Kevin Slavin: Alright. So we’ll kick this off. I know peo­ple keep com­ing in, because that’s that’s what we do here. I’ll start by intro­duc­ing Warren. I know prob­a­bly a lot of you saw him yes­ter­day. but just to make clear. So, Warren was born in Australia, lives in Paris with his wife and two chil­dren. Studied vio­lin and flute, and went on to become a mem­ber of sev­er­al groups, Dirty Three, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds and Grinderman. He’s also com­posed film scores with Nick Cave, plays vio­lin, piano, gui­tar, flute, man­dolin, tenor gui­tar, and vio­la. Been a mem­ber of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds… 

Warren giving Kevin the middle finger

Sorry, wrong Warren Ellis. 

Warren Ellis: Yeah.

Slavin: Warren Ellis is an English com­ic book writer, nov­el­ist, and screen­writer. That’s you.

Ellis: … Yeah.

Slavin: Yeah. Okay. Best known as the cocre­ator of sev­er­al orig­i­nal comics series, includ­ing Transmetropolitan, Global Frequency, Red (adapt­ed as the fea­ture film Red), Trees, Injection… I have some images from all those. We’ll be talk­ing about all these. Also the author of the nov­els Crooked Little Vein, Gun Machine, and very recent­ly, Normal. Also a lot of oth­er stuff that we’ll talk about. But it’s a big deal to have you here. I’m real­ly excit­ed about it. And I think it’s a very nec­es­sary kind of coun­ter­part to, I think, what the Media Lab already has and is good at. 

I think the role of sto­ries and nar­ra­tives and the abil­i­ty to fun­nel imag­i­na­tion into sto­ries isn’t superbly well-represented at the Lab, and it’s becom­ing increas­ing­ly impor­tant. And I think hav­ing an hour for us to be able to sit with you and sort of think about and learn about some of the ways that you think about this is real­ly real­ly valu­able to what­ev­er it is that any­body is doing.

So, trig­ger warn­ings include pow­er­ful swear words to come, ebola—which comes up fre­quent­ly in your work, a cou­ple of peo­ple get burned to death in some of these slides, cos­mol­o­gy, and some pol­i­tics. So if any of those offend you—or you, real­ly—

Ellis: I’m way past the point where any­thing offends me at this point.

Slavin: Yeah, okay. That’s… Okay, great. So I want to just talk for one minute about sto­ries and their role in our lives. Because I think it’s real­ly easy to kind of to give— Oh, and I should add that nor­mal­ly this for­mats, the con­ver­sa­tions for­mat, is usu­al­ly three peo­ple. And since we’re only two, the third will be played by the role of…

Ellis: Tom.

Slavin: Tom. So. To Tom. [rais­es glass]

Ellis: Cheers, Tom.

Slavin: Cheers, Tom. Okay. 

Ellis: Sorry, if they’re going to ask me ques­tions at this time of day I need anes­thet­ic. This is my morning.

Slavin: It’s medical.

Ellis: Yes.

Slavin: Okay. So look. Whatever it is that you’re work­ing on, it’s easy to kind of give the inap­pro­pri­ate weight to the sci­ence or the tech­nol­o­gy of it. And I think that if we look—espe­cial­ly in 2017, but this has always been the case—whatever sci­ence or tech­nol­o­gy that you’re think­ing about—whether it’s stem cells or vac­cines or just any­thing around human health, these things are being dic­tat­ed, at least in the United States at the moment, much more by sto­ries than by sci­ence. And let’s be very hon­est and clear about that. That all the sci­ence and tech­nol­o­gy is only going to go as far as the sto­ries that can trans­mit that in a capa­ble and mean­ing­ful way. And that’s why—you know, I think a lot of times in this kind of envi­ron­ment, when we talk about sto­ries it feels like it’s kind of—soft, you know. Like it’s kind of like a soft art. But it’s actu­al­ly real­ly real­ly impor­tant. It’s as impor­tant as any­thing else that we do here.

Slavin: with that, I just want to say that I intro­duced the wrong Warren Ellis in part because one of my stu­dents said, Are you real­ly gonna have that guy from Nick Cave on stage?” And I was like, I uh…no.”

Ellis: It hap­pens. Other mem­bers of these bands have emailed me think­ing I’m the oth­er guy. I got this long email once from Blixa Bargeld… I had­n’t seen him in six months. Here’s a list of all our mutu­al friends who’ve died or gone insane in the last 6 months. And I had to write back and say, I’m not that guy.” And he said, Oh. Would you like to know more about my friends who have died and gone insane?” And we were email­ing for about a week. Then he had a gig on a Saturday and ded­i­cat­ed a song to me, so.

But when the oth­er Warren Ellis grew a beard…

Slavin: I know, it’s confusing.

Ellis: When the oth­er Warren Ellis grew a beard, a girl at his record com­pa­ny emailed me and said, Our Warren Ellis has just grown a hor­ri­ble beard. I blame you. He was beau­ti­ful and now he’s ruined.”

Slavin: Well, to the oth­er Warren Ellis.

Ellis: Well, no. Fuck the oth­er Warren Ellis. He tried to have me killed. There’s b‑roll of Nick Cave and the oth­er Warren Ellis dur­ing an inter­view in Paris. And they just kept it rolling. And the oth­er Warren Ellis starts com­plain­ing about oth­er peo­ple bring­ing him my books to sign. Which, he obvi­ous­ly found quite annoy­ing. And Nick Cave turned round to him and said, Well, we could just have a hit put out on him. We could just have him killed, would that sort it?”

Slavin: On film.

Ellis: And then that got put on YouTube, so yeah. Thanks for that, guys.

Slavin: Well, it’s worth not­ing that where I’m from, you’re the pri­ma­ry Warren Ellis.

Ellis: [laughs]

Slavin: I’m sure you know— I mean, this is in Brighton. And it’s fun­ny because I had for­got­ten about this, but I was doing a Google Images search in my own pho­tos and I found this. And this is amaz­ing. This is just some cafe in Brighton that this is what you have to sit through if you want to eat there.

Photo of some women at a cafe in the foreground with a large mural of Spider Jerusalem behind them as if kicking the camera, yelling "I'm a journalist!"

Ellis: I was in Brighton last September. I haven’t seen that before.

Slavin: You don’t know about this.

Ellis: No.

Slavin: I mean, I’m sure there’s lots of things you don’t know about, but it’s a really—

Ellis: No, I haven’t seen that at all.

Slavin: It’s a real­ly good one. So okay. I’ll tell you the sto­ry of how… So I knew I knew about you for a long time, but the the sto­ry how I first got real­ly real­ly inter­est­ed in you is—forgive me for putting these faces in front of you—

Ellis: Oh, the BERG boys. 

Slavin: The BERG boys. So, these peo­ple are con­nect­ed here in that Matt Jones there worked for Marko Ahtisaari at Nokia prob­a­bly about a year before this was tak­en. And Jack Schulze sat right here and gave a talk about two years ago. And there’s also a Timo Arnall, who’s not in this pic­ture but so I put in there, just to say that he’s an impor­tant part of this. And there were a cou­ple things that we had in com­mon. They liked beer, they liked Fuck Buttons, and they liked com­ic books.

And so they were the ones that real­ly kind of brought— Like, I did­n’t real­ly know about Planetary before Jones put me onto it. And so it was real­ly sort of becom­ing aware of—for me per­son­al­ly, becom­ing aware you work through their fil­ter. And now I should say that these guys are bunch of design­ers. This is a firm that’s now defunct, which I guess you named, technically.

Ellis: I actu­al­ly named them, yeah. They were Schulze and Webb [crosstalk]

Slavin: Yeah. Not a good name.

Ellis: And then Jones joined. And they need­ed a new com­pa­ny name. So, they were called BERG, but that was an acronym for the British Experimental Rocket Group. 

Slavin: Which…they are not the British Experiment Rocket Group. But they are BERG.

Ellis: And then had lab coats made.

Slavin: They did have lab coats made, it’s true.

Ellis: And they made one for me, and they made one for William Gibson.

Slavin: Aw. It’s good. It’s good. So I’m bring­ing them up in rela­tion­ship to you because I think that there’s this thing that I want to kind of tease out, and maybe this is total­ly specious—

Ellis: Yeah, I mean it’s worth men­tion­ing at first I actu­al­ly met you through them.

Slavin: Yeah, yeah.

Ellis: Yeah, I was at that shit­ty pub on Elm Street with no sig­nal that they liked.

Slavin: No, it was at Geoff Manaugh’s thing at the AA.

Ellis: Was it?

Slavin: Yeah. Anyway, that was a long time ago. Anyway. But I think that there’s some­thing with the work that these guys were doing— And I should say that they all went through, or most of them went through the Royal College of Art.

