Sunday Slugfest: Ignition City #1

A comic review article by: Thom Young, Alexandru Lupp, Jason Sacks, Paul Brian McCoy
Ignition City is Warren Ellis’s alternate Earth story of a world in which analogs of Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, and other early space opera heroes actually began their careers in the 1920s--apparently bringing Earth to the attention of extraterrestrial forces that these heroes were unable to repel.

Alexandru Lupp:

Jason Sacks:

Paul Brian McCoy:

Thom Young:

Alexandru Lupp:

Before reading this book, to my shame, I had very little knowledge of what Warren Ellis had written. I knew the name, and knew he was one of the better writers out there, but I hadn’t really ever read anything of substance by him. That all changed when I read this book, and I am so glad I did.

In Ellis’s own words this is “the last Flash Gordon story told in the style of Deadwood,” but it is more than that; it is also an exploration of “the death of spaceflight.”

Ignition City is the last spaceport on Earth, and the story takes place in 1956. It is definitely set in the Flash Gordon-era of science fiction, but all the campy images are twisted, darkened, and inverted into something much more interesting.

The story is about death, about decay, about endings. The narrative begins, quite appropriately with a death. We are introduced to Mary, a space explorer without a rocketship, and we soon learn that her father, Rock Raven, has died. This news prompts her to travel to Ignition City and recover his belongings. As a plot device, this situation is nothing new--and it isn’t even enhanced greatly in this issue. However, what makes this book shine are the seedy characters in Ignition City--and that brilliant setting itself.

This first issue is really all about crafting the story’s setting. It is more of an introduction to Mary and the world around her than a plot-driven issue. There is nothing wrong with that, and it works beautifully here.

There are comic moments--for example, a scatological incident with a drunk Russian cosmonaut--and there are also gruesome moments. They all come together well to showcase the sad and decrepit world of Ignition City. It is a good mix of opposites, space travel, and the height of technology versus a decaying society. This is not a clean future. It is not the shiny world of Star Trek. It isn’t even “the future” for that matter, since this book is actually set in the past.

It is an excrement-filled world full of sad men and women that wield ray guns. It probably takes a fair amount of morbidity to take something associated with the future, and with the height of human achievement, and to invert it. It makes for a compelling world--and, to its credit, it is fairly original.

Adding to the creation of that world are the illustrations of Gianluca Pagliarani. However, his work is something of a mixed bag. He excels at presenting the look of Ignition City as he captures the feel of the story’s technology--everything from ray guns to flying machines looks and feels right. You can also get a good sense of the grime covering this world.

Unfortunately, the opening pages are set in a clean environment, and his style just isn’t as well suited for that setting. The lack of decay there draws attention to his imperfect human figures. They are slightly distorted, which works well in Ignition City, where they add to the general feel of imperfection and decay.

However, at the start the appearance of the characters just seems off, and it is distracting. Those first few pages are unfair to Pagliarani (and the book as a whole) since they give the reader a mistaken idea of his abilities as an artist. Nevertheless, Ellis and Pagliarni have crafted a good hook in the guise of a compelling world. Yet, as interesting as it is, the setting is not enough.

Ignition City could be a great miniseries, but so much will depend on the next four issues--especially since there wasn’t much plot development in this first chapter. For now Ellis has my interest, and I will certainly get the next issue. However, unless things pick up, I’m not certain that the beautifully dark setting will be enough to sustain my interest in this series.

Jason Sacks:

There are two schools of thought when beginning a story. One school says that the best way is to grab the readers’ attention immediately with an intriguing opening scene that gives them something to ponder. The writer can then slow the story down and lead the readers through some exposition before building to more excitement.

The other school of thought is to start slowly and allow the story to build while developing the setting and characters before launching into the adventure. Once you've established a unique and interesting setting, you can speed the story up and give the reader payoff for their investment in the atmosphere.

Warren Ellis opts for the latter approach with Ignition City, but it doesn't work here.
The problem is that Ellis starts the story away from his unique and interesting setting. The first ten pages take place at a fancy club in Berlin where we spend time being introduced to our protagonist, Mary Raven. In these scenes, Ellis attempts to create a unique retro-future setting through some pure exposition that is meant to set up what is to follow.

Unfortunately, as the story begins, the reader is given no incentive to care about Mary. While the retro-future world of Berlin in 1956 seems intriguing from the opening two-page spread, Ellis quickly falls into the trap of telling the reader background information rather than showing the information. We have no context in which to interpret such dialogue as, "France just signed the Isolation Accord. No more spacelaunch on French-controlled soil." Therefore this exposition falls flat. It's uninteresting, and there's a lot of it in the opening pages in which Ellis does a poor job of exploiting the visual aspects of the medium.

