We should all be so lucky to get a six issue run from Warren Ellis, even more so if it is from the Big Two. Ellis, one of the premiere comic book scribes of the modern age, has rarely been one for long-form storytelling. His recent runs, usually comprised of a compressed, done-in-one style, last around six issues typically, 27 at the longest. Many lament the brevity of Ellis’ work, yearning for his fiction to be expanded or the old toolboxes to be dusted off and reopened, however it is this brevity that makes his work all the more potent, desirable, and rare in today’s comic climate.
At Ellis’ best, his work is a much needed shot in the arm for whichever company he is working for. His six issues on Moon Knight, supported with a break-out team on art of Declan Shalvey on pencils and ink with Jordie Bellaire on color, were some of the most exciting six issues of a Big Two superhero book on the stands in the year it was coming out. In a world of events, crossovers and tie-ins, and de-compressed story telling that holds your hand but leads you nowhere, Ellis and his team on Moon Knight delivered six lean, perfect issues that all stood on their own and simultaneously sung a sweet chord when placed together.
His collaborators, on their own always worthy of a mention, are what enable this type of storytelling. Take John Cassady, for example, Ellis’ collaborator on his (arguably) most complete long form work to date, Planetary. The 27 issues of Planetary that comprise this run took almost ten years to complete, starting in 1998 and ending in 2009. Both collaborators seemed to have an unconscious sort of understanding on both of their work ethics, leisurely and masterful, and patterned the book around that. All of Planetary’s issues, while Ellis’ longest work, employ the prior mentioned “done-in-one” philosophy, where each issue employs tells a complete story on its own allowing itself to be independently read of its sister issues. During its initial run, many criticized Planetary for the pace in which it was released (myself included) but few complain or even bring this up today in mention of the work. It is that good. However, it is Ellis’ last major long-form work to date, one that would certainly die in single issues if not for the pedigree of the collaborators and the work itself. Post (and even during) Planetary Ellis’ style seemed to develop and move towards the leaner approach he now employs. What Ellis says well in 27 issues he can now say incredibly in six.
Ellis’ compressed storytelling also leads itself to experimentation not only in the length of story in terms of issue, but the pages of the book, itself. Such is the case with Ellis’ Fell, where as of writing this only nine (again, fairly outstanding) issues exist, allowing him and his collaborator Ben Templesmith to produce a lower page count on each book, hereby lowering the price of the book and also allowing experimentation with even further compressed storytelling. The length of the physical book even factors into the mood, forcing a nine-panel grid that feels like the gritty, oppressive suburban nightmare Detective Richard Fell finds himself in. The book is better for it. I stand by issue three of Fell, in which a distraught, suicidal bomber terrorizes a local tailor, as one of the best pieces of sequential storytelling produced in this medium.
Ellis’ compressed storytelling, in my eyes, is also extremely beneficial for the direct market system we are begrudgingly beholden to. Each issue being complete in its own right can further new readers without feeling like they are missing out or need to trade wait, which can unfortunately lead to the cancellation of beloved titles.
The works run almost like miniseries; a six to 10 issue TV show developed by your favorite talents in the industry. Look at any of the current sales figures to note that books that have a start and end point that are accessible to jump onto (if not in plot but namesake) sell well; Civil War 2, DC Rebirth, and the like sell very well in single issues if not as critically remembered as some of their higher quality shelf mates. It’s like Ellis writes the most quality non-event event books; comics that are stellar, stellar reads with far reaching consequences not across a line of books but within your mind for injecting pure sequential storytelling goodness into your amygdala.
This is not to say that compression is the only way comics should be told. Previously mentioned Transmetropolitan runs for an incredible 60 issues, warranting its length entirely and having its ending just as satisfyingly brilliant and cutting as it was when it was stamped with a shiny, new number one on its cover. Ellis contemporaries like Jonathan Hickman work best in decompression, building slowly to incredible, euphoric heights like a prog-rock band playing across the stage to Ellis’ sneering punk trio. Both examples show comics at their best; digest-sized perfection or slow-burn methodical installments exploding to incredible heights.
There are still people clamoring for more issues of both Moon Knight and Fell. Would it still be the case if Ellis wrote 60 issues? How many runs are ended way past their prime and when the final page is closed, the comics community breathes a collective sigh of relief at finally being able to be done with a story they once (and may still) loved in its prime? The compressed style may not work for every author and every book, even Injection seem to be long-form in its current state, but Ellis has found the best tune to play that chord to. In this medium, limited only by the creators’ imagination, both styles, when done right, can fly books off of shelves and reinvigorate readers interest, supporting the comics industry when it proves to the masses just how great they know it can be.
Justin Micallef is a journalist and critic living in Metro Detroit. You can find his work at The Outhouse as well as Detroit Music Magazine. His personally curated brand of disappointed optimism can be found on his Twitter, @JustinRMicallef