by Glen Downey
Just over an hour into Warren Ellis: Captured Ghosts, the charismatic chain-smoking troubadour of transhumanism observes that he isn’t—as some have suggested—a cynic: “I think it might be truer,” he says with a grin, “to think of myself as just a constantly disappointed optimist.” But Ellis’ true feelings about the human condition, as Garth Ennis observes, are more sincere and more profoundly endearing than even this: “What he’s saying is: `Why don’t we dare to hope that we might make it?’”
These kinds of insights—essential to understanding who Ellis is and what he means to the world of comics—make Warren Ellis: Captured Ghosts a brilliant bit of filmmaking. Directed by Patrick Meaney (Grant Morrison: Talking with Gods) for a joint production of Respect Films and the Sequart Literacy & Research Organization, the documentary is presented as a series of one-on-one interviews both with Ellis himself and with the friends, colleagues, and collaborators who know him best. It provides its audience with a thoughtful look at the comic legend’s life, philosophical outlook, and writing career, one which has given us a body of work that would be difficult to overestimate, including series like Lazarus Churchyard, The Authority, Transmetropolitan, and Global Frequency. The documentary also features the artwork of the Ellis canon—both the pages and panels of his ground-breaking series and a montage of ghostly, live-action re-enactments that seem to allude to the “Captured Ghosts” of the film’s title.
Regardless of what a charmingly acerbic, whisky-drinking, nicotine junkie Ellis presents himself to be, there is nothing foggy about his vision of our present predicaments or future possibilities. Indeed, what the documentary brings into especially clear focus is Ellis’ profound belief that the world has not turned out to be the kind of place we long ago thought it would be: the monomyth of intergalactic travel and planetary conquest. Ellis notes, for example, that the physical evidence of the myth has vanished: “At this point, we have fewer rocket ships than we’ve had since I was born,” he tells us. “Maybe it’s just time to stop thinking of things we can never do and start thinking about the things we can do.”
In truth, we haven’t been very successful at envisioning the future and building towards it. Rather, Ellis argues, we constantly overtake the future, finding avenues like social media and mobile technologies that those who came before us failed to see. In a rather curious way, Ellis’ vision of how we have misunderstood our relationship to the future is precisely what Margaret Atwood says about how we have misunderstood our relationship to the land: “We never belonged to you,” Atwood says, co-opting the voice of the land, “You never found us. / It was always the other way around” (from “The Moment,” Selected Poems, 1976).
The voices of the documentary—which include Helen Mirren, Joss Whedon, Grant Morrison, and a host of writers, artists, media personalities, and futurists—do a wonderful job of collectively reinforcing what the audience learns from Ellis himself: that he is unapologetically who he is, has a genuine curiosity for the bizarre, smokes too much, has an abiding respect for the artists he works with, is an absolute giant of a man, and has an equally giant heart. This last point is brought home in a nice little sequence in which several of the interviewees observe that despite Ellis’ imposing size and his predilection for the macabre, he is nothing short of a teddy bear. “The kindest, gentlest, sweetest person in the world,” Will Wheaton notes. Throughout the sequence, the camera cuts to Ellis, muttering under his breath and looking utterly chagrined, of course.
The documentary also does a fine job in looking at Ellis (aka “The Internet Jesus”) as an early adopter of emerging technologies that was borne out of his desire not to have to drag himself across the pond to do the convention circuit in the US. However, what he ended up doing in his first internet incarnation (May, 1998 – October, 2002) is drawing to him a whole host of up-and-coming writers and artists, many of whom formed close connections to Ellis himself and to one another: “I remember it being a collection of some of the smartest and funniest people around,” Matt Fraction remembers, “and now half of us have taken over comics.”
The documentary itself has a running time just shy of 80 minutes, and none of it—not a moment really—is wasted. Its economy is achieved because as in any excellent documentary, everyone has something to say and what they have to say is either smart, funny, or both. It presents viewers with a complex portrait of a great writer, and shows them that his greatest strength is his humanity. The future may not be as others have envisioned it, but Ellis is not disheartened. In perhaps the most eloquent line of the documentary, his unconquerable spirit is captured by Coilhouse Magazine co-founder, Zoetica Ebb: “Warren’s fascination with the future comes from his intense sense of hope. He wants the amazing, shiny, fantastical future we were promised, and if he’s not going to get it—he’s going to make it up.”
It is ultimately this sense of hope and optimism that pervades the documentary, and makes Warren Ellis: Captured Ghosts a wonderful gem of a film.
Glen Downey is a writer, educator, and literary critic from Oakville, Ontario. He has written more than ninety books for young people across a variety of genres, including graphic novels and theme-based books aimed at reluctant readers. As a result, he gets very little sleep. Glen was writer and series editor of the award-winning Graphic Poetry series, and can be found, even when he is asleep, at www.glendowney.ca or on Twitter @GlenDowney.