guttergeek the discontinuous review of graphic narrative

March 2006

Warren Ellis and Chris Sprouse, Ocean (Wildstorm, 2006). paperback. $14.99

by Jared Gardner

When Warren Ellis’s 6-part Ocean appeared last year I found myself drifting between issues, unable to keep the action in mind from one month to the next. The story was too tight and taut to work well with the serial form. It felt closer to a screenplay than a comic script in its pacing and its pleasures. I was therefore looking forward to sitting down and read the whole narrative through in the recently published trade. It turns out, in book form, it still reads like a screenplay. A really short screenplay.

Indeed, it is hard not to think about Ocean on the screen, and only in part because of the obvious indebtedness to a range of science fiction films (especially Alien) which inspired the vision of the work. Actually, as with so much of Ellis’ work lately, the pop culture vacuum is on high, and part of the pleasure here is watching him weave a range of science fiction media sources into this story. We see the texts Ellis is taking pleasure in. The staff at the Cold Harbor space station echo the recent remake of Battlestar Galactica (especially the hardboiled flygirl Siobhan, who references the show’s Starbuck to a tee). Our main character, UN Inspector Nathan Kane, is a kinder, gentler, and more properly interpolated Spider Jerusalem from Ellis’ own Transmetrolitan. If anything Halo is perhaps the strongest influence, most explicit in the giant ring that surrounds the site of the weaponized sarcophagi that serve as the focus of the story’s action. And the hivemind of the evil corporation, Door (no relation to a corporation in Redlands that just happens to be similarly named after an architectural orifice), has sources too obvious and numerous to mention here.

The story in its broad strokes (and it never gets much beyond broad strokes) is a fine one. Kane is sent to the Jupiter system to look into the discovery of ancient and world-destroying weaponry that has been immured in suspended animation with thousands of humanoid ancestors. The bad news is that Door is there too, and they have the resources to tap into both the weaponry and the sarcophagi (and the family resemblance between the homicidal prehumans and modern corporate managers is one of the story’s more lively gestures). The underfunded public servants must outmaneuver Door’s ambitions to claim the find and its technology as their own. In the process, buttons are pressed, weapons and bodies reborn, and the kitchen timer on the apocalypse starts ticking.

The book is at its best in the playful repartee of Kane and his colleagues, and there are shades of the sizzling dialogue and exuberant political edginess of Ellis’s masterpieces (
Transmetropolitan, The Authority). Chris Sprouse’s art is workmanlike here, but it lacks the charm and wit of his best work with Tom Strong. His action scenes suck the energy out of the page, with pantomime fight scene closer to the Zap-Bam-Biff of the old Adam West  Batman tv show (not, I suspect, an allusion they were going for here). But the real letdown of the volume is in how much it feels like materials for Hollywood pitch—a plot treatment and some strong storyboards, all ready to powerpoint for producers and casting agents. It is a good story and strong characters who deserve a fuller treatment (on screen or, better yet, in an expanded graphic novel) than they receive here.

This may be an inappropriate moment for the soapbox (a minor review of what is undoubtedly a minor work), but it does seem that it is time for comics creators to think about the now-inevitable book publication of their serial story arcs as something other than another revenue stream—to think about their books as something more than “reprints” and something more like, well,
books. More detail, a stronger third act; less of the repeated insistence that Kane really doesn’t like guns (we got it the first time)—these are the kind of changes the book form should open up for comics creators. What works in the monthly serial form doesn’t necessarily have to be the final word. Even more urgently, what works in a 120 page screenplay should not become the model for 6-issue storylines or the trade paperback that inevitably follow a few months later.