Doktor Sleepless – A Review

“Future Science Jesus”

Warren Ellis (newuniversal, Thunderbolts, Desolation Jones) is one of those writers who even at his most lackadaisical, his stories are interesting, hyper, and edgy, not easily slipping from the mind. Sometimes his ideas are big (Planetary), sometimes he’s simply exploring what the comic book form can do (Fell). Sometimes he likes to mount philosophical campaigns with a measure of technofuturism thrown in for good measure, integrating every half-possible speculation into his writings (Transmetropolitan, so the comparisons between these two books is understandable).

As much anarchist manifesto, V for Vendetta with a more science fiction bent, Doktor Sleepless is chock full of Ellis’ philosophical musings, throwing out some interesting ideas about the present and future of technology and its impact on social networking, community, and our individuality.

“All are welcome in my house for it has many rooms.” –Doktor Sleepless

Doktor Sleepless, aka John Reindhart, our post-modern shaman and techno-messiah, stopped being real and became a character. By his thinking, the only way for a messenger to promulgate his message is to create an image of himself, shifting from man to legend, in order for his ideas to take root and spread. The reader right away dives into a techno-fetishist world of drugs, IM on contact lenses (Clatter), extreme body modifications, abortions kept as jewelry, shriek girl subculture (girls who are wirelessly connected for simultaneous experience), and tulpas (idea thought forms made manifest).

“The one thing I can tell you about the world is that it doesn’t work. It is in fact so fucking broken that if it were this computer here, you’d take it to the store and demand a new one.” –Doktor Sleepless

The grinders, the everyday work class, toil in what passes for their lives in Heavenside, a place separated by a mountain range from Hellside. Signs have popped up expressing their disappointment with the future they were promised: No flying cars, no jet packs, no space ships, no ray guns. Doktor Sleepless has taken it upon himself to lead them from their mundane lives of complacency and acceptance and move them toward a path of fulfilling who they were meant to be.

The first step on this path to individual freedom is the realization of the dilemma that we find ourselves in. In their world, there is something terribly wrong. The people live lives of coerced conformity, their freedoms curtailed. They sense that they weren’t who they were supposed to be. For the grinders, their shame, their sin, is in their very ordinariness, aggressive apathy, not life to their fullest potential.

“Changing the world is as easy, and as hard, as just changing the way every thinks about their world.” –Doktor Sleepless

The true revolution begins, with a new idea and faith in a new hope. For such a revolution to take root, it needs messengers to carry the idea forth and converts to live out the mission. Doktor Sleepless and his assistant, the murdering assassin/bodyguard Nurse Igor, weave a tapestry of symbols, propaganda war, and the occasional spot of violence to nudge the grinders toward taking ahold of their situation, living for their future rather than waiting on it.

“Stop looking for something that isn’t there. You live in the future and you don’t know it.” –Doktor Sleepless

Doktor Sleepless is more than Ellis being Ellis. It’s science-fiction at its highest, full of ideas examining community, identity, ideas, future, technology. It also sees Ellis at his most poetic, though admittedly some of the prose in the book began as flash fiction pieces for him. He’s not walking through this one, doling out fanboy biscuits of violence and bastards. There is a brooding intentionality, a philosophical scraping, as he pulls together not only this graphic novel but in a bit of meta collaboration, a shared/network experience, a wiki emulator website so that entries can be added to by anyone. Everything is connected.

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Ultimate Human – A Review

“Redemption Story”

Written by: Warren Ellis
Art by: Cary Nord
Published by: Marvel Comics

Bruce Banner (the Hulk) and Tony Stark (Iron Man) are the “two halves of the push to post-humanity.” Both brilliant scientist, yet one has a lifetime mired in failure as much as the other has had success. So, in Ultimate Human, Bruce Banner has come to Tony Stark in the hopes of finding a cure for his condition. Warren Ellis begins to do for the Ultimate version of the Hulk what Peter David did for the mainline version of him – explore what truly makes him the Hulk, psychologically and physically.

“I’ve been sick my whole life and had to fight for everything I ever wanted. And never got it. Never.” –Bruce Banner

Like Bruce Banner, part of us realize that we live in a “failure condition.” We largely sleepwalk through life, wondering what’s it all about, why we are here, what we’re supposed to do and be. The idea reminded me of the book New Way to be Human by Charlie Peacock and how we all begin with a Story, a Story that God steps into. The story has four major arcs:

Creation – The story of all that is right and good about people and the world. We were created in His image, related to God, in right relationship with Him, under His rule and agenda. We were his servant-representatives in the world, responsible for one another and stewards of creation. Made for community and unbroken relationships, we were also created not only with intelligence, but also with a free will to choose.

