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Sunday Slugfest: Ignition City #3

Posted: Sunday, May 31, 2009
By: Thom Young and Paul Brian McCoy

Warren Ellis
Gianluca Pagliarani (p) & Chris Drier (i)
Avatar Press
Ignition City is Warren Ellisís 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.

Paul Brian McCoy:
Thom Young:




Paul Brian McCoy:

We've reached the halfway point in Warren Ellis's first Ignition City story, and I've finally stopped overlaying Flash Gordon for Lightning, Dale Arden for Gail, and Dr. Flexi Jerkoff for, um, waitaminute. That's Flesh Gordon, not Flash Gordon. Well, you know what I mean, right? I've stopped seeing these characters as analogs for the pop culture characters they're inspired by, and Iíve started seeing them as free-standing creations--which is weird, because in this issue we get maybe the most detailed referencing of classic Space Hero touchstones yet with a re-imagining of the overthrow of Kharg the Killer (Ming the Merciless).

However, Ellis works a little of that old Planetary magic, and gives us the fantasy made real--telling the story that underlies the popular fiction version we're all familiar with. That white-washed, lowest-common denominator palatable version that we're all familiar with gets a grown-up, cold, hard realistic telling that, in the few panels that are devoted to it, is more interesting to me than any version of Flash Gordon fiction in the last fifty years. Maybe ever.

That sort of subversion of traditional popular culture has always been one of Ellis's greatest strengths, and while he doesn't utilize the approach as overwhelmingly as Alan Moore, or as psychedelically as Grant Morrison, when he does break it out of his kit bag he brings a workmanlike vigor to the work that easily makes him the equal of those other two writers.

Ignition City takes that nuts and bolts approach and builds a world where Martians, giant Crab Monsters, and human beings all live degraded, burnt-out lives of desperation and almost total defeat. I love everything about this setting--from the run-down grittiness of the city itself, where buildings are gutted spaceship husks and giant robots stand rusting away, to the broken and nihilistic worldview that permeates nearly all of the characters.

The setting is what really makes Mary Raven such a refreshing character when she enters the picture. She's idealistic, but pragmatic (not an easy combination for a writer to pull off), and she brings movement to a setting where everyone has been stuck in place for so long that they can barely remember what it was like to do something good or adventurous.

What I'm really enjoying about the way Ellis writes this series is the way the characters casually reveal themselves through conversation without overwhelming the reader with exposition--while simultaneously establishing and reinforcing the believability of the setting. The mysteries are gradually beginning to reveal themselves, and I appreciate the fact that Mary is smart and savvy enough to grok who killed her dad without too much difficulty while, again casually, drawing our attention to the real mystery of Ignition City, the place.

I don't think we'll get the larger answers in this mini, but that's perfectly okay with me. I want to spend much more time in this world than a five-issue series will allow.

And Ellis wasn't kidding when he said that HBO's Deadwood was a creative inspiration. The pacing of each issue is almost exactly like that series--or HBO's other classic, The Wire. Both HBO series structured their seasons with a relaxed pace, allowing the events of each episode to build slowly but steadily--masking the narrative construction with an almost real-time sense of development. Ellis is doing the same thing here.

There's a cursory acknowledgement of the traditional pacing for single issues of an ongoing story, but it's so casual that each issue ends at a moment that seems arbitrary at first--as though the book just ran out of pages. However, upon closer inspection, each issue ends at a distinct narrative beat that really makes this series read smoothly as either a monthly or collected work.

It helps that Pagliarani is producing such high-quality art. I wasn't sure about his character work in the beginning, but I'm really starting to like it a lot. He's using a looser hand with the people he draws, and this looseness contrasts with the intricate detail-work of the settings.

The characters are expressive without slipping into caricature, and Pagliarani does a good job of capturing emotion and personality--which is essential for the conversational nature of the majority of Ellis's scenes. When violence breaks out, the action sequences have not been overly dynamic, yet they're believable and well choreographed.

Everything about this book is geared toward realism and believability, and Pagliarani's pencils and design-work may be a perfect realization of Ellis's muddy, broken world of damaged Space Heroes. Ignition City is definitely one of the best works that Ellis has produced for Avatar. It shows just what a talented writer can do in today's market if Editorial is willing to sit back and just let the Writer write.




Thom Young:

Itís odd that Iím giving this issue four bullets and that I agree with nearly all of Paulís review (with minor discrepancies) and yet what follows is sort of a negative review.

Yes, this series is very well written and is mostly well illustrated. Any complaints I have with Pagliaraniís work are too trivial to even bother going into. In my review of the first issue, I thought the characters looked a bit stiff and awkward--and sort of like characters drawn by one of my favorite comic book illustrators, Charles Burns. However, Pagliaraniís character seem more fluid now, and Iíve no significant qualms with his work at all.

My problem with the book is the pacing. I normally enjoy slower paced storiesóespecially if theyíre well written and have interesting characters in them (and this series is definitely well written on a technical level, and the characters have the potential to be very interesting).

Notice my qualifier in that parenthetical statement--the characters have the potential to be interesting, but theyíre not yet there.

Like Paul, I also see the similarities between what Ellis is doing in this story and the pacing in the HBO series Deadwood and The Wire--which are two of my all-time favorite television shows. However, Iím not enjoying Ignition City as much as I enjoyed those two HBO series.

Iím not getting the level of character development and plot intrigue that I want in this series. Yes, there is the murder mystery of who killed Mary Ravenís father. Of course, itís not a mystery at all since Flash Gordon (or Lightning Bowman) admitted the deed in the previous issue (admitted it to us anyway, though Mary only suspects that Flash is the murderer). Of course, thereís the still the intrigue of why Flash Gordon killed Rock Raven.

Thereís also the intrigue of whatís happening in the islandís woods north of the Ignition City settlement.

My problem with these intriguing plot points (and they are intriguing) is that they arenít nuanced. Thus far they are just sort of flat plot points that are meant to be intriguing because theyíre mysteries.

Additionally, Iím not getting a sense of nuance in the characters. They are also just flat characters with the potential for being interesting. For one thing, unlike Paul, I am still keenly aware of the characters being analogs of famous characters from the Golden Age of science fiction space operas--and when a new character appears, like Marshal Pomeroy this issue, Iím intent on trying to figure out who heís supposed to be the analog of.

In this case, Marshal Pomeroy is clearly Commando Cody, the Sky Marshal of the Universe. His last name here seems to be an interesting allusion to a character who appeared in several of Jack Kerouacís works--Cody Pomeray, who was based on Kerouacís friend Neal Cassady. I donít know if Warren Ellis intentionally or accidentally altered the spelling of the last name ďPomerayĒ to ďPomeroy.Ē

Along with the plot points and the characters not being nuanced enough, thereís the problem with the pacing. As I mentioned earlier, I normally enjoy slower paced stories. On the message boards, I recently reviewed The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, which I praised for itís slow pacing. However, Ignition City doesnít have the depth of nuanced plot points and characterizations that warrant the slow pace at which Mary Ravenís story is unfolding.

However, despite my problems with the series Iím still giving this issue (and the series in general) a rating of four bullets because it is quality work by both Ellis and Pagliarani. Itís just not as good as it could be (and should be).



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