbs: these comic book writers have made a name for themselves in their field like Mark Millar, Matt Fraction, Gail Simone, Garth Ennis, Geoff Johns, and Grant Morrison.

But there are also a few comic book writers who commute and are currently working in the Novel district.* Most notable among those are Neil Gaiman, Mike Carey, Peter David, and Alan Moore dipping his pen onto the pages of the fray. And then, of course, there's Warren Ellis.

I enjoyed Ellis' first novel, Crooked Little Vein, and though he topped that book to the brim with fascinating ideas like the way he did with his comic books, I thought the shift from comic books to books had lessened the sharpness of his writing. His protagonist Michael McGill--though while interesting-- didn't have the weight of his other characters like Spider Jerusalem, Elijah Snow or Jenny Sparks. It was all firework showers but no big bang of the gonzo reporting in the future of Transmetropolitan, the "archaeologists of the impossible" in Planetary, or the worldwide spanning rescue organization in the Global Frequency.

Gun Machine fortunately shows Ellis settling into his role as a novelist by limiting himself to a handful of particular concepts. Here, NYPD detective John Tallow finds a mystery when his partner is killed by a wacko with a gun in a dilapidated apartment. Though Tallow takes down the shooter, a stray shot reveals the contents of the unit next door: a veritable shrine of guns filling the apartment from floor to ceiling, all of the weapons linked to a decade's worth of unsolved murders in the city.

Shifting perspective, Ellis reveals these killings were done by a prolific serial killer named The Hunter who has let himself be hired by a group of people to take down anyone that stands in their path. The Hunter is another interesting creation by Ellis: the killer perceives Manhattan through two different times, the current age and a pre-New York wilderness. Moreover, The Hunter believes that if he somehow completes his shrine, he would be able to supernaturally return the city back to its Eden-like state.  

The good news is that with Gun Machine, Ellis has created a fascinating, sometimes amusing, detective thriller, a "cat-and-mouse" chase as Tallow tries to find The Hunter through the Ellis-weird streets of New York City. He even manages to introduce an endearingly weird pair of CSI characters to act as the story's score card. But unlike Crooked Little Vein which switched back-and-forth between the Weird Americana (reminiscent of Planetary) and snappy political commentary (natch, Transmetropolitan) so fast you would have gotten whiplash, Ellis keeps the plot together this time and brings it all the way to a nice, proper end.

The bad news is that, like Crooked Little Vein, this story still felt slight such that I didn't feel totally involved in the story. Essentially, I get the feeling that Ellis' novel-writing skills isn't all there yet. Maybe that's the problem with comic book writers-turned-novelists. In comic books, there's really no chance for the writer's voice to be heard. And that's okay-- because for comic books, it's the artist's skill that recreates the narrative in the reader's mind.

However, in novels, it's the writer's voice that delivers the narrative. Think of a number of characters' voices in comic books-- say, Jerusalem Spider of Transmetropolitan or Yorick Brown of Y the Last Man. These aren't the voices of the writers but of the creations themselves. In novels, the writer's voice or the voice of the narrative is distinct from those of the characters.

But despite the two novel-misses so far, Ellis still remains hands-down one of the best idea man/writer in the business regardless of the medium (i.e. comics or books). You can actually see how much he's improved his skills from one book to the next and that's why I'm still game to try out his next book.

Your mileage may vary. (Two paws out of four.)

*Yes, I know there are novelists who have tried their skill writing comic books, like Joe Hill, Clive Barker, and Chris Roberson. Likewise, most of these writers still go back and forth this street writing comic books and/or novels. Bear with me on this metaphor.

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