And you prob­a­bly know these guys by now, Tony Dunne and Fiona Raby. They’ve spo­ken here. They were part of Knotty Objects. I think that they might have been [?] tutors at the RCA. And Tony wrote this book called Hertzian Tales, which is very good, that includes these sort of ideas of like, elec­tro­cli­mates, ani­ma­tions on an LCD screen that reg­is­ter changes in radio fre­quen­cy; con­sumer prod­ucts that dream in elec­tro­mag­net­ic waves; Steve of Affection, which steals radio sig­nals from car­diac pace­mak­ers; and that this was sort of like, that these guys were sort irra­di­at­ed, you know, by that world. And then they were real­ly real­ly inter­est­ed in this this kind of work, which— [fol­low­ing video is played from ~1:131:45 as they speak]

Ellis: Oh, this’ll be the RFID tag.

Slavin: Right, sort of try­ing to find— This is Timo Arnall and Jack Schulze—

Ellis: In a base­ment in in Oslo.

Slavin: In a base­ment in Oslo. That’s the only place it’s safe to do this, real­ly. And they’re basi­cal­ly try­ing to find the bound­aries of the RFID trans­mis­sions, to start think­ing about these things as mate­r­i­al, and to make these things vis­i­ble. [fol­low­ing video is played from ~4:024:45 as they speak]

And the same thing with WiFi—very clever idea—to show WiFi sig­nal strength and then you do time lapse expo­sure, etc. But the thing is that they were inter­est­ed in those things, but they were also real­ly inter­est­ed in you. And I think, I guess what I want to sug­gest is that maybe that’s part of what they were inter­est­ed in, and that it’s made con­crete in that you guys did a col­lab­o­ra­tion togeth­er, right?

Ellis: We did in the end, yeah. 

Slavin: And this was the writ­ing cred­it for it, right? Is that right? Do I have that right?

Ellis: Yes. Yes, Jack being Jack.

Slavin: And it was a com­ic book called SVK. So you can talk about this bet­ter than—

Ellis: Well I mean, they had this idea of a com­ic book that we print­ed in black and white in one col­or, and also UV ink that would be com­plete­ly invis­i­ble until you shone a UV torch on it. So Jack had the idea you could have a sto­ry nest­ed with­in a sto­ry. And you would reach a point in the sto­ry where you were told to use the UV torch in the same way that in old 3D films you’d be told when to put the 3D glass­es on. And then you dis­cov­er this whole new lev­el to the sto­ry that you did­n’t know was there before. And then you could read back­wards with the torch and find out aspects of the plot that were hid­den from the pro­tag­o­nist because they were hap­pen­ing in this invis­i­ble space. 

Slavin: And I mean, it’s very BERG, it’s very Jack, but I think it’s also kind of, it’s very you.

Ellis: It’s kind of paranoid…

Slavin: Meaning, like—

Ellis: Paranoid and shit­ty. Just always assum­ing that some­one is hid­ing some­thing from you. I mean, I don’t want to go the whole Burroughs route of being paranoid.

Slavin: You don’t want to go full Burroughs.

Ellis: Yeah yeah. You don’t want to go full Burroughs. But that said, all our pub­lic and pri­vate spaces are large­ly defined by what’s being hid­den from us. And what’s being done with the data we gen­er­ate that we don’t know about, and what we’re not being told.

Slavin: So, I feel like there’s a lot of char­ac­ters in a lot of your work that basi­cal­ly are like, they are the per­son that can see the things that nobody else can see, in one way or anoth­er. [crosstalk] It’s like that they’re these perceptive— 

Ellis: On one lever or anoth­er. I mean that was the point of SVK, in fact.

Slavin: Right, and here it’s bla­tant, right.

Ellis: Yeah. In oth­er stories…

Slavin: Here, like there’s The Drummer

Ellis: Right, mag­ic is code and code is magic.

Slavin: Right. The whole point of mag­ic being you are enter­ing into con­ver­sa­tion with some­thing that is not nec­es­sar­i­ly there, or at least not nec­es­sar­i­ly vis­i­ble unless you do the things required to have that con­ver­sa­tion. Crowley called it con­ver­sa­tion with the angels. But what he actually—that’s just dress­ing up our being able to access parts of your own sub­con­scious that are usu­al­ly avail­able. That was the point of those rituals.

Slavin: There are a lot of things, par­tic­u­lar­ly in big, myth­ic sto­ry­telling. There are a lot of aspects of that that are about being in con­ver­sa­tion with some­thing you oth­er­wise can­not ordi­nar­i­ly see.

Slavin: Yeah.

Ellis: But yet exerts a pres­sure on the world.

Slavin: Exerts a pres­sure on the world…like, it can in some way have you know—

Ellis: No I mean, this one here. There was a whole sequence there about just being able to see actu­al like, tem­per­a­ture readouts.

Slavin: Right. And I think there’s one where…

Ellis: Yeah.

Slavin: Yeah, right. Like that idea that The Drummer can actu­al­ly understand—

Ellis: He can actu­al­ly spot base pairs from six­ty feet, yeah.

Slavin: It’s so good. And I think that I’ve see­ing that I guess in dif­fer­ent ways, and some­times you explic­it­ly link it to mag­ic and consciousness—

Ellis: Well, I men­tion Huxley there. That was the whole last half of Huxley’s life. He did psilo­cy­bin, and ten min­utes lat­er he was look­ing at his own trousers and say­ing to him­self, Yes, this is how one ought to see.” There was a whole new lev­el of detail and art to the world that almost appeared to him like it must always have been present but he sim­ply was­n’t able to see it until he took the drug.

Slavin: So does that superpowers? 

Ellis: Yeah, I think that’s a big part of the appeal for a lot of peo­ple. I think if you ask any­one who’s smoked DMT, for exam­ple. It’s the whole just going into hyper­space aspect of it, and mov­ing at light speed. You know, any good drug does con­vey that sense of being able to do or per­ceive some­thing that you could­n’t do before.

Slavin: Yeah. I think also…I mean, you you seem also inter­est­ed in… Like, putting drugs aside for a sec­ond. You seem inter­est­ed in aspects of sci­ence and tech­nol­o­gy that also allow these addi­tion­al­ly sort of enlight­ened ways of seeing.

Ellis: Yeah. I mean, this is why I get lumped in with the tran­shu­man­ists a lot of the time. Which I tend to reject because all you’re talk­ing about is tool-using. I just want big­ger and bet­ter and fanci­er and clev­er­er tools. The whole tran­shu­man thing inter­ests me much less than con­tin­u­ing unabat­ed the stream of tech­no­log­i­cal process that includes your glass­es. Improving our abil­i­ty to per­ceive our environment.

Slavin: Yeah. Yeah. It’s woven so thor­ough­ly— This is such a beau­ti­ful thing from Planetary. And this is a very dif­fer­ent point. But one of the inter­est­ing things about Planetary is that it’s sort not spec­u­la­tive fic­tion about the future, it’s sort of spec­u­la­tive about the past.

Ellis: Yeah.

Slavin: Right, I mean that’s one of its mag­ic elements.

Ellis: Yeah.

Slavin: But it’s such a beau­ti­ful thing, right. And this is in ref­er­ence I guess to Wonder Woman’s island, some­thing. But it’s that thing, imper­cep­ti­ble then is not the same as imper­cep­ti­ble now. And it’s such a nice idea that just putting aside super­pow­ers, just human per­cep­tion shifts as we evolve. We evolve with these tools. And it’s a beau­ti­ful thing.

Slavin: just here where you link infor­ma­tion direct­ly to mag­ic. There are all these inter­est­ing things… Like I say, for me although I’d known some of your work before, Planetary was the first time where it was just like oh God, it’s like the box is much big­ger on the inside”-type expe­ri­ence. And one of the inter­est­ing things about the char­ac­ters in Planetary is their job, right. They’re anthropologists.

Ellis: They’re archaeologists.

Slavin: They’re archae­ol­o­gists, sor­ry. Which is not the con­ven­tion­al super­hero role, right.

Ellis: No. Planetary is one of those odd books where it’s about super­hero fic­tion, and par­tic­u­lar­ly the roots of super­hero fic­tion, with­out nec­es­sar­i­ly some of the time being a super­hero book.

Slavin: Right.

Ellis: So yeah, they’re archae­ol­o­gists. But that in itself plays into some of things we under­stand about adven­ture fic­tion. Because of course Indiana Jones was an archaeologist.

Slavin: Right, that’s true.

Ellis: And yet we don’t think of those as films about archaeology.

Slavin: Right. Conventionally. Yes.

Ellis: Conventionally. I mean, I would’ve been up for that, cer­tain­ly. Because you know, I’ve got these two great loves, his­to­ry and the future. I love futur­ism, I love his­to­ry and archaeology. 

