In a brief essay in the back of Fell #1, Warren Ellis relates how Fell came about. He remembers an interview with Alan Moore that he had read twenty years ago in which Moore said that the good thing about comics was that you could walk into a store with pocket change and leave “with a real slab of culture”.
Ellis then goes on to inform us how fans nowadays come up to him at signings without any comic he worked on, offering instead t-shirts or scraps of paper to sign. When asked, these fans tell him that they loved his work, but they don’t own any of it. They borrow his comics from friends and libraries because they are too expensive to purchase on their own.
After hearing this, Ellis decided to create a comic that was affordable yet told a complete story, one which was self-contained that you could enjoy on its own without having to own every issue that came before it. In the process, he might have come up with the answer to one of the major problems facing the comic industry—attracting new readers who would otherwise be put off by comic books’ price and inaccessibility.
Fell is the result of this decision. At $1.99, it is one dollar less than most of the other comics being published today. It also features half the pages of a normal book. You might say that offering half the comic at two-thirds the price isn’t much of a bargain. But you would not have seen what Ellis has done with Fell.
Each issue features no ads, 16 pages of story, and 4 pages of Ellis discussing the story (in a section called “Backmatter”). 16 pages of story are only six less than you would find in many mainstream books, but Ellis and Templesmith have taken advantage of those 16 pages to the fullest. They do more with those 16 pages than other people do with a four issue mini-series. Each page follows almost exclusively a nine panel grid. Some pages might not have nine, but no page has less than five panels, allowing for a great deal of storytelling. Full page panels and splash pages are not found in this comic.
Fell tells the story of Richard Fell, a young detective who has recently transferred into the worst precinct in town. He seems to be drawn to the weird cases: a man who cannot drink alcohol at all who dies of alcohol poisoning, a woman who was killed for her unborn fetus. In the midst of all this, Fell must deal with a potential romantic interest who branded him with hot metal and a mysterious nun wearing a Richard Nixon mask.
The story may sound weird, but it’s not as weird as you might think. Ellis writes Detective Fell as a real detective. He investigates. He finds things out. He puts clues together and he solves crimes. He is a character that you care for and can root for. Ellis truly succeeds in delivering a satisfying chunk of story in each issue. While each issue is not completely self contained, the subplots that carry over from issue to issue are clearly explained to the new readers so they are brought up to speed.
The art by Templesmith shows an improvement over his other work. There is clarity to his artwork and visual storytelling ability that was missing in his 30 Days of Night work. This suits the panel structure Ellis has laid out for him, because the smaller panels do not lend themselves to Templesmith’s trademark moody, atmospheric style.
But the best part about Fell might well be the “Backmatter” section. In it, Warren Ellis talks directly to the readers of the book, giving us a look behind the scenes of the creation of the book. Among some of the other interesting tidbits, Ellis reveals that instead of going with the 9 panel grid, he was originally thinking of using 16!
And since each story is based on real life events, ripped from today’s weirdest headlines, as it were, Ellis gives us a breakdown on where he got the idea for each story. Yes, both the man who could not drink alcohol but died of alcohol poisoning and the woman killed for her fetus were inspired by true stories, and Ellis gives us the facts on both. Ellis communicates in a down-to-Earth, self-effacing way that invites the reader into the creative process. He speaks to us as if he was an old friend of ours, not a college professor. The result is that we become more involved in the main story of each issue.
So Ellis’ experiment is a success in one aspect. He has produced two full issues, each featuring an entertaining story with behind the scenes information, all for $1.99. It proves that it can be done. Whether the current comic reading public will support the experiment is another thing entirely. And even if Fell becomes a commercial success (and the fact that both issues have had second printings indicate that it is on its way), it is not known if it will encourage other comic companies to try similar experiments. One hopes that it will, but if it doesn’t we should enjoy Fell for what it is, a great book at a great price.