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Sunday Slugfest: Who Is Jake Ellis? #1

Posted: Sunday, January 9, 2011
By: Thom Young

Nathan Edmondson
Tonci Zonjic
Image Comics
Jon Moore is being pursued by people who want to kill him--possibly Spaniards or Americans--but Jake Ellis has Jon Moore’s back. The question is, though, who is Jake Ellis?

Jamil Scalese:
Ray Tate:
Jason Sacks:
Thom Young:

Jamil Scalese:

Blame it on Bourne.

In 2002, The Bourne Identity dropped into theaters. It was a game-changing, genre-shifting journey that subsequently altered the way the secret agent story would be told. The Jason Bourne trilogy has spun the spy movie upside down and recreated it for an era more technologically adept in creating spectacular stunts and technical special effects.

Sure, James Bond had done it for five decades, but even he succumbed to the over-the-top, brutal, fast-pace reality in the most recent films starring Daniel Craig. Nearly a decade after The Bourne Identity was released we have felt the reverberations of the Bourne effect. Movies, television, and even print media cannot escape the now clichéd spy drama formula. If it involves shady government activity, instantaneous karate, and a dashingly ambiguous lead character, then it’s probably stealing a page from the Bourne handbook.

When any genre breaks down in such a manner two things can happen: either it dwindles off into a relic or it finds new vigor in high concept ideas and the mixing of genres. For example, the Western genre has been around since . . . well, the Old West . . . and it has enjoyed peaks and valleys for over a hundred years. Yes, movies like True Grit call back to classic stories, but experimental, out-there ideas like the upcoming Cowboys and Aliens (starring Daniel Craig) manage to keep the same, fan-favorite formulas fresh and exciting.

The action spy drama has reached that point again. Thus, it’s time to up the ante, and Who is Jake Ellis? #1 thoroughly delivers on the increased stakes of the genre. It was one of the wildest rides I’ve been on in quite a while. We follow our resident superspy, Jon Moore, as he dodges Spaniards and Americans, lays low in France, sleeps with beautiful women, and makes heroic escapes.

Nathan Edmondson does an excellent job of making this story both approachable and enigmatic. Due to the now formulaic structure of the spy drama, we don’t need to be told a whole lot about Jon Moore to get an idea of what he does. The story’s true hinge concerns itself with why Moore is so good at what he does. As for who Jake Ellis is, the idea is freshly riveting as a semi-realistic story like the spy drama creeps into the realm of science fiction--and it delivers on its promises.

However the high concept of this series isn’t enough to sell comics in the competitive market. I didn’t give this book a nearly perfect score of four and a half bullets because the idea was interesting but because the story superbly unfolds in the first issue--projecting us right into the action and rarely pulling out.

Edmonson’s dialogue is top-notch in a medium in which dialogue often falters; the exchanges between Jon and Jake are terse and sober, but dripping with a relationship that is apparently more complex than the typical “buddy film.” Even in the down moments were soaked in intrigue.

The art by Tonci Zonjic is an absolute homerun. Much like the story, the pencils are extremely accessible. His almost minimalistic approach bolsters the story because of its ability to allow you to follow the narrative so easily. The reader does not need much time to determine what is important in the panel and on the page.

The use of color and hue smartly add the appropriate tone at the needed times. In particular, the scene inside the darkened church really had my eyes lusting for more. Perhaps the real kicker was the creative choices on how to get the mind questioning the nature of the Who Is Jake Ellis world. Extra points to Zonjic for basing the design of Jon Moore on my friend Dylan (just kidding, but the hair, chin, nose, build, everything looks like my friend Dylan).

Edmondson and Zonjic have something special brewing here. We’re a week into 2011 and we might have one of the best titles of the year already. No major flaws, except that I have to wait a month to discover who IS Jake Ellis?

Ray Tate:

This is a comic book that would evaporate off everybody's radar if not for the artist. I first encountered Tonci Zonjic's work on the Marvel series Heralds. His Toth-influenced illustration wowed me then, and it wows me now. Hence, the two bullet score. The story on the other hand just lacks substance.

If writer Nathan Edmondson were pitching Who Is Jake Ellis to Hollywood, he might say, “It’s Burn Notice meets the title of a famous play and film by Mary Chase” (I won’t say more than that, though, to keep the spoilers at a minimum--so be warned if you do an Internet search for Mary Chase).

