Sunday, October 18, 2009

Warren Ellis vs. Geoff Johns HITS THE SPLASH PAGE (Part 2 of 2!)

I'm back! And with me, as usual, is Chad Nevett. We kicked off a discussion about "Cynicism vs. Sincerity" that turned into "Warren Ellis vs. Geoff Johns," and you can find the first part of that discussion over at Chad's blog. Read that, then come back here for the rest of the debate (as posted below)!

One thing I wanted to bring up is the recent idea that Geoff Johns is both mocking people who read his books while, at the same time, capitalizing on them. The end of "Legion of 3 Worlds" springs to mind immediately -- aka the end of "Wanted." Now, Ellis has an interesting relationship with his fans that can be combative in a friendly way (I think), but I can't think of an instance that shows such open disdain for his readers either. What do you think?

Tim Callahan: Wow, is that a way for me to segue into another "good readers vs. bad readers" rant? No? Well, then I'll keep it simple: The Superboy Prime stuff isn't about mocking the readers, it's about mocking ridiculous fanboy whining. That can't be wrong, can it? Sure, some of the readers are ridiculous fanboy whiners, but they deserve the mockery they get. Or maybe they don't but I find it funny enough to let it slide. That's probably more true.

And, as I have pointed out, Superman's rogues gallery has always been a critique of the reader! It's part of the tradition!

Here's my problem with most Ellis comics, and it's a critique I've heard about Grant Morrison's work, but I don't think it applies in that case -- I do think it applies to Ellis, though. His comics are more about the idea than the execution. His stuff tends to fizzle out because it's not usually tightly plotted and the initial idea, or burst of ideas, might be exhilarating, but the stories aren't capable of sustaining the ideas in any meaningful way. I'm thinking of the fizzle in the last third of "Planetary," the last half of "Global Frequency" (which was, at best, sustained by the variety of artists, not the writing), his "Astonishing X-Men" run, the "Ultimate Galactus" Trilogy. They all get worse as they go on.

I'm making it sound as if I don't like any of those comics, when I like them (in some cases) very much, but I do think his weakness is in his pacing and plot structure and character development -- aka the storytelling basics. And Johns is really good at those things, even if his concepts and ideas begin from a weaker starting point.

And, for me, it's that cynicism again. A cynicism that appears on a structural level in Ellis's work. You might say that "Ellis wrote a comic book where things were saved by love," but it didn't feel like such a comic when I actually read it. It felt like an intellectual exercise. A comic about emotion that was itself emotionless.

I can't believe I've put myself in a position to argue on behalf of an emotional reaction to a comic when I have spent much of my critical career arguing against such things. Crazy!

Chad Nevett: Ellis's stories often are about ideas. He's a very idea-heavy writer, one that researches things extensively and works that into his fiction. I disagree that it's more about the idea than the execution (at least in the general sense since that would vary work to work). Let's take a very recent example: "Planetary" #27 where people focused on the pages of technobabble and ignored that the issue was about Elijah Snow possibly ending the world to save his friend. It was character driven completely, fuelled by passion (as evidenced in numerous arguments characters had), and, yes, filtered through a lot of theoretical physics... but that's not Ellis's problem. What I keep getting the sense from people (not just you) is that they choose to read Ellis's work in a specific way, much like people go into Morrison's comics assuming they won't get it. They assume Ellis is the cynical idea-heavy guy with no heart and that's what they get, partly, because he is that in some ways and, partly, because he doesn't hit you over the head with the emotional stuff. It's not that it isn't there, it's just there in a way that doesn't scream "Okay, now you people out there should go 'Awww!' and feel warm and fuzzy inside!"

But, addressing your argument that his pacing, etc. is weaker, again, I disagree. I'm not even sure I accept your premise that Johns is good at those technical matters from the work I've read. Ellis's pacing is a lot clearer and straight-forward. His string of three-issue minis from Wildstorm show this off quite well. "Fell" is very tightly-paced and structured -- and I connect with the main character. From the work I've read from Johns, it's very choppy and all over the place -- as I said before, Johns tries to cram too much in, most of it unnecessary to the story in the hopes of hitting those 'character moments' except they don't add to the story. He reminds me of a more verbose, continuity-obsessed Mark Millar, obsessed with making fanboys cream their jeans instead of telling a cohesive, well-plotted story with interesting, engaging ideas.

