Current Reviews


Sunday Slugfest: Anna Mercury #1 (of 5)

Posted: Sunday, April 6, 2008
By: Keith Dallas

Warren Ellis
Facundo Percio, Paul Duffield (colors)
"The Cutter"

Matthew J. Brady: 4 Bullets
Paul Brian McCoy: 4 Bullets
Dave Wallace: 4 Bullets

Matthew J. Brady 4 Bullets

Lately, Warren Ellis has been producing a number of interesting projects through Avatar, reveling in their sex 'n gore stylings while exploring his pet themes of technology and society. He's done over-the-top superhero action in Black Summer and Transmetropolitan-style science fiction with social commentary in Doktor Sleepless, and now he seems to be exploring the pulp action genre, with some very Ellis-ian twists.

So, in Anna Mercury, the titular (ha ha) character looks to be some sort of freedom fighter in a neat steampunk world full of crazy art deco architecture and magnetism-based technology. We only get some vague details about the setting in this issue, but apparently the freedom-restricting city of New Ataraxia is in the process of trying to wipe out their neighboring city, Sheol. Over the course of the issue, she meets up with a cell of insurgents, beats them up when they try to kill her, and ends up racing against time to stop a doomsday weapon that New Ataraxia is about to fire. It's the kind of story that drops the reader right in to the story and lets you figure out what's going on while the action plays out. For instance, Anna keeps talking to somebody over a radio and worrying about power consumption, but the reason for this isn't made clear until a last-page reveal that changes the whole perspective of the story, adding a neat Matrix-like twist to the proceedings.

Artist Facundo Percio does a pretty nice job here of detailing Ellis's world, providing us with sweeping cityscapes and dynamic action. We get plenty of pages of Anna swinging over the city using some sort of magnetic grappling line, and a pretty painful-looking action scene in which she beats up the guys who try to kill her. Percio certainly makes it look like it hurts, depicting faces all wrinkled from the impact of being struck, with teeth flying out and blood spurting. It's visceral stuff. Colorist Paul Duffield also adds a lot, especially the interesting effect that details Anna's voluminous hair. The bursts of electricity in the climactic scene in which Anna attacks the city's superweapon are also quite impressive.

So overall, it's an interesting issue that definitely gives enough reason to come back for more. Ellis's technological sci-fi ideas are always interesting and enjoyable, and he does a great job of exploring their impact on society. I have an inkling that he might be going for an allegory of the war in Iraq, but we'll have to wait until future issues to see if I'm reaching or not. But even without that aspect, it looks to be interesting, exciting reading, so I'll definitely be there.

Paul Brian McCoy: 4 Bullets

The island city of New Ataraxian has decided that its island neighbor, Sheol, is the enemy on a fundamental level, and has given them an ultimatum. Accede to the New Ataraxian law and surrender to annex or they will be destroyed by a weapon of devastating power, known as "The Cutter." The weapon is mounted on the previously neutral Mandragon Moon, high overhead. Anna Mercury has one hour to save Sheol, although no one's quite sure why she's doing it.

Well, no one but the creators, writer Warren Ellis and artist Facundo Percio, that is.

And apparently it's all connected to an event that occurred on New Ataraxian soil on October, 28, 1943. Ellis has suggested that readers Google that date and see what it might have been, so I did. And unless it's the birth of "Short People" songwriter, Randy Newman, I'm going to assume it's the Philadelphia Experiment. How does this factor into the story? I have no idea. Although there may be a link between the mythology of the Philadelphia Experiment and New Ataraxian's use of Electrogravitic Technologies in that both have ties to the research of Tesla (no, not the band).

Is that interesting enough for you? If not, then how about our titular character Anna Mercury herself. She's a mystery to the citizens of New Ataraxia, with most not even believing she exists. The people of Sheol, on the other hand, believe in her, because she is fighting for their security. The ruling class of New Ataraxia considers her a terrorist.

Regardless of who these people think she is, she is a very intriguing character, able to swing through the city night like Spider-Man (thanks to her magnetically enhanced, um, billy club/back massager?), cloud men's minds, and deal out a bit of the old ultra-violence at the drop of a hat. She's in constant contact with the mysterious Launchpad, has Sheol thralls in her service, and disappears for weeks at a time. And she's hot, decked out in leather fetish gear with a massive pile of blazing red hair.

What's not to like, really?

Ellis has put together a very interesting little world here, with mysteries galore, and plenty of inherent drama and action in just the basic scenario. If all this boiled down to was a story of a freedom fighter with bizarre powers fighting corruption in a retro-science fiction world, it would be worth a look. But there's a twist at the end that really ups the ante and makes me want to find out more.

Like all of Ellis' other Avatar work, this book is entirely unique, bringing an exciting new vision to the page, unlike any of his other stories. There are clear allusions to pulp action characters like The Shadow, and the setting is both fresh and familiar at the same time. The New Ataraxian religion, based on magnetism and the will to power, provides a nicely grounded, yet fantastic basis for the social conflict that is at the heart of this story. We'll see more of this in future issues, I'm sure. At the moment, Ellis has dropped us into a pressure cooker situation, and we hit the ground running.

I have to admit, I was a little surprised by the quick bursts of violence and the casual deaths that occur in this issue, until I got to the final page. There's a last page reveal that completely turns everything on its head and moves this from being just that straightforward freedom fighter against tyranny story into something much more complex, interesting, and original. Everything you think you knew was going on through the rest of the book has to be reconsidered when you get to the end. I'm not going to spoil it, but next issue it will be a central topic of discussion.

