Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Fell: What am I missing?

Sometimes popular opinion goes one way and I go another. Full House remained on the air for nine seasons, producing 192 episodes, and finishing in the top 30 Nielsen ratings for six of them and in the top 16 for four of them. Even today, more than 80% of 1647 voters at TV.com consider it "superb" or better, yet I've never watched an episode in my life. I thought Star Wars Episode One was poorly scripted, poorly acted, and poorly directed, but its worldwide box office take of $924.3 million shows I was wrong and that Jar Jar Binks is, in fact, a much better character than Sam Spade, Don Corleone, and T.E. Lawrence put together.

Most recently, I've found myself on the less popular side of the internet's opinion of Fell. When Chris declared it his best ongoing series of the 2005 (and Bill Reed of Comics Should Be Good, I responded that it was overhyped, badly written tripe with bad art, and reader markus correctly called me on the carpet for sniping without posting a definitive review of Fell of my own.

Newsarama has posted the entire first issue online, prompting the following comments on the message board:
  • So good, why isn't everyone buying this?
  • The best first issue I've read in a long time!
  • This is one of my favorite singles of 2005.
  • My God, that writing is bloody brilliant!
  • Gang, if you're not picking this book up month-to-month, there is something WRONG.
I've read #1 again, thinking maybe I just missed something. However, that's just not the case. I still see an overhyped, nothing comic. I rely upon you, good reader, to steer me back to sanity and explain what I'm missing.

First off, let me make clear I understand the appeal of a two dollar book and I understand the appeal of self-contained issues that make it possible to pick up any issue and enjoy it without needing to know seven years of canon and backstory. In that sense, I appreciate what Fell is trying to do, but the point I made in my ravaging of Mothspy remains pertinent here: having a new idea doesn't make it a good one. Furthermore, a good idea doesn't automatically work if the execution is bad. For example, sodas with no calories in them is a great idea and could drastically trim down America's bulging waistline, but until I try a diet soda that doesn't leave the taste of carcinogenic chemicals in the back of my throat, I'm not drinking them.

The first symptom of Fell-fever seems to be the need to point out the cover price and use some variation of the phrase: "Though it's only 16 pages long, it reads like a 32-pager because of the density of the what Warren Ellis has packed into every page."Yeah, that's great writing making the most of every panel. One of my biggest complaints about Ellis (and Grant Morrison and Garth Ennis for that matter) is that so often he confuses "outlandish" for "enthralling." A woman who doesn't listen to a stranger's questions and instead goes off on an unprompted soliloqy of her husband's beastial tendencies is not an interesting character, nor even a believable one. If this dialogue was coming from a schizophrenic homeless person, I'd still label it as uninspired and serving no purpose other than shock value, but at least I'd believe it. Coming from an office worker, I just roll my eyes. The same goes for his boss's "I don't care what you do. I'm going to take a lot of pills" mope-fest that preceded this.

Also, contrary to what every reviewer on the internet indicates, Snowtown having 3 1/2 detectives because one of them has no legs is mildly amusing, but it's not Shakespeare.

As for the "murder mystery," I find it hard to consider this book very heavy on mystery when the first panel of the second page practically screams "IMPORTANT HINT HERE!"Ben Templesmith might as well have put a huge red arrow pointing at those bottles and hoses in the background. I admit I incorrectly guessed the wife had fed the hose down his throat and poured the booze directly into his stomach while he was passed out or sleeping, but that wouldn't be pointessly outlandi--er, I mean intriguing enough for an Ellis story.

Having given us our first and only clue by page two, we wallow through twelve and a half pages of people telling Detective Fell that Snowtown is a bad place full of bad mojo where bad things happen.But how's life in Snowtown?I'm not sure I've got it? Is Snowtown a good place to live?How are the public schools? I'm so in the dark as what kind of place Snowtown is.Well, I suppose I'll never get a straight answer.Why do I have these bumps on my head? Oh, well, I'm still not getting it. If only we had more than sixteen pages to continue the debate over the pros and cons of life in Snowtown maybe I'd finally get it.