TC: But in "Planetary," how was that supposed friendship established? We're told that they're friends, we're shown it a bit, but it's not earned. It's Elijah Snow saving his friend only because Warren Ellis says it is. I certainly didn't sense any real friendship between the characters. Johns, on the other hand, goes for the heartstrings. When Tim Drake and Conner Kent talk, their friendship is obvious on every page in their dialogue, their reactions to one another. It's palpable. With Ellis, it's just words. It's the concept of friendship without the hard work of establishing the friendship.

And, yes, Johns is taking advantage of years and years of continuity to bolster the friendship, but I haven't actually read those "Young Justice" or "Superboy" comics involving Tim and Conner. He sells their friendship in just a few scenes much better than Ellis does in a few issues.

And I wonder about the "verbose" concern. Surely Ellis is, on average, as verbose as Johns, if not moreso. We should pull out some random Johns and Ellis comics and do a word-per-page count and see. The difference, of course, is that Ellis's verbosity is usually spent with his characters explaining something he read in some culture or science article, and Johns's verbosity is usually spent describing aspects of the hermetically sealed DC Universe. (So you may not care as much about Johns's words, and therefore they seem more oppressive.) Also, I don't think "Blackest Night" #1 is representative of Johns's other work. I like "Blackest Night" -- I like its ridiculous conceit and the bombast -- but the first issue was more verbose and stilted in a Brad Meltzer kind of way than what we normally see from Johns.

What have you actually read of his work, by the way? Because if you're basing it primarily on "Green Lantern: Rebirth," "Infinite Crisis," and the opening of "Blackest Night," then I can see where the "choppy" and "continuity-obsessed Mark Millar" comments come in. But his "Flash" run was different. So was "Teen Titans." So is "Adventure Comics."

CN: The 'verbose' comment of yours is right. I guess the difference, then, is that when Ellis has characters talk a lot, I don't mind, whereas I do with Johns. It could be that I like Ellis's dialogue more.

I have read "Infinite Crisis," the opening of "Blackest Night," and then issues of "Green Lantern," "Teen Titans," "Justice Society of America," and bits and pieces from other places. Not nearly as extensive as your reading of Ellis, but that's because I've yet to read a Johns-penned comic that's made me want to read another. Honestly, what it comes down to is that I can see the man has talent, I just find him boring. Because I don't feel a strong connection to these characters, none of his work has any impact on me.

I also don't like his approach to superhero comics whereas I love Ellis's. Johns bases stories very much on what characters he likes, which ones he wants to push and place front and center. Ellis bases his stories on what will make for a better story. The lack of fondness he has for superheroes that people often decry makes for stories where the characters that you read about are there because they serve the story, not nostalgia or fan-obsession. I mentioned this elsewhere, but I've often considered Ellis as the example in mainstream superhero comics of the 'Professional Writer' who takes a job and does the best job he can because he's a writer -- Johns represents the much larger group in mainstream superhero comics, the 'Fan Writer.' And I don't want anyone to think that I'm calling that group unprofessional, it's just that their first goal, often, seems (key word right there) like it's 'honoring' these characters and the history rather than serving the story. That can sometimes lead to better stories, ones that build on the past and come off fantastic... or they can not. The same can happen to the 'Professional Writer,' of course, but that's the approach that I find clicks with me more often than not.

TC: Well since this basically evolved (or devolved) into Ellis vs. Johns, and because this all started with my response to one of your lists, let's end it with some lists, since I'm obviously not going to convince you to read any more Geoff Johns comics anytime soon, but you can always convince me to read more Warren Ellis.

But I'll list the Top 5 Geoff Johns comics, and you list the Top 5 Warren Ellis comics, and we'll let our readers decide who's the best!