Slavin: Yeah. And I think— I mean, part of what you do explic­it­ly in Planetary, and I think in oth­er things too, is look­ing at the futures that we could’ve had, should’ve had, might’ve had, might be hav­ing, [crosstalk] all at the same time.

Ellis: Yes, yes. The ros­ter of dis­ap­point­ing non-futures. Jetpacks and fly­ing cars and wrist radios.

Slavin: Yeah. Which is…it’s the explic­it sub­ject of your new book, right, of Normal, which is the idea that this is about peo­ple who are sce­nario plan­ners. You divide it up into two dif­fer­ent types—

Ellis: Yeah, I divide them up into into fore­sight strat­e­gy, which are peo­ple who work at insti­tu­tions and non­prof­its; and strate­gic fore­cast­ing, which are peo­ple who work for pri­vate secu­ri­ty cor­po­ra­tions and spook hous­es. But they’re all futur­ists. They’re all engaged in the process of try­ing to fig­ure out what’s com­ing next. And I’ve done a lot of these futur­ism con­fer­ences and fes­ti­vals over the years, and even­tu­al­ly I saw a pat­tern. Which was these peo­ple get real­ly, real­ly fuck­ing depressed.

Slavin: Yeah. You call it the abyss gaze.

Ellis: Abyss gaze, yeah. If you’re work­ing, for exam­ple, in fore­cast­ing cli­mate change or cli­mate mit­i­ga­tion strate­gies, you’re gaz­ing into the abyss all day and the abyss gazes back into you and tells you we’re all doomed. So you can do that for a while, and then even­tu­al­ly some­one has to give you a shit­load of Valium and put you to bed for six months because it’s a real­ly real­ly depress­ing gig. You’re think­ing about the end of the world all day.

Slavin: Right. And so this is about the sort of recov­ery facility.

Ellis: This is where they end up, Normal Head. 

Slavin: Normal Head, Oregon, right.

Ellis: Yeah, Normal Head, Oregon. Which is a hos­pi­tal in the mid­dle of an exper­i­men­tal for­est, for bro­ken futur­ists. It’s a rest home for mad peo­ple who think about the future. And every­one asks me the same ques­tion. And I don’t know if you’re going to do it, but I’m going to pre­empt. No, I did­n’t write it so I could go there. 

Slavin: I…I was­n’t going to ask that. I was going to ask you if you’d been there. 

Ellis: [laughs]

Slavin: But that’s different.

Ellis: I’ve been in the area.

Slavin: That’s a dif­fer­ent question. 

Ellis: I used Oregon because I’ve spent some time there. And just the land­scape is fan­tas­tic for that. 

Slavin: But there’s…I think through a lot of your work, the peo­ple who can see the things that nobody else wants to see or can’t see, what­ev­er, they’re not as hap­py as every­body else, right? In gen­er­al, although not all the way. But in gen­er­al, it’s not reveal­ing won­der, nec­es­sar­i­ly, right?

Ellis: I mean, for the pur­pos­es of the books, no. Because if these peo­ple were hap­py in their work it would be more dif­fi­cult to write dra­ma about it.

Slavin: Yeah, fun­ny that. Right.

Ellis: If noth­ing else, I’m prob­a­bly not going to sell a book called you know, The Glitter and Unicorns of the Future.” I’m prob­a­bly not going to—someone else might. No one’s actu­al­ly going to believe I wrote that, for one thing. I’d have to use a pseudonym.

But at this junc­ture, a lot of the time, when you’re work­ing in very spe­cial­ized areas like for instance cli­mate change mit­i­ga­tion, you’re not look­ing at a hap­py end­ing. The best you’re look­ing at is hold­ing fast, hold­ing a plateau is prob­a­bly vic­to­ry con­di­tion. It’s a depress­ing gig.

Slavin: It is a depress­ing gig. But I think there are also the moments in a lot of your work where it does reveal a kind of won­der and weird mag­ic under­neath it.

Ellis: Oh yeah. I mean, the future is on the whole a won­der­ful thing because it will bring us new things that we haven’t seen before. And that’s why we stick around. 

Slavin: It’s one good rea­son, yeah.

Ellis: Yeah.

Slavin: Yeah.

Ellis: That and the fact I don’t want to die.

Slavin: There’s also the idea that… So, some of these char­ac­ters are archae­ol­o­gists. But it would be remiss to not include the jour­nal­ist, so—

Ellis: Ah, that old bastard.

Slavin: Yeah. So, for peo­ple here who actu­al­ly came to see the oth­er Warren Ellis [Ellis laughs], can you explain who this is?

Ellis: That is Spider Jerusalem, a jour­nal­ist in an unde­fined future point. It’s basi­cal­ly Hunter S. Thompson in the 21st cen­tu­ry, was my ini­tial idea. He did­n’t turn out quite like that, but yeah, he’s a ver­sion of gonzo jour­nal­ist in the future that I start­ed writing…about twen­ty years ago. A lit­tle over now, actually. 

Slavin: I mean, a lot of what you have in there, it’s twen­ty years ago and a lot of it is sort of stun­ning­ly prescient. 

Ellis: Some of it’s dis­turb­ing in that way, yeah, because sci­ence fic­tion isn’t or should­n’t be a lit­er­a­ture of pre­dic­tion. It should be a lit­er­a­ture of spec­u­la­tion that acts as an ear­ly warn­ing weath­er sys­tem. And writ­ers should nev­er set them­selves up as mak­ing pre­dic­tions, because not only is it a real­ly real­ly fast way to make your­self look real­ly bloody stu­pid— I mean, you might as well be pre­dict­ing the end of the world in 2012, you know. But also it miss­es the point of what we do. It miss­es the point that we use aspects of the future and spec­u­la­tion as tools with which to exam­ine the present-day condition. 

Which is why this book in par­tic­u­lar, there were two politi­cians in there. one char­ac­ter­ized as The Beast and one char­ac­ter­ized as The Smiler. And every two years I’ll get a slew of email or tweets or some­thing telling me that wher­ev­er in the world they are, on that elec­tion cycle, they think they’ve got a politi­cian who’s The Smiler and one who’s The Beast. 

Slavin: This this is the quote from your char­ac­ter Spider Jerusalem about The Beast that is just so amaz­ing, A big black ani­mal squat­ting in the heart of America… The thing in us that votes to fuck oth­er peo­ple in the gall blad­der, the lizard brain that says noth­ing but eat-kill-hump-shit.” 

Ellis: I used to drink quite a lot.

Slavin: And that’s… In the scale of things, right, that’s kind of, not the good guy but it’s not the worst thing that could’ve happened.

Ellis: Unfortunately it’s not the worst thing that could’ve happened.

Slavin: Right, yeah.

Ellis: Did I tell you that I absolute­ly ter­ri­fied Stoya the oth­er month in New York. Actually she turned white. Because there’s The Beast and The Smiler, and there’s anoth­er char­ac­ter in here called Heller, who’s an inde­pen­dent politi­cian who essen­tial­ly throws ral­lies. And it’s all very real­i­ty tele­vi­sion and glitzy and all. And she said you know, Who’s Trump?” Is he The Smiler or The Beast. And I said what if he’s Heller. Heller actu­al­ly quotes from Mein Kampf at one point in the book. And she just went dead white and, Holy shit, no.”

Slavin: I mean, you you kin­da nailed it in gen­er­al, right, where we’re at, polit­i­cal­ly. No?

Ellis: I would hes­i­tate to agree, um…just because I don’t want to be right.

Slavin: Okay.

Ellis: Because you know, I was writ­ing some­thing real­ly kind of fucked up and I’m not sure I want to cop to, Yes! It’s all my fault. I wrote 2017. Just leave your tip by the door.”

Slavin: But I think it’s also inter­est­ing that the cen­tral char­ac­ter in this dark polit­i­cal future/present is a jour­nal­ist, in that they’re declared now by White House spokes­peo­ple as the enemy—

Ellis: As the ene­my of the peo­ple, yeah.

Slavin:explic­it­ly.

Ellis: Having him as a jour­nal­ist was actu­al­ly a sci­ence fic­tion­al choice. I’d been approached to write a piece of sci­ence fic­tion about the future. And nobody bought sci­ence fic­tion in comics in those days. It did­n’t sell. Science fic­tion in comics—in Anglophone comics—was assumed to not work, unless it was Judge Dredd in Britain. So I want­ed to find a way to once again make visu­al sci­ence fic­tion in print work for an American audience. 

