by Brendan F. Hodgdon. Here in 2018, it is easy to argue that Image Comics sets the standard for the breadth and depth of style, tone, and genre of which comics are capable. But back in the 1990s, in spite of the dramatic and historic precedence of a creator-owned company, Image’s output was… a lot like all the other comics on the spinner racks. Image was just as beholden to the style and personality of the era as anyone else, which isn’t too surprising considering that Image’s founders helped to establish that style in the first place.

So while Image set the stage for the comics industry of today with its creators-first philosophy, it was left to other creators to blow apart the prevailing cape-and-cowl paradigm of the medium. One of those creators was the inimitable Warren Ellis. With his acerbic and often black-hearted stories, Ellis and his British Invasion compatriots helped broaden the horizons of comics with wholly unique genre adventures, filled to the brim with politics and social commentary. Their work opened the door to the likes of current Image superstars like Remeder, Vaughan, and Kot, even though Ellis et al. went a long time without doing much work at Image themselves.

But in the last few years, as he’s turned more to television and prose, Ellis in particular has made Image his primary comics home. With books like Injection and Trees, it’s clear that this is where he was destined to end up. Now, Ellis has re-teamed with his Trees collaborator Jason Howard for a new title, Cemetery Beach. It’s a stripped-down, uncomplicated action/adventure following a special operative on a space colony stuck out of time—a quintessential Ellisian caper. But even as Cemetery Beach recalls Ellis’ most classic work, it also signifies the changes to his style that have become his standard over the last few years.

Cemetery Beach #1Cemetery Beach #1

Image Comics/$3.99

Written by Warren Ellis.

Art by Jason Howard.

Letters by Fonografiks.

Man on the Run. On the surface, recon soldier Michael Blackburn is a typical Warren Ellis protagonist. He’s funny in a bleak, snarky fashion, and is more than a little capable of violence. His unconventional response to being interrogated is a great bit, the sort of casually deconstructive joke that Ellis is so very good at squeezing into a story. Beyond this, Blackburn is a cipher; his motivations beyond “survival/complete the mission” remain a mystery, one that feels more like the product of economic storytelling than anything else.

This is increasingly common of Ellis’ work of late, both in comics and prose. It often feels as though characters in later Ellis stories have functioned primarily as cool avatars through which the reader can experience their worlds and the ideas behind the story. Gone are the aggressive, vitriolic preachings of Spider Jerusalem; the likes of Blackburn are more show than tell, much like the story itself. It isn’t the most emotionally-investing approach, but it keeps things moving at a brisk pace.

Lost World. The world itself is also the usual Ellis fare. It’s a futuristic, dystopian backdrop with retro (bordering-on-archaic) trappings, brought to a moody and asymmetrical life by Howard’s solid design work. By the end of the issue there’s a glimpse of the men behind this world in all their slovenly glory, but without much exploration of their goals. And while the details of the worldbuilding should be very familiar to longtime Ellis fans (think Planetary and Ministry of Space), the mystery surrounding it also feels like the embrace of an old friend.

Ellis plays the vintage notes as well as ever, hinting at a lot without revealing too much. Where the mystery goes from here will be key to the success of the book in the long-term, especially given how archetypal the characters are at this point. Ellis’ world-first approach to storytelling usually works because the world itself (and the theme behind it) is so compelling; the ambiguity of this opening chapter can only go so far in this regard.

A Man for All Panels. With what feels like an intentional cipher of a main character and an unexamined world around him, so much of Cemetery Beach’s success rests on the art. It’s no wonder, then, that Ellis is working with Jason Howard again on this title; the pair have a clear chemistry that grants the book a seamless quality. The fluidity of Howard’s style is essential here, as it solidifies the tone suggested in Ellis’ script in a way other artists may not have achieved.

When it comes to the book’s characters Howard goes big and expressive, giving them an almost cartoony quality through expressiveness and physicality. On the other hand, his design for the world is gritty, dilapidated and severe. World and character connect through his inks and colors, which have a rough, scratchy quality in places that matches the run-down nature of people and places alike. The range Howard displays here makes it all feel real, even as Ellis makes it hard to nail down what it all is in the first place.

Very often these days, a new Warren Ellis comic feels like a fevered exorcism. It’s as if Ellis stumbled across a sliver of a blinkered, alternate world in his dreams and got it down on paper as soon as he could just to get the chatter out of his head. The end result is a story that often lacks the depth and resonance of Ellis’ earlier works, but even that keeps the audience engaged through sheer momentum. It’s a breathless, impatient urgency that defines Cemetery Beach, and it sings its bleak and battered song to entertaining effect.

8 out of 10

‘Cemetery Beach’ #1 hits stores September 12.

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