Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Doktor Sleepless #5

I'm going to start off by saying that this is going to be a pointless review. Why? Because if you're a fan of Warren Ellis, you're already buying this book. And, while I don't have anything resembling even anecdotal evidence to support this claim, I suspect that no one besides Warren Ellis fans are remotely interested in this title for whatever reasons. That being said, though, I'm going to try to convince you -- the non-Ellis fan -- why it's worth picking this up.

Ellis seems to be writing this series with something of a dichotomic approach. On the one hand, he has the superficial story of Doktor Sleepless waging his own style of war against the status quo, not unlike Spider Jerusalem did in Transmetropolitan. In this particular issue, Sleepless discovers that an old friend has been murdered and, despite a lack of hard evidence, confronts the man he believes ordered that killing. Like many of Ellis' protagonists, Sleepless is more clever than anyone else in the story by half and is able to cover his tracks from whatever technically illegal activities he might be pursuing in the name of a greater good.

The other element in Sleepless is several pages of Ellis espousing his thoughts on the subject du jour through Sleepless' broadcasts. In this particular issue, it's about what it really means to follow your dreams in a technologically advanced society. This is the dangerous part of the book.

I'm talking from a storytelling perspective, mind you. It's dangerous because, frankly, it's unabashedly, unashamedly preachy. No ifs, ands, or buts. The story effectively stops while Ellis gets a chance to bare his thoughts on the page. "Here's the capital-t Truth as I see it" he's essentially saying. And that's dangerous in storytelling because you have to stop the flow of the story, change gears to stand on your metaphoric soapbox, and then change gears again to get back into the story.

It's actually not a dissimilar approach to musicals, and the primary reason why I don't like them. The story is stopped cold while the characters take time out to sing what generally amounts to a character study. Me? I'm a story kind of guy. Characterization is great, but it shouldn't get in the way of the story as far as I'm concerned.

But Ellis manages to pull it off here. Not because it's a particularly graceful or sly transition from one portion to another, but because his message is itself extremely powerful. You don't mind being pulled out of the story because you're pulled out by something that makes you say, "Damn! He has a great handle on... (insert topic du jour)!" It makes the comic something of an excuse to read Ellis' thoughts more directly.

Which is why I think it's only Ellis fans who are reading it.

In one the earliest arguments my Ex and I had when we were first dating, the crux of the disagreement boiled down to a simple misunderstanding. At the time, I pointed out that "Perception is reality." Meaning that, whatever it was that she intended, I was reacting to how I perceived what she meant. The argument was really moot because we actually shared the same opinion, and it was only a perception of disagreement that caused the row.

Ellis talks to that idea here, using a few more examples, and couching it more in terms of "authenticity" and "branding." Which -- given where the world stands now, over a decade since I declared "perception is reality" -- is more timely and speaks more directly to the often blatantly capitalistic consumerism on display.

What I find particularly interesting here is that Ellis has now assumed the role of Spider Jerusalem himself. When Ellis was still writing Transmetropolitan, he was writing Spider writing about and reacting to a not-too-distant future. Today, though, Ellis is writing directly about and reacting to the present. Sure, there's some sci-fi elements thrown into Doktor Sleepless but it's barely discernible from March 6, 2008. And the reason Ellis' assumption of the role of Spider is particularly interesting here is because we're actively watching Ellis cultivate that reality in front of us. The Ellis "brand" is every bit as cultivated as Pepsi's or Disney's or Oprah's.

OK, so why should you -- the guy sitting back complaining about Amazing Spider-Man -- buy Doktor Sleepless? Well, in the first place, it's got an intriguing story with good art (including a gratuitously voluptuous female in a slinky nurse's uniform). But more significantly, it's the contemporary, technologically-oriented equivalent of Walden. Except that it's not a pretentious pile of dreck.

3 comments:

Matt K said...

I think of Warren as having more a cult of personality than a brand. :) (Of course, the term brand has been used in so many ways over the last decade that it certainly can't be considered inaccurate, either.)

This sounds pretty familiar. A few years ago, I re-read Ellis' story arc on Doom 2099 and realized that he was (in retrospect, obviously) writing a critique of late 20th-century America (which has become even more relevant in the years since) which simply happened to take place against a fictional 2099 backdrop.

I'll have to take a look at this one at the store, tomorrow.

navan.ghee said...

I agree with 90% of your assessment-- the only thing that disappoints me about 'Doktor Sleepless' is the art.

Ivan was a good choice for 'Blackgas' (a fine comic, I suppose, if not exactly my cuppa). In 'Dok', however, everyone & everything looks vaguely at odds with the narrative. The women come out of a cookie-cutter. (I know this is a common comic book criticism, but seriously: everyone in 'Dok' has the exact same height and the exact same bust-waist-hip ratio. It's kind of creepy.) Horizon lines don't gel, causing objects to float. High or low point-of-view perspectives result in ugly fisheye lens effects. Perhaps worst of all, the entire cast are regularly seen as reacting histrionically, gritting their teeth & gesticulating early 90s Image-style-- whereas the voices in the script would seem to indicate that they're seated, having a calm (if terse) conversation, like something Jaime Hernandez would be happy to draw.

Not to say Ivan isn't learning. I think the 'Dok' scripts are putting him through the wringer in a way 'Blackgas' didn't, and a hard task is always educational. Warren's being a prince. He's given Ivan a chance in the same way he did Cassaday, who wasn't that hot when he started out, either. Cassaday had an advantage with 'Planetary', however: Laura DuPuy. Laura could use simple & bold applications of color to pull a bad panel out of the gutter. Whoever's coloring 'Dok' has been the opposite of Dupuy; the world is awash in mud, making even the simplest missteps seem more mangled than they actually are. (cf. my remarks re: fisheye lens effects-- proper use of gradients could have saved those panels.) Only in the last two issues has the coloring started to come into its own & evidence clarity, so maybe it'll work itself out...

I'm probably being overcritical because I sense the plotting on 'Dok' is going to be more ambitious than anything Warren's done in recent memory, and I'd like to see it do at least as well commercially as, say, 'Desolation Jones' or 'Crecy'. Raulo Caceres' variant covers on 'Dok' are striking & attractive because of the confidence of the artist-- he's brash & gleeful enough to keep you from noticing the mistakes. Ivan just doesn't seem comfortable with what he's doing yet. Here's hoping he settles in.

googum said...

The book would probably get more readers if it was through Vertigo or something, but I think Ellis gets ownership and probably a better cut through Avatar, even with less sales.

I've enjoyed the last couple issues more. I feel more settled in, and think this is going to be a long haul kind of book. Mysteries aren't going to be revealed two pages later, maybe not two issues later, but there's the sense that they lead somewhere. Something to be said for that, I think. (Brubaker's Captain America is the only other book off the top of my head that seems to be doing that.)

But then again, I've been a fan of Ellis since Excalibur and Druid, and those feel like a bazillion years ago.