Slavin: I went back to the start of American sci­ence fic­tion, Hugo Gernsback, whose first big sci­ence fic­tion sto­ry, which is one of the defin­ing pieces of the genre and it real­ly kick­start­ed sci­ence fic­tion in America, was called Ralph 124C 41+. And that char­ac­ter, I think he was like a pop star sur­geon or something—and this sto­ry was writ­ten in like 1925. But the whole point was he led us through the world. He was Ralph 124C 41. He was that char­ac­ter who was able through dint of his pro­fes­sion and his place in soci­ety to explain this future soci­ety to the read­er­ship as he went through the sto­ry. He was the gri­ot. Who are our gri­ots? Who are the peo­ple we have to explain soci­ety to us? To say, Here’s where I think I am today. This is what I think it looks like.” That’s a jour­nal­ist’s job.

Slavin: Right. Yeah. But twen­ty years ago… I mean okay, yeah. It has the gonzo qual­i­ty of Hunter S. Thompson and—but it’s much… Putting aside the tra­di­tion­al idea of gonzo, it’s very close to how jour­nal­ists have to oper­ate today.

Ellis: Unfortunately that’s one of the things that hap­pened that peo­ple have cite me for from time to time. That it now hap­pens on the street now with the dig­i­tal connection.

Slavin: There’s a scene where he’s fil­ing a sto­ry on his typewriter—

Ellis: Laptop, yes. Typewriter lap­top. I stole that from the Max Headroom TV series. They have these big desk­top com­put­ers in the Max Headroom TV show, but they all had Underwood key­board chassis. 

Slavin: Nice. But in this sto­ry, he’s fil­ing a sto­ry online and the edi­tor basi­cal­ly flipped a switch and has it—

Ellis: And streams it.

Slavin: Streams it, yeah. And it’s like man, that’s tweet­storm, right? Or that’s live blog­ging. Or what­ev­er it is that we’re call­ing it now, the idea that jour­nal­ism is kind of a per­for­ma­tive act I think is real­ly… Just like, you saw it, I saw it here first.

Ellis: Right.

Slavin: Or maybe George Plimpton first. But still. And also we should talk about his glass­es, right. Which is also…I it’s not bad, right. I mean, what is it, the right lens is recording?

Ellis: I don’t remem­ber which lens is tak­ing the pho­tos, but you know, I thought was so clever. I think there’s a com­ment in one issue about how it’s got 20 gig of onboard mem­o­ry. Which in 1997 just sound­ed mon­strous. That’s a com­put­er the size of a room in NASA. Twenty whole giga­bytes.

Slavin: Of all the things in Transmetropolitan’s future, the thing that was most famil­iar to me when I first saw it was that vision of the city, which remind­ed me— I grew up get­ting kind of like, they would just fall off trucks, like loose copies of 2000 AD. And they were weird, because they were sort of about…they were British comics about American culture—

Ellis: Yes.

Slavin: And sort of like a hyper­bol­ic American cul­ture. But part of what was most inter­est­ing was the vision of these cities as some­where in between like you know, Brueghel and Bosch, right. Like where the sen­si­bil­i­ty of every­day life is just every­where. I think I grabbed one of them. Like you know, this city: 

Illustration of Spider Jerusalem lighting a cigarette, surrounded by a large group of people from wildly different cultures and religions

This was kind of like the city that I grew up look­ing at in 2000 AD, Heavy Metal… And the idea of using comics to describe that world with such detail and pre­ci­sion and the kind of het­ero­gene­ity of it was just like…

Ellis: Well I mean, I was lucky and I had great artists.

Slavin: Yeah, also.

Ellis: I had Darick Robertson draw­ing the book, who was amaz­ing. And he real­ly grasped that I was after that fusion of the European com­ic style with a more tex­tur­al and slight­ly more open American feel to it. Because what we get wrong in Britain—or what we used to get, of course—was due to the fact that we were only exposed to land­scapes of America through tele­vi­sion. We got the sense of American cities being hyper­com­pressed places like ours, because we have no sprawl because we don’t have the space. You’ll fall of the end of the coun­try into the bloody sea.

Slavin: we imag­ine… When we se as a shot of Manhattan, we assume it’s the size of London and every­thing’s just rammed in there and straight up. So you get these American fan­tasies from European writ­ers and artists of these places being hyper­com­pressed melt­ing pots. 

Slavin: It’s like Karl May writ­ing west­erns, nev­er hav­ing left Germany.

Ellis: Right. But with an American artist like Darick Robertson in there, he actu­al­ly ground­ed it a lot more and made it feel more like an American space. But still with the mania that the Europeans get when they look at America. 

Slavin: So, there’s Alex McDowell—have ever crossed paths with him? He’s a pro­duc­tion design­er. Works a lot with Spielberg, and has a lot of con­nec­tions to the Lab. Has often…well I don’t know if often, but he has occa­sion­al­ly come to the Lab and sort of tried to get a sense of what the Media Lab thinks the future looks like, and it makes its way into things like Minority Report or oth­er things. But he’s a pro­duc­tion designer—he’s prob­a­bly one of the best pro­duc­tion design­ers in Hollywood. And he has a whole thing about like, that you can start a film by think­ing about the city that it takes place in, rather than the char­ac­ters or the nar­ra­tive per se. And that if you can do that with with absolute pre­ci­sion, then char­ac­ters and nar­ra­tive start to unfold.

Ellis: Yeah, I mean you can start a sto­ry any­where. But I’ve quite fre­quent­ly start­ed build­ing a sto­ry with the loca­tion. Because the kinds of sto­ry and the kind of peo­ple that will even­tu­al­ly pop­u­late the sto­ry are sug­gest­ed by the location.

Slavin: Right. That’s inter­est­ing. Because a lot of… I mean, the comics that I’ve been most inter­est­ed in, they hop all over the world. And then they’ll land here, and it will be very very pre­cise. And so you’re think­ing about those cities as kind of—

Ellis: Well yeah. I mean every job’s dif­fer­ent, every sto­ry starts a dif­fer­ent way. But some­thing like Ignition City, which was an alter­nate his­to­ry set around 1950 in a place called Ignition City, which was Earth’s last space­port on a cir­cu­lar arti­fi­cial island. And the launch­pads were all around the edge, and there was a set­tle­ment in the mid­dle. And I came up with that first and what the weath­er would be like there. And then you start think­ing well, who ends up in the mid­dle? Why would you live in the mid­dle of a ring of launch­pads? And the char­ac­ters and the con­flicts and the sto­ry­forms get gen­er­at­ed out of that. You can start a sto­ry any­where; start­ing with the city is as good a place as any. I’ll take it any way it comes.

Slavin: So, a lot of your work is work­ing with exist­ing IP. Like Iron Man, or—

Ellis: Has been, yeah.

Slavin: Has been, okay. How do you… I mean, a lot of peo­ple give you the appro­pri­ate cred­it for real­ly rethink­ing what Iron Man is and does and means. How do you turn a cor­ner of some­thing that has so much weight under­neath it?

Ellis: You must­n’t think of comics like an indus­try that func­tions the way you would think a busi­ness filled with adults would. 

Slavin: It is how you imag­ined it. 

Ellis: It is the most wildly…random…unfocused, ass back­wards busi­ness on Earth.

Slavin: There’s a lot of com­pe­ti­tion amongst it.

Ellis: Oh yeah. Oh yeah. So here’s what hap­pened with Iron Man. Joe Quesada emailed me one night and said, We don’t know what to do with Iron Man. What would you do, if you were doing Iron Man, because we’re stuck?” And I had a cof­fee and I thought about it for about ten min­utes and I sent him an email, say­ing, The whole point of Tony Stark is that he’s the test pilot for the future.”

Slavin: It’s so good. 

Ellis: And he emailed back and said, You start Monday. I need six issues.” That was lit­er­al­ly it. There was no plan. It was like, Okay. Yeah. That’s great. We like that. You’re writ­ing Iron Man for six issues now. The help is out here. Thanks very much. Done.” That was the extent of it. So it all came from that. Comics is a real­ly loose busi­ness in a lot of ways. And once you’ve done a cer­tain amount of work and peo­ple know how you think and when to expect the scripts, and how late you’re going to be…it gets very loose. Much of the work I’ve done at Marvel Comics in the last fif­teen years I haven’t actu­al­ly writ­ten pitch­es for. it’s just been a series of emails and then there’s, Great. Off you go.” 

Slavin: Is there a lot of revi­sion and going back to—

Ellis: Not a lot. They don’t ever trust me with any­thing impor­tant, is the thing. Anything that’s actu­al­ly valu­able to them that I might break they won’t let me near. They kind of keep me in the base­ment. It’s a base­ment lab­o­ra­to­ry, where I’m allowed to exper­i­ment on any­thing that might get pushed through the door, but I’m not allowed to go roam­ing for fresh meat in case I touch any­thing impor­tant that’s valu­able to them. So they large­ly leave me alone to see what I’m going to grow in the lab. And I’ve got a sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tion at DC right now, where I wrote a slight­ly more expan­sive out­line, but it was real­ly let’s just see Warren builds in there.” It’s a Tom Waits song. What is he build­ing in there?