Mary begins to seem more interesting over the next few pages as we see her relationship with her father through her childhood memories. However, Ellis is again keeping the reader from getting to the more interesting aspects of this story.

We get to hear Mary's letter to her estranged mother, but there's nothing particularly interesting in the letter. Ellis's story might have been better served by interspersing these flashbacks with scenes later in the story; placed in front, as they are here, these scenes are rather artless and dull exposition.

More, they seem out of place with the events that follow once Mary lands in the titular Ignition City, an island filled with bizarre characters. Readers meet sickened giant sloats, men with bathroom problems, an eternally drunk former cosmonaut, and a man who claims to be from the future.

In dramatic contrast with the scenes that preceded it, readers suddenly are confronted with an intriguing setting full of truly unique characters. I suddenly found myself interested in reading this story, because unique things are suddenly happening. Characters are a bit larger than life, the setting is intriguing, and there's even some action and violence. In the latter half of this issue, Ellis gives readers something to wrap their minds around.

The art by Gianluca Pagliarani is adequate for the subject matter. He does an interesting job rendering the bizarre world that Mary Raven lives in--creating an intriguing and unique atmosphere for the book. I also liked how his characters have unique and unglamorous appearances, which seems very important for a book of this type.

Ignition City has some very intriguing elements to it, but Ellis gets to those elements slowly. One would expect a writer of his caliber to be skilled at grabbing the reader from page one. However, Ellis doesn't do that here--but he does eventually bring the reader to an interesting place.

Paul Brian McCoy:

Back in September 2005, Warren Ellis sent a message around to his Bad Signal listserv wherein he discussed a new idea that was nagging at him:
Ignition City, in the original conception, is Earth's only spaceport: a circular artificial island on the equator, its perimeter a ring of launchpads. Hot as hell during the day, when ships are banging off, the whole rocket summer thing. No launches at night, and the fucked-up climate reclaims itself by raining all night. Rain that tastes like rocket fuel. I still love the setting. It never had a story that lived up to it.

But now this hideous idea has taken hold, of an isolationist Earth of approx 1955 that only allows contact with space at one point--Ignition City. Humans are banned from going to space, and all those who have been up there are now considered irretrievably contaminated, and are deported to the community on Ignition City.

There's a certain Alan Moore-like appeal to embittered space heroes being forced to live in the sci-fi equivalent of the Cuban refugee camps in 80s Florida gone wild. Flash Gordon as an embittered space hero turned smuggler, living in an upended space rocket, its nosecone buried in the dirt. Buck Rogers back from the future and haunted by the knowledge of what is to come. Yuri Gagarin as the town drunk. "The Brits" as figures of terror, Dan Dare and his crew of space-soldier animals disavowed by the British government and forced to live out their lives on Ignition City. Aliens living in the unsettled wilds to the north. It's a small confection of an idea, but it has a weird appeal to me. And it's going to bug me for days.

God forbid I should think of something that might earn me some money . . . Here I am looking for the big mainstream-crossover idea, and I've got Flash Gordon calling people cocksuckers. I feel faintly dirty.
Then, in November of that year, we received the following message:
Working up IGNITION CITY. The old space heroes never died: they got deported. A 13-episode first season, like an HBO series. Finding the language is a struggle: it needs to be filthy, and it needs to dance like DEADWOOD's, but not to *sound* like DEADWOOD, if you see what I mean. I can't just ape it. It needs to have its own pattern. There's a certain joy, probably childish, in having Flash Gordon say "f***," and in recasting Yuri Gagarin as a town drunk. People pulling ageing ray guns in the street. Dr Zarkov as a miserable Tesla in his room of lightning, forbidden from building spaceships. Space heroes with nowhere left to go, living in the barren center of Earth's only spaceport . . . Buck Rogers back from the future, trying to drink away all the history-to-come that he remembers from his time in the 25th Century . . . It's all a bit meta, and I feel like I'm channelling Alan Moore a bit, but I've never tried that Big Post-Modern Graphic Novel before (Rian Hughes calls me The Last Modernist), and I feel like giving it a go, if only to say I've done it.
By September 2006 he had the first script finished, and by February 2007 was wrapping issue 3, but still with no artist attached. The project was then pushed back on the schedule, but then, in March, an unidentified artist was attached. Turns out it was Gianluca Pagliarani.

