Originally posted on The Unpleasant Lair Of Spank The Monkey 14/07/2003.
The fifth birthday post, for those of you who are counting. (No, don't worry, I'm still going to finish this by the end of the month, trust me.) Global Frequency completed its twelve issue run, and was subsequently collated into two trade paperbacks, Planet Ablaze and Detonation Radio. Warren Ellis has suggested there may be more Global Frequency comics in the future, but there are no plans for them right now.
There was also an unsuccessful television pilot in 2005, but that's another story.
Bastille Day, 1998. The day that The Unpleasant Lair Of Spank The Monkey first opened for what we laughingly call 'business'. Some of you reading this may remember back that far, and hopefully you'll have forgotten the pastel pink 'n' blue/Times New Roman atrocity of its early look. But I've always been a sucker for a meaningless anniversary: so five years on from that day, indulge me as I have a quick look back at how this site started.
I'd been toying with the idea of a web site for a while. Over the years I'd been self-indulgently hurling my writing in people's faces through inappropriate outlets (most notoriously in a semi-satirical piece for a corporate newsletter, which almost cost me my Moderately Responsible Job In The Computer Industry), so polluting the internet was the next logical step. Given the arty bias of my leisure-time activities, a review site seemed like the way to go, ensuring that I'd have sufficient inspiration for regular updates. So on July 14th 1998, I unleashed my first two reviews on the world at large. One, amusingly, was of South Park, written as if it was an exciting new underground thing - it had just started appearing on UK terrestrial television for the first time, so I guess that was almost true. The other piece was about Transmetropolitan, a comic written by Warren Ellis and drawn by Darick Robertson, which was just entering its second year. If I had to identify one of these as being The First Review, I'd have to go for Transmet: partly because I did some minor rewriting on the South Park piece a week later, and partly because this fifth anniversary review is also of a Warren Ellis comic - Global Frequency.
It's been quiet in the comics section here of late, hasn't it? That's probably because the medium and I seem to have drifted apart over the last five years. I'd been a regular habituee of comics shops ever since the late eighties, when yer Moores and Gaimans and Millers and the like were starting to get funnybooks mentioned in the hipper style magazines. I stuck on all the way through the formation and peak of DC Comics' Vertigo imprint, in which (primarily British) creators were allowed to let rip with more adult subject matter. But by 1998, my comics shopping list had dwindled to three regular items - Transmetropolitan, The Invisibles and Preacher, all dutifully written up here - and the occasional limited series of interest, like The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen. All of these titles had a self-confessed limited lifespan - they would at some point come to a pre-planned end, rather than drag on forever like Batman and co. And even then I was wondering what would happen when all those titles finished - if there would be other ones I'd move onto instead, if new comics writers and artists would come through to take over from the old guys.
And to be honest, that hasn't really happened - I'm still reading all the old guys that I was five years ago. Alan Moore and Kev O'Neill have taken The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen into a darker, nastier second run of comics, just as a terrible-looking film adaptation is appearing in cinemas. (I'm basing that judgement solely on the trailer, in which they're just calling it The League, because they don't want to frighten off multiplex scummers with a title with a five syllable word in it.) Grant Morrison, having explained existence at the climax of The Invisibles (only to have his explanation made incomprehensible by incompetent artwork - a conspiracy theory that's almost as good as all the other ones in the book), is currently going pleasingly nuts in his limited series The Filth, an everyday story of inter-dimensional sex cops with combover hairdon'ts. Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon are offering the tantalising prospect of an upcoming new series called City Lights, a more realistic tale of ordinary human beings after the blasphemy and armadillo fucking of Preacher.
And then there's Warren Ellis. Much as I liked Transmetropolitan, it was his off-comics work that really intrigued me. Back in a 1999 article on Internet mailing lists, I wrote favourably about From The Desk Of..., a regular mailout in which he'd bitch about the comics industry and drop hints about his upcoming work. This, combined with the long-term existence of his own homepage, made him one of the more internet-aware comics writers around at the time. But he's taken things even further over the last few years.
FTDO... has slowly mutated into Bad Signal, the title signifying a change in approach: the former was a series of considered pieces written at his desk, the latter is a series of random broadcasts transmitted from his handheld PC from wherever takes his fancy (usually a pub somewhere in Southend). Subscribers to Bad Signal get advance scripts, half-formed ideas, and the occasional piece of writing that will never get published elsewhere (his Guy Ritchie-esque rewrite of the first meeting of Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson is hysterical, but you'll never read it). Aside from the homepage, he now has a blog - Die Puny Humans - which he prefers to think of as his research stack of interesting stories and images he can later plunder for his fiction, but which makes interesting reading for the rest of us too. In effect, he's opening up his creative process to anyone who's interested.
And in the middle of all this, he's still writing comics. All sorts of comics. After dedicating several years of his life to a sixty-issue longform story like Transmet, Ellis has stated that he's really not up to another Huge Idea for a good few years at least. In the meantime, he's experimenting with various formats: from three-issue mini-series, to the 100 page graphic novel Orbiter (a beautiful meditation on America's on/off relationship with space exploration, made even more timely by the Columbia space shuttle disaster occurring between the completion of Colleen Doran's artwork and its publication).
The format Ellis has chosen for Global Frequency ties in with an idea he bounced around on a Bad Signal some time ago, when he wondered why comics couldn't try to be like good telly. (Hour long drama shows are getting boring. Half hour shows should be the future of the medium. Take the ads out and they're 22 minutes long. Take the ads out of a comic and it's 22 pages long. It should work...) Global Frequency plays like a short, sharp adventure series - 12 episodes/issues, each one a self-contained story, with a basic premise that doesn't require much effort to re-establish each time. That premise is the organisation of the title - a hugely tech-savvy international rescue unit, consisting of one thousand and one agents scattered across the world. Each story introduces us to a different subset of those 1001 agents. There are only two recurring characters from one issue to the next - Miranda Zero, the mysterious woman who created the organisation, and Aleph, the controller who pulls the agents together from her central command centre.
