Comics can touch our lives in interesting ways. A college kid has an epiphany: the rapper he’s listening to while reading The Fantastic Four just made a Doctor Doom reference. Or maybe a young adult comes to terms with a previous attempt at ending their own life – through a comic’s creator coming to terms with the same thing in the pages of her art. Two middle aged people get a second shot at love, realizing they both adore Gaiman’s Sandman. Occasionally more than just words and pictures on a page, comics can be the tendrils between us.
Warren Ellis’ long running web-comic Freakangels holds a special place in my heart. But before I get to that, let me explain why Freakangels deserves to be reread years after its conclusion.
Ellis is one of comics’ most infamous figures; he’s an imposing, bearded, gloomy looking guy with rings around his eyes chain smoking under the brim of a hat in overcast weather. He has been writing influential comics (of varying degree of commercial success) since the 90s. It’s tough to argue his voice isn’t all his own. He also is one of comics’ most outspoken thinkers and prophets, regularly tapped for speeches on the form at things like conventions and universities. There generally is whiskey involved. His thought pieces invoke futurism and history, like examining where comics might go through the robotic head of Jack Kirby… cigar and all. So when Warren Ellis throws his hat into the webcomics ring, it’s worth reading and studying.
Freakangels ran three years, from 2008 to 2011. It was Ellis’ first formal go at webcomics, debuting during a time of heightened output roughly a decade after his seminal Transmetropolitan hit shelves. At the time Ellis was juggling a handful of other Avatar Press titles, his first prose novel was recently published, and his screenwriting was becoming increasingly of want. Surprisingly though – I’m sure the Red Bull pounding helped; and cigarettes… so many cigarettes – his quality never dipped. More than that, each project existed in its own space with very little bleed of content/theme from one piece to the next. His take on G.I. Joe (you should totally watch that, it’s cool) felt very different than, say, Ignition City which felt vastly different than Crooked Little Vein (the aforementioned debut novel). Freakangels was his go at post-apocalyptic “retro-punk”. Steampunk in a speculative way.
It’s been said that the series was influenced by the work of John Wyndham, specifically The Village of the Damned if those creepy blond kids grew up to be 20-somethings in a post-apocalyptic London. The premise portrays twelve of those 20-somethings in the Whitechapel district of East London. They are psychics of some kind with varying degrees of power, who have built a working society after the collapse.
For as easily as the series can be dismissed as genre experimentation, it delves deeply into themes of what it means to be human and the moralistic principles/daily practices of any given social order. The Angels (we’ll call them) have structured their society not unlike our own, with several hundred human members, children and all. The Angels have different responsibilities, seemingly agreed upon prior to the story’s timeline. Karl is a botanist. KK is a mechanic. Kirk is a lookout/air traffic controller. Kait is a cop. The Angels characteristics are just as varied, with each member providing Ellis nearly limitless options to bounce of specific situations and narrative beats. For as inhuman as their powers may be, the Angels are depicted as more human than even us, the readers. One Angel – Luke – is a degenerate… newly homeless he makes Bukowski seem like a standup guy. At one point he mutters to Arkady (bald, polite, abandoned dolls as accessories, free in every way), “I’m not like the others, I’m okay with hurting you.” We eventually meet all the Angels by roughly episode 20; each episode is six pages, typically with four panels each page. Slowly it becomes clear this newly formed society so reflective of our own may be unraveled by the societal ills so reflective of our own (and those throughout human history): outside groups/tribes, crime and internal conflict, logistical problems, resource allocation.
Freakangels was drawn impeccably by Oxford artist Paul Duffield who has since gone on to both write and draw The Firelight Isle. Freakangels was his first major comics work and he destroyed it. I would imagine Duffield spent years honing his particular style because Freakangels doesn’t feel like an artist’s debut; it feels like the work of a seasoned comics professional. His work is very clean, but he depicts the more fantastical elements of the series as well as, say, the London Eye. What perhaps is most compelling about his art is the combination of detail and simplistic directness. It feels like it has a fondness for minimalism, all the while depicting backgrounds as meticulously as panel subjects. And the palette suits the subject matter well, with London feeling used but ready for a fresh start.
Freakangels is definitely worth the read. The episodes are so short you can easily read one or two a day in a few minutes. You’ll get hooked and by a month or two you’ll find yourself feeling for the characters and wishing there was more.
Why is it special to me? Because Freakangels inspired me – in a roundabout way – to continue and hone my art, it also connected me with some wonderful people I otherwise would never have met. See, when Freakangels hit the web it was announced by Ellis that he would be starting a message board to go along with the webcomic. This was both for fans of the comic to discuss it, but also for fans of Ellis and comics in general to connect and form a community not unlike that of the comic. In fact, it was called “Whitechapel”. Being a fan of the comic I naturally started an account and before long my music was noticed by some other members. They encouraged me to make more, to not stop as long as I felt I needed to express myself. As Ellis coined around the time: get excited and make things. Do anything. Be anything. This was, and still is, a community so invested in the expression of its members you couldn’t help but feel inspired by simple opening the main page in your browser. Without which, I likely wouldn’t have continued to make music to cope with traumatic events of my past. And without that, I’m scared to imagine where I’d be at right now. So thanks Whitechapel. Thanks Freakangels.