In January 2008, it looks like Ellis was getting a little wary of the project:
Compounding the problem is my own intent, really. Right now, I don't want to do anything that looks backwards too much. Which is probably impossible. But after reading [Alan Moore’s] BLACK DOSSIER (thanks, Scott)...well, if I wasn't already so far ahead on IGNITION CITY, I'd be binning it, just because BLACK DOSSIER constitutes such a toxic overdose of Farmerian retro/meta.
Well, now it's 2009 and except for the 13-episode part (and we've yet to see Dr. Zarkov), Ignition City has finally arrived, virtually unchanged from those initial salvos. If it sounds like something you might like, I highly recommend picking this one up.

This opening issue is mainly used to establish a few of the main characters and the setting, with Lightning Bowman standing in for Flash Gordon, a fellow named Bronco in place of Buck Rogers, and a huge bouncer named Piet Vanderkirk, representing someone I don't recognize--though his name can be translated as "Rock of the Church" using Russian, Dutch, and Scottish English, respectively.

Vanderkirk is also in possession of a very powerful ray gun that looks a lot like the cartoon gun drawn by our protagonist when she was a child. Mary Raven is her name, and she's arrived in Ignition City to collect the belongings her father, Rock Raven, and (presumably) to find out how died. Once she gets there and introduces herself to Gayle, the owner of the local bar, The World's End, out first installment is over.

It's an abrupt ending, but it looks like Ellis isn't too concerned with how the chapter transitions read in the monthly issues. He's looking toward the collection--where it will eventually read very smoothly, I'm sure.

The content of the issue is pretty much as described in Ellis's November 2005 Bad Signal, with each of the main characters getting a very distinctive introduction--but only Mary getting the more in-depth approach. She's your standard Ellis heroine, tough and sexy, but with a few more psychological layers readily apparent.

A lot of the time, Ellis will wait a while to flesh out his characters, but Mary gets a fair amount of work devoted to her right off the bat--including a nice set-up for the world we're being dropped into through a conversation between Mary and Lionel "Buster" Crabb, the real-life British Royal Navy frogman who vanished during a reconnaissance mission around a Soviet cruiser in 1956--a mission he's just about to head out for as the opening scene of the issue ends.

Gianluca Pagliarani, who also illustrated Ellis's Aetheric Mechanics, does a fantastic job with the settings and design work. The city is maybe the most fully realized character in the book, while the actual people are a little more loosely drawn. The colors, by Digikore Studios, perfectly complement the art and the story--keeping everything in Ignition City looking grimy, old, and nearly used-up.

So I give the book 3.5 Bullets, only because it's a slow burn of a start, as opposed to the explosive openings of some of Ellis's other recent Avatar releases--such as Anna Mercury or Black Summer. However, I am by no means rating this concept below the concepts in those titles. There are enough ideas and imagination on display in this issue to fuel story after story--and, from what I understand, Ellis, Pagliarani, and Avatar have at least two more five-issue minis in store for us.

Really, if it has Ellis's name on it and Avatar is publishing it, then it doesn't matter what kind of books you like; you should pick it up.

Thom Young:

Well, if you’ve read through the three reviews of my colleagues and are still here at the dregs lying at the bottom of the slugfest you no doubt have read everything I was going to discuss in my own review. Unlike Paul and Alexandru, I wasn’t aware that Warren Ellis had explicitly stated online (in several places, apparently) that Ignition City was his take on Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers (and other space opera heroes of the past). Thus, I encountered Ellis’s characters with a sense of “discovery” in figuring out the following all by myself:
  • ”Lightning Bowman” is the analog of Flash Gordon.

  • “Bronco” (no last name given) is the analog of Buck Rogers (a Bucking Bronco, get it?)--who, rather than being a 1920s US Army Air Corps pilot who fell into suspended animation for 500 years, is a pilot from the 25th-century who seems to have been mysteriously transported back in time 500 years.

  • “Lionel ‘Buster’ Crabb” was not only a real British Royal Navy frogman who vanished during a reconnaissance mission in April of 1956 involving the Soviet cruiser Ordzhonikidze, his name is also almost identical to the actor who played Flash Gordon in three movie serials--Larry “Buster” Crabbe in Flash Gordon (1936), Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars (1938), and Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe (1940). Additionally, Buster Crabbe was also the first actor to play Buck Rogers--in the 1939 serial titled after the character--giving Ellis’s use of the real Lionel “Buster” Crabb even more layers of significance in his own story that unites analogs of various space opera heroes.
Like Paul, I was also perplexed who Piet Vanderkirk is supposed to be an analog of.

