Maybe Warren Ellis is in my head, or maybe what he and Jason Howard achieved with Cemetery Beach is just genius, wrapped in subtlety (a shocking claim, given the number of explosions it contains) wreathed and garlanded in weirdness.
If you want to know what’s going on, if you need answers, if you enjoy carefully laid out intricacies, then Cemetery Beach is not for you.
By a certain measure, the 7-issue story (now collected into a single volume) is nothing more than a series of provocations. I see that more as a feature than a bug. It is entirely possible that a year and change of being subscribed to Ellis’ newsletter – Orbital Operations – has rotted my brain, like the chemical inhaled by the gas mask wearing denizens of the outer ring on the planet where Cemetery Beach takes place.
Cemetery Beach provides a vicious, demented contrast to eutopic visions of a post-scarcity world (such as Corey Doctorow’s Walkaway – more on that soon). The unidentified (though by no means unnamed – protagonist, scout, and Earthling Mike Blackburn provides a number of expletive laden possibilities) planet on which the majority of the story takes place is literally made up of the material necessities for life: a substance, a mix of protein, sugar, etc. oozes out of cracks in the mantle; the planet is ripe with refined nuclear material, providing functionally unlimited energy; and a mysterious pool provides the means of extending the human lifespan – the exact process is (perhaps mercifully) vague, but seems to involve fungal infection and cancerous cell growth in addition to longevity.
Whether the found of this – in their words – Utopia are Nazis or not is never entirely clear. The early-20th century military aesthetic of the ruling class automatically produces the comparison, and knowing that the colony was a result of a secret program in the 1930s does little to disabuse the idea. However, they could just as easily be British or American, handily collapsing the distance between the various strains of fanatical social engineering which sprouted up as we moved from the Victorian into the Modern era.
The lack of clarity regarding the exact quasi-historical origins of the hideous situation Mike stumbles upon, as part of his reconnaissance mission from Earth to this recently uncovered project, is a refreshing break from the unwieldy exposition we have come to expect (and accept) from dystopic and/or apocalyptic fiction. While it might be a stretch to say that its absence lends the narrative anything like ‘realism,’ it, at least, does not demand the attenuated suspension of disbelief on the part of the audience, while the native guide explains to the non-native (and the audience) how all this came to be… While they get shot at.
Instead both Mike and the audience are left to speculate and extrapolate as to the processes which resulted in the colorful and horrifying tableaus Mike and dissident Grace Moody (imprisoned for “murderous shit”) make their way from the prison in the capitol (inner ring) out to Cemetery Beach (last outpost before the wastes) where Mike’s transport home awaits. All the visitors from “Oldhome” must make up their own minds about this alien, if not totally foreign, world.
This is the point where I say something like: ‘the guiding principle of an extractive “economy” – one encompassing the physical, biological, environmental, etc. – which guides all life on Utopia can be seen as a caricature of neoliberal, late-stage capitalism. A ruling class – whose sole interest is their own self-perpetuation and maintenance of power, an avarice so fervent they operate without care, or seeming awareness, that the end result of their project will be their “utopia” sitting atop a blasted, toxic wasteland – can be said to reflect the probable outcome of willful inaction on the part of the ruling classes on our Earth to protect any kind of “greater good.”’
But Cemetery Beach can just as easily eschew any kind of overtly political analytic hack job and instead stand as an oasis, a space apart from the dystopic/apocalyptic mainstream.
Sometime after the half-way point, Mike says, “You know, at some point along the way, this stopped being fun.” They have just breached the outer ring, mercilessly slicing their way through the denizens of this perverse, human “cold storage” – the icy waste that Grace Moody called ‘home.’ She checks over the bodies littering the snow, looking for survivors. The moment, a reprieve in the otherwise non-stop, nuclear-powered, at times literally face melting pace of the narrative-action, provides the opportunity to reflect on the real stakes within the story.
Amazingly, it turns out that a simple demand for empathy might be an effective way to solicit it.
Cemetery Beach stands up to do the job which the previous decade’s cinematic revisitations of 90s graphic novels (an era known for its addiction to unremorseful violence, brutality, and sex) has failed to do. The 2008 adaptation of Wanted fell back on the unimaginative horror of having been duped by a shadowy international conspiracy – and having the hot girl you were lusting after die to save the world, and your ass. Then there’s the cognitive dissonance of Colin Firth in the Kingsmen movies – although by 2014, the shadowy international cabal at least had a veneer of political vitality, following the bank bailouts and the increased willingness of the super rich to outright state their plans to retreat to enclosed havens while the rest of the world burns (I’m looking at you, Peter Thiel). We could include the SyFy channel adaptation of 2014’s Deadly Class (also from Image Comics), with its relitigation of the Reagan-Thatcher era cuts to public services. Secret organizations – especially the kind that assassinate people – proliferate.
Warren Ellis is smart enough to know that the people who are most deserving of our compassion, and the people we are all most likely to become are the incidental casualties. Those with the power are likely to throw themselves into the line of fire to protect whatever travesty sustains their way of life. The rest of us will mourn or die as those who never had the chance to decide whether or not we want a revolution.
This isn’t to say that Ellis doesn’t make room for the political gallows humor which fueled the likes of Transmetropolitan (the work which converted me to an Ellis fan). Mike’s loved ones have all met with tragic ends, comprising a laundry list of social ills resulting from willful political inaction spanning the last three decades. The tragedy has left Mike with suicidal tendencies (a quest for “the good death” according to Grace) and a martyrous inclination to self-sacrifice. These traditional affectations of the male ego are nonetheless more palatable than the sexual assault and provocative political misbehavior which negatively impacts so much of the contemporary work produced by his generational cohort (yes, I mean Alan Moore).
It might be that fridging his protagonist’s entire family and social circle enables Ellis to avoid the sexist under-/overtones of allowing his hero to off-load his survivor’s guilt onto the nearest only sort-of vulnerable female acquaintance. Instead, it takes on a more holistic character, for a Freudian psychological substitution, with Mike seeking absolution for the failure to save one world, by saving another from the ravages of institutionalized madness.
Given that Ellis and Howard had scarcely more than 150 pages to work with, ‘Everyone I love is dead, at least let me save one person,’ is a succinct and digestible motivation. (The motivational Occam’s Razor, if you will.)
Cemetery Beach is a wild, 7-issue ride, and will leave you inquisitive and energized; two things we’ll need to face the coming future. After all, it’s already here. (You’ve been trained for this, hold on tight.*
*: to quote from my favorite part of Mr. Ellis’ newsletter