Top 5 Geoff Johns comics, counting down:

5. Flash
4. Action Comics
3. Teen Titans
2. Adventure Comics
1. Green Lantern

Honorable Mention: JSA (pre-One Year Later)

CN: Yeah, I've given Johns plenty of chances to impress me and he hasn't (aside from "Infinite Crisis" #2 with the basis of the crossover being the previous decade of DC's output has sucked, I dug that idea -- and I enjoyed talking with him once for an interview, which makes disliking his writing always a little annoying/depressing/guilt-inducing). But, my Top 5 Warren Ellis comics:
5. Red
4. Nextwave: Agents of H.A.T.E.
3. Planetary
2. Transmetropolitan
1. Stormwatch/The Authority (as that's one run/larger story, of course)

Honorable Mention: Strange Kiss/Stranger Kisses/Strange Killings/Gravel (again, really one series divided up into numerous minis)
I want to end it on one final thought: if we were to make this a top ten list... who would have the easier time coming up with a complete list without feeling like they're throwing works in to fill spots? I know the answer, of course, but had to get that little dig in there. That said, we haven't gotten to the truly epic column: where you call me out on calling Ellis a better writer than Morrison.

TC: Ha! and double Ha! I could easily do a Top 10 list on Johns without skipping a beat, and do another one for Ellis just as quickly (and "Red" sure as hell wouldn't be in there). Maybe we'll save that for a special Top 10 Showdown! Right after you try to justify your sleep-induced declaration that Ellis is in any way better than Morrison.

CN: It was lack of sleep... and I stand by it.


Kyle White said...

I like the implication that some fans like Waid and Morrison are better than some disinterested pros. I need to finish the last third of Wednesday comics and catch up with the CBR edition of this column. Anywho, nice to see an update.

Ricardo said...

I think both arguments are valid. However, I tend to agree more with Chad, at least in terms of what is wrong about Geoff Johns writing.
My take on Johns is that he is an excellent plotter, in terms of finding a palpable drama/palette to work on. However, he does get things way out of control (his recent run on JSA has completely gone awry, with more subplots open than necessary, and mostly no point in anything). His dialogue is usually very flat and very black/white - it lacks humor, it lacks humanity. Legion of 3 Worlds was a perfect example of over-the-top dialoguing and nothing exactly happening for real, except opening more and more subplots to future writers.
Another problem I find with Johns is his characterization and, at that point, I disagree with Chad: it's not that DCU is more b&w good/evil: it's just the way Johns works with all his books. I mean, DC was home for Watchmen, Dark Knight (probably the best example of moral issues in comic books in the 80s), Giffen's Legion of Super-Heroes (which IMHO was the best adult take ever on superheroes in a continuity-based book), Secret Six, Suicide Squad and even JLI (full of very interesting three-dimentional takes on characters).
To sum up: Johns is awful with characterization and depth BUT he does seem to grasp better than most writers the "unique selling proposition" of a character and that is probably why so many people like him. Differently from other writers, you don't see a Johns-penned book diverging and giving his heroes/villains multiple personalities. He sticks to what he believes in - eg: Booster Gold. Booster for him is exactly what he said in 52: the greatest hero nobody will ever know. Personally, I find that too easy and limited (my favorite take is still the struggling hero circa JLIQ #1) but it does give readers a very solid take on what the character is all the time. And that's a hard thing to do, I must agree.

Patrick said...

It's tough to compare the two because Johns doesn't have any creator owned work to bring into the mix. But, even working within the DCU, I feel like he's got a wider variety of stories and character types he's used than Ellis has. After reading Transmet, Planetary and The Authority, I don't feel the need to read any new Ellis, since everything seems to riff off the same concepts from those books, where a cynical hero battles evil and we get to see a little piece of their heart underneath the hard surface.

I haven't read as much of Johns' stuff, but my big issue is that it feels so insular to the superhero universe. I think there are some real emotional beats in the work, but I feel like he's just telling good stories in the DCU, not reinventing it and expanding it in the way that Morrison is.

If I could read a new comic by either one, I'd go with Johns since I feel like Ellis is just hitting the same beats again and again.

I feel like the best writers in the big two carve out their own little chunk of the universe, and going back and reading Johns' older work, I can see where so much of Infinite Crisis, 52 and even Final Crisis were coming from. It's cool to keep finding new pieces of this one big story. I just wish DC would make it easier to figure out what order all of Johns' stuff was written in and some idea of how to go through it in TPB and catch stuff that's concurrent.

Patrick said...

But, I will add that I think Planetary and The Authority are going to be read and respected more looking ahead than anything Johns has written, and have made more of an impact on the industry than anything Johns has done. Though, I'd argue that Ellis's writing about comics is more influential than any of the comics he's written.

