Propaganda – a two-finger salute to Crecy, one finger to Doktor Sleepless
This is Propaganda, I’m Richard Bruton and this is what I’ve been reading lately:
By Warren Ellis & Raulo Caceres
Having seemingly tried every other possible iteration of subject in comics, Warren Ellis has now provided us with Crecy; possibly the only example in comics of the historical first person comic fiction lecture. And I’ll warn you now, this features scenes of violence and very naughty language, so if you are easily offended you might want to skip this. Of course, if you are easily offended you probably don’t read Warren Ellis much, which is your loss.
Now the thing about Warren Ellis is that you always know what you’ll be getting. He has a style of writing that is just instantly recognisable, no matter what the story is. The overwhelming feeling with an Ellis book is one of nastiness, sarcasm and bile. I don’t think this is a bad thing. In fact it’s rare to find a Warren Ellis comic that I don’t like and the worst criticism I can bring to bear is that sometimes his ideas are too plentiful and some of his material seems ill thought out and produced too quickly in an attempt to get the next idea into production.
But with Crecy, he’s on top form, producing something quite unlike anything on the shelves at the moment. A historical fiction with a modern sensibility, full of the nastiness and attention to detail that Ellis does so very well. It’s all here; the sharpness of his dialogue, the obsession with technology, a violence in his language, a delight in the details and more than anything else, when he’s writing to his top form, a sheer exuberance and love of knowing and sharing his subject.
(panels from Crecy by Warren and Ellis Raulo Caceres, with Warren no doubt riffing on the term ‘bugger’; published by Avatar)
Crecy is a great, entertaining, bawdy romp through the story of the famous battle of Crecy. Ignore the back cover blurb where some ad exec at Avatar decided to not too subtly draw parallels with the American invasion of Iraq and just dive into the story. Ellis presents the entire battle of Crecy in these 64 pages where a small and completely outnumbered English army faced a French force of crossbowmen and knights and, over the course of the battle, completely devastated not just the French army, but the French aristocracy. Less than 300 Englishmen were killed, but the French death toll exceeded 30,000, including 11 princes, an archbishop and 1200 knights and noblemen. Crecy established the English army as a major force in the world and is credited as being the point in history where the ideas of chivalry and decency in warfare were lost forever.
And if there’s one writer in comics eminently suited to write about a loss of the chivalrous ideal it’s Warren Ellis. The main protagonist, William of Stonham, is one of the seven thousand five hundred longbowmen in a twelve thousand strong army marching their way around Northern France, destroying village after village in a grand tour taking in the beautiful French countryside of Caen, Paris, Abbeville and now Crecy, leaving the simple message: Don’t fuck with the English, if we’re mad enough to do this, you really don’t want to even think about invading us.
The whole book is presented as a first person lecture delivered to the modern audience by William of Stonham. Ellis has his narrator / lecturer report and editorialise in modern English totally aware of the modern audience he’s addressing, which not only reads a damn sight better than the usual historical narrative of “foresoth my King, I see the French approaching. Today shalt be a good day to die” etc, etc, but also allows the narrator to step further out of his own story to present the greater historical and military picture to us, the readers.
It also lets Ellis utilise his almost patented nasty, sarcastic first person dialogue. These English soldiers are common men, full of the xenophobic hatred of anything they don’t know. And this is 1346; they don’t know much, a trip to the next village is seen as a grand adventure into the unknown. The tone of the book is set from the very first page:
“This is a story about the English and the French and why the English hate the French.
Which is because they eat frogs, they smell bad, and they’re twenty five miles away”
“I am, of course, a complete bloody xenophobe who comes from a time when it was acceptable to treat people in the next village like they were subhumans. On the other hand, the French make sausages out of horse’s arseholes and have a history of using England as their toilet.”
“So we call the French snail-eating cunts and they can fucking like it. There’s a word you’ll have to get used to. Cunt. This is a word that many people do not like. But you have to understand the English. In England, the word cunt is punctuation.”
And it goes on like that for all 64 wonderfully nasty, detailed and historically accurate pages. What follows reads like a stand up comedy routine and historical lecture channelled through equal parts Simon Schama and Bill Hicks. This is not the pleasant, cleaned up version of history that we’re usually presented with. This version has all the drudgery, pain, dirt and shit left in. In fact, thanks to Warren I now know that the dirt is used to coat the arrowheads to make the wounds even worse and the longbowmen smear shit on their swords to make even the smallest cut a fatal one. Cheers for that Warren.
The artwork on Crecy is a pleasant change from the usual choice of Avatar artist. In the past the artists have been distinctly average at best, but in Crecy, Raulo Caceres delivers quality, detailed black and white brilliance. The dirt, the shit, the sheer drudgery of the march followed by the terror and insanity of the battle is all captured on the page better than many name artists could begin to manage.
So, if you fancy a nice little historical drama, full of the romance and decency of days gone by, go and read Bernard Cornwell. This is Warren Ellis and he doesn’t do nice. But he does do brilliant comicbooks. Maybe this could become an irregular series? Waterloo next maybe?
By Warren Ellis & Ivan Rodriguez
The worst thing about Doktor Sleepless is that I was really looking forward to this, thinking it might just be the new Transmetropolitan, which was the book where Warren’s stylings and voice perfectly synched with a killer story. But this just reads like someone ghosting Ellis after reading a few of his books, taking all the obvious aspects of his writing and ignoring the smaller, quieter touches that elevate his work above sci-fi hackery into something thoroughly enjoyable and exciting. It’s listening to a favourite song destroyed by a really awful covers band or admitting that your favourite band’s latest album is, after all, crap.
Either that or this is half an idea from Ellis’ over-fertile imagination that was rushed into print and is knocked off, one issue at a time, in between projects he cares more about. If you’ve ever read a Warren Ellis book you’ll immediately recognise the nasty edge, the sarcastic tone and the technological one-liners. For example, Page 1:
“Today I stop being real. No-one’s going to listen to a boy genius. No-one’s going to listen to a philosopher or a traveller.”
“People like listening to characters. Characters are safe, because they’re not real. So today I become a character.”
“…Doktor Sleepless. He’s something else entirely. Who’s afraid of a cartoon mad scientist?”
So Doktor Sleepless careers around the city hitting people and spouting slogans. Inconsequential stuff happens, there’s a plot twist over the true identity of Doktor Sleepless and not a lot else.
(panels from Doktor Sleepless by Warren Ellis, with art by Ivan Rodriguez, published Avatar)
So let’s just pretend this didn’t happen shall we?
If you’re after a sleep deprived anti-hero with a mysterious past living in a world that promised utopia but delivered a dirtier version of now, you would do far better reading Dean Motter’s sublime 1980s comic Mr X. This was recently re-released as two volumes featuring art by Paul Rivoche, the Hernandez Brothers and Seth. It’s everything Doktor Sleepless isn’t. Good being just the start of a long list.
And the saddest thing about all this; I love Warren Ellis’ work normally. Planetary, Transmetropolitan, The Authority, Ministry of Space are huge favourites. So the disappointment that is an issue of Doktor Sleepless just hits much harder than reading some other crap comic from a writer I don’t care about. I’ll be over here in the corner pretending Doktor Sleepless isn’t real and re-reading Planetary for comfort and reassurance.