“What I always say is that the two things I first need to know are what the story’s about, and what the book’s really about. That is to say, the basic plot, often very basic, and what I’m actually there to talk about, the themes and subjects of the book. Story without theme is just a bunch of typing. Often, the themes — the stuff I’m actually there to talk about — will assemble themselves before the plotline. " ~Warren Ellis
I like this because Warren Ellis is one of my favorite comic book writers, but also because he fits the prolific/pulp profile of the writer that typically goes on and on for pages about storytelling and the importance of Story and how themes come after and people shouldn’t think of stories so academically, but here he’s describing a process I go through in my storytelling: the themes give the plot structure, and the plot gives the themes structure.
I also like it because I recently watched Iron Man: Extremis the motion comic, which was written by him, and found it to be both some of Ellis’ best work and one of the most disturbingly thoughtful stories of the Iron Man franchise. To be honest, I didn’t like it because I go to Batman for my angsty rich technocrat fix, and let Iron Man run around being sassy and disinterested, but Extremis pays very close attention to a certain argument. The argument goes, “I need government defense money to develop these technologies, so that I can use the technologies in non-defense purposes to fix the world.” A full sixth of the story features an interview between Tony Stark and a social issues documentarian as they each take each other to task about their effect on wider world. The documentarian, of course, is pointing out that Stark’s landmines are scattered in third world countries while they’re killing children, and Stark, of course, is focusing on the technology in the landmines that went on to save people’s lives in medical situations. The documentarian asks if the cost is worth it and Stark cannot answer; Stark asks the documentarian if his documentaries help anything and the documentarian cannot answer; and the documentarian doesn’t know Stark is Iron Man (in this arrangement, Stark isn’t the outspoken variant as in the live action movies about his role as Iron Man, he gets away with claiming that his body guard dons the suit and takes instruction from Stark), and Stark hasn’t fully figured out what Iron Man really means to the world anyway.
The dialog of this interview is full of the types of buzzwords and arguments you would expect in a real-world interview of this type (social documentarian versus technocrat). The meaning of the interview is revealed mostly by what is not said. As Ellis’ dialog is known mostly for its snappy presentation, the underlying significance in the silent aspects of the dialog in this case show a finer touch.
Despite Ellis’ mention of the two levels, story and theme, Iron Man: Extremis is a story that features three:
1) Comic book scenario: Iron Man must face off against Mallon, a biotechno monster with physical abilities beyond the Iron Man suit’s capabilities to defeat. Iron Man must win the Red Queen race to continue to adapt before new technologies make him obsolete.
2) A Tony Stark character exploration: Stark doesn’t know why at the beginning of the movie, but for some reason he has an emotional connection to the Iron Man suit that goes beyond the fight for what he sees as good and the physical impairment of his heart core, but a strange need to more fully become Iron Man and figure out what Iron Man means.
3) The double-edged sword of technology that features it’s life-saving and life-taking components based on usage, and the strange inversion of modern day R&D that pre-empts abuse of developed technology into destructive forces by funding it for destructive purposes in the first place, before funding it for the purpose of philanthropic intentions.
Stark’s placement in all three of these levels is satisfyingly ambiguous and dramatically ironic. By the end, once the ‘cause’ of the Mallen is revealed, you learn that it’s basically no different than Stark’s own actions as the creator of Iron Man. Rather than make him repentant, it only motivates him to further embrace Iron Man as his creation. Mallen, however, is a victim of the same forces that enables Stark his R&D, namely the military industrial complex, and of course Mallen has to be taken down whereas Stark never fights a comic booky villain that runs the MIC because Stark himself is basically that villain. Extremis both emphasizes that point and purposefully leaves it unresolved as the audience is basically left wondering who can take Iron Man down, especially since he becomes more powerful than previously imagined. Mallen is counterpointed by both a gothy pop-angst youth, and by Stark’s own suffered history at the hands of his own technology, to provide perspectives on what delineates between being disenfranchised and antisocial, and motivated by cause rather than revenge. Overall the characters of Extremis through and through reveal that nobody is happy with the situation, but everyone has different motivations and approaches to reacting to it, and it’s pretty unclear which ones are even helpful or if any of them are moral at all.
Anyway I didn’t really mean to write out this whole thing on this motion comic, but Ellis’ quote was shared on his blog today and before I knew it, here it is. If anyone wants to watch this to discuss it with me, it’s pretty readily available all over the ‘Net. I watched it on Instant Watch but I believe it’s available on Hulu, if not also on YouTube.
