Fell is Warren Ellis’s ongoing experiment with the comics format, an attempt to tell complete stories in single issues that sell for $1.99 US and don’t leave you feeling like you got less than your money’s worth. With these, the third, fourth, and fifth issues, we get to see if the experiment’s working out.
The short answer: Hell, yes it is.
The long answer: With the first two issues of Fell Ellis told two murder mysteries. They were gripping, meaty stories with brutal and shocking twist endings. They were crammed into a relatively short space by compressed storytelling, nine-panel grids, and the kind of breakneck pacing you get in an episode of Cowboy Bebop. If you’ve read Ellis doing decompressed storytelling in The Authority you know he’s a master of it, knowing when to open the guts of a story and let it all hang out. Finding out how well he handles the opposite end of the spectrum is damn impressive, even intimidating.
Issues 3-5 aren’t murder mysteries, however. There’ll be no resting on laurels here. Issue 3 sees Detective Fell talking down a suicide bomber, #4 hands him an apparently unsolvable murder to see how he copes with it—and the answer is rather surprising—and #5 is devoted to a lengthy, harrowing interrogation. Fell is defiantly avoiding falling into a formula, refusing to squeeze variations on the same story into every issue. Ellis is determined to prove that this format can be used to tell more than one story, and he’s just going to keep proving it every few months.
What’s really starting to come across in the stories now is the setting. The feral city of Snowtown is as important a character as Detective Fell himself. Treating the setting as a character has the advantage that it doesn’t need to be reintroduced every issue for those who came in late; it just is, sitting there in the background, all looming menace and fog. One of the things Ben Templesmith drew before Fell was the Silent Hill comic, and visually that’s the most obvious reference. The vague outlines, the crumbling walls, the run-down storefronts, even the packs of wild dogs. Snowtown is like Silent Hill with a human population.
The fact that the setting has so much personality doesn’t mean that the actual people are somehow lacking in it. Detective Richard Fell at first appeared to be a genuinely decent guy, in some ways quite different to Ellis’s other protagonists—he has a taste for angry men who smoke and drink a lot and swear at people, like Transmetropolitan’s Spider Jerusalem or Planetary’s Elijah Snow. Don’t get me wrong, nobody writes ranting, foul-mouthed bastards like Ellis, but it’s nice to see a character so different being utilised here. Despite the constraints of the single-issue story, Fell is rounding nicely as a person, too. We’re starting to see another side to him beyond the nice-guy cop. As he gets to know Snowtown he’s being changed by it, and he doesn’t react well to the frustrations it throws at him.
The supporting cast stays small; there wouldn’t be room for a big ensemble. Mayko is now more than just the crazy girl we saw wielding a branding iron in the first issue; we’ve seen a tender side and a feisty side as well. The nun who looks like Richard Nixon is still there in almost every issue, and is still as creepy as all getout. Characters who last only for the issue come across as real (excepting the occasional throwaway comic relief characters). Templesmith shares with artist Sam Kieth a gift for exaggerating faces to get across emotion without losing an essential humanity, and the pared-down dialogue is polished to a shine.
The backmatter remains an interesting read. Ellis is an entertaining essayist and diarist as anyone who reads his mailing list, Bad Signal, knows. He reprints choice reader letters, shares the inspiration behind the stories, rambles about how much he hates dogs, and shows off photos of his Internet girlfriends. It doubles the amount of time you get to spend lost in each issue, and so doubles the value as well.
The Fell experiment is a definite success in that it tells excellent stories in a short space and gives that “slab of culture” for a cheap price. And if the fact that the first three issues are all being reprinted again after selling out is anything to go by, then it’s a commercial success as well. It only remains to be seen how many other creators will be brave enough to mess with the format of comics so boldly.