Obviously, his name implies that he is an analog of the Biblical Simon Peter--the Galilean fisherman who became one of the Twelve Apostle’s of Jesus and the founder (and first Pope) of the Roman Catholic Church. Of course, if Piet Vanderkirk is an analog of Simon Peter then we should wonder who is going to be the Messiah to whom he will become attached (probably Mary Raven’s future child--or present child if she’s later revealed to already be a mother).

However, Piet Vanderkirk can also simply mean “Peter Kirk” when the name is anglicized. In the Star Trek mythos, Captain James T. Kirk has a nephew named Peter--which allows us to possibly interpret the character “Piet van der Kirk” as a parallel universe version of one of Captain Kirk’s ancestors (with “Peter” becoming a family name that is handed down in the Kirk family through the generations).

Exploring all of the “Easter Eggs” in the form of allusions and analogs to stories and characters from early space operas and the Christian Bible is one of the things I enjoy doing when I encounter them in a new story--so I was disappointed to learn from Paul’s review that Ellis already showed his devoted disciples many of these Easter Eggs before this story was even written.

Ah well, I’ll move along then.

Let’s see, what else did I want to write about in my review? Oh yeah, like Alexandru, I also thought that Gianluca Pagliarani’s figures in the opening pages appeared stiff and awkward. Actually, “stiff and awkward” is my description of those drawings.

They immediately struck me as being similar to the figures that Charles Burns draws--in such works as Big Baby and Hardboiled Defective Stories, for instance. However, whereas Burns’s characters are stiff to add to the David Lynch-type creepiness that his stories possess, Pagliarani’s characters just seem stiff in the early pages of this issue because (apparently) it’s his way of showing that the setting at the Berlin chapter of the famous Explorers Club is more formal and rigid than is the informal and relaxed atmosphere of Ignition City later in the issue.

In any event, I suppose a Charles Burns-styled creepiness might be somewhat appropriate for the story--even if Pagliarani was not intentionally mimicking Burns’s rigid figures.

As my three colleagues all mentioned, the story starts off slowly as Buster Crabb and Mary Raven sit around in the lounge of the Berlin chapter of The Explorer’s Club. However, that “slow” beginning didn’t put me off as much as it did Jason. After all, my favorite film is My Dinner with Andre--which is almost entirely about two men sitting at a table in an upscale New York restaurant and talking to each other for almost two hours (with the only non-dining “action” being Wallace Shawn taking a subway to the restaurant and taking a taxi cab home at the end).

Additionally, my all-time favorite novelist is William Faulkner, who often opened his novels with static scenes in which we simply are shown two or more characters talking about things that we know nothing about and that we must pick up from context and in relation to the novel’s later events. Faulkner’s Light in August is such a work, for instance.

I’m not claiming, though, that Ignition City reads like a Faulkner novel. I’m merely saying that Ellis’s decision to start the story with a few pages of two people having a conversation about topics we don’t fully understand is an aesthetic choice that I’m quite comfortable with.

Obviously, though, that type of introduction doesn’t work for everyone--especially in a medium (and sub-genre) that is usually associated with fast-paced, hard-hitting action.

Overall, I liked this first issue a great deal. It has believable dialog that shows that Ellis actually listens to the way real people speak--even how Americans and Russians speak (Russians speaking English anyway) despite Ellis being from England.

It may seem like a small thing to praise a British writer who can capture the style of American speech, but I’m constantly put off by American comic book writers who can’t craft authentic-sounding American dialog (or authentic-sounding dialog of any sort actually).

My one possible complaint with the story is with Ellis having set the island known as Ignition City on the equator. While an equatorial site is preferable for launching orbital rockets, it is poor choice for launching interplanetary rockets (or even rockets to the moon for that matter), which I presume the rockets from Ignition City are meant to be.

Rockets launched from the equator need less thrust (and, thus, less fuel) to achieve orbit. However, an equatorial launch for rockets leaving Earth for other bodies in the solar system would have to pass through the most intense parts of both of the Van Allen radiation belts (inner and outer)--which is why the European Space Agency doesn’t use their main launch site in French Guiana for their interplanetary rockets (like their Mars missions). Instead, they use Russia’s Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, which is the launch site on Earth that is the furthest from the equator.

Perhaps Ellis will reveal at some point that there is technology on this parallel Earth (in which the space programs appear to have started in the 1920s) that has resulted in lightweight shielding that protects their rocketships’ electronics and crews from the intense radiation that is located directly above the equator in the Van Allen belts.

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