Warren Ellis and the WEF: Toxic Legacies
The news about Warren Ellis has upset readers and collaborators of the writer. But this sense of disappointment pales in comparison to the emotional hurt done to the increasing numbers of women who have come forward. As always, believe women.
Here’s a writer who freely circulated advice to aspiring comic creators for decades. He seemed to be carrying the ball dropped by the British Invasion of the US comic industry – make meaningful comics, not just rehashed superhero yarns based on properties from the 1930s. And yeah, Transmetropolitan was pretty witty for its time.
Warren Ellis Origins
He spoke about writing for the artist, in a way that demystified the role of the comics scripter. Instead of a frustrated novelist lowering themselves to the funny pages – paging Stan Lee – Ellis suggested it was important to focus on the nature of collaboration; respect; generosity when working with others.
That all felt like the grounding of a decent ethic for creativity in an industry with plenty of bodies buried and work-for-hire abuses.
At the time of writing, June 2020, it’s become clear that Warren Ellis also abused his position as a mentor for young women interested in the comics industry. He engaged them, encouraged them, and then escalated to attempts at sexual intimacy. Per Ellis’s statement on Twitter – “I have always tried to aid and support women in their lives and careers, but I have hurt many people that I had no intention of hurting. I am culpable. I take responsibility for my mistakes. I will do better and for that, I apologize.”
Allegations against Warren Ellis
Hearing these allegations against Warren Ellis, I recall how he portrayed himself – and fictional alter egos like Spider Jerusalem or Desolation Jones – as an ally for women.
Ellis presented himself as an activist for a more efficient and creator-friendly comics industry. The question now is how much goodwill did that buy him to pursue unequal relationships with younger women, and was that by design?
Some years ago, I interviewed a documentary-maker about his film on Warren Ellis (he’s a nice chap, so I’m not going to drag his name into this). But I recall this quote from the article:
“One of the major themes that emerged as we interviewed more and more people was the notion of Warren as the nexus of a creative network that spans different media.“
This idea that Ellis and the WEF (Warren Ellis Forum) brought together a collection of great minds is now being reinvestigated. For one, it seems that the benefit extended more to Ellis than to the participants. Through their presence, he became associated with creator rights, futurism, experimental photography, weird folk movements, Asian cinema – the list of interests that coagulated around WEF became his brand.
Meanwhile Ellis now claims surprise at being considered famous or powerful in his statement. The WEF was a hub of comics culture discussion, industry speculation and networking. To suggest Ellis was unaware of his influence and power over the careers of emerging peers and aspiring creators is absurd.
The Dr Nerdlove website posted a reflection on WEF that made an attempt at contrition from someone who participated in the pecking order culture of the board, but the author is still trading in the same old Warren Ellis hagiography:
“Warren Ellis is someone who could be credibly referred to as a genius.”
“He also created the Warren Ellis Forum — an online community that would become a haven for creators, intellectuals and artists. From 1998 to 2002, The Warren Ellis Forum was, in its way, the CBGBs of comics.”
Let’s be honest; Transmetropolitan is Hunter S. Thompson with a subscription to Wired. As for the WEF, it was closer to the Cool Britannia era’s Groucho Club than anything particularly revolutionary.
The Dr. Nerdlove piece serves more to create distance between author Harris O’Malley and the accusations against Ellis. Over on Bleeding Cool, another frequent collaborator of Ellis’s, Rich Johnston, attempts much the same.
Toxicity and the WEF
What they neglect to mention is that in their own championing of Ellis and other WEF members who’ve subsequently landed choice gigs for Marvel, DC and Dark Horse, the toxicity of the website was always clear. For all the talk of collaboration and raising standards, the reality is that ‘Uncle Warren’ was always a creep – but that was acceptable *because* the self-promotional ironic postures of Ellis helped his friends get gigs in the comic industry.
Ellis is a decent enough writer to understand the important of direct language. Where he discusses the allegations against him, he says he ‘never consciously coerced’ anyone. It’s telling that the firebrand journalist and political satirist has retreated behind lawyerly speech and run-on sentences – when he becomes the focus of the story.
If you are passionate about comics and making a fairer industry – spend your money on books by women, by persons of colour, by queer creators. If self-proclaimed allies want to spotlight non-white, non-Anglophone voices – do it. Make room and get to the end of the queue.
Spend your money on the folks who don’t have the same access to publicity and corporate marketing. As I’m writing this on Wurundjeri land, a quick shout out to Magabala Books (https://www.magabala.com/) who have produced a number of graphic novels by Indigenous Australian creators worthy of your custom.