What I always say is that the two things I first need to know are what the story’s about, and what the book’s really about. That is to say, the basic plot, often very basic, and what I’m actually there to talk about, the themes and subjects of the book. Story without theme is just a bunch of typing. Often, the themes — the stuff I’m actually there to talk about…
On a sidenote, fwiw, what Ellis is talking about above is what I often refer to as “aboutness.” Maybe more specifically, what I mean is the heart or core of the film. It’s the ideas or feelings that drives the entire work. My guess is that most good/great films have this.
As for the heart of the series, you might be right about the three you identified, but what about the future of man idea? Stark strives for something he identifies as the future, which seems to be a convergence of humans and technology, creating a super powerful organism. Here’s a problem I have with this: Stark’s work for the military clearly bothers him, and he believes the suit has a more noble and humane purpose—or at least non-military—but I don’t see that what that is. At one point, I believe he mentions that he can stop bad people or even stop wars. However, once he creates the technology, believing that other people—including bad people—won’t somehow get that technology seems very naive. So, he may be able to stop bad people and prevent wars—but only until they don’t develop similar or more advanced technologies. (In the comic book world there are clear-cut villains, but if the “bad people” would be a lot more ambivalent in the real world.) I’m guessing that fighting villains is the greater purpose of the suit and that which will allow Tony to look himself in the mirror because I can’t think of how the “future” will really do that.
DiB, what’s your take on what the series means about getting to the future—and the value of that. Also, what is Iron Man’s place or purpose in your opinion?
Edit: I forgot to mention one of the cooler aspects of the series—namely, the concept of using the extremis solution to allow Stark to merge with the suit.
Well Ellis’ work in general and Extremis in specific are quite post-human in nature: when homo sapiens becomes officially homo technicus and we become a literally technologized species. I think that’s what Stark is written to see, and Ellis himself understands the ambivalent/neutral nature of the idea. If you read the Transmetropolitan series you can see that Ellis is fascinated and even charmed by a lot of the futurist concepts of the ways technology is developing, but pragmatist and honest enough to know that human will still be largely messy, flawed beings no matter how we develop. So that is the line I personally draw between what makes a ‘futurist’ and what makes a ‘post-humanist’. A futurist is a largely optimistic observer of trends toward better humanity through technology, and a post-humanist is largely a detached evolutionary perspective. I wouldn’t know what the cynical side of that spectrum is called but it’s basically the dystopic zombie and post-apocalypse wasteland narratives that are very popular and usually have a seed of conservativism if not straight up libertarianism at their core. I like all three perspectives and honestly consume those sorts of narratives greedily.
So the thing about Stark in Extremis is that he is futurist, but the story itself is post-human. The series draws clear parallels between Iron Man and Mallen, Stark and that one scientist, and Stark and his interviewer, and Stark’s face-off with each is to define what makes him different/heroic enough to be given the responsibility of Iron Man. What I am not clear on and I’m not sure the series really ties down is whether he is doing the right thing or deserves that responsibility — it sort of also shows his attachment to the Iron Man suit as an addiction/codependence. There’s the literal dependence on the tech because of his heart, but there’s also an emotional/motivational force behind it that is at the center of the whole ‘look myself in the mirror’ issue.
What’s interesting about this is that Iron Man’s struggle in Extremis is incredibly selfish. There’s that whole thing where they keep saying, “Why don’t you get the Avengers involved?” and Stark’s own very quick and decisive jumping on the Extremis technology to literally suture himself even more dependently on the Iron Man suit. The whole story plays like a junky jumping on the opportunity to get more dope because the other junkies overdosed. It’s sort of unsettling.
But yet I still agree with your edit aside: the merging itself is the coolest concept of the series. He literally takes the suit inside him. Crazy awesomeness.
So really, I don’t know what Ellis is thinking Stark sees in the future that is supposed to resolve war, because all that is revealed is that Stark has a fundamental drive to become more completely Iron Man, regardless of what that means in the long run, and that he figures out how to settle his conscience by comparing that drive with other people like him who either a) use power solely for destruction (Mallen), b) cannot control the power (the female researcher), or c) don’t have enough power to make substantial change at all (the interviewer). The series is open-ended/ambivalent about whether Stark’s opinion on that matter is actually ethical and if his vision for the future is anything but delusional.
