Warren Ellis is the prolific comic book writer of many of the most important and best comics of the past decade plus. He writes about, nearly to the point of obsession, new technologies and how they evolve the human race, effecting identity, authority and truth. Ultimately the answer is they become a lens through which we can more clearly observe what is within us all along. His major books include Lazarus Churchyard, The Authority, Fell,Planetary, and Global Frequency. All of these are staggeringly original and there are trades for you to go find for each. None of them are his most important work, or why we’re here today.
Transmetropolitan is Ellis’ best work. It might be my favorite comic series ever. Transmet is ten trades of a truth seeking, nearly insane reporter searching for truth. The series is concluded and while I am absolutely advertising it, that too is not the point. The point is Warren Ellis, through the Transmet protagonist, one of the best fictional characters of the last half century, Spider Jerusalem, would offer deliver monologues of staggering proportion and insight. Since the series ended, there has been a severe shortage of this level of passion and expertise in comics. Put simply: No one has been saying important shit lately. This month that has changed.
Ellis is writing a new book called Doktor Sleepless. Its built like a novel and part one is all questions, no answers. The book has been slow and not terribly important through four issues, though there are some fun ideas, it’s not something you won’t find in other Ellis books. Ellis pimps this book to high heaven, and he usually knows when to do so, so I’ve kept on with the book. There’s a whole metafiction idea going on with the book’s Wiki and backmatter, which at least keeps things interesting enough to go on. Well, from issue number five onward, that will no longer be the reason to continue on. No more faith is needed; we have results.
The titular character of this book has delivered the first stunning monologue of the book and with the plot progressing, Ellis has channeled the voice not seen since the days of Spider Jerusalem. You need to go out and get this book. A lot is said and written about comics as art and being important. Well, this is one of those books (as is Fell), where if you miss it, you’ll be playing catch-up for years. Here, to get you started, is the epic monologue, reprinted in full.
Here is Warren Ellis as channeled through Doktor Sleepless, as he addresses the city via radio. It won’t be as good without the art backing it up, but it should be more than enough. I’ll parenthetically reference anything essential in the art. Remember, this is Doktor Sleepless, not Spider Jerusalem. It isn’t as passionate and takes longer to develop; it’s no less poignant for it if you have the patience.
“It’s 1991. Richie Manic is carving something into his arm because Steve Lamaq has suggested the manic street preachers lack an essential authenticity. What’s echoing in this backstage room is the voice of Ian Brown, still saying ‘cos it’s 1989. Time to Get Real.’ (4 Real is carved into the arm).
In 1999, Godspeed you! Black Emperor start releasing CDs sleeved in untreated cardboard. Intended or not, it denotes authenticity. Keeping it Real. Like brown paper bags from Muji, founded in 1980: Full name Mujirushi Ryohin, which means ‘No Brand Quality Goods.’
Godspeed You! Black Emperor didn’t play the media game. Half of them were anarchists, and all of them hated the corporate-owned music industry. But of course they had a brand. You can’t help but notice that Naomi Klein’s book ‘No Logo’ had a fucking logo on the front.
Godspeed’s brand was authenticity. That’s what they had to sell. And if they didn’t sell records and gig tickets, then they were just twelve guys in Montreal eating Ramen until they died. Richey Edwards couldn’t be Rickey Manic, that Richey, unless he sold you on the concept that he was 4 real.
Ian Brown and The Stone Roses couldn’t be that band, the band of the moment with the authentic voice that turned out to be the band in the right place at the right time and raised everyone up – unless they were more real than you.
Around the turn of the century, Justin Timberlake began to carry around with him a group of black vocalists, whose job it apparently was, in live performances, to declare how ‘real’ Justin Timberlake was before he began to sing.
In 1938, sharp-dressed bluesman Big Bill Broonzy who’d been tearing up Chicago, played New York for the first time. But a blues guitarist in a good suit brewing up the primal muck of rock ‘n roll with drummers and bassmen didn’t seem authentic enough to the Carnegie. So the concert programme described him as a poverty-stricken farmer who ‘had been prevailed upon to leave his mules and make his very first trek to the Big City.’ And they had him do acoustic guitar blues on his own. From there to his death twenty years later, he was booked pretty much nothing but solo acoustic gigs. Because fake Big Bill Broonzy was deemed the authentic version.
No matter that he pioneered electric instruments in the blues, and was also recording with people like Peete Seeger, who wanted to take an axe to the cables when Bob Dylan went electric in 1965 – he changed his story in later years, but he was clearly offended by Dylan’s sudden inauthenticity, that maybe he’d been championing a fake all along – because no-one ever knew, or everyone pretended to not know, that Bob Dylan was a fictional person. His authenticity was entirely constructed. Bob Dylan and Superman are the two greatest American myths of the last century.
Who the hell wants to be real?
In 2006, Bob Dylan is playing ‘The Levee’s Gonna Break.’ Except the song’s called ‘When the Levee Breaks’ and it’s by Memphis Minnie.
And she’s playing it in 1929, a few years before she moves to Chicago to tear up the town with Big Bill Broonzy. Who’s Memphis Minnie? One of the other great electric blues pioneers. And her name is actually Lizzie Douglas. And she’s not from Memphis, either. Authenticity? Authenticity is bullshit.
Never more so than today. We can be anyone we imagine being. We can be someone new every day.
You know why grinders (people who alter their body and mind via technology) never got any respect in this town? See if any of these comments sound familiar:
‘You should be happy with who you are.’
‘That stuff’s just fake.’
‘Don’t get ideas above your station.’
‘Take that shit off. Dress properly.’
‘Why can’t you be like everyone else.’
We’re not real enough. We’re not authentic enough for our society. Free speech does not extend to our bodies.
But you know what? Back in the days before the internet, a kid called Robert Zimmerman said ‘Fuck that, I’m going to be the man I dream of being. I’m going to become someone completely new and write about the end of the world because it’s the only thing worth talking about.’
And that was one guy in Minnesota, in the same decade the telecommunications satellite was invented. Imagine what all of us living in the future can achieve.
Be authentic to your dreams. Be authentic to your ideas about yourself. Grind away at your own minds and bodies until you become your own invention. Be Mad Scientists.
Here, at the end of the world, it’s the only thing worth doing.”