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Sunday Slugfest - Fell #9

Posted: Sunday, January 20, 2008
By: Keith Dallas

Warren Ellis
Ben Templesmith
Image Comics
Matthew J. Brady: 4-1/2 Bullets
Kelvin Green: 4 Bullets
Paul Brian McCoy: 4 Bullets
Dave Wallace: 4 Bullets






Matthew J. Brady 4-1/2 Bullets

Warren Ellis and Ben Templesmith’s crime series Fell has slipped to a pretty irregular, delayed schedule which is unfortunate but definitely not a dealbreaker. In this issue’s “Backmatter,” Ellis explains that the delays were caused by Templesmith taking time off from art production to promote the 30 Days of Night movie (he illustrated the graphic novel the movie was based on). So while it’s understandable, it’s still annoying, mostly because each issue is so good, fans like me want to read it more often. Luckily, the done-in-one nature of each issue’s story makes the series easy to follow when there are long delays between issues; you can jump back in and get a full, satisfying story without worrying about how long it will take to read the rest of it.

That single-issue structure has worked well for the series, and this issue is no exception. This month (which hopefully won’t stretch into the next six months), police detective protagonist Richard Fell is starting to show some strain, getting reprimanded by his supervisor for becoming increasingly violent. It’s an understandable development, and we’ve been able to see how the ugly environment of Snowtown, with its crime-filled streets and uncaring inhabitants, has brought him to this point. But that’s only the beginning; the rest of the issue sees Fell working as a hostage negotiator, trying to coax a violent man out of an apartment where he has apparently imprisoned an elderly couple. Why is he doing this, and what does he want? Fell gets to try to figure this out, and hopefully not get killed in the process.

It’s yet another interesting encounter, full of Ellis’ usual hard-bitten dialogue, but, as usual for the series, it’s Ben Templesmith’s art that brings the story to life. He beautifully details the dark, grimy atmosphere of Snowtown, and the way he shows Fell’s changing expressions as he learns more information and deals with the situation is masterful. Templesmith works like nobody else, combining somewhat sketchy characters with detailed backgrounds and colors that somehow seem to glow on the page. I’m always fascinated when I read one of his books.

Ellis obviously really likes writing for Templesmith, and he constantly pushes him, trying to get him to find new ways to impart information to the reader. This issue, they use a nifty technique in which we see Fell’s thoughts about the culprit. Fell is in the hallway outside the apartment containing the hostage-taker, and we see his impression of the man as a stick figure drawn on the door, with descriptive details and arrows pointing out what Fell has just figured out. This information keeps changing as the situation develops, and it’s a simple and effective way to convey those impressions to the reader. It’s a nice idea, one of many that the team has come up with over the course of the run.

So like always, it’s an enjoyable issue of the series. Fell is a great protagonist, full of compassionate violence, and Snowtown is a great setting for him to exorcise his demons. Ellis indicates that a major turning point is coming in the sixteenth issue, so hopefully we won’t have to wait another year to get there. Here’s hoping for a more regular schedule!




Kelvin Green 4 Bullets

I'm not sure about Fell, to be honest. Warren Ellis' dialogue is as snappy and quotable as ever, and Ben Templesmith's art perfectly captures the sordid decay of the setting, bringing the almost apocalyptic city of Snowtown to shambling zombie-like life. But there's something about the title which just doesn't work for me, and I think it's the story itself. I don't think Ellis has really gotten to grips with the enforced sixteen page length, despite coming up with the format himself, and the result has been some stunted plotting along the way.

All of the above, both good and bad, is true of this issue too. It looks great, but there's something lacking in the story. There are only three scenes in the comic, an introduction which largely exists to set up the epilogue, and the main scene, of which more below. What's ever-so-slightly frustrating for me is that while it all works perfectly well in terms of plot logic, and Fell's actions in the epilogue make perfect sense in light of that introductory scene, because the comic is so short the mechanics of the story are laid bare. There's simply no space in which to disguise the workings of the story, so it all comes across as a bit too obvious, focused and efficient.

"But Kelvin," you might observe, "That's an utterly bizarre criticism to make in these days of waffly overextended comic storylines, in which sod all happens for six issues!" And you'd be right, but nonetheless it does make Fell, as a narrative, somewhat less satisfying for me. That said, I keep coming back to this title because it's simply fascinating to see the nuts and bolts of comics storytelling laid out so clearly. I keep reading because I want to see how Ellis works his way past the limitations he's set for himself, and because I want to know whether the difficulties the writer has faced in putting together a satisfying self-contained story in sixteen pages are a result of his unfamiliarity with the format (this is only the ninth issue, after all, and there has been definite improvement along the way), or if those limitations will turn out to be an unsurpassable part of said format. While I don't always enjoy reading Fell as much as I'd like, I always enjoy thinking about it afterwards.