Fall – The story of what went wrong, what is wrong, with them. With our ability to choose, we were intolerant of mystery and the gaps in our knowledge. So we sought our own way, disconnecting ourselves from the rhythm of life set out by God, becoming alienated not only from each other, but God and creation. This turning away from God to your own assumption of living life is the very definition of sin.

“Save me.” –Bruce Banner

Redemption – The story of the mission to restore. God unfolds His relational Word, in conversation, in Laws, in history, and, ultimately, in Christ. He seeks to rescue His people and usher in His kingdom, a new way of living.
New Creation – The story of the completion of that mission. One day we’ll see the end goal of perfection, of new heavens and new earth. That is the hope in which we live.

So being the ultimate human begins with repentance, exchanging your old way of life for a new way. One where we know the story and then live out the mission, centering around one simple idea: “”Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37-40).

Being the ultimate human is to participate in the story, embracing all aspects of life, but living with the goal of loving everyone and everything with holiness and imagination. It should impact how we work, how we play, and how we relate to one another; finding our redemptive mission in continuing the work He began to reconcile all of creation to Him.

Warren Ellis is great at playing in other people’s sandboxes. He respects the characters and fleshes them out even as he explores them in dark turns. The ultimate versions of these traditional heroes allows him to play with his full palette of science fiction tricks and jargon. The art mirrors the cinematic style that Ellis worked with during his run on The Authority, except this time it comes at the hands of a very capable Cary Nord. The book, like much of Marvel’s comic line these days, has the heady aroma of marketing opportunism (look for the trade paperback of this mini-series to come out in time for both the Iron Man and Hulk 2 movies), but Ellis keeps the story both interesting and relevant to the rest of the Ultimate universe.


Desolation Jones-A Review

Writer: Warren Ellis
Artist: J.H. Williams III
Published by: Wildstorm/DC

I’m finding it hard to wrap my mind around the idea of Warren Ellis (newuniversal, Fell) writing an ill-adjusted misanthrope with the personality of a bastard. Yet here we have a new ongoing title from Warren Ellis and J.H. Williams III. Desolation Jones has a premise fairly similar to that of the USA show, Burn Notice: Michael Jones, a former MI-6 operative, bottoms out and ends up trapped in L.A., where the authorities keep ex-intelligence community. He works as a private investigator to make ends meet. Where it differs is that he was a part of a project called the Desolation Test. For a year, he had the life tortured out of him, to the point where he was incapable of feeling, of being concerned.

Ellis explores corrupt societies through his subversive stories, though they don’t seem nearly so subversive when he’s given free reign as opposed to playing in someone else’s sandbox (say, like with Thunderbolts). Though the book has its brutal edge—Jones’ case involves the search for stolen Hitler porn—Jones isn’t the typical Ellis badass. Sure, he’s still a smart, sarcastic tough guy, but he’s a scrawny, scarred, can’t handle direct sunlight. Like many of his protagonists, Ellis imbues his cold, cynical exterior with an idealistic core.

“You know what you learn from that? Death is easy. Death is ordinary. It is not special. Your life is not special.” –Michael Jones

Many of Ellis’ characters tend to embrace their anger and bitterness. Nurturing those qualities as fuel to get up in the morning, a state of living desperation, a man whose life is falling apart – they are flawed but intriguing characters that are also inescapably human. We derive our self-worth from what we do, we’re of value because of how we behave or how much we have. Michael Jones seems to exist at the bottom of his life, with nothing left to lose. His is the ultimate end of self moment, the point of clarity that can often define us. We try to fix ourselves, essentially creating a self-salvation scheme as we try to re-create ourselves by trying to maintain control, to be the gods of our own lives, often neglecting the things that should truly be the most important things in our lives.

We should all have confessional moments, a moment of examination when we look inward and realize that we aren’t where we were meant to be, not doing what we were meant to do, not living how we were meant to live. Brennan Manning says it this way: “Sanctity lies in discovering my true self, moving toward it, and living out of it… While the impostor draws his identity from past achievements, and the adulation of others, the true self claims its identity in its belovedness. We give glory to God simply by being ourselves.

Desolation Jones isn’t quite Ellis playing in the typical Ellis sandbox. We still get plenty of the over-the-top scenarios, the peek into the underground subculture. J.H. Williams III brings his Promethea palette to the book giving a richness to its aesthetic. The only weakness to the book is the familiarity of it: we get investigations into the weird by an intelligent protagonist and his sexy assistant; all against the back drop of philosophical discussions and tech intrigue. Thing is, it’s still Warren Ellis doing what Warren Ellis does best. The dialogue snaps, making his screwed up sensibilities go down that much easier. And though it seems familiar, it’s always fun to watch him explore these characters.

