The iconic comic-book writer turns his attention to Bacardi’s dramatic past for a unique collaboration with artist Michael Allred, and tells us why his attention is firmly on the Tube
As the author of Red and Red II, Transmetropolitan and Planetary, and given his work across titles including Hellblazer, Iron Man and Ultimate Fantastic Four, to say that Warren Ellis is one of the most prolific and respected writers within the comic book medium is something of an understatement. In more recent years, the Englishman has turned his attention to writing novels, penning The New York Times’ best seller Gun Machine, and a tentatively titled non-fiction title Spirit Tracks, which continues in his exploration of science-fiction, the city, transhumanism and technology.
He has teamed up with American comic artist Michael Allred (Madman) to pen a graphic novel,The Spirit of Bacardi, exploring the company’s dramatic 150-year history across revolutions, prohibition, earthquakes, fire and exile from their native Cuba. We find out about the project, and the very recent announcement that he’s set to pen his first original TV series, to be produced by The Walking Dead’s executive producer Gale Anne Hurd…How did the project with Bacardi come about?
A representative of Bacardi, who’s actually a friend of a friend, came to me to broach the idea. I wasn’t sure about it so I said, “Send me all of the material you’ve got and I’ll see if there’s something there.” They sent me a bunch of stuff from the Bacardi archive – I think we’d originally been talking about doing something on the origins of Bacardi, but what I found was the second generation story of Emilio Bacardi and I found his story absolutely fascinating. That history is what talked me into doing the job.
I did a historical graphic novel a few years ago about the Battle of Crécy, which was in the 14th century, so for me it wasn’t a leap [to this]. Of course, the great joy of history is that the story is largely told for you, it was just a case of bringing out what I felt were the most compelling episodes of Emilio’s life.
“The great joy of history is that the story is largely told for you, it was just a case of bringing out what I felt were the most compelling episodes of Emilio’s life”
It was announced last week that you’re set to write a TV series to be produced with Gale Anne Hurd’s (The Walking Dead) production company Valhalla Entertainment. What can you tell us about the new project?
What’s happening is I’m working with Universal Cable Productions to develop a ‘blind script’, which is where we agree in advance that I’m going to write a pilot script, we just don’t agree in advance what it’s going to be. We’re at the top of the process where we’re talking about what we want to do together. This will be the first time I’ve been hired to develop a series and write the pilot script. I’ve been a producer on TV projects before, and I’ve written a little bit of TV, but the only script that actually got made was an episode of Justice League Unlimited, for the dearly depart Dwayne McDuffie.
Why is now the time for you to move into TV from books?
I’ve been around television for years because various works of mine have been optioned for development for TV, but what got me interested this time around – and why I started talking to people again – is the great change in television over the past five to ten years. Now there is a real interest in the production companies who’ve recognised the interest in novelistic storytelling for television. And with the sudden evolution of television – lets call it ‘broadcasting’ – television has become one of those words that people use to point at something, but it doesn’t mean what it did 10 years ago. There’s an entire space that we just point at and call it television, even though it doesn’t resemble any television that we knew. 10 years ago, you couldn’t watch an entire season of a story on the day of its release on any screen. Television has shifted massively and the upshot is that you now get to write novels for television, and that is what interests me. That’s why I started talking to people again.
You were an early adopter of Internet culture, having a blog and website from very early on. Webseries, and the webisode format were bandied around as the ‘future’ of broadcasting. Has the rise of epic network shows like Game of Thrones, or subscription-series limited the potential of the web-series format?
Did you know that Julia Styles is starring in and producing her own web series, Blue? YouTube is so damn big that these things can get lost. But Blue is part of a whole slew of a group, Wigs, streaming through YouTube first. Then there’s Hulu, who are a really peculiar outlier of a company, who get involved in co-productions, digital videos. They’re commissioning original stuff, and this is all stuff that was just supposed to be ‘watch later’ for network television. The entire space is incredibly fluid right now.
There’s a big exhibition running at the British Library right now, Comics Unmasked, which is discussing the evolution of the form in Britain. Do you think the comic book genre has been gentrified? Conversely, is it more democratic than ever?
I don’t think it’s a binary thing, but what I will say is that it is more democratic than ever, so long as you take more than print into account. The web is filled with web-comics, web-comics that “comic fans” have probably never seen or heard of, but which have found significant audiences.There’s a thing we used to say about New York that if your kink is one-in-a-million, then there are a million other people like you in New York City alone. On the web, whatever your interest is, you will find community. It’s what the web is good at, and there are a lot of web comics built around this that do fantastic work and just could not exist in print because they would not be able to find their ‘others’. I think the graphic novel, the comic book, whatever you want to call it is alive and well on the web, and is turning into things we couldn’t have imagined 30 years ago, and I love that.