What I am not clear on and I’m not sure the series really ties down is whether he is doing the right thing or deserves that responsibility — it sort of also shows his attachment to the Iron Man suit as an addiction/codependence. There’s the literal dependence on the tech because of his heart, but there’s also an emotional/motivational force behind it that is at the center of the whole ‘look myself in the mirror’ issue.
Right. His obsession with the suit is very murky. Perhaps, this part of the story may tap into our addiction/obsession with technology now?
In any event, I sort of feel like the series doesn’t handle the moral issues related to the power and technology. As you alluded to, the series doesn’t really show why Stark deserves the responsibility. I get the sense we’re just supposed to accep this because he’s the good guy. But based on what we see—his obsession, to the point of being reckless (e.g., not calling the Avengers, trying extremis formula, etc.)—I think the evidence weighs against him.
Btw, what did you make of the conversation between Maya, Stark and the post-hippie dude? The guy also makes a comment about how he expected that both of them would have already arrived at the future, or something to that effect.
There’s another thing: I get the sense that the series sees the future (i.e., technological advance) as an unqualified good—i.e., merging technology and human beings. I don’t think that’s necessarily the case, and I would have liked teh series to be more thoughtful about that—but maybe that’s asking too much.
(Btw, did you ever finish reading Postman’s Technopoly?)
“Btw, what did you make of the conversation between Maya, Stark and the post-hippie dude?”
I loved it but it’s complex enough to listen to, much less discuss. There are three different perspectives all going on and what’s worse, once you have the reveal of Maya’s role in the outcome of the Mallen situation, I sort of feel like I have to rewatch it to reconsider her reactions to what is being said.
The post-hippie guy is a fun character though.
And Technopoly is on the shelf awaiting my finishing of Don DeLillo’s Underworld, which I’m reading at a glacial pace.
I loved it but it’s complex enough to listen to, much less discuss. There are three different perspectives all going on
What were the three perspectives? There seemed to be two major ones: the ends justifies the means (Start and Maya) or the opposite (Carl?). Maya and Tony sell their work to the military to fund their more noble work. (But again, I’m not sure what is noble about the iron man suit.)
Another difference is that Maya’s work involves enhancing human beings using their own bodies, while Tony strives to enhance human beings via merging technology. This idea didn’t really play itself out well in the final showdown, imo. But I liked the idea of one approach vs. the other.
OK, I won’t hold my breath. (Btw, just take a peak at the “Broken Defenses” chapter, if you somehow never get to read the entire book.)
If I read only one more thing by Ellis, what would you recommend?
Well if you haven’t read Transmetropolitan, that’s an essential series, but if you have, check out a collection of his blog posts called Whispering Sands or simply just follow his blog. I haven’t read his novel Crooked Little Vein and I know another of his is coming out soon, I’ve also read Red but it’s not great (the movie is actually better, the comic is a one-off aside in his career but the movie franchise seems to be having a lot more fun with the concept than even he did), and I simply haven’t yet read everything he’s done, I’m just a religious Ellis blog reader.
How many “books” are in the Transmetropolitan series? My local library has about four or five of them (one’s missing, though). Do you happen to know the order? Thanks for the information.
“If I read only one more thing by Ellis, what would you recommend?”
Transmetropolitan, or Fell, or Doktor Sleepless, depending on personal taste.
Oh, he did Fell? (I remember asking you about that one, Matt. That was one I considered buying when Borders went out of business. Shoot.) Can you tell me a little about Doktor Sleepless?
Did you see Extremis, Matt? I’d guess you would like it, at least a little.
Oh yeah, my roommates own Doktor Sleepless and I haven’t checked them out quite yet.
There are ten books in the Transmetropolitan series, plus a bonus book of visualized rants from the main character of Spider Jerusalem called Tales of Human Waste which I wouldn’t bother with. They are numbered on the spine but the order should be:
Back on the Street
Lust for Life
Year of the Bastard
The New Scum
One More Time
Oh man. The library only has only four of them. Are the books self-cotained, or are they basically one long narrative?
One long narrative. The first is a good way to investigate to see if you’re interested in the rest, so at least borrow that if they have it, and also explore inter-library loan. But hey, if you read the first and think, “Hrm, I dunno…” then maybe you won’t have to worry about it. Just be forewarned I will be defensive of its need-to-readability!
“Can you tell me a little about Doktor Sleepless?”
A lot of the particulars are pretty complicated, but It’s somewhat similar to Transmetropolitan, but sort of a new twist on the classic mad scientist story—the mad scientist becomes a media personality and spurs on a counter culture movement . . . all the while with mysterious motives.
