26 April, 2013

Gun Machine is Good Medicine

Gun Machine, like most of Warren Ellis' work is about shoving interesting people into a situation that is both familiar and chock full of  big ideas that one would never think to associate with something as pat and done as a murder mystery. Law and Order this is not.

With Ellis it's always been less about the results than it seems to be about this passage of time between the covers. There are exceptions to that, but you look at Planetary or Crecy and you see that the grand story takes a backseat to the plot. The moment is more important than the sum total. He is less interested in presenting the why of an interplanetary spaceship hidden underneath the pavement of New York City than he in presenting what that would do to a guy. The depths of his work come out of passing through the world and not out of some traditional conclusion. He rarely ever bothers with telling you that this all means something, instead he lets you sort it out from the puzzle pieces he left behind.

Gun Machine is very much in that style. It seems to be about what these characters are presently dealing with rather than how all of the pieces come together. It is about gears, not the machine. This approach to a procedural prevents the story and all of its threads getting in the way of its main characters. You see this the various history lessons it presents (that seem to have only a tangential baring on the plot) and you see it in how they go about solving the crime. There aren't any hard revelations, there is just the continuation of these characters putting work into this horrific murder contraption that spans New York City. Rather, there's just people dealing with their moment to moment problems. Sometimes those moments involve horrible, roccoco murders.

And you see this in the fact that the serial killer of the story doesn't even have a name (and it even says in the book that it doesn't seem to matter). It isn't about who he is or why he's doing it, the story is about what he is doing and how to stop him.

Another one of Ellis' strengths are his characters. While all great stories tend to have really memorable characters, there is just something special about characters like Spider Jerusalem or Jakita Wagner or just about anyone from Agents of HATE. He writes vulgar, violent characters that are fun to listen to and who you want to hang out with, even if they are utter maniacs and Gun Machine has all of that in spades, even if they aren't as cranked as high as the kind of characters that populate his comic book work (or even Crooked Little Vein, from what I remember).

Ellis' John Tallow, like James Bond, seems to have a name that is designed to be forgotten. He's a terminally uninteresting person and has spent much of his life working at that.

Ellis doesn't seem to be too interested in Tallow's life. That might be because he doesn't have one. The lifeless detective is a blanched human being just short of being a cipher. But being a cipher at least shows the hand of the author, however lazy, Tallow is just, well, he's just a nobody. He's a cop that, like so many people seems to be in the place he is because life carried him along like a piece of driftwood.
Another character that Tallow reminds me of is another sluggish, troubled detective, which is Jo Nesbo's Harry Hole
In that way he is different from the long tradition of troubled detectives. Tallow might not be as complex as a Harry Hole (by the very nature of Hole being featured in nearly 10 novels), but he also cannot be accused of being cliched, except by the laziest and, I'm sure, simple of critics. It certainly is brave to write a main character with no distinguishing personality and it's certaintly a sign of skill if the author can get away with it like Ellis does.

And I want to see the further adventures of John Tallow. Though, there is another difference, which is that Nesbo avoids giving his audience hard and definite ends to al of his book's crises because he has a series to continue and Hole has a life to live beyon this one book. Ellis, on the other hand, just doesn't seem that interested.

What Tallow and this world exists as is perfectly fine. Yet, I want to see more of the batshit insane CSU personnel and I want to see Ellis contrive a way to make Tallow into some kind of a human being, which is something that Tallow seems desperate to try and avoid.

In a way it doesn't matter as this book is all about present action. Seeing Tallow in the future where the past begins to creep into his life would be interesting to see, I also just want more lines like “I am a Crime Scene Unit detective for the New York City Police Department, you heinous fucking mongoloid and there is nothing I cannot do.” If that means that some of the quality of the story is going to suffer, then I guess I'll just have to be okay with that.
On the downside, too much of the story relies on coincidences that a first year screenwriting student would be forced to hack out.Then again it's these coincidences that keep the book from getting bogged down. They're depressingly convienient plot devices. While the plot and the characters are what stand out in this book, they also stand out because they have to do most of the heavy lifting. In many ways the story is an excuse to get their people into rooms with each other and to explain weird things about New York's crypto-geography and that's all well and good, but I don't know that's what the novels were built for.

I still wonder if the novel is Ellis' artform. I do not that even if it isn't one of his mastered mediums, he can still crank out a worthwhile novel that still has all of the massive ideas and creative cursing that you come to expect from the man who dreamed up Spider Jerusalem. Though, creative cursing isn't exactly what one goes to books for (or even comic books for that matter). Ellis is lacking something in this book. As much fun as it is and as many wonderful ideas are on display, none of it adds up to something more significant than just a kooky murder mystery. I guess I'm okay with that.

I just re-read Ennis' Global Frequency, which was recently re-printed in a single trade in its entirety. It's a fantastic comic book and a perfect example of what the medium can do. As a book it moves like a hyper-manic love child of Mission: Impossible and The Twilight Zone. This book introduces these amazing ideas and then casts them off as soon as the story moves along. It isn't in love with its own cleverness, just in telling the story. Besides being a good yarn, it also might make one wonder why the fuck the X-Men need 27 issues and four cross-over books to tell the same kind of story (but with less thrills, emotions, and cost).

I mention this book in the same breath as Gun Machine because, while they are completely different kind of books, they share the same DNA. They are both stories about ideas and these ideas, in turn, help move the plot. The only real difference is that Global Frequency doesn't ever feel like a character has shown up simply to let you know about something rad. There simply isn't enough space for that sort of thing.

Global Frequency reads like a form of Ellis' style and interests that has been boiled down to a crystal form that is either perfectly suited as a weapon or a high-quality narcotic. It takes all of the dark corners that Ellis' stories exists in and only shows us them in these fast-paced forms that are already half-way finished by the time we get to them.

They are almost all tinged with Ellis' unshakable sense of hope, as well. He isn't an optimist, not exactly, but he is a guy that seems to believe that if the right people are there they can outsmart, outfight, outkill, and outlive the worst that the universe has to offer.

While it is also infected with Ellis' hyper-competent, benevolent dictator/Nietzchian superman character that he loves so dearly (ie: Men and women so intensley skilled that you deserve to be murdered by a robot for even bothering to ask who they are and why they are yelling so loud. See: Spider Jersualem, Elijah Snow, and Miranda Zero and maybe the bad guy in Gun Machine if he wasn't, you know, a baddie). As a comic book archetype, there are worse people to spend time with. At least they help stop cyborgs or solve mysteries about angels or gouge out each others' eyeballs.

Reading these two books in such close proximity, though, reminds me why I like Ellis so much and why he is so well regarded in the comics community (or at least why he should be). This trade also serves as is another piece proving that Ellis is not only one of the great storytellers living, but he is also one of our great idea men.

(And not to end this on a love in Wolfskin and Black Summer are both swollen dog corpses that were drowned in a shit-bog. Avoid these comics at all cost. One is lifeless to the point of being offensive and the other is incoherent dreck only serves to remind one that there are stories that exist that have beheadings for a reason.)