With the page count quickly coming to a close, Fell runs into his deus ex machi--er, uh... neighbor in an alley. She is the eighth person he's talked to since arriving in town and the fourth with valuable information on the unsolved murder. Not to disrespect Detective Fell's sleuthing skills, but if 50% of the people I spoke to every day just happened to mention important facts about mysterious deaths, I'd probably solve a few crimes myself.

Off to the scene of the crime for the wrap up where we figure out that the victim's wife usually piped a daily enema of wine into him, but switched to whiskey today, causing him to die of alcohol poisoning.How outlandish and unnecessarily provoc--er, I mean INTRIGUING.

As a sixteen page story, it's about fifteen and a half pages too long. There have been three-panel Garfield strips with as much plot. Frame one: Fell spots booze bottles with enema hoses attached and notes overwhelming scent of whiskey. Frame two: daughter points out dad couldn't drink whiskey. Frame three: Fell accuses mom of murder and eats Jon's lasagna. Granted, we know less about the municipal utilities of Snowtown, but that could be handled the next day while kicking Odie off a table.

Tell me, comicbloggowebasphere, what am I missing?


Blogger Scipio said...

Thank GODS!

I thought I was the only one who felt that way...

1:45 AM  
Blogger Jake said...

JUSTIFICATION! Thanks, Scipio! Maybe we can get jackets made or something.

2:00 AM  
Anonymous Aya Ayuvara said...

Well, I do not feel like this. I like fell, and maybe I'm gonna get some bashing for that.
So what.

What's fell for me, what makes it work? It's the combination of distance, strange characters and situations I know all-too-well, although sure not so intense.

Snowtown always seems misty and distant. There never seem to be many people, smiles, sunlight, colours. In that it reminds of Silent Hill (if you ever played those games). The persons out detective meets always seem somewhat "out of it", there's something strange to them. Often they are so much busy with themselves that they don't get the world around them. Sometimes they are so busy with the city outside, that they forget there are things you should not bother about.

The conversation you mention, with the woman always going on about her husband - I've hd quite some conversations like this myself, so I don't really think this as unbelievable. Ofcourse some things are missing here, like a good start into the conversation and maybe some reactions, but that's only, I believe, because things are compressed. There is little unneccesary here.

Fell to me works more over emotion, than over logic, and as such it is perfectly acceptable if most people out detective talks to know something about what he's looking for.

Snowtown itself is a strange place. Ofcourse it is and it's not easy to define. If it really were that horrible, I guess there would not be many people there, but then again, amybe people can't just "leave". Which again reminds me a bit of Silent Hill.

I've yet to see "normal" people like I would expect them from other stories, going around being happy, caring, doing their job, but I think either Fell emphasizes the troubles and strangeness of Snowtown, and compresses the rest away, because it is unimportant to the story, or Snowtown just has these kinds of residents. After all there is omething wrong with this town.

Well, about the drawing style - I think that's personal oppinion if one likes it or not: I find it clearly recognizable. It looks different from what I see in other comics and I don't have much trouble figurin out what's going on in each panel. So it catches the eye and is easy to read. The panel layout adds to this.

That's why I like fell. not because of the price, not because it is self contained in each issue, but because it reaches me via emotion.

I hope you understand why.

4:49 AM  
Anonymous Todd-el said...

Since you asked, what you're missing is a sense of humor. The book is fun to read. Shakespeare isn't. That's the problem with holidng comics up to literary standards. Literature sucks. If it didn't, I would read that instead. Show me a literary comic book, and I'll show you why it doesn't sell. Fell is a cool story. Maybe not intriguging. Definately not something that makes you think about life and the human condition. The book's writing and art may not be especially innovative or complicated but they do combine to evoke a sense of place and story. That's all they need to do. Comics are story telling devices. They use artistic methods to do it, but don't have to be arty to succeed. Besdies that, the book sure has some fucked up characters. That's why it's good. Fucked up characters are one of the things that can make a good comic.

It's just in how you look at it. The book's not for you, and I enjoyed reading your critique. Back to lurking now.

9:56 AM  
Blogger markus said...

I'm having a really hard time figuring out what your problem with the book is. I notice lots of snark and asides, but precious little I can actually address.

