Simian Substitute Site for July 2008: Ten Years Of Simians

Crooked Little Vein

Taken from the cover of the hardback edition of Crooked Little Vein: spot the differenceIt's getting close to a very important date: July 14th, 2008, when the Spank The Monkey new media empire will have been in operation for exactly ten years. This is a birthday that needs to be celebrated: and as you'll see in a few days' time, those celebrations last for the whole of July. So technically, this is the last piece you're going to get before the birthday blowout.

What to write about? Well, there are patterns to be followed here. The first review I ever published on the old site, back on July 14th 1998, was of the comic book Transmetropolitan, Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson's epic tale of Spider Jerusalem, The Hunter S. Thompson Of The Future. On the site's fifth birthday, I reviewed another of Ellis' works: Global Frequency, a series of adventure comics that worked like a TV series.

So it would make sense to hit the runway for our tenth birthday celebrations with another piece of work by Warren Ellis. His comics output continues unabated, with a huge number of series in progress at the time of writing: Doktor Sleepless, Black Summer, Fell, Anna Mercury, Gravel, plus Astonishing X-Men: Second Stage due any day now and FreakAngels turning up free and weekly on the intarwub. But I'm going to go back to a work of his that was first published last year, which goes into paperback in a month's time. And it's the first book of Ellis' without any pictures in it.

Crooked Little Vein is - or at least starts out as - a hard-boiled detective novel. It opens (as you can find out in an Amazon preview of the first chapter) with a scene typical of the genre: the private eye waking up blearily after a night sleeping in his office, albeit with the added complication that his first act of the day is to watch a rat urinating into his coffee mug. Our detective here is Michael McGill, who currently works out of an office in one of the more horrendous parts of New York City. Also typical of the genre is that before the first chapter is over, someone has walked into that office and offered him a case to investigate. Again, there's a catch: his client is a representative of the US Government, and the job is to track down the Constitution of the United States. Not that one: the other one, written by the Founding Fathers as a backup plan in the event that their country turned to crap.

Mike has been chosen to track it down because he's a self-confessed 'shit magnet' - his reputation as a great detective has come from the way he attracts trouble. As if to illustrate this, his first bit of investigation on the case takes him to a fetish club offering 'the only genuine and authentic Godzilla Bukkake night in America'. But on the upside, he gets to meet Trix, a young student from Greenwich Village. She becomes the Virgil to Mike's Dante, leading him on the trail of the other Constitution through the subcultures of America: a journey that will literally take them from coast to coast.

Warren Ellis' protagonists tend to be of a very specific character type. Spider Jerusalem from Transmet is probably the best example, with Michael 'Desolation' Jones and Richard Fell more recent ones. The typical Ellis protagonist is, to be frank, an irritating smartarse: always one step ahead of his enemies, always with an elaborate insult on his lips, always knowing more about the environment he works in than we do. Mike McGill isn't one of these people: you can tell that from early on, when he admits to not actually knowing what bukkake is. Part of this may well be down to Ellis having to write his novel for a more general audience than usual, one which needs some of the book's more appalling concepts explained to them. Alternatively, it's a clever way of making the romantic subplot work: because Trix does know all about this stuff. Between them, Mike and Trix make up the two halves of one complete Ellis protagonist, which makes us all the more keen to see them upgrade their relationship from Virgil/Dante to Beatrice/Dante.

Being a road movie of sorts, Crooked Little Vein feels episodic: that's also a consequence of it being a sourcebook of miscellaneous ideas that Ellis has been gathering since the turn of the century. His fascination with body modification, as frequently seen on his website under the heading DON'T LOOK, informs the leg-crossing section where Mike undergoes testicular saline infusion. (Don't look.) Odd phrases and riffs are familiar from his Bad Signal mailout, such as the description of someone being 'rich enough to sleep in a bed made of vaginas being pulled around the town at night by a fleet of gold-covered midgets.' One chapter, meanwhile, is basically a hugely compressed version of a series of LiveJournal short stories about private detective Falconer, who once solved a murder by fellating the corpse. (Actually, that's not true: it was probably more than once.)

Despite its patchwork nature, all of this hangs together as a convincing narrative, with some big ideas behind it. And one of those ideas has cunningly become a major theme by the end of the book. It's a concept most clearly expressed by a serial killer that Mike meets on his travels: "if I've seen it on the internet, is it still underground?" Part of the reason why the Government is so keen to get hold of the Constitution is a desire to get back to a simpler, less perverted America. But one of the things that Mike discovers as he makes his way through the subcultures of the country is that there are too many of them to be considered a subculture any more. Given that all of this underground culture is freely documented on the most widely accessible information network in human history, does the mere existence of the internet mean that nothing is underground any more? After all, that's probably where Ellis got most of his ideas for this book from. (That, and an American book tour he undertook in 2000, whose route looks very similar to that taken by Mike and Trix.)

The medium may be new for him, but this is still a typical Warren Ellis book: short, pacy, intensely readable, with a couple of genuinely touching moments in the middle of the filth when you least expect them. And all told in that distinctive Ellis Protagonist voice: which, if we're honest, sounds very much like his own from one of his personal appearances. Grab the paperback when it's published in August (or the hardback now if you're in a rush), and let's see what Ellis can give me to review in July 2013.



The inevitable spin-off website:

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