Slavin: There’s this idea that…

Ellis: Oh bloody hell. I should’ve known James Bridle would be in the room at some point.

Slavin: Yeah, I don’t do any of these with­out invok­ing James Bridle at least once.

Ellis: I did a thing in New York a cou­ple of years ago and I talked about James and joked that he was prob­a­bly hid­ing under a table some­where in the room. And then after­wards he appeared.

Slavin: Yeah, he’ll do that.

Ellis: Yeah.

Slavin: Yeah. [crosstalk] And then dis­ap­pear with a puff of smoke.

Ellis: A fuck­ing appari­tion, it’s terrifying. 

Slavin: This is James Bridle—

Ellis: Hi, James!

Slavin: And he gave a talk prob­a­bly like five, six years ago that real­ly stays with me about how writ­ers work. And he talks about— So, he notes this inter­view with William Gibson, an inter­view evi­dent­ly con­duct­ed by a bot. And he says, No, I’ve got Word open on top of Firefox.” And the idea that he’s writ­ing in a hyper­linked way. It’s not about clos­ing him­self off to every­thing in the world, it’s as actu­al­ly about keep­ing a strong line open and that you can start to see that in his fic­tion. You can see those lines going out to Google or what­ev­er it is. And I don’t know, is it dif­fer­ent to write on top of Twitter? I mean, do you you write on top of something?

Ellis: I mean, you could tell when it shift­ed for Bill, because you could spot when he’d gone down a wikihole.

Slavin: Uh huh, yeah. Yes.

Ellis: It’s like…Israelite tac­ti­cal sneak­ers? Hmmm. How many hours of your life did you lose on that one? 

Slavin: Right. And as James points out, then you Google and you real­ize like wow, I’m look­ing at the exact same fuck­ing thing that he was look­ing at.

Ellis: Exactly, exact­ly. Because there’s only one page like that that on the Web, so you know you found the same one he found. I’ve got Word open on top of Chrome. Because I like liv­ing in 2017 and I like not hav­ing to go down to the bloody library and order books. Or not being allowed to take a book out of the build­ing and hav­ing to read it there in the room to get it what I need. My stuff has always been research-intensive.

Slavin: Yeah I mean, the sci­ence in your sci­ence fic­tion is no bullshit. 

Ellis: It’s a lit­tle bull­shit, it’s a lit­tle skewed…

Slavin: It’s stretched. I mean, it’s sci­ence fiction.

Ellis: Yeah. I mean, I have no edu­ca­tion­al back­ground what­so­ev­er. I’m basi­cal­ly as stu­pid as mud. So, I under­stand sci­ence in terms of the sto­ry it presents, in terms of the pic­ture it paints. Science sto­ries appear to me as instances of art and that’s how I under­stand them. So my use of sci­ence is prob­a­bly usu­al­ly three degrees south of correct. 

Slavin: Sure. But I think—

Ellis: But it [crosstalk] hangs together. 

Slavin: You go deep­er than any oth­er com­ic writer, for sure, right? 

Ellis: I’ll take your word for it. I don’t get to read [inaudi­ble] anymore.

Slavin: But I just mean that you do seem to put a lot of work into get­ting it right.

Ellis: Yeah, as right as I can. 

Slavin: And I think in the same way that you can tell— There’s a cer­tain sense with William Gibson, or any­body else, where you can see like oh, this is he went down a wik­i­hole, there are these moments where it’s like wow, Warren real­ly went off for a while on this one and came back with this thing. And you know, it’s inter­est­ing. It’s just like read­ing comics that you did twen­ty years ago, where it’s like you know, that sci­ence was actu­al­ly pret­ty state of the art in that moment.

Ellis: Yeah.

Slavin: And you you seem to be very good at being right on the edge of what­ev­er is happening.

Ellis: I’ve always tried to be, because that’s just where the real­ly inter­est­ing stuff is, it’s where the sto­ries are. It’s where what’s gonna to hap­pen next emanates from. And I wan­na see what’s next.


Kevin Slavin: We should open it up for ques­tions, speak­ing of what’s next. And I don’t know exact­ly how to do that… Okay, I do know how to do that. 

Warren Ellis: We need­ed the boun­cy micro­phone from yesterday.

Slavin: Okay, here’s one ques­tion that some­body asked on Twitter, which is which poten­tial future scares you the most?

Ellis: The thing about answer­ing that ques­tion is you have to under­stand it does­n’t scare me for myself, because I will be dead long before it hap­pens. I’ve got maybe twen­ty years. So when we talk about the future, we’re talk­ing about a time where I will already be dead. So it’s you peo­ple who’ll have to live through it, which you know, obvi­ous­ly I apol­o­gize for but on anoth­er lev­el I don’t care because I’ll be dead. 

It’s cli­mate change. My daugh­ter’s 21, it’s cli­mate change. It’s the envi­ron­ment turn­ing around and just killing us because it’s bro­ken. That’s what scares me more than anything.

Slavin: Yeah, seems pret­ty straight­for­ward. I don’t know, any­body have a cheerier question?

Audience 1: Hi. How do you depict sit­ting in front of a com­put­er all day, visu­al­ly, with­out it being super bor­ing? Because that kind of feels like the present and the near future.

Ellis: It’s a real­ly tough one. It’s a real­ly tough one. I mean this is some­thing I had to solve in Transmetropolitan, or try to. Because before I got going I’d read an inter­view with David Cronenberg, who’d just made The Naked Lunch as a film with Peter Weller. And Cronenberg had to try and solve the same thing, how do you make writ­ing look inter­est­ing? Do you give the guy a hat? Well shit, no one’s going to stay in the audi­to­ri­um because you gave him a fuck­ing hat, what do you do? So you start to try and apply a myth­ic sense to it. It’s exag­ger­a­tion. And it’s ter­ri­bly self-serving if you are a writer, writ­ing a writer some­how act­ing or being depict­ed myth­i­cal­ly. You just got you know…two-feet long ego bon­er with a cheese­burg­er on the end, Yes! I am mighty!” 

But try­ing to exter­nal­ize the act of writ­ing when you’re writ­ing well is actu­al­ly less inter­est­ing on the page than cre­at­ing a sense of what that writ­ing is doing to the world. Because great writ­ing changes you, changes oth­er peo­ple, and changes the world. So if you can depict that in a way that feels myth­ic in some sense, you have the sense of the world whirling around to that writer, and those words mov­ing out through the screen to impact the world, or even the world com­ing back through the screen so the writer can see what he or she hath wrought, is always more inter­est­ing than try­ing to exter­nal­ize what­ev­er that writer is feeling.

I mean, Cronenberg had some real­ly inter­est­ing solu­tions. I mean the insect type­writer where he had to rub bug pow­der in the anus. I guar­an­tee you there’s not a writer on Earth who did­n’t see that and went, Yep, some­times that’s what it’s like. You’ve just got­ta rub drugs in your type­writer’s anus.” 

I hope that line was too long for Twitter, oth­er­wise I’m going to see that, Sometimes you just have to rub drugs in your type­writer’s anus,” is just going to scroll up here.

Slavin: Uh, any oth­er ques­tions? I have oth­er things I would bring up. So I real­ly want to talk about Global Frequency. So, Global Frequency I think of all your work for me per­son­al­ly is the one where I read it and I was I was like, that changed how I thought about what the notion of super­hero­ism is. So you tell me if I’ve got this wrong, but it’s basi­cal­ly a thou­sand peo­ple around the world. They may or may not have super­pow­ers.” They may just be real­ly good at some­thing, like parkour.

Ellis: None of them actu­al­ly have superpowers. 

Slavin: Okay yeah. But they’re a very good park­our run­ner, or very good at bomb defus­ing, what­ev­er. They’re all very good at their thing. They’re super­pow­er is in hav­ing an oper­a­tor, Aleph, who can coor­di­nate them, right?

Ellis: Yeah.

Slavin: That to me was like man, I don’t know any­thing in the genre of com­ic books that that reminds me— Because that’s not the Justice League, you know. That’s not like a bunch of mutants com­ing togeth­er. Because, you don’t even see the same peo­ple from one book to anoth­er. So basi­cal­ly there’s only one con­sis­tent character—

Ellis: Two.

Slavin: Oh yeah, Aleph and…

Ellis: And Miranda Zero.

Slavin: Yeah. And basi­cal­ly there these thou­sand peo­ple around the world who have a phone that’s on the Global Frequency and can call them at any—

Ellis: There are a thou­sand and one peo­ple on the Global Frequency. It’s a net­work of experts in any field you may name, who can be brought online at any giv­en moment to effect a res­cue of some kind. It’s res­cue fic­tion. I wrote it, actually…the germ of it was after 911 I saw some­one say, I wish there’d real­ly been a Superman so he could have saved us that day.” And while I got the sen­ti­ment, it felt to me like exact­ly the wrong thing to say. Hoping for Flying Space Daddy to turn up is gonna get you killed. The only thing that’s going to res­cue us is us. And that’s what Global Frequency came out of.