I'll try and work with what I could make out.
- a lot of stuff is happening and lots of characterisation (if sketchy) gets done, that's where the "16 reads like 32" comes from. This may be due to the fact that Ellis opted for simple plot and extreme characters, but it's not Ellis fault if he knows what he has to use to provide a reading experience that feels complete in 16 pages. Fact is, these days few others can or want to provide that kind of done in one story even at 22 pages.
- the "padding" you mention in the final paragraph is spent on the characterisation of Fell, Snowtown and the supporting cast, traditional jobs of a first issue in a series. And, uhm, Fell is meant to be a series, not a cartoon, so the comparison is somewhat disingenious.
- Re: confusing "outlandish" with interesting: for one, to some people it is. More importantly however, Fell is about a somewhat normal guy who ends up in the madhouse, but in this case the whole town has gone crazy. To establish this, several nutters are needed, one or two might be coincidence.
That said, his boss and the secretary (and the coroner) are pretty far out, but not so far that one wouldn't know or meet these people in real life. Just not all in one place.
I'm sorry, but if a non-responsive person who goes on an unprompted soliloqy of something very private is not a believable character to you, I suggest you need to get out more. I personally know at least 3 people who are prone to do just that among my aquaintances and remember another handful I only know on a "seen once or twice" basis. No disrespect to you, but people, especially stressed and mentally unstable people (of which there are lots and lots out there) are like that and it's not Ellis fault that you manged to avoid them so far.
- the state of Snowtown is presumably such that unemployment statistics and info on the public schools does not adequately capture it. Again, it strikes me as perfectly natural that there are "bad places" no normal person likes to go to and that thus draw flies (including the human variety). From what I know about the state of science in the matter, it's perfectly possible to point to a wide range of good and bad indicators and predict future area development based on that, but it only works well on average. There remain areas which resist attempts to fix them and people give up on them and try again in cycles.
- coincidence and the crime: admittedly a weakness from a murder mystery point of view is that the crime is too simple. Part of that is certainly deliberate, i.e. Ellis isn't aiming for Agatha Christie or CSI but more for Magnum PI and Sam Spade. (Detective Fitz from "Cracker" with Robbie Coltrane also comes to mind, minus the psychology), another part is poor product placement and a third is poor writing. No argument there, this could use some improvement.
In defense of Fell's sleuthing skills, they are in connecting the dots and noticing the bottles and the pipes in the first place. Not rocket science, but not bad for a first day either.

You also forgot to give credit for the Nixon Nun. If this is Ellis "Twin Peaks", she's a stroke of genius towards achieving that goal.

Finally, my complaint in the comments section of the other post wasn't about the lack of a review, but about the lack of reasons for a statement of quality (not preference). I note you still haven't explained what's so bad about the art except that you don't like it.

10:11 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

honestly, I cannot comprehend the reverence Warren Ellis generates. I know him only from his comics and the contrived cynicism has worn incredibly thin. I can't read his stuff anymore. I just perused that first issue, having been aghast at the possibility he was still receiving positive reviews, and -- lame generalizations about literature aside -- it's as contrived and one-note as everything he puts out these days.

12:52 PM  
Blogger Dr. Pants said...

I just thought it was funny. And I like the done-in-one stories that are, maybe, leading to something bigger.

I think it's his way of doing an on-going Frank Ironwine series (from the Apparat singles line) without breaking his promise not to turn any of those one-shots into a series.

But mostly, it's just funny.

2:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's ok man.

I don't like it either.

3:04 PM  
Blogger kelvingreen said...

Well, your first mistake was paying attention to the baying hordes at Newsarama. They could post a piece about Bendis mixing his shit with the ink on the HoM tpb, and the follow-up messages would all be variations on "This looks cool! I'll certainly be adding it to my pull list!" until someone disagrees, inadvertently starts a flame war, then gets banned.

I do think Fell is overrated, but I expect that of Ellis books. However I also think it's a well-written book that, as you point out, just has a problem with relying too much on coincidence (hi markus!), but I also expect that to lessen as Ellis gets used to the format. And I quite like Templesmith's art on this series too; it's certainly better than some of hhis other work, I think.

But I do see some worth in it as a story, quite apart from the importance of the price/format experiment. So count me in a third camp; I'm not a Fell cultist, but nor do I dislike it nearly as much as you apparently do. :)

Oh, and...