I read the non-motion version of Extremis, and it is good. Have been meaning to check on the motion comic version.
Motion comics are very stripped down animation, to the point where some people find them unwatchable, but I liked Extremis’ style, especially where they use the Iron Man suit to take the opportunity for basic but decent 3D animation in the midst of what otherwise looks like shots of the comic book put into After Effects and pin-morph animated.
One long narrative. The first is a good way to investigate to see if you’re interested in the rest, so at least borrow that if they have it, and also explore inter-library loan.
The danger is that I’m going to get hooked and will be forced to buy the remaining books. (Oh, we have an inter-library loan, but we’re talking about eight islands here.)
As for the “animation,” I thought it was OK—not great. (The action sequences don’t translate well in this format, but that’s probably to be expected.)
Thanks for the info.
They did one for the first arc from Joss Whedon’s X-Men run that I liked a lot.
I think I watched that^ based on your recommendation. It was good.
“Thanks for the info.”
Sure . . . and as far as I know Sleepless is still an ongoing series, but the first 8 issues or so are have been collected in a trade paperback.
I’ll check for some of these titles at the local used bookstore.
Matt, have you watched any of the other marvel motion comics on netflix? (Black Panter is the other one I’m thinking of.)
I haven’t seen that one, but I think it’s from the Reggie Hudlin storyline, which I kinda liked. I have it in my Netflix queue.
I’m not familiar with the Hudlin storyline. (I saw part of the first episode, and it looked OK.)
Warren Ellis: IRON MAN 3 is apparently using elements of my IRON MAN: EXTREMIS comics serial.
Doubtful it will be the sober contemplative elements. Discussed with roommates, we’re thinking the biotech will make an appearance much like the fan service of the appearance of the suitcase in Iron Man 2. However, it would be fun to see Extremis reworked into Favreau’s more happy-go-lucky filter.
Well, they have to put that biotech twist in there—they’d miss the best part of Extremis, if not.
FWIW, the contemplative parts (if we’re thinking of the same thing) was potentially interesting, but muddled, imo.
But this was a good recommendation, DiB.
I re-watched this recently with some friends. I’ve been thinking about Stark’s obsession with the Iron Man suit—particularly his belief that the suit has some non-military purpose. (He certainly seems to believe that his tech should have a purpose higher than military application.) What I don’t get is what that could be? The film is really nebulous with regard to this point, but my sense is that the suit is used to protect others, which is basically military application.
On the other hand, I had a different thought: suppose Iron Man represents a post-human. Here’s I’m not thinking of the physical/military capabilities the suit provides, but the way the tech merges with the mind and body. For example, Iron Man, while battling Mallen, taps into the satellite system to find the powerlines under the ground. Now, he uses that capability in a combat situation, but we could envision a non-military context for this type of capability. Perhaps, this is a more substantive and “humane” way the Iron Man represents the future. (Of course, if Ellis took the story in this direction, it would greatly veer off from everyone’s expectations for Iron Man. Still, it might be really interesting.)
Your latter paragraph is more to Ellis’ style and conceptual concerns, and he is comfortable taking characters in new directions. The whole story is a lot more somber and bleak, for instance, than Iron Man’s typical schtick.
Non-military uses may still be industrial tech and other R&D purposes. Throughout the Iron Man series one sees him building all sorts of things with the suit, as well as getting to areas otherwise inaccessible by non-suited humans.
Like, in the Avengers, the bottom of the ocean or far into space, building a tower or redirecting a rocket.
The whole story is a lot more somber and bleak, for instance, than Iron Man’s typical schtick.
I don’t know. Maybe in the beginning, but the end seems rather triumphant (and hollow; I’m thinking of when Stark says that he can look at himself in the mirror or something to that effect.)
Throughout the Iron Man series one sees him building all sorts of things with the suit, as well as getting to areas otherwise inaccessible by non-suited humans.
But for all the talk of the “future” (which I read as some sort of New Human/post-human), what you’re describing sounds a little anti-climatic.
“However, it would be fun to see Extremis reworked into Favreau’s more happy-go-lucky filter.”
Directed by Shane Black (and co-written) next time out, though.
(OT:Ben Kingsley as the Mandarin still seems like a weird choice)
“Directed by Shane Black (and co-written) next time out, though.”
That still works. Shane Black also allows some dark humor in, so all told this is still exciting.
Yeah, I think he meshes pretty well with what they’ve established so far and where it seems like they’re wanting to go going forward.