Slavin: And that the pow­er is in coor­di­na­tion and cooperation.

Ellis: Mm.

Slavin: It’s so… I mean it’s really…it’s weird, right, as—

Ellis: It’s weird. Feels a bit dat­ed now, but it’s weird.

Slavin: To me, I mean okay yeah the phone looks a lit­tle big. 

Ellis: Yeah, a lit­tle bit.

Slavin: But actu­al­ly, that notion of a thou­sand peo­ple being able to coor­di­nate from all over the world at a momen­t’s notice, I mean that feels total­ly con­tem­po­rary. That feels like Anonymous to me, you know. That feels like ISIS to me, right. That feels like this is actu­al­ly how the world is work­ing, for bet­ter and worse.

Ellis: Yeah, this is fif­teen years old. This was 2002, 2003, around there.

Slavin: And all the details of it, just the idea that she’s not in an office some­where. And then you go on to the next one and it’s just like, well who are these two peo­ple? Well, they’re also on the Global Frequency and we’re going to go off this way. And it just seems like such a fun­da­men­tal­ly powerful…I don’t know, like sort of dis­til­la­tion of the moment that we live in. 

Ellis: Maybe? As I say, to me this is fif­teen year-old work. And I haven’t thought too hard about it since. It’s been near­ly made into a TV show I think four times now.

Slavin: Five’s the charm.

Ellis: They nev­er quite get it there, for some rea­son. And every time it comes around again, some­one will say to me this feels like the con­ver­sa­tion of the moment. Obviously you know…not enough to get the thing made. But still, it does seem to be one of those weird­ly ever­green ideas, I don’t know how much longer for. 

Slavin: I don’t know. I mean, I feel like the world’s going to work more and more like this. I feel like this feels like some authen­tic vision that—

Ellis: The world is either going to work more and more like that or it’s going to work less and less like that.

Slavin: It’s prob­a­bly one of the two. 

Ellis: In 2017 frankly, I would say less and less. If the world is going to start work­ing in any, way it’s going to be with hyper­local groups who leave their phones at home before they go to meetings.

Slavin: Yeah. But like… I had some­thing that I was work­ing on and I need­ed I need­ed help from…I need­ed foren­sic accoun­tants, basi­cal­ly. And so I end­ed up through a very weird series of what­ev­er, I end­ed up con­tact­ing Anonymous Analytics, which is sort of divi­sion of Anonymous that just focus­es on foren­sics, so on and so forth. They were able to turn around…basically I sent them 900 pages. I have no idea who I’m talk­ing to—just Aleph. They turned it around in like an hour. 

Ellis: Damn…

Slavin: And I was like shit, that’s some sophis­ti­cat­ed coor­di­na­tion on their side. And I’ll nev­er have any idea who I spoke.

Ellis: No, but that’s throw­ing a lot of bod­ies at a prob­lem very quickly.

Slavin: Yeah, right. And like, how does it… You know, it’s like peo­ple who have jobs. And just the idea that those kinds of machin­ery exist in the world, and that they’re ethe­re­al and they’re dis­trib­uted, and there are ways to tap into them through a node is such a… I don’t know, that feels like the poet­ry of the moment to me.

Ellis: Well, yeah. Maybe some­one will make the next gen­er­a­tion of that here. Tell that story.

Slavin: We have anoth­er question? 

Audience 2: Just with Global Frequency, it’s poten­tial­ly inter­est­ing to com­pare it to Injection as well.

Ellis: Can you raise your voice, young man, I’m old and deaf.

Audience 2: I think it’s inter­est­ing to com­pare Global Frequency to Injection a bit as well, in terms of like, can a group of peo­ple, very skilled, coor­di­nat­ing, actu­al­ly change any­thing or are they just as doomed as the rest of us, right? And I think what my ques­tion is is relat­ed to the Global Frequency kind of coor­di­na­tion, but more to the sto­ry­telling, where all these sto­ries have these very deep ref­er­ences. We were talk­ing at the wik­i­holes and things like that. But they’re always talk­ing about the genre, the notion of the sto­ry hav­ing a spe­cif­ic genre, like you men­tioned res­cue fic­tion. Which is a con­cept I’d nev­er heard before but it made a lot of sense with Global Frequency.

And I think that the notion of hav­ing very very strong ref­er­ences just pulling in this grab bag of things but still hav­ing a notion of the core genre is an inter­est­ing one because I think that my approach to hav­ing read a lot of these grow­ing up, my approach to actu­al­ly work­ing on tech­nol­o­gy is very much is grab­bing ran­dom tech­nolo­gies and mar­i­nat­ing them and see­ing what kind of bub­bles out of the muck. And genre is still a real thing, but the notion of dis­ci­pline has changed, become a lit­tle bit more I think like the kind of notion of a genre. Like you’re still pulling in ele­ments from wher­ev­er. But you’re telling a mechan­i­cal engi­neer­ing sto­ry. And I feel like that’s a kind of Media Lab‑y thing that I was also curi­ous to hear your per­spec­tive on.

I was won­der­ing if that made sense in terms of under­stand­ing the Media Lab as well in terms of think­ing of tech­no­log­i­cal dis­ci­plines as gen­res, where you’re pulling in these odds and ends from elsewhere.

Slavin: Oh. Well I mean, I think there’s a stock answer, but it’s a true one, of this idea that what hap­pens at the Media Lab is the things that are between these oth­er things and you’re basi­cal­ly pulling from two things that should­n’t nec­es­sar­i­ly con­nect. I think it’s authen­tic. I think you see it in the work and in the peo­ple. I don’t know anoth­er way to work. I mean, I’m no good at discipline. 

Ellis: Don’t look at me. My job involves sit­ting in a room on my own for six­teen hours a day mak­ing shit up. I don’t know if it’s a dis­ci­pline, a curse, or an illness. 

Slavin: But you don’t have to choose. 

Should I do some of the ques­tions that came in on… From Shay on Twitter, What role does reli­gion play in the future?”

Ellis: Nothing good. 

Slavin: Nothing good.

Ellis: I don’t know if I’ve got a bet­ter answer than that, frankly. I would rather reli­gion did not play a part in the future. And it’s like you know, the reli­gions of the world his­tor­i­cal­ly, I’ve not enjoyed their work and do not look for­ward to their next release. 

Slavin: You don’t find any­thing in Scientology kind of cool? A space alien, tied to a vol­cano, come on.

Ellis: I can appre­ci­ate the sto­ries of reli­gions while not appre­ci­at­ing the reli­gions. I mean yes, these are huge myth­ic con­structs. And Scientology is just mad in its iconog­ra­phy and its sto­ry­telling. Because it was cre­at­ed by a mad sci­ence fic­tion writer who want­ed to get rich quick, went around all his friends and said, I want to get rich quick. Do you think I should start a reli­gion?” And all his friends laughed and said, That would be real­ly fuck­ing fun­ny. You should do that.” And he did.

Slavin: Have you ever thought about it, just start­ing one?

Ellis: Have I ever thought about Scientology?

Slavin: No no no, start­ing a new one.

Ellis: No, because I used to like meet­ing those peo­ple in the street— Because back in 80s of course they’d say, Let me tell you about the immor­tal L. Ron Hubbard.” And of course word of his death did not nec­es­sar­i­ly get out to all the Scientology church­es on time. So I was one of the peo­ple who was on the street one day when one of them walked up and said, Let me tell you about the immor­tal L. Ron Hubbard.” So I got to say, I’m real­ly real­ly sor­ry kid, but he’s dead.” A lot of peo­ple got to do that because they actu­al­ly with­held the insulation—

Slavin: Perfect.

Ellis: —to the church­es, so it was in the media before the church­es were informed. A lot of Scientologists had very very bad days.

Slavin: One of the con­ceits in the Transmetropolitan world is that there’s a new reli­gion every six hours, I think, right?

Ellis: Yes.

Slavin: It’s a real­ly nice idea. I think that’s part of what is rep­re­sent­ed here.

Ellis: Have you ever been to Charlotte, North Carolina?

Slavin: No.

Ellis: Alright.

Slavin: A lot of religions?

Ellis: You pull out of Charlotte— [dogs bark­ing in the back­ground] Jesus, they’ve set the dogs on me. Are you shit­ting me? 

Slavin: Feels like a solv­able problem.

