Horror, Please… But Hold the Sorcery (Warren Ellis and Scars)
Written by Warren Ellis, Drawn by Jacen Burrows
Avatar Press ISBN 1-59291-018-1
Warren Ellis is probably best known to the general public as the writer of Transmetropolitan, a satirical series of graphic novels about an outlaw journalist out to bring down a corrupt president in a particularly sordid future. In a few months he may be more famous for Global Frequency, a science fiction comic concerning a sort of volunteer hi-tech espionage militia that combats various conspiracies and incidents that might result in a public body count, as the WB television network is filming a pilot and eying it for a mid-season replacement.
What people tend to forget, given his success as a science fiction author with a smart-ass streak, is that Ellis broke into the U.S. comic market writing particularly gory horror comics. Gory enough he had a reputation as a gross-out artist and sensationalist in some circles. In Scars, a more mature work than his early foray into mystical horror, Ellis melds a psychological horror story with the police procedural, a genre he’s not known for, or wasn’t previously, as the case may be.
Scars, on the surface level, is about a police detective’s hunt to locate child-killer that looks like a potential serial killer in the making.
Underneath that conventional surface add a layer of physical horror. Ellis did horror in the traditional sense in his misbegotten youth and it shows. Sometime the physical horror comes from the visual, sometimes from a character explaining what a less threatening visual really is.
Underneath the physical horror, add a layer of psychological horror. The titular “Scars” are emotional ones. In the bleak world of the homicide detective, the horrors that that occur as an everyday part of the job accumulate and change people. While no one in this tale is without their scars, John Cain, the central character of the book, has a number of particularly nasty scars that are slowly revealed over the course of the tale, and the course of his ship is near the center of this layer.
Underneath the layer of psychological horror, add a layer of commentary. A healthy disrespect for authority is a common theme throughout Ellis’s work. Here, Ellis comments and raises questions as to how well the legal system really protects children and creates a commentary on the limitations of law enforcement that has been crafted in such a way to allow for either a liberal or conservative reading to be valid, as the scars cause tensions to increase.
Re-ravel the onion’s layers and you find yourself with a fast-paced claustrophobic excursion into madness that will make you wince in horror 4 or 5 times before you put it down. Does Ellis go for the shock effect, as was a criticism of his earlier work? Without a doubt. However, here it fits and it’s very effective.
Scars also has an unusual feature for a graphic novel. Most graphic novels are collections of a story serialized over a number of issues. Not a big deal in and of itself, seeing as how luminaries like Charles Dickens originally wrote their classics as serials. The unusual thing is that while many monthly magazine-formatted comics will contain an afterward from the other, very few graphic novels include these essays. Each chapter of Scars is followed by a bit of commentary. The first four are by Ellis, with the last two being written by noted crime comics author, Steven Grant, when Ellis became a bit too wrapped up in the mental wasteland of the final chapters to comment upon them. The commentaries add texture to the story as Ellis reveals his real life inspirations for certain elements of the plot and characterizations. They say that truth is stranger than fiction and the actual basis for some of the book is pretty creepy by itself.
At this point, you might wonder why all this talk has been of the writer and not the artist? Comics are indeed drawn, but Scars, like most of his work for Avatar Press, is clearly a Warren Ellis vehicle. That said, all the fine writing in the world will not a fine comic make if the artist is sticking his thumb in a bottle of ink, instead of a brush. Not a problem here. Jacen Burrows has been flying under the radar, working almost exclusively with Avatar and having recently done a couple projects with Ellis. With a psychological horror tale, the depiction of emotion is of the utmost importance, and Burrows does a fine job rendering the horror, rage, frustration and even a facial expression that screams “Pedophile” at the audience when called for. As Burrows continues to raise his profile, you’ll hear more of him.