Books: Warren Ellis on Gun Machine

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Warren Ellis

While he’s widely recognized by comics aficionados as the author of such critically acclaimed hit series as Planetary, Transmetropolitan and Astonishing X-Men, Warren Ellis is perhaps best known by the general public as the co-creator of RED, a three-issue comic mini-series that saw life as a rather successful film starring Bruce Willis, Helen Mirren, and John Malkovich.

But there’s another side to his work, one which saw expression with the recent release of Gun Machine.

Gun Machine, like its predecessor, Crooked Little Vein, is a prose novel that takes place in the US. It also focuses on some of the lesser-known, and often quite strange, aspects of this modern world.

But, unlike Crooked Little Vein—which essentially served as the travelogue of a private investigator traversing the American cultural underbelly in search of the only copy of a second, secret Constitution inscribed on parchment made from the skin of an extraterrestrial—Gun Machine is a tightly wrapped, highly compact police procedural which details the efforts of a New York City detective to apprehend a terribly efficient, prolific and all-but-invisible killer over the course of three days.

Ellis recently took a few moments to talk about the differences between writing comics and prose novels, why he’s chosen to work in both fields, and the reason he doesn’t concern himself with what readers will take from his work. And, as is typical of his work, the results are both engaging and illuminating.

Gun Machine cover from Warren Ellis dot com.jpg

Congratulations on the well-deserved positive reception and strong sales for Gun Machine. How gratifying—and how much of a relief—is learning all that, especially after having to wait so long for the book to hit the shelves? I ask because I imagine it might still take a bit of getting used to the longer prose publishing cycle, after years of working in comics with their much faster turnaround times.

It’s always a little strange, not least because the book was completed a full year before publication. It comes, somehow, as a relief. Of course, a year later, you can see all the things that are wrong with the book!

One of the things that really struck me about this particular book, literally from the first sentence, was a strong sense of place as a living, breathing thing, a historical organism composed of both natural and man-made artifacts and creatures.

Assuming I’m not overreaching here, I was wondering how important was that sense of a lived-in and living place—not only as a thematic device, but using New York City as another character important to the proceedings—to what you were trying to accomplish with Gun Machine?

Well, it was necessary to the kind of story I wanted to write. I was after that sense of standing on the surface of deep time, and history reaching up into the present world. Of American cities, I thought that could be done most successfully with New York

If memory serves, in the past you’ve identified yourself as primarily a science fiction writer. So, has that changed in the intervening years, or is this book really speculative fiction masquerading as a present day police procedural/thriller, something akin to what William Gibson has been doing of late?

Primarily but not solely a science fiction writer. I’ve been writing crime in comics since the '90s. So this comes, perhaps, from that other side of me.

Red one sheet poster from Fandago, c 2010 Summit Entertainment.jpg

How different is working in prose from working on comics for you? Do you have to metaphorically, or even literally, throw a switch in your brain, or is it all pretty much the same for you…just writing?

No, there are gears to change. Remember, what you see in a comic is just the visible part of the writing. Beneath that, I’m describing every panel on every page in enough detail for the artist to understand what I’m looking for. In a book, however, I’m trying to evoke the image, so that it lives in the reader’s mind—which, perhaps counter-intuitively, requires less specific detail. Broad strokes, texture and atmosphere as opposed to blueprint specificity. So that’s a shift. Also, I don’t have to think about word counts or page counts—no need to sculpt dialogue down so that it doesn’t drown a picture, nor to worry about finding a break every 20 pages. That was nice.

Crooked Little Vein pb cover from Amazon.jpg

I’ve heard it said by various authors that you never learn how to write novels—you just learn how to write the one you’re presently working on, and then you have to rediscover how to do it when you begin the next book. So, how true might that be for you as a novelist…and how true would it be when you’re writing comics, as opposed to prose?

I find it to be absolutely true in prose novels. In comics, you tend to have to determine at least some of the tools, and something of the structure, in advance, not least because it’s a serialized form and you can’t go back and rewrite episodes that your publisher sold to customers a year earlier. The only serious opposition to that, in my back catalog, is probably Freakangels, which was mostly improvised—but, again, with the exception of the page structures.

Freakangels vol 5 cvr.jpg

Unless I’m mistaken, you’ve already begun hammering away at the next novel. So, what does that mean for your future efforts in comics? Do you see a day when you’ll become primarily a prose stylist, or can your comics fans rest assured that you’ll not abandon working in that medium?

Well, I didn’t stop writing comics after Crooked Little Vein, or after any of the things I’ve done in other media. I tend to identify as just a writer. I don’t see a time when I’m not working in the graphic novel field somehow, just like I don’t see a time where I’m not doing opinion journalism.

What do you hope that readers get from Gun Machine? How about your work, in general? Is it all about providing them with a few precious hours of escapism and entertainment, or is there more on offer for those who want to look for it?

You can’t do that. Once you’ve written the book and seen it released, it’s in the hands of the reader, and you can’t control either what they bring to the book or what they take away from it. You can’t really interfere with a reader who came away saying “well, this is an escapism” by pointing at bits and claiming how incredibly deep and important and special they are. It’s out in the world, and belongs to the people who read it.

Astonishing X-Men 30 cvr by Simone Bianchii 2004.jpg

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A veteran journalist who has covered the comics medium since 1998, Bill Baker is also the author of Icons: The DC Comics and WildStorm Art of Jim Lee and seven previous books featuring his extended interviews with Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman and other notable creators. You can learn more about Bill’s work…

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