Ellis: Alright, there’s actu­al­ly a horde of dogs be released on the ground floor for me… But you come out of Charlotte air­port onto, I swear to God, the Billy Graham Expressway. And there is a line, a row of tiny clap­board church­es down the side of the high­way, lit­tle more than huts. And each one is a dif­fer­ent church, a dif­fer­ent denom­i­na­tion, of a church. They’ve all got names out of fuck­ing Flannery…Wise Blood. You get to the end and you’re pret­ty sure it’s the Church of Jesus Without Jesus. They are all tech­ni­cal­ly sep­a­rate reli­gions, they’re denom­i­na­tions, they’re sects. And there’s a few dozen of them down the side of the high­way. So after see­ing that, a new reli­gion being gen­er­at­ed every six hours does­n’t seem that much of a stretch.

Slavin: Right. Yeah. That’s a plau­si­ble out­come. A lot more reli­gions, as as opposed to a lot more reli­gion. Who knows. Anybody else?

Audience 3: I want to fol­low up on a lot of what’s been said. The basic ques­tion is can you talk about some of your inspi­ra­tions? What I’m real­ly inter­est­ed in is when you look at some­thing like like Global Frequency, aspects of it are real­i­ty today. You can coor­di­nate a glob­al hack­ing ring with IRC if you want­ed to. Some of that is very real. Some things don’t nec­es­sar­i­ly have any basis of real­i­ty. You talk about mak­ing things more myth­ic, which to me means nec­es­sar­i­ly some­thing that isn’t real. Can you talk about what you look for when you’re look­ing for I want that myth­ic thing. I’m gonna impart this bor­ing activ­i­ty with some­thing myth­ic. I’m gonna take this real thing that exists today and make it fit in my uni­verse.” Or for exam­ple you’ve been talk­ing about places you’ve been going. You talk about Oregon as an impor­tant inspi­ra­tion. You just told us—

Ellis: Yeah, I’m try­ing to get at the nut of your ques­tion. I’m try­ing to fig­ure out what the sin­gle ques­tion was in the mid­dle of that.

Audience 2: Inspiration. So what would you say is your…where do you look for for inspiration?

Ellis: Um…oh God. This is an alter­nate ver­sion of the dread­ed Where do you get your ideas from?” 

Audience 2: Yeah.

Ellis: Yeah. In Britain we have peo­ple like you tak­en out and beaten.

Slavin: That’s not fit for the dogs? Fed to wild dogs. 

Ellis: They would lit­er­al­ly [inaudi­ble] on either side of you, they would lift you up, take you out to the back room and do your kneecaps, son.

Slavin: Is that final answer?

Ellis: It might be. No. Let me at least take a crack at it, bear­ing in mind this is acad­eme and that I should be more polite than to have you kneecapped.

The hon­est answer is prob­a­bly that I sim­ply find it every­where. Storytelling has to be on some lev­el a response to life, a pro­cess­ing of life, and a re-presentation of life for our con­sid­er­a­tion. Being able to take a thing in the world, to take an expe­ri­ence, a feel­ing, an idea, a piece of art, and to make it big­ger and turn it around so we can see all its facets and try to under­stand it from new angles. To me that is just a big part of what sto­ry­telling is, and I can’t com­mit sto­ry­telling with­out being engaged in the world. Even from my dis­tant her­mitage on the banks of the River Thames I’m still run­ning three or four screens, I’m still going out every day, I’m still talk­ing to peo­ple, I am as engaged in the world as I can be. Without actu­al­ly see­ing anoth­er human being from one week to the next, but let’s not talk about that for the moment or I’ll start crying.

But, I’m still engaged in the world and I’m still draw­ing things out in the world that I want to talk about or that I want to change the angle on so that I can show them to you and say, look at this thing. Did you know it could do this? Have you seen it from this angle? Do you see how great this is? Do you see how ter­ri­fy­ing this is? Let me show it to you. Let me make you see for a moment what I see when I look at it. Here’s where I think I am today and this is what I think it looks like. I don’t know if that’s a good answer, but it’s the one I’ve got.

Slavin: I think that’s a…great answer. 

Audience 3: You talk about sci­ence fic­tion as sort of spec­u­la­tion and a warn­ing sys­tem. I’m curi­ous sort of think­ing back to class Star Trek, which is very utopi­an in vision. Do you think there’s also a role for pro­vid­ing guidance?

Ellis: Star Trek is always a weird exam­ple for me. Because it is joy­ful­ly utopi­an. And it’s also com­plete­ly bloody stupid.

Slavin: It’s bananas.

Ellis: Everybody will have food because space­ships. That’s a weird log­ic chain. And you know, it did­n’t have to be any smarter than that because it was an American TV show in the 1960s. But good, clear-eyed utopi­an sto­ry­telling is always valu­able. Honestly, polem­i­cal utopi­an sto­ry­telling I’m up for. News From Nowhere is basi­cal­ly a tract. But it’s no less fas­ci­nat­ing for that. There is now law that says we must be con­vinc­ing on a basic mechan­i­cal lev­el in our sto­ry­telling. Otherwise Star Trek nev­er would’ve got­ten made. The point is what it shows up to say, what has it got to say? And whether that is valuable. 

Slavin: yeah, if some­one shows up with utopi­an sto­ry­telling that has a def­i­nite point of view to share and some kind of argu­ment to back it up or at least some­thing to empower—I’m ner­vous about that word guid­ance. Even though I’m down for a good tract or polemic like the next per­son, I’m not com­plete­ly com­fort­able, as a writer, with offer­ing guid­ance. I don’t want to be the wishy-washy lib­er­al artist who says, I’m here to ask ques­tions not bel­low answers.” But, I am ner­vous in tak­ing an obvi­ous­ly author­i­tar­i­an role? Or assert­ing my many many kilo­grams of unearned white male priv­i­lege and say­ing, Let me offer you the guid­ance. Now let me show you the way to the stars.” I’m not com­plete­ly com­fort­able with that. Guidance, I’m always a bit iffy.

Audience 4: I’m curi­ous as a writer if you you’ve ever kind of encoun­tered audi­ences who come from cul­tures very dif­fer­ent from your own, and how may be encoun­ter­ing and inter­act­ing with them has some­how changed your own per­cep­tions of what you’ve created.

Ellis: I men­tioned I don’t leave the house much, right?

Audience 4: What?

Ellis: I men­tioned I don’t leave the house much, right?

Audience 4: You don’t have to engage phys­i­cal­ly. There’s all these dif­fer­ent ways to con­nect now.

Ellis: There was a TV show in Britain called The Thick of It, where an old­er politi­cian is asked to engage with dig­i­tal net­works, the World Wide Web and blogs. And he described it as, It’s the shit room.” And some­one said, What?” He said, No no no. It’s the room and you open the door and they push you in and it’s full of peo­ple there to tell you how shit you are. [crosstalk] It’s the shit room. You opened the door.” 

Audience 4: Oh no. Really? 

Ellis: Yeah, don’t force me to go into the shit room, please. 

No. Engaging with cul­tures oth­er than my own…

Audience 4: Perspectives maybe is a bet­ter word.

Ellis: I’m sorry?

Audience 4: Perspectives might be a bet­ter word.

Ellis: Perspectives, yeah. Going back to unearned white male priv­i­lege, engage­ment on my terms to some extent is impor­tant for me to be able to do my work. So I do trav­el, I do go to oth­er places. I always try to lis­ten. I always try to learn. Whether or not that express­es in the work is for some­one else to judge. I would sus­pect not per­fect­ly. But I don’t dis­agree with the premise that that’s some­thing I should con­tin­ue to do and con­tin­ue to try and do bet­ter. I don’t know if that address­es your question.

Audience 4: Oh I was just curi­ous as an artist, you know, some­times when I make some­thing I learn more after I’ve showed it to some­one. It’s anoth­er way to ask that question.

Ellis: Yeah, I’m ner­vous of the bub­ble. I’m ner­vous of just walk­ing around as a trav­el­ing echo cham­ber. So I’m con­stant­ly look­ing for ways to try and punch through that and to learn how oth­er peo­ple see things. 

Slavin: I don’t know how long we should go, and some­body should give me a sense of that, or maybe you should, Warren, I don’t know. But this was a good ques­tion that came in over Twitter from Dave Press. What is it about writ­ing comics that lends itself well to writ­ing prose fic­tion?” Which I think the larg­er ques­tion is what is the rela­tion­ship between…

Ellis: Oh, comics is the worst pos­si­ble train­ing ground for writ­ing prose fic­tion. It’s always a wrench going from one to the oth­er. Because in a comics script I have to describe an image as com­plete­ly as I can for the artist to be able to eas­i­ly achieve that image. So it is very blunt, tech­ni­cal descrip­tions I’m try­ing to sur­round a thing, so that the image could be pro­duced. But if you do that in prose fic­tion, the image lays dead on the page. In prose fic­tion you have to describe an image in broad enough strokes that that image can take life in the read­er’s mind. Which means you have to elide exact­ly the details that a comics artist needs to achieve an image.