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newuniversal – A Review

Writer: Warren Ellis
Artist: Salvador Larocca

Publisher: Marvel
Price: $2.99

Release Date: December 6, 2006

I missed the whole “New Universe” experiment the first time around. Okay, “missed” isn’t the right word: “skipped” is more like it. Back in 1986, on the heels of Jim Shooter’s (Marvel’s then editor-in-chief) Secret Wars II (thus the reason why I skipped it), the premise was what if, on a world exactly like ours, a cosmic event granted people super powers. The comics line spawned such titles as Star Brand, Spitfire and the Troubleshooters, D.P.-7, Nightmask, Kickers, Inc. and Justice … and fizzled out after three years. Good idea, poor execution (which pretty much sums up my opinion of Jim Shooter on the whole). However, one could argue that the idea was a couple decades ahead of its time as the high concept is one that has been already explored quite a bit lately (see Rising Stars, Squadron Supreme, and Heroes). So apparently the conceit is one worth re-exploring.

There are certain creators that you turn to when you want something re-imagined, namely, your most imaginative creators. Topping that list are Alan Moore (V for Vendetta, Watchmen, most of his Wildstorm work), Neil Gaiman (Eternals), Grant Morrison (Batman: Arkham Asylum, and his Seven Soldiers experiment), and Warren Ellis (Thunderbolts, Fell, and Nextwave). In typical Ellis style, he reboots the universe as newuniversal and tinkers with the back story a bit. The story picks up after a cosmic “White Event”, which gives a small percentage of people special abilities. Basically, it sparks an evolutionary leap. The Event strikes an alternate Earth where John Lennon is alive and Paul McCartney is dead and China is a superpower ahead of America in the space race.

“This is a paradigm shift. Everything you know has changed. Please remain calm.” –Communications Station

The White Event is that moment when everything changes. Paradigm shifts can be shattering experiences, especially rocking some people’s faith and their sense of who they are. New chapters or phases in life are often ushered in by forms of depression since we’re talking about the loss of security in what we believe. Sometimes life throws things at you that your faith, as constructed, isn’t able to fit into what we’ve been taught. Too often we construct these theological boxes, easily understood models of interpretation, then force our idea of reality into them. When we run into some new idea or experience or, gasp, question, we have to force it into those boxes, no matter what kind of yoga contortions we have to do to those ideas in order to cram them into those boxes.

Eventually you run up against the principle of the lemon law: how much time, energy, and resources do you pour into your car before you declare it a lemon and get a new one? At what point does a “White Event” shatter your boxes?

“The web is not of nature. It is an artificial construct.” –Communications Station

When paradigm shifts rip out the foundations of how we see things, we have to rebuild a way of seeing things. Which is why the idea of a web is so intriguing. The way it is constructed, it has several contact points, it is flexible and more easily repaired when one of the contact points is knocked loose. Spiritually speaking, we could have several contact points: the story of our faith, the tradition of our faith, our personal reason, and our spiritual experience. These create anchor points, a point of view, stable yet dynamic since it moves within a context of larger forces and reality.

In the ensuing chaos that paradigm shifts bring, as we learn to let go of our old ways of doing things, we can emerge into new life, a new way of thinking and looking at things. It helps to have “alters sentients on that world to act as heralds”, teachers, who can guide or otherwise smooth the way.

“The world has skirted the edge of new universal structure before. We believe this instance of planetary contact with the web is, finally, a long-term one.” –Communications Station

newuniversal has plenty of those Warren Ellis big concepts we’ve come to expect, such as the Superflow (the interconnectedness of creation). However, the overarching theme is that a new age has been ushered in, a new way of living, and we stand on the brink of a new universal structure, a new heavens and new earth scenario. In light of this, we need to join in the mission of who we were meant to be and join in the mission of justice and reconciliation.

The best part about Warren Ellis working within the confines of already established characters is that he doesn’t get to default to his stock protagonists and turn it into a “Warren Ellis comic”. The art is crisp and clean and has a sense of … scale to it (kind of harkening back to that cinematic style that accompanied Ellis’ work on The Authority). Rarely is Ellis weird for weird’s sake (hello Morrison and Moore) and when he’s on his game, you pay attention. newuniversal is intelligent and exciting. Pay attention.