And what's got me thinking this issue is that main scene I mentioned above, which takes up the lion's share of the comic and concerns a negotiation between Detective Fell and a gunman holed up with hostages behind a locked door. Frankly, it's most of the issue whittled away with dialogue that could have come from any cop show, and at first glance it seems like a waste of the limited space, but what grabs me is how Ellis stages it. Like Fell himself, we don't see the hostage-taker until the end of the comic, and most of their conversation takes place through a door. It's a literal dead-end visually, and Ellis comes up with an interesting solution that is not quite sound effects, and not quite thought balloons, but something that does the job of both, without looking like either. On the door are projected childlike stick figures acting out certain situations that Fell, listening through the door, is deducing from the sounds he's hearing. It's a fascinating technique that I don't think I've seen before, and while I'm not sure it works completely, it's certainly a brave and clever attempt to do something unique with the medium, and I'm all for that kind of experimentation.

Yet again, I find myself disappointed by the bare bones, almost perfunctory, plotting of this comic, while at the same time absolutely enthralled by the creativity and inventiveness that is brought to the surface as a result. One day, Ellis and Templesmith will crack it and produce a truly great issue of Fell in which the story entertains just as much as the storytelling impresses. That day is not here yet, but nonetheless, this is an excellent comic.




Paul Brian McCoy: 4 Bullets

It's been a long time. According to my records, it was April of 2007 when issue #8 of Fell dropped, and since then Mr. Templesmith has been touring the world in support of the 30 Days of Night film and Mr. Ellis has been not writing so Mr. Templesmith could "enjoy himself without restraint." And it looks like it will be spring before the next issue hits. All of this is laid out in a rather meager-by-ordinary-standards “Backmatter,” but you know what?

I'm not going to complain about it.

In fact, all I'm going to say about it is this: Mr. Ellis, Mr. Templesmith, just keep them coming. I'll get them whenever you can get them into my damp little hands.

Because, really, this book is just so good that I don't mind the wait. Sure, I'd like to see a new issue every week, but I doubt that the quality would keep up with the quantity. It was already sliding from a couple of months between issues to three or four months when it dropped off the radar, but it's probably one of the best comics on the market, so Mr. Ellis and Mr. Templesmith can take their sweet time to make sure they put out the highest quality work.

And they do.

Mr. Ellis has a lot of other stuff on the market to help me fight off the shakes, so that's good. Mr. Templesmith, on the other hand, isn't as prolific (especially with his world tour going on), so I had The Fear real bad before I was able to get a fix of 30 Days of Night: Red Snow and Wormwood: Gentleman Corpse a few months back.

And now, finally, a new issue of Fell.

I'm not going to bore you with detailed descriptions of what goes on (hostage situation), or the twist ending (justice), or even of the brilliant visualization of Fell's thought process (stick figure). I'm sure the other reviewers will cover all that and more. I will say this, though. On my first reading, I was a little disappointed with the resolution. It seemed to be a bit too much wish fulfillment on Mr. Ellis' part, and made me question the realism of it. Then I read it again, and said to hell with my initial qualms. It's Snowtown, dammit. The beatings can be ignored.

Buy this book. It's still only 1.99.




Dave Wallace: 4 Bullets

Ah, Fell. It always feels like a treat. For just $1.99, you get a 16-page story with more thought put into it than some six-issue superhero “arcs,” with constant visual innovation and a unique storytelling voice to boot. This latest issue is no exception, as although it deals with a fairly well-worn cliché of the police procedural drama – the hostage negotiation - it handles it with the usual mixture of psychological insight, tension and unpredictable plotting that regular readers will recognize.

The issue opens with a confrontation between Fell and his superior, Lt. Beard, a welcome scene which shows that Fell's unorthodox approach to police work hasn't gone unnoticed. Regular readers will enjoy seeing the development of Fell's relationship with Beard, and Ellis offers a few more hints as to the detective's mysterious backstory here too. However, the scene also makes this issue a good opportunity for new readers to jump on board, as these opening pages recap some of Fell's recent escapades and give uninitiated readers a good idea of the kind of police officer he is in a fairly short space of time. I wonder if Ellis chose to do this because this is the issue that will open the second collected edition of the book, but whatever the reason, it eases readers (both new and old) into the story well.

Once Fell volunteers to tackle the hostage negotiation, the issue settles into the bulk of its story - a conversation between the detective and a largely unseen hostage-taker, separated only by an apartment door. Fell's unconventional dialogue is disarming, eventually encouraging the criminal to drop his guard, and leading to some surprising revelations which I won't spoil here. Yes, it's the kind of scene that's been seen before in the series, but Ellis writes the characters so well that it still feels fresh and entertaining, and he manages to keep his detective realistically grounded by his flaws (“Yeah, well. I'm making it up as I go along”) rather than having him find the perfect solution every time.

Again, Ben Templesmith's artwork makes what could have been a static and visually repetitive story feel dynamic and interesting via a frequent switching of angles and perspectives. There's also an innovative device which shows Fell piecing together a profile of the hostage-taker via a stick-man image which is gradually fleshed out with the details that the detective deduces from his conversation. As the script extracts in the “Backmatter” show, this device was conceived by Ellis, but Templesmith's interpretation really makes it sing. Templesmith also makes good use of colour, with a flash of vivid orange in the single panel which shows the alien landscape of Afghanistan, and a suitably sickly shade of pale green dominating the final scenes which are set in a hospital.

This final coda throws up some far more complex questions for which Ellis doesn't attempt to offer an easy answer, but which paint the issue's antagonist in a more sympathetic light. In this way, the closing pages add a little more depth to a fairly straightforward story, but one which is enjoyable and well-told nonetheless.



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