Slavin: That’s real­ly interesting.

Ellis: So that is the first thing I have to learn and then unlearn as I tran­si­tion from one to the other.

Slavin: You also—well I guess not with Normal but with Gun Machine and Vein, you deliv­ered them whole, right. Whereas with some­thing like like Planetary, you wrote over a ten year period? 

Ellis: Planetary must’ve been ten years, yeah. Transmet was five.

Slavin: You don’t know where it’s going to go, or do you?

Ellis: I wrote the first draft of the last issue of Transmetropolitan some­where dur­ing the first year of production.

Slavin: Oh wow.

Ellis: I always knew how that book end­ed. Planetary, I had an idea. But I did­n’t have it nailed down until it final­ly came to it. Freakangels, again by about half-way through that. So I was at the eigh­teen month, two years mark, because that book is like nine hun­dred pages long. By about half-way through I knew how Freakangels end­ed. It very much varies.

Slavin: If you’re work­ing on a project for like ten years, part of what you’re doing is you’re gain­ing feed­back along the way. Does that cal­i­brate anything?

Ellis: What’s more impor­tant than that, because the only feed­back I’m real­ly inter­est­ed in is from my artist and from my edi­tor. I don’t even read my own reviews. Because that would make me cry. But um…I’ve com­plete­ly lost the thread of what I was going to say. Can you ask the ques­tion again?

Slavin: Just whether you…do you course cor­rect over time?

Ellis: Do I course cor­rect, yeah. The feed­back I want is from the artist, as I say, and the edi­tors. Course cor­rec­tion for me, because comics is so weird—a graph­ic nov­el, you’re writ­ing, cre­at­ing, and see­ing pro­duced one chap­ter every month over a peri­od of years rather than just writ­ing the whole damn thing and then releas­ing it. So you can see for your­self what does­n’t work as each chap­ter is produced. 

Slavin: I course cor­rect in any num­ber of ways. I could see a sto­ry­line is going to go some­where because that’s not work­ing on the page the way I thought it would, so I can do some­thing with that. I can change the way I write for the artist. I’m learn­ing quite often— Even though I nor­mal­ly go into a job with a fair­ly deep under­stand­ing of what an artist is capa­ble of and what their range is, as I start to work I learn more. So I change the way I write for the artist as I go to bet­ter fit for them so it’s eas­i­er for them to pro­duce work. 

Big part of my job is try­ing to make the artist look good wher­ev­er pos­si­ble, you see. Because at the end of the day the first thing some­one sees when they open up a com­ic is not a line of dia­logue. The first thing they see is an image. So it’s my job to make those artists look as good as possible.

Slavin: But when you work on movie projects, you can’t have any­thing near the same control.

Ellis: No. That is again real­ly broad strokes. Because you’re try­ing to charm a direc­tor with the poten­tial of a beau­ti­ful scene. But I’m also work­ing on Castlevania, which is an ani­mat­ed TV show. Which actu­al­ly hews a lit­tle clos­er to comics because I can cre­ate hav­ing looked at the ani­ma­tors’ work, hav­ing looked at their envi­ron­men­tal paint­ings, and the way they do setups. I can cre­ate things that will work very specif­i­cal­ly for their strengths. I will try to delight them, so that I can make them look good.

Audience 5: Hi. I want to talk about Transmetropolitan for a hot sec­ond. Transmetropolitan is this world where kind of the pos­si­bil­i­ties of human expres­sion and iden­ti­ty are basi­cal­ly expo­nen­ti­at­ed through the abil­i­ty to alter your body and your appear­ance. And I think in the real world peo­ple often think of the arc of social­ly accept­able human expres­sion and iden­ti­ty as just like increas­ing over time. And maybe to the point that we see in Transmetropolitan. But also in Transmetropolitan you show these themes of dystopia, often through these iden­ti­ties clash­ing with one anoth­er in real­ly strong ways. Can you talk about I guess your deci­sion to have a lot of the con­flicts or the con­flicts in the city in Transmetropolitan being dri­ven by that iden­ti­ty? Do you think that’s kind of…how it relates [inaudi­ble]

Ellis: First of all I would ask you to bear in mind this work is twen­ty years old, alright.

Audience 5: Yeah, yeah.

Ellis: This is not cur­rent. This does not have the reflex­iv­i­ty of current-day fic­tion on these con­cepts. The iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics are, to be char­i­ta­ble, prim­i­tive. So what you’re see­ing is what I was see­ing in like 95, 96, 97 when I start­ed writ­ing this book. Which was sim­ply the way the streets had changed through the last ten to fif­teen years of my life in 1980. The only peo­ple you saw with tat­toos on the streets of my town were old sailors and old bik­ers. And you did­n’t see peo­ple in piercings.

By 1995, half of every­body you saw had a tat­too, and you saw peo­ple in busi­ness suits and pierc­ings com­ing out of the civ­il ser­vice build­ings. And so what you’re talk­ing about is me real­ly just illus­trat­ing and extrap­o­lat­ing from the nature that our streets change from things orig­i­nal­ly per­ceived as trans­gres­sive to even­tu­al­ly main­streamed. And that’s all I’m real­ly talk­ing about in that point. It was­n’t a sear­ing insight.

Slavin: If there’s not anoth­er ques­tion, I have one last thing I would want to ask about, which is— This is Trees, which is— So what’s the sto­ry with Trees? There’ve been two…

Ellis: There’ve been two graph­ic nov­els, and we’ve tak­en a break because they’ve real­ly hard to do, and because I’ve been writ­ing the tele­vi­sion adap­ta­tion for Tom Hardy’s pro­duc­tion com­pa­ny Hardy Son & Baker in part­ner­ship with NBC Universal.

Slavin: Can you sort of tell us a lit­tle bit about what the idea is of the series?

Ellis: Ten years ago, in the time of sto­ry, some­where between fifty and sev­en­ty vast alien struc­tures land on Earth. Some of them land on the cities, just spear through cities. Some of them land in remote spaces. There seems to be no rhyme or rea­son to it. And they land, and then noth­ing hap­pens. They make no con­tact; nobody comes out; you can’t get into them; they’re imper­vi­ous to weapon­ry, com­mu­ni­ca­tions, scans, you name it—they’re just there. 

And the sto­ry, such as it is, starts ten years lat­er when through what Marshall McLuhan called the rear mir­ror effect, these things have become nor­mal­ized. They’re just part of the land­scape. And yet, there’s only so much you can nor­mal­ize— And even though we do nor­mal­ize them in order to func­tion around them, they still exert some kind of pres­sure upon their envi­ron­ments, and the sto­ries in the books are about the peo­ple who live under these things that are called trees, and the pres­sures that the trees exert.

Slavin: I was real­ly struck, you know. There’s this one where she says, Imagine that going off when the Manhattan tree uploads to its home office.” The idea that these are in com­mu­ni­ca­tion with one anoth­er. It’s inter­est­ing to me me just because I’ve become aware of Suzanne Simard’s work. And I don’t know if you’ve ever come across her, but she’s at the University of British Columbia. She’s a for­est ecol­o­gist. And she’s just been study­ing how trees com­mu­ni­cate with trees.

Ellis: Rachel Armstrong was work­ing in that region, I want to say five years back.

Slavin: Yeah. 

Ellis: I did a thing with her in Eindhoven where she was talk­ing about how trees com­mu­ni­cate and how trees compute.

Slavin: Yeah. And share resources and even what would in an anthro­pocen­tric nar­ra­tive would be…they pri­or­i­tize their young.

Ellis: Yes.

Slavin: Like fir trees will take care of fir trees before they take care of a pine tree, or whatever—the sen­tence does­n’t make sense. Anyway, but just this idea that there are sci­en­tists who are work­ing right now to real­ly see the world as it real­ly is, which is also then this thing that you’re also sort of proposing.

Ellis: Yeah.

Slavin: For me that’s the— I don’t know if you were draw­ing up from their research, or whether you’re just con­verg­ing on it, but—

Ellis: Yeah, a lot of these things I tend to think of as com­post­ing. I just col­lect as much as I can. It just goes into the pile back here [indi­cates back of his head] and rots down and starts to stink and to catch fire from time to time. And then when I’m real­ly lucky, one thing in there will plug in to anoth­er thing, and that con­sti­tutes an idea. And that just ris­es out of the heap. But you’ve got to keep the heap fed. You’ve got to keep pil­ing shit on in the pile at the back there. 

Slavin: Yep. Fermentation helps, also.

Ellis: Fermentation is crucial.

Slavin: So on that note, if no oth­er. Warren, thank you so much for being so gen­er­ous with your time and your thoughts and your wis­dom. Thank you. And thank you to all of you for your ques­tions. And…thank you.

Ellis: Thank you.

Further Reference

Archive page for this pre­sen­ta­tion at the Media Lab.


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