In Jake Ellis, the protagonist Jon Moore our defacto Michael Weston (from Burn Notice). However, the difference between the two characters is vast. We don't root for Michael just because he's an extremely resourceful and pragmatic badass. We applaud his actions because he's always loyal to his friends and his family. We root for him because he always tries to save people. We cheer him on because Michael even spares the low-level bad guys.

Case in point, Michael removed a drug-dealer named Sugar from his neighborhood but let him live. Sugar returned to ask Michael to help his innocent cousin, and Michael agreed. Michael is a hero. If anything, he is America's answer to James Bond.

On the other hand, in Who is Jake Ellis, Edmondson appears to believe we should follow Jon's adventures because the character is always in the thick of danger and always on the run. He appears to believe that an audience will always sympathize with the fleeing man. I hate to disappoint him, but I won't ally myself to the pursued just because he's the pursued.

Jon doesn't rate. Jake Ellis tells him what to do, so Jon is not resourceful. Jon lets people die needlessly. He could have told the soon to be dead girl he had just slept with "We're in danger. There are men coming," or he could have simply pulled her off the bed and told her to hide under it. Instead, he thinks only of himself and jumps out the window of her flat.

The blurb on the back of Who is Jake Ellis predictably pigeonholes the protagonist with James Bond. In the World Is Not Enough, Bond, strapped to a back-breaking torture chair, pleads with Electra, "Eight million people need not die." Bond is a selfless champion willing to sacrifice his life for people he never met. Jon, however, is the opposite.

So Who is Jake Ellis? The writer didn't give me a reason to care.

Jason Sacks:

Who is Jake Ellis?

From this first issue, we can tell that he is someone who seems to have an interest in the story’s protagonist, Jon Moore--who appears to be a spy of some sort. Moore is mixed up with some strange and bad men, and Jake Ellis helps the very grounded Moore escape his dire straits and run away from the bad guys. Yes, Ellis helps Moore, but the nature of the relationship between the two men is left very mysterious in this first issue.

We get just a few clues in this comic about their relationship. They seem to be bonded to each other. For instance, while Moore is bedding a beautiful French waitress, Ellis is close by--staring out the window, bored as any creature could possibly be, waiting to be pressed into action. Such moments reveal that Ellis appears to be fully devoted to Moore, and the story continually alludes to the special relationship between them.

Though Ellis is not omniscient--he can't read minds or tell the future--it's clear that he has some amazing abilities that are incredibly helpful to a spy. As events proceed, he gives Moore bits of advice that indicate an incredibly enhanced ability to see events in the entire broad world around him--such as "Shoot through the bottle. It will ignite." and "You don't have time to get dressed! You need to run!"

The first issue of this five-issue mini-series is a quick, entertaining, and exciting read. There are an interesting number of mysteries, but they never detract from the story being told. The situation with Jake Ellis is an intriguing element of this story, but that's all it is--an element.

For all the oddness and mystery of the titular element of this story, at its core, the first issue of Jake Ellis is a fun and entertaining spy story more than it is a journey into mystery--which is all to the good as far as I'm concerned. I didn't feel bogged down in the mystery at all, and I had plenty of time to enjoy the entertaining story and the gorgeous artwork.

Because wow, the artwork on this comic is plain gorgeous.

Ray Tate is right in his praise of the art of Tonci Zonjic as being very influenced by the work of the great Alex Toth. It also reminds me a lot of the art of Peter Snejbjerg of Starman fame. Zonjic uses simple outlines, perfectly placed, to bring characters and locations vividly to life.

His art gives the book a lot of its atmosphere, all sleek and modern and shadowy, where strangeness and danger seem to lurk around each corner. Some of the settings are gorgeously depicted. A cathedral looks beautiful, a neighborhood in Strasbourg, France almost seems to jump off the page, and a train station looks thoroughly real.

This first issue came together really nicely, with just enough mystery, just enough spy work, and plenty of gorgeous artwork. I'm looking forward to learning the truth about the mysterious Jake Ellis.

Thom Young:

Though it wasn’t on my list of comics to buy this past week, I decided to purchase, read, and review Who is Jake Ellis? because it was chosen as the Sunday Slugfest (and I need to be the back-up reviewer if one of the assigned reviewers fails to turn in his or her assignment, which no one failed to do this week).

However, my need to be a backup reviewer doesn’t always mean I’ll buy books that I wasn’t planning to buy, but as I perused the pages of the book in the store, I was immediately taken by Tonci Zonjic’s illustrations.