The book is fun to read. Shakespeare isn't.
You've obviously either not read the right Shakespeare, or you didn't get the right teachers.

Show me a literary comic book, and I'll show you why it doesn't sell.
How much does Watchmen sell?

4:18 PM  
Blogger Grotesqueticle said...

It wasn't horrible. It wasn't great either. I'd probably borrow the trade from a friend.

I did enjoy the Nixon nun.

Yes, literature sucks. That is why Shakespeare still sells hundreds of years later. Ellis? Not gonna happen.

6:12 PM  
Blogger redlib said...

This librarian is weeping to see "literature sucks". I like Fell, and I like classic literature.
I'm not in the cult of Ellis, but come on "Regret Street"-- haven't we all been there? with the sad and messed up folks of Snowton. Comedy too.. "3 1/2 detectives?" Owlsey has no legs.

9:22 PM  
Blogger Jake said...

Let me clarify a few of my comments, since a few have become sticking points.

First off, I don't necessarily feel Fell is the worst thing in the world. I mean, if you gave me my choice of reading Fell or dying of ball cancer, I'd pick Fell 99 times out of 100. I just think it's pretty mediocre, which is fine. The majority of everything in the world is mediocre. The question I had here was why something I think is pretty mediocre is garnering such absolute praise. I have yet to read a review that says, "Ho-hum, I guess it's pretty good." Everything is a rave.

That's been the primary fuel for most of my rant, not that I think Fell sucks as much as that I think it's not worthy of the praise it gets.

Also, Re: Shakespeare, my point was only that every review I read of #1 also seemed to quote the line about 3 1/2 detectives. Okay, it's a mildly amusing joke, but it gets treated as if it's the funniest thing since Lou Costello inquired as to the name of a particular first baseman. (If you don't like Abbott and Costello, substitute something about your favorite Urkel shananigan in there.) One good line does not a great story make.

Re: art. I suppose it works for this book and the mood it wants to set. It's not my cup of tea. Templesmith's disproportioned features and sketchy style are not good and feel like a "we couldn't afford Bill Sienkiewicz" excuse, but that's just my opinion. I'm not sure what kind of facts I can use to back up that art--which is a realm of opinion--is bad. For the record, I also wouldn't read a book illustrated by Picasso. He's considered one of history's greatest artists, but I think a Cubist Avengers would suck... not as much as New Avengers, but suck nonetheless.

Re: secretary's rant. My problem wasn't that she was going off on an unprompted rant and I wasn't implying no one in the world does that, though I appreciate the suggestion I get out more often and will bring it up with the warden. The problem I had was that she was going off unprompted about a compeltely taboo subject, not because it added anything to the story, but because Ellis figured it would make his readers snicker at the thought of a man having sex with a dog. Again, cheap laugh and "bloody brilliant writing" do not always go hand in hand.

Finally, I also get the atmosphere of Snowtown, I just think it's nothing fresh. Bad towns are bad towns. Look no further than Gotham City, yet no one's talking about the "bloody brilliant" characterization of Gotham as a place that attracts human flies. You need only look back one review to see that I felt Peter David did an excellent job of setting a mood for Bete Noire in Fallen Angel. Both Snowtown and Bete Noire have several common aspects, yet one opts for substance and characterization while the other opts for a nun in a Nixon mask.

2:30 AM  
Blogger markus said...

- the raves are probably due to people enjoying it on top of its semi-objective quality. In other words, the other direction from "it's decent but doing nothing for me".
- concerning art: I always go for both (a) is the artist achieving what they presumable set out to achieve and (b) how does the work measure up in areas where there are "objective" goals: composition, storytelling, facial expressions, posture
- concerning the secretary I didn't snicker. I took it as another piece of odd characterisation and moved on. It doesn't do much for me either way beyond making it clear that the PD is also full of nutters. Plus, I was more interested in seing how Fell responds to this than in what she's actually saying.
It's just one page, and every comic has the occassional that isn't pulling its weight for me.
- I don't see it in Gotham or Bete Noir. Sure, it's stated, usually in the form of an interior monologue, but if I get that vibe at all, I get it from the artwork. Fell OTOH gives me that vibe both from writing and art and the art gives it to me constantly, not just in occassional glimpses.
But I guess that's wholly subjective. Anyone can recommend a recent issue where Gotham is shown to be this way? I'd like to try and re-check both that and FA v2 #1 to see if I can put my finger on it.

