Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Warren Ellis' Desolation Jones: An Appreciation

I am going to talk about Desolation Jones today. What is Desolation Jones? I hear you asking. Simply, it was a six issue mini-series published by the late, lamented Wildstorm Comics in 2005, written by Warren Ellis and with art by J.H. Williams III. We're not going to talk about the follow-up that Ellis was unable to finish in this and focus on the mini that was completed. If you click the link above, you'll find out how to buy it through Amazon.com, hopefully earning some affiliate credit for me.

First off, if you are a fan of the Burn Notice television show and you like comics I think you should check out Desolation Jones. The high concept of this comic is similar: spies broken by their jobs, or unable to interact normally with others because of agency experiments, are given a choice...die or move to Los Angeles. Yes, an interesting choice. However, in this comic Los Angeles is a secret open-air prison for former intelligence agents to are too important to kill but in too bad of shape (mostly psychologically) to still undertake missions regularly. Behave and stay within the city limits of L.A. and the former agents can continue to live.

Enter Michael Jones, former MI6 operative and survivor of the Desolation Test. I don't want to go into the Desolation Test in too much detail because the unveiling of it, and it's effects on Jones, are an important part of the story. Let's just say that, from what is revealed it wasn't a pleasant test, not that many things called Desolation are often pleasant. After the test Michael is give the choice by his government: we kill you, or you move to America and L.A. Michael chooses life (much like in the Wham song) and moves to Los Angeles, where he sets himself up as a private investigator to the former intelligence set. Some of this sound familar?

The story of this miniseries is an investigation into Hitler porn that Michael is hired to undertake. In true noir style, however, it quickly turns into much more. While well-written, keep in mind that Desolation Jones is not always a high minded comic. After all, this is the comic that gave us the quote "Everything goes better with bukkake." As Ellis often does in his comics, this story is a weaving of the high brow and the low brow. One of Ellis' throwaway ideas in this mini (which was going to be expanded in the unfinished follow-up) is the concept of supermodernism. Within the narrative of the comic, Ellis has Jones describe the concept as "The fact that we don't build places just to live in anymore. We build places to go through. To wait in. To be transient." As an aside, with my game designer hat on, Supermodernity is something that I think all game designers should learn something about. It is a fascinating concept that I think could inform a lot of designs in modern/SF worlds.

Jones is a detective very much in the Sam Spade/Mike Hammer mold. I don't think that the choice of the name Michael for the character is entirely coincidental. Jones solves this mystery with a mix of brutality and logic (even though Jones says repeatedly that he is not very smart) that would have fit well into any 30s L.A. noir story.

Williams art in this miniseries is on the cusp. This book was done in between his work with Alan Moore on Promethea and before he worked on the Seven Soldiers material with Grant Morrison. In Desolation Jones you can see glimpses of William's upcoming work on Seven Soldiers and Batwoman as well. This mini is very much a snapshot of an artist who is just about to come into his own, and his collaboration with Ellis on this really brings the characters and the world to life.

This comic is not for everyone. I will admit that. The themes are very adult, and there is a lot of violence and brutality in the book. It is, however, two creators that are really on their game, coming together and creating something bigger and better than what they could have done on their own. If you like crime stories, espionage stories, detective stories, noir, or even mild science fiction and you are willing to read it as a comic book then this is the miniseries for you. But mostly, I think this should be a required reading for those who are fans of Burn Notice and are looking for a comic book to fill in the time before we get new episodes. By the way, Burn Notice fans, let me know if anyone else thinks there is a commonality between the characters of Robina and Fiona.