Interview: Warren Ellis on FreakAngels, Webcomics and Doctor Who
For anyone familiar with the online presence of award-winning writer Warren Ellis, it came as no surprise when the author announced at last year’s San Diego Comic-Con that he would be scripting an original, ongoing webcomic hosted by Avatar Press and titled FreakAngels. The concept, the preview art and even the name of the series all seemed quite, well… Warren Ellis.
What has been surprising, however, is the ease at which the longtime print author has adapted to the online medium and managed to create a compelling, unique series with very few blips in the weekly schedule he set for himself and FreakAngels artist Paul Duffield. At a time when top-tier print titles are failing to meet monthly schedules time and time again, Ellis and Duffield have managed to create a consistently compelling, unique series worthy of mentioning in the same breath as many of the more established webcomics out there. The fact that the series also has Ellis’ considerable online savvy and the resources of an up-and-coming publisher like Avatar behind it only makes the entire package even more intriguing to anyone with an interest in the digital evolution of the medium.
Avatar afforded me a few minutes to speak with Ellis during the recent Wizard World Chicago convention (where he was the event’s Guest of Honor), and I was glad to have the opportunity to ask him about FreakAngels, his thoughts on the online publishing scene, and how it all relates to traditional British storytelling.
COMICMIX: Coming from the print side of the industry, did your creative process change much for FreakAngels, Warren? How did the new medium affect your routine?
WARREN ELLIS: The only thing that has really been affected is the length of the episode. But even then, I’m not really writing with six pages in mind so much as I’m writing with 144 pages in mind. I’m writing FreakAngels in 144-page blocks, so I’m really keeping my eye on the bigger picture as opposed to keeping an eye on the ending of page six. So really there’s been no change at all.
I’ve kind of refused to change. [Laughs]
CMix: Why the decision to work in six-page blocks? Does this story lend itself to that format, or is there another reason why six pages seemed appropriate?
WE: I grew up with British comics. British comics were weekly anthologies and they were full of stories that were around six pages. So I’m being a proper British writer by doing my weekly science-fiction comic, and I’m doing them in six-page episodes.
CMix: The setting of FreakAngels is really a character of its own, and there tends to be a lot of panels devoted to showing the watery world of FreakAngels. Is the series more about the characters, or the world they live in? Does one take precedence over the other in your mind and have more of a say in determining where the story goes?
WE: It’s both, quite frankly. You can start a story from any given point. In fact, I started with the idea of the Midwich Cuckoos [from the John Wyndham novel]. I started wondering what would’ve happened if they had survived to become disaffected 20-somethings. That was the genesis of FreakAngels and I’ve worked forward from there.
But no, it’s as much about characters as it is about the place.
CMix: Are there any particular characters you have a fondness for, or any characters you look forward to scripting when it comes time to do so?
WE: KK and Karl, simply because they’re just so pissed off. They’re proper British fiction characters. There’s a particular kind of British hero, from Sherlock Holmes through someone like [Dr. Gregory] House.
CMix: That’s interesting, as you’ve categorized House as a very British hero in the past…
WE: Yes, they’re too clever for their own good and they’re just really pissed off about everything. You can draw a line through British fiction, through Inspector Morse, Jack Regan of The Sweeney, and through ’60s television. It runs all the way through Sexton Blake and Bulldog Drummond. It’s a particular British kind of hero, and KK and Karl are really the epitome of that. They’re just pissed off about everything and everybody.
CMix: I guess we see flashes of that in today’s Doctor Who, too, don’t we? Although he’s a bit more whimsical than some of the other characters you’ve mentioned, but still too clever for his own good…
WE: Oh, sure… but there were various iterations of Doctor Who, and often these were big, shouty people. David Tennant tries to pull it off, but doesn’t quite. He still gets angry. When Tom Baker as The Doctor lost his temper, he would just blow the doors off the room. He would get pissed off at everyone. William Hartnell, the first Doctor, that character had to be stopped by the other characters from killing someone.
CMix: I’ve been re-watching some of those episodes recently, and I’m always amazed that the program lasted the way it has, because Hartnell’s character was, well… mean.
WE: Exactly. He was a mean, old man!
CMix: With your experience on the ‘Net, you seem uniquely suited for a project like this. What are some of the mistakes you knew to avoid that you’ve seen less online-savvy creators make when trying to move comics onto the grid?
WE: Site design is essential. If you’re doing a webcomic, I shouldn’t have to hunt for it when I come to your site. And I’ve seen more than one of those. I shouldn’t have to hunt to find previous pages or episodes, and I’ve had to do that more than once.
There are a dozen different mistakes in website design that people seem to fall into quite easily.
CMix: Like using Flash animation?
WE: Yes, like Flash animation… or filling the sidebars with stuff that makes the page load slower. You can’t wait for the page to load. The page has got to come up clean and fast.
CMix: What has FreakAngels taught you about the online medium and webcomic culture?
WE: I’ve noticed that webcartoonists in general are basically pretending FreakAngels doesn’t exist. It’s always, "Oh, it’s just a print comics guy doing his comic on the Web. He’s not one of us. He’s not like us."
WE: Oh, Rich has been great, actually…
CMix: On that note, who are some of the comic creators you find interesting around the ‘Net?
WE: In terms of webcomics? Jeff Rowland and Rich Stevens, Natasha Allegri when she was doing webcomics — although she’s not doing them so much now, but when she was, she was very good. It’s been great to see people like Hope Larson coming out of webcomics. I think Hope is terrific. I think she’s going to turn into one of the major graphic novelists in the next five years.
CMIx: It’s not unusual for webcomic websites to have their own message board, but you’ve been hosting very active forums long before FreakAngels. Now that the WhiteChapel forums are gaining momentum, can you tell me some of your thoughts regarding the use of message boards in conjunction with webcomics?
WE: Well, because FreakAngels is on the Web, it obviously invites conversation — because that, by and large, is what the Web is for. So it makes sense, if nothing else, to provide a place for people to talk about it.
CMix: Paul Duffield seems to be doing a great job with the art thus far. Has he shown you anything that’s really surprised you — something he added to a scene that maybe you didn’t have in mind initially but enjoyed?
WE: The level of detail in his work and in the way he uses colors has been astonishing. I will ask him for difficult stuff… difficult descriptions. I will ask him for very difficult facial expressions, particularly, and I do it more now because I know he can pull it off. So I’m probably driving him insane at this point.
CMix: So, on a completely unrelated note, will we ever see a sequel to Crooked Little Vein?
WE: No. I have no intention of writing a sequel.
CMix: And finally, here’s one to end on: Is the Internet going to destroy comics or save them, Warren?
WE: It will only destroy comics if comics let it.
New episodes of FreakAngels are posted every Friday on www.freakangels.com. You can also check in with Warren Ellis on the ‘Net at www.warrenellis.com, where you’ll find information about all of the various places the busy author can be found around the Worldwide Tubes.
FreakAngels is hosted by the good folks at Avatar Press, who provided this opportunity to speak with Ellis and offer a variety of ongoing titles in print featuring the work of Ellis and many other excellent writers and artists. (I highly recommend Black Summer.)
Want more interviews with webcomic creators? Check out the ComicMix Webcomic Interview Archive, and feel free to send your suggestions for interview subjects to: rick [at] comicmix [dot] com!