Chad Nevett said...

I love Ellis's writing about comics. I don't know how much writing Johns has done about the craft, so I didn't bring it up -- but, yeah, if I had to choose between Ellis's body of fictional work and his writing about comics... it would be a tough decision. Come in Alone is essential reading.

Bill Reed said...

Yeah, I pretty much agree with Chad at every turn, here. Frankly, the inherent assumption of this Splash Page-- that Ellis is the cynic and Johns is the optimist-- feels like a fallacy for me. I'm pretty sure it's the other way around.

Ellis looks grumpy on the surface, but he's really not. He's a humanist and an optimist, just like Kurt Vonnegut. (Oh God, I just had an idea for a thesis.) Whereas Johns looks brighter and cheerier, but, well, I just don't think his work bears that out. But since I don't go out of my way to read his comics, I can't really back up my argument.

But it does end up that Ellis is simply a better writer. Especially with dialogue, which is a good two-fifth of the reason why I find Johns' comics to be so unreadable.

Matt Jacobson said...

Yay, you guys are talking about stuff I understand, not that Wednesday Comics sillyness! Welcome back, seriously.

Unknown said...

Yes, Warren Ellis is a better and vastly more erudite writer than Johns.

HOWEVER, it's absolutely LAUGHABLE that anyone would ever place Ellis above Grant Morrison.

Grant Morrison's work is far more inspiring than Warren Ellis'. The Invisibles was a brilliant epic story. Flex Mentallo - the best deconstruction of superheroes EVER.

Now this is where FireMellon's criticism of Warren Ellis' writing comes in. FireMellon's right, Ellis' stories' endings come off really boring and wholly unsatisfying. Planetary being the biggest example: There are so many loose ends and unfinished business that the whole story falls apart. How can you introduce a character like the Imaginary guy from Planet Fiction AND DO ABSOLUTELY NOTHING with him?? How can you introduce a character like Carlton Marvel For ONE DAMN PAGE and then never revisit what actually happened to him in the Dreamtime?

Other works by Warren Ellis have similar problems: Ultimate Galactus was the biggest anti-climax I've read in a long time; Global Frequency was so disjointed I lost interest after issue four; No Hero had no real ending - it just stopped.

Dean H. said...

I agree with Ricardo.

The real weakness with Geoff Johns is his characterization. I literally cannot tell his Barry Allen and Hal Jordan apart. They have exactly the same speech patterns.

Matt Jacobson said...

I'm actually surprised that you don't consider yourself emotional in your reactions to comics - I read a lot of personal, "gut" reaction in your criticisms/comments/reviews of things. Not this column, specifically, but in many other cases. Aren't you the guy who said "Awesome trumps everything" (or something to that effect)? Isn't that a pretty emotional reaction, to say "this is awesome, it makes me feel good, who cares about anything else?

For the record, I'll take Ellis over Johns any day, though I've read and enjoyed a lot of stuff by Johns.

MarkAndrew said...

I don't think you can lump Ellis' creator owned work with his corporate stuff in this discussion.

His whole Shtick as a creator is "closet optimist pretending to be a cynic, innit?"

But he doesn't use that when he's working for Marvel - Ellis has flat-out said that alla dat's just hackwork to get his name out there and herd people over to his creator owned stuff -

And even if it's GOOD stuff -

And Nextwave was one of the three or four most formally/structurally inventive superhero books of the past 20 years -

He's still approaching it as an element outside of his REAL work - And I think the cynical tone to Thunderbolts and Nextwave comes from that. It's dumbed-down Ellis for beginners, maybe. (Although, again, a lot of it is awfully good.)

And I don't see Geoff Johns optimist, either. His stories end, the good guys win. Just like every superhero comic ever. Just like every horror movie ever. I'm not sure you can even DO optimism effectively without the possibility of a happy (or at least bittersweet) ending.

Or if you can convey it in ongoing serial narrative you have to be a hell of a lot better writer than Geoff Johns.

Unknown said...

