Propaganda – Best of the Year 2007 Part II: Fluffy Bunnies and Warren Ellis
This is Propaganda, I’m Richard Bruton and this is the second part of my look at the Best of the Year graphic novels. Following on from yesterday’s piece on Shooting War today we’re having a closer look at numbers 2 and 3 on my Best of Year list, Simone Lia’s Fluffy and Warren Ellis and Ben Templesmith’s Fell: Feral City.
Written and illustrated by Simone Lia
For a book featuring a very cute talking bunny Fluffy is an almost unbearably sad tale. At the heart of this desperate sadness is Fluffy, a talking baby rabbit who genuinely believes that a man called Michael is his daddy. And although Michael knows he must tell this poor deluded little rabbit the truth so many things seem to keep getting in the way.
Because as troubled and deluded Fluffy is, it’s nothing compared to the mess that Michael is in. He’s a seething mass of anxiety, despair and stress, desperate for closeness, yet struggling with the demands placed upon him from Fluffy and the unwanted attention of Fluffy’s nursery school teacher. Michael has a feeling that life is just too much for him to cope with, that there’s too much weighing down upon him, too many things demanding his time, and it’s heartbreaking to see Fluffy’s love for him causing him such pain.
(panels from Simone Lia’s Fluffy, published by Jonathan Cape. Could the question about hair be a subtle joke? Hair-hare-rabbit, geddit? Never mind…)
In a telling spread, Michael’s brain map looks at his current situation and does the simplest thing it can – decides to run. His weakness is palpable. He’s just not strong enough to cope with his life. And you’re angry at him; angry that he is letting Fluffy down. But thankfully, in running to Sicily to visit Michael’s family at least some of the problems are resolved, not the least of which is Fluffy’s partial acceptance of his Rabbit nature, Michael’s acceptance of Fluffy’s unconditional love and the Nursery Teacher calling off her pursuit.
It’s testament to Lia’s writing and gorgeous artwork that we, the reader, never question the logic of a baby talking rabbit desperate for love from his daddy. It’s an even greater achievement to make the reader care so much about the characters. The sense of longing and dependency from Fluffy, the sense of anxiety, stress and desperation from Michael are all expertly realised in Lia’s wonderful story.
But in the end, as if she realised that the despair was becoming a little too much for this funny animal story, Lia gives us salvation in Michael’s acceptance of his lot in life and a pledge to find beauty in the moment. The most wonderful scene occurs late in the story as Michael’s brain turns his thoughts from “my life is a mess” to “everything is beautiful”.
Michael leans back and simply realises that it’s all worthwhile, that there is no reason to worry, no reason to be stressed and every reason to live his life and look after the one thing that has always loved him – Fluffy. The realisation strikes in the top two panels, as Michael accepts that his life will not be the perfect thing he wanted. And it doesn’t matter. All that matters is here and now. All that matters is one tiny life is dependent upon you and you’ll never be happier than when you accept this. That perfect moment in the last panel is all that truly matters.
What Simone Lia manages to do so very well in Fluffy is capture a parent’s intense feelings of desperation, the continual worry and that guilt ridden selfish thought that your life is being taken over by someone else. We all suffer this at some point as we realise that our lives are no longer our own and they’re being controlled by our small bundle of joy. Lia quietly and powerfully paints a powerful, emotional portrait of what it’s like to be a parent.
(relationships are always tricky, especially when you seem to be experiencing an ‘Amelie’ type moment; (c) Simone Lia)
Fluffy is an absolute joy of a graphic novel, full of unanswerable questions about life, love, responsibility and reality. Simone Lia’s art matched the emotional power of the story with a simplified style, cartoonish, fanciful yet capable of conveying intense emotional range in a few lines. Fluffy is achingly sad in parts yet manages to end in a way that fills even our cold, grown up hearts with joy. It’s a perfect Christmas present and a perfect book.
Written by Warren Ellis
Art by Ben Templesmith
Warren Ellis is one of a key group of incredibly good British comics writers working in comics today, and in my opinion is in the top three (and that’s my top three – don’t argue) with Alan Moore and Grant Morrison. What I’ve always found fascinating with Ellis is that he’s continually experimenting, not only with the types of stories he tells but also the means of telling them. He’s always trying to find new and innovative ways of delivering comics, always looking at new technologies, new methods and new marketing strategies to challenge the accepted status quo.
Fell is the result of one of Ellis’ experiments in storytelling, from an idea formed as a response to the apparent demise of the comic as a throwaway pamphlet. The key idea is to produce something cheap and satisfying – a 16 page thin pamphlet for $1.99. But to also make each issue totally self-contained, an exercise in pure storytelling.