I did not immediately think of the work of Alex Toth--as two of my colleagues did (though Toth is one of my all-time favorite illustrators)--but there is definitely a similarity to Toth’s line work. Additionally, I have since seen a promotional illustration online in which Zonjic signed his first name "Tonci" in the manner in which Toth usually signed his work (as "Toth"). Thus, Zonjic is clearly acknowledging the influence Toth has had on his own style.

There’s also a similarity to the styles of Jaime Hernandez and David Mazzuchelli (not Mazzuchelli's Asterios Polyp, but his work on Batman: Year One and other projects from the late 1980s and early 1990s). Of course, Hernandez and Mazzuchelli have undoubtedly been influenced by Toth as well, so my comparisons here are rather circular.

Anyway, as I mentioned, when I looked at the issue at the store (and when I read it later at home), I did not initially think of Toth (nor of Hernandez and Mazzuchelli). Instead, I thought of populuxe illustrations of the late 1950s and early 1960s--one of my favorite design styles.

The story is contemporary, but the evocation of the late 50s and early 60s through Zonjic’s illustrations does help the further evocation of James Bond that my colleagues have mentioned--but not necessarily the heroic character portrayed by Sean Connery; rather, Jon Moore might be closer to the cad that Bond is in Ian Fleming’s novels and short stories.

While the illustrations are what convinced me to buy and read this issue (and to possibly review it if the Sunday Slugfest was lacking a quorum), once I started reading the story it was the writing that got me hooked. Unfortunately, the issue only takes five to seven minutes to read. However, the pace of the issue is well-suited to the story, so the short reading time is not a complaint about the writing; it's just a gripe about the fact that I wanted a longer experience because the story engaged me so thoroughly.

It was only after I read the issue the first time that I realized who wrote Who Is Jake Ellis?: Nathan Edmondson.

Edmondson and I have a bit of history, but that doesn’t disqualify my view about the writing here being very good. In fact, our history has been somewhat negative. Thus, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I liked this story.

I first encountered Edmondson on the Comics Bulletin message boards nearly two years ago when he and a friend of his registered for the forums to promote Edmondson’s then-upcoming Image Comics series Olympus. We engaged in some good-natured goofing at the time, and the nine messages Edmondson left in that thread was the only interaction I had with him.

Then, about six weeks after those nine messages, Image Comics sent Comics Bulletin an advanced copy of Olympus #1 to review, and we featured it in the Sunday Slugfest for May 17, 2009. Despite having engaged in some good-natured banter with Edmondson on the message boards, I gave Olympus #1 a rating of one bullet, and I wrote in my review that "I could not stand the dialog in this issue. It is hackneyed drivel."

That was really the strongest language I used in my review, but it spurred Edmondson to write to Jason Sacks, who is not only my colleague in this Sunday Slugfest but also the editor-in-chief of Comics Bulletin. Jason was told that my review was not an actual review; rather, it was some sort of hateful diatribe on my part.

To each his own.

Anyway, I stand by my assessment of the dialog in Olympus #1 as being melodramatic drivel. However, I also stand by my assessment of the dialog in Who Is Jake Ellis? as being original and natural.

Furthermore, the story in Edmondson's latest work is imaginative--even if it does seem like the mash-up that Ray Tate mentions in his review (I have never watched Burn Notice but I have seen the Mary Chase work a couple of times, and Edmondson’s story did not evoke Chase’s play/movie in my mind).

I am happy to see that Edmondson has polished his craft considerably in the last two years, and I am looking forward to the rest of his current series.

There is more I would like to say about this issue, but I cannot do so without giving away the spoiler of who Jake Ellis is (or at least part of who he is).

As best as I could, I edited the reviews of my colleagues to try to avoid that spoiler, and my one critical suggestion (not a criticism, just a critical suggestion) would require me to reveal the spoiler that I worked so hard to edit from the other reviews in this Sunday Slugfest. Thus, I’ll end this review by merely stating that Who Is Jake Ellis? #1 is an interesting comic book that has an intriguing-but-quirky story, some natural-but-sparse dialog, and some excellent Toth-inspired illustrations.

Oh, one last thing; something that intrigues me that I can mention without spoiling anything is when Jake Ellis quoted a line from Yi-Fu Tuan's Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience. I am hoping that line was meant as an allusion that gives intellectual weight to the story as the series plays out. Even if it doesn't, I strongly recommend Who Is Jake Ellis? #1 for fans of spy thrillers and David Lynch films--and especially for fans of both (such as me).

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