Warren Ellis and Jason Howard decided to take a break before they dove into the third and final volume of “Trees.” I also believe it was Howard who told Ellis that he wanted to do something with a lot more action. Thank god he did because the end result is likely going to be the best action story I’ve read in comics this year.
It starts off with Mike Blackburn handcuffed and naked in a cell, cheerily submitting to an interrogation. It’s through this that we learn he’s currently being held in an off-world colony founded by scientists who struck out from Earth in the 1920’s and he’s there as a scout to let people back home know how things are going. The answer, as you might have guessed from the “handcuffed and naked” part, is “not great” and he’s going to have to find a way out of the facility he’s in and back to his escape craft. Enter fellow detainee and resisting native Grace Moody who’s got the skills and street smarts to get Mike all the way back to Cemetery Beach.
While I generally find everything Ellis has done to be at least “readable,” most of his stuff in recent years has topped out at “good” rather than “great.” “Cemetery Beach” is arguably the first thing he’s done since vol. 2 of “Injection” that hits that high note again. It’s a breathless action story which fully earns the “Fury Road” comparison Kieron Gillen drops in his quote on the back cover.
Part of the reason it works so well is its utterly relentless pace. Mike and Grace are constantly on the move throughout the entirety of the story. Never stopping for anything, only slowing down when people stop shooting at them. This might seem like it would get old or that things would eventually degrade into tedium with the tension kept so high, but Ellis has a couple tricks up his sleeve to keep that from happening.
One is the variety of the threats that our protagonists face along the way. They start off as faceless prison guards, then we get men on flying machines in short order, and after that mutants who feel great despite how horrible they look on the outside. Mind you, these are the threats which lead off the volume’s first third. They’re only the tip of the crazy iceberg here.
The other is how he manages to slip in a whole lot of worldbuilding alongside all the action. “Cemetery Beach’s” world is one of Ellis’ more interesting creations: Founded over a century ago on a desolate rock that had some crazy life-extending goo on it, where a stratified culture grew up extending from the capitol and the inhabitants becoming only more strung-out and mad the further they get from it. That’s not all as they’ve even got rocks that you can dig out of the ground to power machinery, and this weird biological gunk called seep which you can nosh on to stay alive. It’s interesting details like these that give the world some character and keep the story from being one long action scene.
That it doesn’t is also down to Howard’s incredibly kinetic art. He really makes you feel the urgency of Mike and Grace’s situation from the start through their body language as they pinball from one bad situation to the next. Their pain and exhaustion is expertly communicated on the page, so you’re able to easily empathize with their struggles as they try to escape the forces arrayed against them. I also appreciated the design of the world, a futuristic decaying cityscape that takes more nods from steampunk than “Blade Runner.” It’s a uniquely designed hellhole with its many threats each having a uniquely awful look to them.
The book isn’t without its flaws, though. Howard tends to use the same “open-mouthed, screaming” look on his characters a whole lot, and the overall color scheme tops out at “drab.” I know it’s not supposed to look like a lively or welcoming place to live, but the things Mike and Grace encounter along the way communicate that point quite well. Speaking of our protagonists, the dialogue between them can get a little to quip-happy for its own good. There’s also plenty of Ellis’ having his characters remark about how bad and awful things are, but it’s a bit easier to take here for reasons that should be apparent.
Still, “Cemetery Beach” is a smashing read that I didn’t expect to enjoy as much as I did. “Trees” has been alright, but this story makes a great argument for Ellis and Howard to do more work together. Not a sequel to this, however. It’s a great self-contained story which doesn’t need to be expanded upon. Just give us more new, crazy stuff like it!