The first eight issues presented here all stick to pretty much the same formula; almost like TV drama in it’s structure with each self contained issue setting up and then resolving a story, yet within the greater drama there are points of ongoing character development. Fell is a stunning collection of great stories, all infused with Ellis’ trademark gonzo style familiar to all of us who’ve read his work on Transmetropolitan and that pays obvious dues to the work of writers such as the late, great Hunter S Thompson.
(welcome to Snowtown – the first page of Warren Ellis and Ben Templesmith’s Fell: Feral City, published by Image)
Fell is set in Snowtown, a part of the bigger un-named city that no longer wants any part of its little diseased suburb. Because Snowtown, quite obviously from the very first page of the book, is rotten to its core. It’s the Feral City of the title, a nightmare of urban decay with a populous either already driven mad by the depravity and desperation of the place or rapidly getting there. No one in Snowtown is normal, no one appears sane.
Richard Fell was the great police detective in the big city. But something happened, something big, nasty and very, very serious. Only the mysterious debt owed by the Police Commissioner keeps him on the force. As it is he’s shipped out of the city, across the bridge to Snowtown and told he’s to stay there until things blow over. This is Fell’s big secret, the credo he lives by: everyone is hiding something, even him.
The scale of the problem facing Fell is pretty obvious from his first meeting with his commanding officer, who patently isn’t well:
“You see, we cannot win. We are in hell, you and I. And I think you were probably transferred here so that I didn’t die alone. And I’m grateful for that. I think we will be friends. I have to take quite a lot of pills now.”
Every issue here, every 16 pages is a fantastic little story, there’s no filler, no slacking of the pace, the format simply doesn’t allow it. Ellis writes exactly as we know he loves to; filling his pages with the bizarre and the depraved, Nixon nuns with firearms, suicide bombers, voodoo worshiping basket cases, the sick, the twisted, the just plain stupid and the general flotsam and jetsam of a society gone over the edge. But he never allows the story to be overwhelmed by what’s going on around it. The basic police procedural plotline is always to the fore, necessarily so with only 16 short pages to tell the story in.
My favourite piece is the interrogation issue, where Fell and a suspect play out a deliciously twisted two-hander across the issue, with Fell trying to open up the suspect and get him to talk before the police run out of time and have to release him.
Fell: “Yardley & 88. Lots of people, lots of noise.”
Suspect: “I guess. I see lots of people“
Fell: “Corner Apartment?”
Suspect: “How’d you know that?”
Fell: “You like to watch. Corner apartment. Big windows. Playing with a couple of guns and just watching”.
Fell: “I threw the word “Noise” at you. You came back with “see.” So right now I know you’re visually geared.”
Fell: ““Look”? Do you get it? How many other people would have said “Listen” to get me to focus on what they were saying to me?”
And it carries on like this, Fell completely disconcerting and dismantling this guy, until he cracks. It’s a simple plot device, but it’s quite wonderfully done. You’re drawn into the room, into the heads of both Fell and the suspect as Fell slowly yet surely pulls the suspect’s psyche apart.
A truly great piece of writing from Ellis is made so much better by the choice of artist, something that Ellis (or his editors) doesn’t always get right). When Ellis gels with an artist the result is often incredible; think John Cassaday on Planetary, Bryan Hitch on Authority or Darick Robertson on Transmetropolitan. Here, the art is handled quite beautifully by Ben Templesmith, famous now for his work on 30 Days Of Night. But as good as that was, the work on Fell has been much, much better.
Working to a very simple layout, usually a 3-tier page, between 5 to 9 panels per page, Templesmith manages to produce some incredible art; conveying both a sense of style and visual flair. But much more importantly, given the limited number of pages available to tell these fantastic little stories, Templesmith also proves he’s an excellent storyteller, his art functions incredibly well in service to Ellis’ writing. It’s visually interesting, detailed where necessary, veering into abstraction where necessary, but never failing to convey exactly what it should about the story.
(Father Jack’s worst nightmare – a Richard Nixon nun in Fell, published Image, (c) Warren Ellis and Ben Templesmith)
Fell is a stunning example of a great writer at the height of his powers teamed with an artist producing incredible work. This ranks up there with Planetary, Desolation Jones and Transmetropolitan as some of Ellis’ best works. A tour de force of everything that’s good about genre fiction in comics and quite simply the best example of crime fiction I’ve read for a while. Highly recommended.