guttergeek the discontinuous review of graphic narrative

May/June 2006
Warren Ellis and Ben Templesmith, Fell (Image, 2005-). Irregularly published. $1.99


by
Alex Boney


Fell managed to slide under my radar for its first three issues. Warren Ellis has been exceedingly busy during the past year, and his numerous recent projects (Jack Cross, Down, Desolation Jones, Ocean, Nextwave, Ultimate Extinction, and his contributions to Avatar [Strange Killings, Blackgas and Wolfskin]) seemed to blur together for me.  Daunted by having to choose from among this deluge of books and certain that some were bound to be bad (and some really are), I decided to read none of them. The fact that Fell is an Image book certainly didn’t do much to persuade me to read it. I grew into comics in the late 80s and early 90s and, despite the critical success of Robert Kirkman’s Invincible and Walking Dead, I still bear a lingering grudge against Image for its significant contribution to the industry’s decline (both financial and artistic) in the mid-90s. But a $1.99 cover price is hard to resist in today’s marketplace, and the talk about this particular book was getting louder. So when Fell #4 was released a few months ago, I caved. When I read through the issue, I realized that my biases had kept me from one of the most unique and innovative comic serials I’ve read in the last five years.


Fell presents the story of Richard Fell, a crime squad detective from an unnamed city who, for unspecified reasons, relocates to a city “across the bridge” called Snowtown.  Fell initially says that he has been transferred because Snowtown’s crime unit (consisting of “three and a half” detectives) is undermanned, but the real reasons for his move becomes more ambiguous as the series develops. Issue #4 reveals that something happened which caused Fell to leave his previous home and precinct for an extended, undetermined period of time. Fell isn’t an ordinary detective. He has the ability (in his words) to “read people,” or to perceive quickly the secrets lying behind people’s exterior. He uses this talent not only on potential criminals, but on nearly everyone he talks to, including a bartender named Mayko whom he befriends in the first issue. Fell’s gift (not really a “power”) makes him an effective detective, but it also provides a clever narrative tool that cuts through much of the exposition and drawn-out investigation of traditional detective narratives. Fell works both within and outside the legal system to produce his desired outcome, and he does it quickly. He’s a loner—a maverick and, at times, a vigilante. Fell is John Constantine without a trenchcoat and with a job.

The setting of Fell is in many ways as intriguing as its protagonist. The book’s title works on several levels. It’s obviously the name of the main character, but it also provides a descriptive past-tense verb for most of Snowtown’s residents. Snowtown is a morbid place inhabited by dour, defeated people. Lt. Beard, head of Snowtown’s Moon St. Precinct, has essentially given up on his town and his overwhelming responsibilities to it. He repeats the line “I don’t care” several times and welcomes Fell to the precinct with a pep speech that’s far from inspirational: “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 for that I’m grateful. I think we will be friends” (#1 p. 4). Snowtown’s citizens are as cynical as its public defenders. Mayko tells Fell that “the city’s just fallen apart” (#1 p. 8), and the coroner explains that “You’re living in a broken town, Detective Fell” (#2 p. 4). Even Snowtown’s street names reflect the city’s condition. Mayko tells Fell a story that takes place on the corner of “April and Regret Street.” Regret Street, which catches Fell’s attention, is clear enough. But April is likely a couched allusion to a familiar modernist poem that begins,

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain. (The Waste Land 1-4)

Snowtown provides a contemporary mirror image of T.S. Eliot’s early 20th-century London, and Ellis directly addresses “how fallen its people are” in the promotional blurb at the end of the first issue.  Fell is a dark book—a night book—that exudes this tone even in the gritty, dingy gutter design between panels.

Ben Templesmith’s rendering style provides a suitable match for the dark tone Warren Ellis establishes in the book. Fell feels like a mid- to late-80s comic from experimental publishers and imprints like Eclipse and Epic. Templesmith’s art is evocative of the abstract expressionism pioneered in comics by Bill Sienkiewicz (Stray Toasters, Elektra: Assassin), Jon J Muth (Moonshadow), and Dave McKean (Arkham Asylum, Cages). Panels in the book are principally penciled and painted, but Templesmith uses a variety of design tools to shift and disrupt traditional expectations of the comics form. Narrative captions are written on post-it notes instead of corner boxes. Occasionally, roughly-sketched map panels (some with dotted lines connecting panels) indicate geographical movement and progression. In issue #2 (p. 9), three consecutive panels utilize a similar abstract line to represent a historical migration, a line of protective magical sand, and an umbilical cord.

 

Not all of Fell’s visual success belongs to Templesmith, though. While he clearly translates difficult, demanding scripts into visual representation, the design of the book begins with Ellis’ vision. Each issue focuses on a particularly gruesome subject (alcoholic enemas, dried fetus totems, floating corpses) or a central scene of psychological tension (“two-men-in-a-box” interrogation, suicide bomber stand-off), depending on what interests Ellis at the time. Each topic is well-matched to the narrative and formal constraints Ellis has placed on himself in the book, and the result is a refreshing departure from standard periodical books.

Part of what makes Fell work so well is its structure. The setting and characters are consistent from issue to issue, but Ellis has created a book that relies more on the power of the short-story form than on the sprawling, six-issue-long arcs that dominate periodical comics now. Each issue of Fell is self-contained, focused, and sustained for just long enough to tell a tight, provocative short story. This pattern might suggest a fully-planned, overarching design, but Ellis insists that this is not the case: “There’s no story arc. No plan. A handful of characters, a setting, and a genre to start from. Quite literally making the thing up as I go along. Keeps the blood moving” (#2 p. 18). Each issue contains sixteen pages of graphic narrative (which contain the lead story) and five pages of text (in which Ellis presents letter excerpts and discusses backgrounds, form, technique, and influences). The narrative portion was originally conceived as a sixteen-panel grid: four rows of four panels, which Ellis compares to Phil Specter’s musical “wall of sound.” Ellis eventually abandoned this page layout in favor of the nine-panel grid that was used effectively as a base layout in Alan Moore’s and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen (1986-87) and Bryan Talbot’s The Tale of One Bad Rat (1994-95). The nine-panel grid is more manageable, but it’s still ambitious and technically difficult to sustain. The strength of this layout, though, lies in narrative compression and immediacy. The nine-panel layout allows a writer to control the pacing of the action by expanding or compressing panel size. Ellis uses this approach sparingly and strategically throughout the series. In issue #5 (p. 8), Ellis uses three long panels on a single page to increase the tension as a suspect Fell is interrogating reveals the gun he’s been hiding. The nine-panel grid is mechanically complex, but it’s deceptively simple from a reader’s perspective. As Ellis explains, “I want FELL to communicate to you easily, without you feeling like you have to learn a whole new language to understand it” (#2 p. 20). And Ellis seems to have learned from the best. His discussion of Will Eisner at the end of issue #5 shows Ellis to be both a practitioner and a scholar of comic art.

Fell is a playground not just for Ellis, but for anyone who appreciates and studies comics as an art form. Given the structure of the book, even its irregular publication schedule (the book is published on a loosely bi-monthly schedule) is not as disruptive and jarring as it is in an ongoing book like Planetary. Ellis seems to be interested both in telling good stories and in telling them well, and the result is a book that lives up to its hype. Fell has been nominated for several Eisner awards this year. If the voting committee weighs technique and formal refinement as heavily as it weighs entertainment, Ellis and Templesmith won’t walk away from San Diego empty-handed.