6:08 AM  
Blogger kelvingreen said...

For the record, I also wouldn't read a book illustrated by Picasso. He's considered one of history's greatest artists, but I think a Cubist Avengers would suck... not as much as New Avengers, but suck nonetheless.

We've got to get one of these in every day.

Oh, and Markus, I don't know about recent issues, but during the Kelley Jones run on one of the Batman books (I think Batman, but it could have been Detective Comics, Gotham really did have a personality of its own.

8:40 AM  
Blogger Scipio said...

"the contrived cynicism "

I believe Anonymous has hit the nail.

I (and I'm sure, Jake) understand what Ellis is trying to do in Fell. I can respect that.

But the key to an enjoyable performance (of any kind at any level) is hiding the work from the audience, and making it seem effortless and natural.

In Fell, Ellis does not do this. In fact, there's a good deal of "watch me be clever", which leaves that awful taste of watching a M*A*S*H episode in your mind...

9:57 AM  
Blogger Jake said...

Well put, Scipio. Ellis's writing lacks the subtlity for someone not to "get it." Instead of having Snowtown exude "bad place" and having the other cops come across as nutjobs, he throws it in our faces. "Snowtown is bad and I am CA-RAY-ZEEEEE! Did I mention Snowtown is bad?"

12:24 PM  
Blogger Harvey Jerkwater said...

I just read the first issue on Newsarama. Thanks for the link.


Fell is a cocktail.

--Three parts hipster nihilism;
--Two parts CSI/JAG/rote detective show;
--One part "tattered lonely knight on the mean streets, the only man who cares in a city gone to hell" Chandleresque wank;
--One part "Twin Peaks"-style forced "weirdness;" and
--a dash of "ripped from the headlines" "shocking" murder.

(That "alcohol enema" death happened, and recently, somewhere in America. I forget where. And it happened exactly like in Fell. Ellis reads the newspaper, I guess.)

Combining tired elements into a new story is not a sin. But Ellis didn't do a very good job of it.

It felt Lynchian, and that's not a compliment. Mood plus setting plus random crap plus unvarnished cliche does not equal a good story. Sorry, it's true.

By the way, what in the book was supposed to be funny? The "half detective" bit was, pardon the pun, lame.

The secretary going on about her bestial husband reeked of flop-sweat to me. "Look at me! I'm outrageous! I'm outrageous! Wokka wokka wokka! She's bitter that her husband likes to diddle the dog instead of her! Isn't that outraaaageous? Isn't this city weeeeeeird?"

Yes, it's outrageous, but no, it's not funny. You're supposed to get a snide snicker from feeling superior to the demented and debased woman, I guess. I didn't.

She helps set the mood of the "weird town," yeah, but the problem is that the weirdness bits left the city feeling as forced and artificial as the "It's a Small World" ride at Disneyland. I don't mind that the city's not realistic. Most comic book cities aren't. But I am disappointed that it doesn't resonate as a construct. Snowtown doesn't add up to anything. Considering how important the city itself is supposed to be to the story, that's a big failing.

I agree with Scipio and Jake wholeheartedly. This isn't a steaming pile of poo; but lord knows it isn't great.

This comic needs rocket-powered monkey ninjas and a crime wave stopped by the clever application of Hostess Fruit Pies. Now.

9:46 AM  
Anonymous Todd-el said...

Hey, when I say literature sucks, it just means that I don't like to read it. I fully understand that literature is incredibly popular, is an important part of civilized society, and is essential for many higher human functions. I used to read it, but quit when I found other entertainment more fulfiling.

I don't consider Watchmen to be too literary. I re-read it recently (from the library) and found it a fairly typical cold war soap opera superhero adventure, with a bunch of fluff about pirates thrown in for filler. I loved it a lot, especially when the guy builds a raft out of dead people and the sharks come along and eat the dead people -- then he sneaks back into town and kills his own family. That's the part that really stuck with me.

You know though, Fell really isn't all that great. I'm just glad it's only a buck 99.

12:47 PM  

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