I think the difference between Ellis' babble about biology and physics and Johns' babble about the DCU is pretty much a perfect reflection of what makes Ellis better than Johns: anyone with a reasonable intellect/education can understand Ellis' digressions, while literally no-one on earth outside of the -- say fifty thousand? -- hardcore DC continuity geeks can understand Johns'. This is a real glaring flaw in Johns' writing, as often he bases major story beats on obscure continuity tidbits. Now, I realize Morrison could be accused of doing the same thing, but he always tells you everything you need to know about any given character, while Johns' writing seems directly aimed at those DC geeks, to the exclusion to anyone else. And I do mean ANYONE else -- I know a good bit about DC continuity through the ages, way more than anyone else I know or anyone I've been on staff with at the handful of comic shops I've worked at, and I still couldn't make heads or tails of things like Legion of Three Worlds or Green Lantern, though not for lack of trying. If I wanted to get a non-comics reader to see what I enjoyed about comics, I wouldn't think twice about handing them some Fell or Transmet, or maybe even Planetary. But what of the Johns oeuvre would possibly be comprehensible to your average college-graduate comics virgin? I honestly can't think of anything, though if someone wants to suggest something that would be nice -- maybe I could finally figure out what all the fuss over Johns is about.

Patrick said...

I don't know that that's quite true. I think there's sometimes an overemphasis placed on needing to understand every aspect of a character's background and have stories be neatly self contained, when the very thing that got a lot of people into comics in the first place was the sprawling interconnectedness of the universe.

I read Infinite Crisis without having read Crisis on Infinite Earths, and I was pretty confused at times, but at the same time enjoyed just how over the top and insane the events were. I think people can enjoy the work without fully comprehending it.

But, going in the other direction, I'd argue Teen Titans is fairly easy to follow on its own terms, and contains most of the information needed to follow the character beats in story. It's not his best work, but it's one that's pretty easy to follow without that much prior familiarity with the characters involved.

That said, nothing in Johns's oeuvre is going to sell a new reader on comics in the way that Planetary or Transmet would.

Anonymous said...

Tim, check out Ellis' "Crooked Little Vein," if you've not done so already. It proves your point... yet undermines it with a clever bit of plotting.

Timothy Callahan said...

Ugh. Prose from comic book writers tends to be terrible. I'll have to be sold a hell of a lot more than that to pick up Ellis's novel.

I'm still trying to slog through John L. Byrne's "Fear Book." (Not really, I gave up after page 5 about 22 years ago.)

Chad Nevett said...

Ellis's prose is pretty good. Very straight-forward, easy to read, minimalist. I read the book in a day and enjoyed it quite a bit.

Ian said...

Remember in Pulp Fiction where the fundamental categories of classification were Elvis people or Beatles people?

This feels like that: Ellis people or Johns people, Wolverine or Superman, the angel or the insect.

Personally, I like to consider myself enlightened enough that I can appreciate both on some level and won't judge these writers on their public personas and respective views on super-heroes: Ellis's famous commentary in the form such terminology as "Cat Piss Man" or "spandex-clad" vs. Johns's apparent shmaltz for corporate intellectual property.

Johns is a guilty pleasure for me. The hopefulness and bright colors and high adventure and melodrama...I'd never call myself a Johns fan for fear of being excluded from the cool kids club but I always find myself enjoying his work in spite of myself. I'm deeply, deeply cynical of anything with a Marvel or DC label on it. I'm long since past any kind've sentimental devotion to these characters but that's a lamentable state. I'm pleased when someone can warm my cold, dead heart and make me believe. Because I want to believe.

Ellis on the other hand is someone's work I openly speak about. This gives me cred. Trenchcoats and sunglasses at night. Grim looks and over-serious intellectual ephemera. Honestly, I find his Bad Signal and missives vastly more entertaining and useful than his work though. I like having the ideas distilled so I don't have to slog through the fiction. This is mostly because I secretly find Ellis's work predictable and dull.

Y'know, like most things it's not a perfect division. Sometimes Ellis finds a vein of life that you can tell he is being sincere. That bastard with a heart of gold, sure. And Johns tries to engage the unholy power of awesome sometimes it feels so utterly commercial and skeevy lacking in any real heart. But y'know, that really works to Johns's favor because it seems to indicate he can do what Ellis can do and what Ellis can't (or won't).