In the most basic terms, each issue goes like this: there is a major catastrophe about to happen, somewhere on the planet. Miranda and Aleph call in the agents they consider to be the best ones for the job. They have 22 pages to save the world. What's not to like?
Warren Ellis recently gave a rather entertaining talk at the ICA, and among other things he suggested that one day he'd really like to write something in the Japanese manga format. He loves the way that manga are large enough for you to spend, say, fifteen pages examining a single moment in time from a variety of perspectives. Obviously, American comics aren't structured in a way that allow you to do that: even his small-scale experiments with slowed-down time on Transmet, where sometimes eight pages of scene-setting visuals could elapse before any plot was introduced, would potentially make your typical Western comics reader very nervous indeed.
No risk of that on Global Frequency: because if there's an overriding theme across all twelve issues, it's flat-out velocity. There's no time to waste in those 22 pages, and there's not a redundant word or image in them. The standard structure is a ticking clock plot, with a situation that will only be finally resolved on page 22 - and as the series progresses, Ellis seems to take delight in delaying that resolution as late as he possibly can. (Interesting to note that you don't get any credits for the comic until that final page, and they're always presented in the reverse order from usual, so that Ellis' creator/writer credit coincides with the very last image. Just like an executive producer on a TV show...)
To help him out, Ellis has picked twelve great artists, old hacks and young guns alike, and given them one issue each to work on. He's been careful to match the story and subject matter to the style of the individual artists, with terrific effect. Issue #3, in which a alien mind virus can only be defeated by using what makes humans unique, requires an artist who can get facial expressions and body language to do most of his work - Steve Dillon proved that on Preacher, and his typical attention to character detail makes the story fly. David Lloyd's depiction of British urban decay in the classic V For Vendetta makes him ideal for the London-based story in issue #6, where a lone agent has to get across the city by any means necessary to stop a terrorist attack. The quieter, more restrained issue #5 - with its tale of a Norwegian village rendered catatonic by an apparent spiritual visitation - requires a more photorealistic approach, which Jon J Muth realises perfectly.
But in the end, it all comes down to Ellis' script, and the realisation of what he's been doing with that research stack at Die Puny Humans. Because the 1001 agents of Global Frequency aren't superheroes: they're just ordinary people, each with a particular physical or technological skill. And all those skills are genuine real-world talents, which Ellis has uncovered during his research - it's their combination that makes them a force to be reckoned with. Take my favourite issue to date, #8, drawn by Chris Sprouse and Karl Story. At the start, Miranda Zero has just been thrown into a locked room by an unknown terrorist. He gives Miranda one hour to reveal her organisation's computer passwords, or he'll kill her. (He's given her one hour because he knows it typically takes Global Frequency seventy-five minutes to respond to a kidnapping alert.) The subsequent operation to locate and save Miranda requires a nerdy inventor, a retired detective, a genetics expert, an unmanned surveillance plane, Britney Spears' bodyguard and half a dozen international hackers. The science they use to do the job is all real, and all out there right now: it's the tying together of all these ideas that shows where Ellis' true strengths as a comics scripter lie.
At the time of writing - July 2003, in case you needed reminding - Global Frequency is eight issues into its twelve issue run. It's looking certain that they'll all be eventually collected into a single volume, for those of you who can't be arsed with those fiddly thirty-two page pamphlets. It's also looking reasonably likely that Warren Ellis will be writing another series of the comic at some point after that. Just when I thought I was out of comics, they pull me back in! Still, after five years, I can't really complain. Being a monkey, and all.
Global Frequency [dead link] has a website all of its own. It's not very good, really (apart from the downloadable promo pack in the press area [dead link]), which is surprising given the other sites Warren Ellis has been responsible for. Such as...
...Die Puny Humans [defunct link], his weblog cum reference archive, storing everything from terrifying web findings [dead link] through vintage porn [dead link] to photos of his work environment [dead link]...
...Dance Puny Humans [dead link], a site he's recently set up to show off pictures taken with his new Nokia mobile...
...The Warren Ellis Forum, a now-defunct discussion group which he sometimes reactivates briefly for a laugh. [Other sites that Warren Ellis has started up between 2003 and 2008: the FreakAngels webcomic, its associated message board Whitechapel, a wiki for his ongoing series Doktor Sleepless, a watching-the-future blog at grinding.be, plus the usual MySpace and LiveJournal pages.]
Mile High Comics have been doing some useful online previews of comics, giving you the chance to look at a cover and a few pages before you buy. The previews of the Global Frequency issues published in 2002 appear to have all been cleared out, but for the time being you can still see samples of issues 4 [dead link] (art by Roy A Martinez), 5 [dead link] (Jon J Muth), 6 [dead link] (David Lloyd), 7 [dead link] (Simon Bisley) and 8 [dead link] (Chris Sprouse & Karl Story). The rest to follow soon, presumably.
Smart Mobs is a website built around Howard Rheingold's book Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution, which looks at how technology is bringing people together in previously unheard of ways. To quote from the summary, "Smart mobs emerge when communication and computing technologies amplify human talents for cooperation. The impacts of smart mob technology already appear to be both beneficial and destructive." The parallels with the loose-linked organisation of Global Frequency have already been noted, as has the potential for new forms of subversive fun.