|Warren Ellis and Ben Templesmith, Fell (Image, 2005-). Irregularly published. $1.99|
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.