Especially when we consider the origins of the names of the two cities. According to Wikipedia, "Ataraxia is recognised by the majority of psychologists as 'an extreme difficulty in connecting the emotions related to the effects of an action with the action itself.'" In other words, consequences be damned, I'm doing what I want to do, right now. And (also according to Wikipedia) Sheol, "in the Hebrew Bible, is a place where both the bad and the good, slave and king, pious and wicked must go at the point of death. Sheol is the common destination of both the righteous and the unrighteous dead, as recounted in Ecclesiastes and Job. . . . Biblical scholar William Foxwell Albright suggests that the Hebrew root for SHE'OL is SHA'AL, which means 'to ask, to interrogate, to question.' Sheol therefore should mean 'asking, interrogation, questioning.' John Tvedtnes, also a Biblical scholar, connects this with the common theme in near-death experiences of the interrogation of the soul after crossing the Tunnel."

Am I thinking about this too much?

Anyway, what about the art, you ask?

Facundo Percio is an once-in-a-lifetime find. If he can keep to a regular schedule (or if they've got enough of these on hand to maintain a regular release schedule, anyway), then he's even more amazing. Every character has a distinct personality, not just in the way they're written (hell, some characters only get a line of dialogue or none at all), but in they way they dress, carry themselves, and move on the page. The facial expressions are perfect. When Anna confronts her henchman, questioning his betrayal, you can see the rage and barely restrained violence in the look on her face. Not to mention her unabashed glee as she breaks someone's jaw with her truncheon.

And did I mention that she wears leather fetish gear?

She's no waif, that's for sure. She, like all of the characters, really, has a weight and grace that make her seem almost photographic at times. Not that the art looks photo-referenced or traced, like the work of some artists (who shall remain nameless), but the characters are staged and are moving through a three-dimensional space. There's a lot to love about Percio's art, from the nifty retro-tech of the electrogravitic ship that Anna hitches a ride on at the end of the issue, to the extremely expressive looks of rage, joy, smug control, and exasperation on her face throughout the adventure.

This is a solid opening chapter to a story that works on a couple of different levels, and looks to be expanding outward even more as the climactic revelation is explored in issues to come. This is the first of a series of minis Ellis has planned for Anna Mercury, so I don't expect answers to all of my questions, but the world he's constructed here has enough possibilities to fuel many, many stories. Plus, this one's a bit more accessible than Doktor Sleepless, and less overtly political than Black Summer, so if any of Ellis' Avatar work is going really find a broad audience, it should be this one.

Dave Wallace: 4 Bullets

I quite enjoy buying a comic without really knowing anything about it beforehand. Such was the case with Anna Mercury, the latest project from Warren Ellis and Avatar Comics, which I bought on the strength of the writer and the snazzy cover images alone. This opener proves to be a good first issue which throws audiences straight into a futuristic sci-fi/espionage story, giving us a healthy dose of action and escapism that's peppered with Ellis' trademark cool-sounding science-fiction concepts (such as the ubiquitous "Eletrogravitic energy") and which carries Orwellian undertones of a society which has been subjugated by a sinister overbearing government.

The lead character, Anna Mercury, is sketched out quite broadly this issue, with little in the way of in-depth characterisation. Since the pace of the story is fairly relentless, this isn't too much of a problem, and Ellis does take the opportunity to slow things down at one point to give us some hints about the backstory of his fictional realm of Ataraxia, before ploughing ahead with the action and adventure again. Anna comes off as a smart, sexually confident and technologically advanced super-spy with a peculiarly British voice ("Oh, bollocks.") despite the initially noncommittal geographical setting. She's a fun character to read about, even if it feels as though we haven't got to know her just yet. In some ways, this opening issue feels more like the equivalent of a movie's pre-credits sequence: an attention-grabbing, fast moving and energetic sequence which is an enjoyable experience even if we're not quite sure what it all really means at the moment.

Visually, the book is also strong, with artist Facundo Percio demonstrating a clean style that allows him to tell Ellis' story more than adequately. There's little in the way of extraneous detail, but neither do his pages feel sparse, with the artist showing a good grasp of his character designs and a strong command of his characters' facial expressions - even if they occasionally become a little exaggerated and cartoonish. His Anna Mercury is immediately appealing, an attractive female adventurer with a shock of voluminous red hair, clad in skin-tight black leather that should ensure that the character holds a visual appeal to anyone who's ever had a thing for Felicia Hardy in Spider-Man. This fetish imagery is reinforced by Ellis' text, which gives Anna something of a dominatrix persona when interacting with other characters. Percio reinforces these sexual elements by employing frequent phallic imagery in the artwork (Anna's grappling hook; the bullet train; the giant rocket), whether consciously or unconsciously, which sexualises the book's titular heroine even further without beating us over the head with it.

Until I read the final page of this issue, I thought that the story was a reasonably enjoyable romp that made good use of some fairly derivative sci-fi and superhero concepts, but that Anna Mercury was not a book that was going to provide much in the way of originality and innovation. However, the final page puts a twist on the story that provides the book with a fairly unique hook, taking its audience's willingness to suspend our disbelief and pulling it out from underneath us, replacing what we thought we knew about the story with a completely different (yet equally imaginative - and equally imaginary) concept - and all with a single line of dialogue. It's a strong idea that strikes me as the kind of wacky notion that Grant Morrison might come up with, and which offers up all sorts of intriguing possibilities for the story the more you think about it. I'm glad that this final development wasn't spoiled before I read the issue - and I won't spoil it here - as that pleasant surprise of that idea has convinced me to buy the next issue and find out where Ellis decides to take the story next. I have a feeling that Anna Mercury hasn't given up all of her secrets just yet.

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