Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Warren Ellis’ FreakAngels

Warren Ellis is a god amongst comic book making men. For one thing, he is the author of the dystopian gonzo-journalism epic Transmetropolitan, which is a fabulous entry into scifi for people who think they don’t like science fiction, as well as a gateway into comics for people who aren’t into the whole capes and vampires thing.

For another, he’s decided to share his psycho genius with the Internet, free of charge. Aside from his endlessly entertaining (or disturbing, depending on your point of view) Twitter feed, Ellis has gifted the web with his post-apocalyptic comic FreakAngels.

The premise of FreakAngels is wonderfully simple: What if the Midwich Cuckoos, the monstrous children of John Wyndham’s novel (endlessly remade as Village of the Damned), ended the world and subsequently grew up to be angst-ridden twenty-somethings? The twelve “FreakAngels,” as they call themselves, have pale skin, purple eyes, and an array of powerful mental abilities – ranging from emotional manipulation to teleportation to kinetic barrier creation. With the streets of London flooded and all the world’s electrical systems destroyed, the FreakAngels have gathered an enclave around themselves in Whitechapel. For the most part, it’s a cozy apocalypse, with the normal humans living and working under the protection of the FreakAngels to create a semblance of stable society.

But all is not always well in Freaktown. Other communities, jealous of Whitechapel’s relative prosperity, launch frequent attacks using the remains of military caches. And Mark, a renegade FreakAngel who was cast out of the group after an unnamed dispute, creates chaos in other parts of London, sending his vengeful victims to Whitechapel. And that’s putting aside strife among the remaining FreakAngels, childhood friends who grew up together and destroyed the world together, but still have the same personality clashes as any crew of post-adolescents.

After the visual and verbal hyperactivity of Transmetropolitan, FreakAngels feels like walking into the sudden quiet of snowfall. But that’s what makes Ellis’ apocalypse seem so organic: after the bang, humanity won’t go out in a dystopic mess of fire-eating, cannibalistic biker gangs; it’ll scramble along as a decimated version of what existed before. And, despite the series’ steampunk aesthetic, he takes a less is more approach with the technology. Steam-powered machines do exist, but they are extremely rare and only a handful of people can get them to work. Otherwise, we’re dealing with good old-fashioned gasoline, gunpowder, and grenades.

The first volume also shows off another of Ellis’ core strengths: rapid and profound characterization. Few writers could so fully flesh out twelve characters (the eleven remaining FreakAngels and Alice, a newcomer to Whitechapel) in so few pages. Each FreakAngel has their own role – the loser, the lover, the headcase, the cop – and though their backstory is a shared one, we get peeks into the characters’ individual histories. Their family dynamics also demonstrate how tenuous life in Whitechapel is. The community’s security was built and depends upon this strange group’s intense affection for one another, but warring personalities could easily rip the entire community apart.

Paul Duffield’s art neatly captures the dreariness of this flooded world. Watercolored skies and earthy tones give the sense that Armageddon has muted all the colors of the world, as if bright, popping reds and yellows depend somehow on the existence of electricity and SUVs. Buildings are drawn with apparently deliberate imprecision, suggesting that they might at any moment topple over. And he does truly phenomenal things with light.

Just as Ellis has clearly defined each FreakAngel in his dialogue, so has Duffield given them each a distinct visual style, while differentiating them as a group from the normal humans. The figure drawings aren’t perfect; the occasional panel shows a character standing in an unnatural or flat position, and Alice’s appearance has significantly changed over the course of the series. But overall, his characters are beautifully expressive and his fashion designs lend an air of romance to the end of the world.

I should also say that Ellis might be a web marketing genius. Several characters are seen wearing t-shirts printed with the FreakAngels logo. It’s easy enough to see how a group of preteens would think FreakAngels was a cool name for their club of weirdoes, and how they might take to screenprinting t-shirts for themselves. In addition to copies of FreakAngels Vol. 1, Ellis and Duffield sell the shirts on their website, which are bound to appeal to more than a few steampunkers out there.

FreakAngels updates with six pages nearly every Friday.


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