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“Faith in Monsters” – Number 110
Written by Warren Ellis
Art by Mike Deodato, Jr.
Published Marvel Comics
Price $2.99

The idea of using a group of super-villains to do good is a long standing one, DC’s Suicide Squad springs to mind. When they were first introduced to the Marvel Universe, the Thunderbolts had the interesting premise of villains pretending to be heroes and then eventually working to become heroes. Because of the scenarios spinning out of Marvel’s Civil War event, a new group of villains have been brought in to protect the public by tracking down and apprehending unregistered superheroes. There is a track record of the rehabilitative element to the work paying off, which has led to much of the original team turning over a new leaf. But, let’s face it, this go around, you’re asking super-villains to track down their enemies and not be punished for it (in fact, to be pardoned and then rewarded).

Under Warren Ellis (Transmetropolitan, Planetary, The Authority), a mix of Marvel’s most popular villains, mixed with a couple of B-listers, are put on the same team (ala, the villains answer to The New Avengers): Venom, Moonstone, Bullseye, Songbird, the Radioactive Man, Penance and Norman Osborn (the Green Goblin) – clearly one of the most outlandish, potential combustible line-ups ever. The insane, spree-killing duo of Venom and Bullseye alone do that. Add the fact that it takes strong, manipulative personalities to hold the team of villains together (Norman Osborn as the head, the liason with the government, and Moonstone in the field) and you have a list of bad ideas waiting to explode at any moment.

Whereas I get the sense that Garth Ennis (The Boys) does things strictly to shock, I get the opposite sense from Ellis – like he is taking shocking things and forcing you to accept them. Maybe it’s simply that Ellis has a lighter touch with more macabre ideas. Here you have a collection of serial killers sanctioned by the government.

Coming out of the cynicism of Civil War, the book has a cloud about it. That might stem from the fact that there is a sense that nothing done under Ellis’ year long run will matter. In essence, it is a mini-series within the series that will be forgotten in a year (do I need to re-hash the track record of these sort of things? Okay, one word for you: Onslaught). Not that there aren’t moments to enjoy. The Bullseye scenes are terrific. Ellis is masterful at making both Bullseye and Norman Osborn scary, each having an “I’ll kill you if you give me the chance” vibe dripping from every line of dialogue.
“None of us should be arrogant or stubborn when American heroes offer us redemption.” –Norman Osborn

A friend of mine had an objection to the Buffy the Vampire Slayer spin-off show Angel: he couldn’t get past the idea of using evil to vanquish evil. He had particular problems with the idea of using evil to do good. Granted, I argued that he missed the entire point of the show, but I can only imagine that he would have fits with Thunderbolts. The biggest thing that gets over looked when pointing out the sins of others is that people usually miss the fact that we’re all in the same boat. None of us are perfect. None of us live up to our potential of who we were meant to be. In that regard, we are all broken vessels, flawed, with feet of clay. What sets us apart isn’t how less we sin, how less villainous we are; what can lead to us being “heroic”, is our search for redemption.

As we examine our lives, where we’ve been, how far we are from where we should be, we may find ourselves asking if we can ever do enough good to balance the scales for all the evil, all the mistakes, you’ve done in your past? The past shapes who we are, but it doesn’t define who we can be. We are more than just sinners. We are first Eikons of God, created to relate to God, to relate to others, and to govern the world as Eikons. There is all the difference in the world in depicting humans as simply sinners and seeing sinfulness as the condition and behavior of a cracked Eikon.

As such, the good news of our situation isn’t just that there is a pardon and (eternal) reward for us. That is only part of the message, only part of the journey that begins with being repentant and turning our backs on our old ways of living. The rest of the message becomes about seeking wholeness, being restored in all the dimensions of humanity, being fully human. However, it doesn’t stop there: being the beneficiaries of grace, a grace represented in the pardon, should move us to outward expression. Doing good, being blessings to the world.

Paired with fan favorite artist, Mike Deodato, Jr., and his hyper-realistic art style, Warren Ellis delivers a book sure to please. If it doesn’t quite hit on all notes, well, that might be the price of playing in a toybox of such established characters. The original Thunderbolts team was about voluntary redemption, villains trying to reform and live a better way. This team is mercenary; redemption, if you can call it that, as a means to an end. What saves this book is Warren Ellis. Like Grant Morrison, he’s an original thinker, wringing new ideas and perspectives from tired concepts. Plus he’s a skilled writer, bringing his usual wit and satirical edge to the book (come on, the ads for the Thunderbolts action figures?). In his hands, Thunderbolts is a ride you can sit back and enjoy.

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