Comics haven’t always been obsessed with superheroes. It just feels that way, sometimes. After the initial explosion of superheroes in the 1940s, the 1950s saw the medium expanding into other genres: Horror, crime, science fiction, war, western, and romance comics all saw their time in the sun. In a way, this was a natural evolution and expansion: comics were a direct descendent of the pulp magazines popular in the first half of the century, and the pulps were full of all kinds of far-out stories. The costumed comic superhero was an extension of the many pulp crime-fighters—costumed or otherwise—such as the Shadow and Doc Savage, and the bright costumes and illustrations seemed to give heroic fiction a new life. It seemed only natural that the diversity of the pulps would translate to the newer medium.
But the advent of the Comics Code effectively ran EC Comics, the finest purveyors of books with words like “Crime”, “Horror”, and “Terror” in their titles, out of business, and it was only a matter of time before Stan Lee and Jack Kirby put superheroes back on top. While they’ve dabbled in other genres from time to time, North American comics have been dominated by capes and tights ever since.
Warren Ellis’ Apparat project is an attempt to look at what comics might have become if the breadth and depth of the pulps had been translated into comics. Apparat‘s stories are full of heroes, villains, weird science, and high adventure—none of which are foreign to superhero comics—but bypass the specifics of the capes and cowls crowd.
It’s not an entirely original experiment. Alan Moore’s ABC line—particularly Tom Strong—was an attempt to capture the spirit of the pulp magazines. But while Moore’s stories were more of a cultural transplant, complete with the whimsy and absurdity of the original era, Ellis looks at the idea as if multi-genre fiction has been alive and well in North American comics for the past half-century.
Only two of Apparat‘s stories offer much potential in the way of a recurring series. Frank Ironwine is Ellis’ extension of the old detective stories. Ellis follows up on the detective stories of Arthur Conan Doyle, Dashiel Hammet and Raymond Chandler with a well-constructed murder mystery: A man is found murdered in his apartment. While grizzled veteran Detective Ironwine’s new partner immediately suspects the man’s wife, Ironwine is convinced she isn’t involved; his hunch is confirmed when the dead man’s wife turns up equally dead a short time later.
Frank Ironwine is an almost perfect detective TV show. Particularly reminiscent of Homicide: Life on the Street, the story combines methodical crime scene inspections with an eccentric lead character who’s willing to do what must be done to solve a crime, even if that involves hugging a murder suspect. It’s a departure from the squeaky-clean science of CSI and its imitators, and puts the human detective front and centre. Frank Ironwine is possibly a bit more eccentric than he needs to be—he wakes up in a garbage bin after a night of hard drinking—and the friction between him and his by-the-book rookie partner is a tad cliché, but Ellis puts the formula to good use; in fact, it bears many of the hallmarks of Ellis’ current monthly, Fell.
Simon Spector bears some surface similarities to Frank Ironwine: like Ironwine, the title character is a skilled detective. The similarities end there, however, with Spector residing in an elegant penthouse with his beautiful assistants, formidable arsenal, and collection of brain-enhancing pills. Simon Spector is Ellis’ answer to pulp adventurers like The Shadow and Doc Savage, where the process isn’t as important as the style and panache with which it’s carried out. Spector is a smart guy, but he’s also a big, strong guy with a penchant for custom-made firearms. He’s got a nemesis and his own origin story. He’s a particularly brutal James Bond to Ironwine’s Sherlock Holmes.
Like Frank Ironwine, Simon Spector relies on several genre standards, like the villain who played a role in the hero’s creation. But just as with Frank Ironwine, Ellis elevates the story above its (obvious) genre trappings with the fine execution of a two-fisted action story, as well as a nice twist with the revelation of the true nature of Spector’s supercharging brain pills.
Angel Stomp Future is less a story than it is a brief tour of a future drowned in excess. Dr. Angel Antimony is the tour guide, explaining that the future is just as messed up as the present—if not more so—because human nature never really changes. It’s all bodily improvement implants, bizarre sexual fetishes, and good old greed. Those familiar with Ellis’ work will recognize it as one of the author’s dumping grounds for a bunch of really cool ideas he thought up but had nowhere to put. Nevertheless, Angel Stomp Future works as a nice bit of conceptual sci-fi, disturbing for both some of its grotesque imagery as well as the general plausibility of it all. It’s the most of a pure genre-binge, emptying Ellis’ cache of ideas and proclaiming in big, bold letters that this is how you do Science Fiction.
Quit City is perhaps the most unusual piece in the collection, largely because of the relative obscurity of its origin: The Aviator. The idea of a pilot being particularly exotic or adventurous hasn’t really stood the test of time. Flying a plane is no longer rare or exciting; almost anyone with a few hundred bucks and a weekend to spare can take a shot at it. Long gone are the days of Amelia Earhart and Billy Bishop being hailed as heroes. Accordingly Ellis bypasses the act of flying itself in favour of the reasons behind it and those who found it appealing. Emma Pierson has left her career as an ace pilot in the Aeropiratika behind her and come home to settle down. But her fame continues to follow her, as does a ghost from the past—the reason she left home for a life of danger and excitement in the air.
It’s probably the best piece of writing in the collection, since it uses the original pulp genre as little more than a launching pad for the story, and relies less on its pulp origins than the others. Being a heroic pilot isn’t nearly as important to the plot as it is as a metaphor: flight has always been associated with freedom and escape, and that’s what Ellis plays with here.
In any other medium, Apparat might seem somewhat pointless as a concept. The basic conceit—four unrelated short stories about cops, action heroes, a mad scientist, and a pilot—would be unlikely to elicit much interest elsewhere, simply because all of those concepts can be found in abundance. (With the possible exception of Quit City, which still works as a perfectly sensible piece of dramatic writing without the pulp origins) Apparat only works as a concept if you’re familiar with the North American comic industry’s obsession with superheroes and the medium’s origins of the pulp stories. And while Ellis has written several text pieces explaining the stories’ origins, the thematic origins are unlikely to be interesting to anyone not already familiar with the mediums involved.
Accordingly, the stories in Apparat have to stand on their own merit. For the most part, they do: While nothing is truly exceptional, Ellis has created some well-crafted pop-culture nuggets. Much of the credit goes to the respective artists, expertly matched up to their subject matter by Ellis. Carla Speed McNeil does fine work with her grounded and seemingly simple take on Frank Ironwine, while Juan Jose Ryp blows out all the stops on Angel Stomp Future. Ryp is one of the most insanely detailed artists on the planet, to the point of occasional confusion. Like Geof Darrow, he crams every panel so full of detail that it’s occasionally difficult to tell what you’re supposed to be looking at. Nevertheless, his depictions of Ellis’ future of depravity and excess elevate the story beyond the level of a so-so Outer Limits episode.
Ultimately, Apparat reads like something of a doggie bag of Ellis’ leftover ideas: characters, stories, and concepts that didn’t quite fit elsewhere, but were still too good to throw away. In the hands of many writers, a project like this could end up self-indulgent and pointless. But Ellis has always been one of the more intelligent and insightful writers in the industry, so his musings on genres, history, and form tend to be more entertaining than most. While Apparat‘s success as a concept may be limited, Ellis has nonetheless succeeded in what he set out to do: tell a bunch of weird, varied, and compelling tales that aren’t tied to any one genre.