Because when it comes down to it, that's the big problem for me: Ellis may be a better writer but there are places he just won't go, places he finds just too ridiculous, places that he might consider unbecoming. And that's a limitation. Wolverine doesn't do this and Wolverine doesn't do that, y'know? But Superman? He's devoid of ego or at least he's trying.

At least Johns is trying.

But don't tell anybody I told you that.

Timothy Callahan said...

I see Johns as Star Wars and Ellis as Blade Runner.

Bill Reed said...

I don't like Star Wars or Blade Runner.

Anyway, Crooked Little Vein is the most pants-shittingly funny book I've read since, I dunno, Douglas Adams was in his prime.

Timothy Callahan said...

No Star Wars or Blade Runner? I've never heard of such a person.

Bill Reed, you are most certainly a robot from the future determined to wreak havoc on life as we know it.

Maybe you're a Big Lebowski person, then?

Bill Reed said...

I don't see how Lebowski really compares, but yeah, I'm a fan. Coens' best!

Timothy Callahan said...

Lebowski is outside the Star Wars/Blade Runner spectrum. It's the wild card!

Rebis said...

I'll admit, I haven't read enough Ellis to comment on him with any personal authority (although I did enjoy all of the "Planetary" and most of the "Authority" that I did read, in trade, a couple years back). But I will say a few words in defense of Geoff Johns. Yes, some of his stuff was a sloppy mess: "Infinite Crisis," I'm looking at you — though who can say there wasn't plenty of corporate interference? — and I don't know who in their right mind, other than die-hard Legion fans, could have thoroughly enjoyed "Legion of Three Worlds" ... but his run on "Flash" (the Wally West Flash)? Great stuff there. And full of characterization! Wally has a distinct personality, as do most of the Rogues.

Meanwhile, his "GL" run will be well-remembered and hailed for a long time. I don't see it mired in DC continuity at all — if you know the older elements of "GL" mythos, like Sinestro's and Carol's back stories, or Moore's "Tygers," well then, all the better. Nonetheless, Johns is telling his current readers everything we need to know as he goes along. And he's creating entire new swaths of Lantern Lore, which are being stitched, near-seamlessly, into the existing tapestry. It's a pretty thrilling feat spooling out before us.

Timothy Callahan said...

Rebis is right. About everything.

Brendan said...

Re: optimism

Spider Jerusalem is as skeptical, cynical a character as comics has to offer, but he believes in the possibility of change. Nobody who writes exclusively within the DC milieu can really talk about change, because those comics are inevitably about preserving the status quo, and "winning" means returning things to the way they were before.

The line that I always remember first when I think about Transmet—from, I think, one of the short Christmas stories—is "The future is necessarily a good thing."

Spider finds his world endlessly disappointing, but he hasn't given up on changing it. That's why he takes an interest in the presidential election and uses his energy to influence the outcome. It's important that the election comes in the first half of the book. If it were the climax, that would be it: "nothing ever changes." But in a way, it's the setup. Spider is devastated by how wrong everything goes, but eventually he gets back into it, working to expose the Smiler and remind people it doesn't have to be like this.

It's a feat of optimism you don't see many places in comics, and basically nowhere in superhero comics. And one can quite easily imagine a lot of other Ellis characters saying, "The future is necessarily a good thing."

I'm also a sucker for the Engineer taking a moment in The Authority to become the first woman to walk on the moon, and Ellis and Hitch giving a page to that moment.

Ricardo said...

Johns is Dune, not Star Wars. I mean, Legion of Three Worlds has some of the most nonsensical theory ever put on comic book. Just awfully written stuff, with very unengaging characterization. The premises were fine (as it usually is in his stories), but execution is always miss for me. Except for Son of Superman and Adventure Comics, which seemed to have a more thought-out plan.
Warren is more like Philip K. Dick. Strong premises, moral issues, lots of well-researched theory and great dialoguing.

Rohan Williams said...

I think the length and breadth of Ellis' career is going to see him trump Johns in any sort of 'Top 10' list, as much as I enjoy Johns' work. Between the two, I'm probably more likely to buy something with Johns' name attached to it, but c'mon, they're both great.

But forget Johns v Ellis - does anyone else think Johns might have taken a bite out of a bigger fish in this week's GL? Atrocitus' exchange with the four Inversions sounds a lot like a response to Moore's recent interview trashing Johns for being inspired by his '80s GLC stories.