Warren Ellis on the unique narrative power of comics

Warren Ellis's closing keynote from the Thought Bubble festival in Leeds is distilled Ellis: witty and wordsmithed, insightful and thoughtful, futuristic and deeply contemporary.

Ellis's subject was the unique merits and practices of comics, the traits that have made it the incubator for so much successful media in other forms, from movies to fashion to games to toys.

Comics is a form without convention: there is not even a standardized way of writing a comics script, much less a standard way for artists and writers to collaborate once the script is done.

This has created an endless variety of storytelling modes in comics, where illustrations are used to bend space and time, stretching and compressing it, even running multiple timelines in parallel, in a way that is never matched in any other form.

Combine this with a new golden age of diversity in comics in which the usual suspects are having to share the stage with new creators telling new stories and you have a medium not quite like any other.

There’s a page I often cite in these conversations, from the 1974 comic MANHUNTER by Archie Goodwin and Walt Simonson. It’s an entire Jason Bourne sequence in a single page. In a Marrakesh alleyway, Damon Nostrand is in a car attempting to run down Paul Kirk and Christine St Clair. Kirk pushes St Clair to cover, rolls under the speeding car, draws a knife, tears it through the car’s petrol tank as it passes over him, gets clear, lights a match, touches it to the trail of petrol the car leaves, the petrol blazes down the alley to the car, the car explodes, and then they do three or four lines of dialogue while watching Nostrand burn to death about how it’s horrible but really he was a bit of a git and completely deserved it. One page. Employing “camera angles” and compositions that even now the likes of Paul Greengrass would go blind trying to replicate.

Also: a curling, snarling Peter Kuper piece can sear the page with its anger in a way that no photorealistic artist will ever be able to communicate. Any single page by Julie Doucet was grimier and sleazier and more frightening and infinitely more real and true than the whole of Martin Scorcese’s back catalogue. A room drawn by Eddie Campbell will be more real than any snapshot, because his line is almost like handwriting, and has human breath upon it. Dash Shaw’s work may look rough on first look, but stay with it, look at how he conveys the essence of an idea in every panel, and you’ll realise how hard he sometimes works to evoke an entire world with so few elements. Allie Brosh’s mutated doodles immediately read as people wearing their emotions on the outside of their bodies.

Realism and naturalism have as little application here as they did in cave painting. Other peoples’ rules don’t count, here in our room. Our medium has the broadest reach because it’s such a simple thing, and yet engages with so many more parts of your brain, and the reader works with the creators inside the pages.

Comics are not film. We have a far larger toolbox. Tools borrowed from everything else, rooted in the original human expression of time and space and memory.

Warren Ellis discussing the comics form [Beyond the Beyond]

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