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Warren Ellis trails 'Gun Machine' through NYC's mean streets

The British author has spent a couple of decades studying America and its guns. His new crime thriller reflects what he's learned.

January 10, 2013|By Douglas Wolk
  • Warren Ellis, author of "Gun Machine"
Warren Ellis, author of "Gun Machine" (Ellen Rogers, Mullholland…)

Warren Ellis has a few ideas about why Americans are so obsessed with guns — the theme of his new novel "Gun Machine" (Mulholland Books: 320 pp., $25.99). "I'm presuming it's still this deep-seated neurosis that the British are going to come back," he drawls in his precise baritone, speaking by phone from his home in Southend-on-Sea, England. "I get that you have bears and things, but I don't think you need assault rifles or rocket launchers to scare them off."

Ellis was part of a British invasion of his own in the 1990s — a wave of writers from the U.K. who became a major presence in American comic books. He made his reputation with a string of remarkable series shaped by his fascination with cutting-edge technology and his knack for mercilessly dissecting genres of all kinds: "Transmetropolitan" (a sci-fi drama about a future political journalist named Spider Jerusalem), "The Authority" (a superhero team series that pioneered an ultraviolent, "widescreen" approach to mainstream comics), "Planetary" (a secret history of a pulp-fictional world) and others. The 2010 spy-thriller film "Red" was based on a three-issue miniseries by Ellis and artist Cully Hamner.

Over the last few years, though, Ellis has gradually been shifting away from comics (while maintaining his legendary Internet presence). His first prose novel, "Crooked Little Vein," appeared in 2007; "Gun Machine" is his second. On its surface, it's a police procedural in which New York City police officer John Tallow, assisted by a couple of socially maladjusted crime scene unit technicians, is tracking down a serial killer whose murders are part of a deeper conspiracy.

It's got a bunch of Ellis' signature gestures: characters with resonant names or no names at all, nightmarish near-future (and recent-past) gizmos, constant and gleeful vulgarity. (One character, on his co-worker's habit of goading her wife into jealous revenge sex: "She'll come in looking like she's been dipped in crystal meth and tossed to a Canadian hockey team.")

This is not exactly "CSI," in other words. The mention of that show seems to trigger one of Ellis' magnificent rants: "What it is, 'CSI,' is that if you fart while committing a crime, they will capture that fart and they will fractionate it in the lab and they will work out where you ate the previous day, and then they will come for you!"

Barely taking a breath, Ellis continues, "The lesson of 'CSI' is: No matter what horrible things happen, nice policemen will turn up and fix everything and return it to the status quo."

Police procedurals are effectively bedtime stories, he says, which ensure "the viewer knows that they're being watched and they'd better not think of anything like this, because no matter how perfect your crime might be, Ted Danson's going to turn up at your door. Which is a fairly horrifying thought all on its own, really."

The brutal cat-and-mouse game between Tallow and the killer suggests that the chaos of human malice can gum up even law enforcement's most elegant systems. More deeply, though, "Gun Machine" is about the ways the grimmer parts of America's history can ooze into the present day, and in particular about the country's deep, horrible connection to firearms.

The book is packed with the precise minutiae of gun culture and contrasts that precision with the way guns can destroy everything distinctive about a person in a fraction of a second. Surprisingly, Ellis says he's never handled a loaded gun, let alone fired one.

"If you write any kind of fiction about America," he says, "you immediately have to start doing some research about guns, so in some ways 'Gun Machine' is just the culmination of 20 years of reading about guns."

It's also very much a novel about America written with the perspective of distance. Ellis hasn't been in New York since 2000, but, as with his protagonist, the city's omnipresent surveillance cameras gave him crucial information; he mostly used Google Street View to research the locations in the book, and sent a friend out to take pictures of a few spots it was hard to see otherwise (like One Police Plaza, where, he reports, his friend almost got arrested).

Ellis is currently consulting on a Fox TV pilot based on 'Gun Machine' and has another novel in progress; he's also writing a nonfiction book based on "Spirit Tracks," a lecture he gave at the Cognitive Cities Conference in Berlin in 2011, and a few more comics projects. And he and Joss Whedon are working on a Web miniseries called "Wastelanders."

"I've always moved between media," he says. "Some ideas just work better in some media than others. 'Gun Machine' wouldn't have worked as a comic, for many reasons — not least of which is that it gave me the opportunity, with John Tallow, to write someone who really did live in their head."

The book centers on two characters whose interior landscape overwhelms their physical surroundings; Tallow and the killer he is chasing, identified only as "the hunter," who mostly experiences New York City as the wild, forested area it was centuries ago.

"I really just got mentally ill when I was writing him," Ellis says. "I couldn't do anything else that day if I was writing a scene with the hunter. Once you start seeing in that way enough to be able to write it down, you're essentially useless for anything else, like operating machinery or light switches."

Wolk is the author of "Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean."

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