On to Book 2: Warren Ellis on 'Freakangels'

Did you pick up that free Warren Ellis comic in stores?

If you didn't see in stores, there's a good reason for that. It's a webcomic. FreakAngels debuted as a free webcomic back in February of this year, written by Ellis and drawn by comics newcomer Paul Duffield. In an earlier interview coinciding with the online debut of FreakAngels, Ellis described the group as "eleven telepaths living as a clan in Whitechapel who may have had something to do with the drowning of England. There were twelve -- one left, and the things that bastard has been up to is the axis on which the first arc turns."

While new installments continue to appear weekly at www.FreakAngels.com, the print collection of the first 144 page story-arc is winging its way to bookstores later this year. While not Warren Ellis' first webcomic (anyone remember Superidol?), FreakAngels has been his first concerted and ongoing webcomic series. For this, Ellis partnered with print publisher Avatar Press for the web-home and now the inaugural print edition, becoming arguably the highest profile print comics creator to publish online.

With the first print collection drawing near and the second book already underway online, we talked with Ellis by email for more.

Newsarama: Warren, as always it's good to speak with you. The first book's worth of FreakAngels episodes have finished and a print edition is on its way and you've recently started Book 2. How's the ride so far?

Warren Ellis: Well, now I understand why all the British comics writers from the 70s and 80s who worked exclusively in weekly comics had those deep lines all over their faces and those eyes that pleaded silently for death.

NRAMA: [laughs] Back at 2007's Comic-Con, you said that you've "written two hundred pages and still have no idea what it's about". Have you come closer to seeing the big picture of FreakAngels yet? And call me curious, but 200 hundred pages in before it even launched is a rare thing in comics. How far ahead would you say you are now in writing the series?

WE: I'm actually rewriting as I go, at this point, because I find the thing is still evolving, and Paul's depictions of the characters are leading me to change dialogue choices and things further up the line. So I'm probably no further ahead. Which means, you know, I'm kind of doomed.

I know what the next two books are, but, in all honesty, I don't see the end yet. I could be writing this for another five or six years. I mean, god, we're two hundred pages in and it's still only around 6.15pm on the first day of the story.

Which is nice, actually. I'm letting the story find its own shape, and I really don't know where it's going to end up. I'm enjoying that.

NRAMA: In 144 pages plus, the story has steadily moved and shown the breadth of Whitechapel and how the FreakAngels interact with each other and the normal humans. You're doing a bit of world-building here, so in relation to this story how much time did you spend figuring out the framework of the world?

WE: Not as much as I spent figuring out the characters. I have the whole backstory, pretty much - I know what happened, when and why to turn the London we know into the floodlands of FreakAngels. The tricky bits have always been the nuts and bolts -- where's their drinking water coming from? What's the local economy? How are they dealing with disease? Communication? The persuasiveness of the idea lays in the small details that you wouldn't ordinarily have to think of. Unless you're the sort of person who keeps a Baygen wind-up radio on the shelf, and a wind-up flashlight, a compass, Swiss Army knife, emergency kit and a monocular in his bag next to his Asus Eee ultralight computer. Which, you know, only an obvious nutcase would do.

NRAMA: I remember reading how you studied flood zones to correctly see how England would become flooded… but do you have an idea what has been flooded across England?

WE: I do. I studied flood maps to work out how London would drown (with a little artistic license here and there -- Paul is actually much stricter about sticking to the flood maps than I am, and therefore makes me look much more intelligent and careful than I really am). The British Isles in general? Without giving too much away for regular readers: the further you go out from London, the less it sticks to flood maps...

NRAMA: FreakAngels is about living in the aftermath of a disaster, in this case something called 'the crash'. But will we ever get a clear picture of what happened, and the FreakAngels role in that?

WE: We will, yes. Possibly not soon. Right now I'm peering at the end of Book Two and trying to decide if I want to do it there. There or Book Three -- but I dunno if it'll fit in Book Three, because I think of that book as being the "crime and punishment" story...

NRAMA: The birth of the FreakAngels 23 years ago in the book is akin to the concept of Century Babies which you used in your WildStorm work. People born at the same time, all with supernatural powers. But with that being draw out of superheroes, this is drawn with the Children of the Damned in mind. With that commonality though, I have to ask about your interest in that narrative idea. What makes it stick with you?

WE: I didn't even think about the Century Babies. FreakAngels was directlyinspired by The Midwich Cuckoos. The whole thing started with me wondering what the Midwich Cuckoos would have been like if they'd lived to be disaffected twentysomethings.

NRAMA: Of the 12 Freakangels, we've seen 9 of them. Mark Fox is has been talked up a lot, but there's two that haven't even been mentioned. Where are they out there?

WE: Oh, the other two are in Whitechapel. But there are good reasons why we haven't seen them yet. One pops up in a couple of weeks, the other in a couple of months. Peculiarly, I found that introducing all of the Freakangels at the same time as Alice and the setting and all was going to make Book 1 a bit cramped. Due largely to the open style and strolling pace I'm using.

NRAMA: At the end of Book 1 we saw what happens when outsiders invade WhiteChapel. The Mudlarks and the New Cross gang give the eleven a chance to show off their full offensive power – to spectacular results. Is this invasion a constant thing for the FreakAngels?

WE: Yes. We will discover, no surprise, that Whitechapel is the only stable settlement in the London area -- and that, thanks to the Freakangels, it's also the only place with clean water, a food programme and other little bits of organisation. Therefore, it's a constant target of the other surviving groups in London, which, as we'll see, are a little more of what you'd expect from a post-apocalyptic setting.

NRAMA: The first episode of book two is now online – moreso I'm sure by the time this interview see's print-- and the characters talk about the FreakAngels changing gears to establish a more permanent living space in WhiteChapel for them and the humans. Would you say that's the theme of Book 2?

WE: Yeah, very much so. As Alice adjusts to London and weighs the decision of whether to stay or not, the Freakangels themselves finally have to decide if they're going to completely commit to Whitechapel or not. It's time for them to decide if they're going to take a step towards growing up or not. Which isn't going to be made easy for them.

NRAMA: Webcomics are the wild west compared to print comics in terms of format, length and release schedule. For FreakAngels you're doing six pages every Friday, which harkens back to serialized stories in print anthologies for me. How is the format working for you?

WE: It's working out fine, really. Using some old muscles -- I started out in six-page territory, way back when. I was using completely different pacing back then, mind, very compressed, because it was six pages a month, in the British style, which Pat Mills once described as "breathless." With this, I was looking at somethingthat did the job of a classic 2000AD six-pages-a-week serial, in that each episode activates a bit of plot and has a bit of fun – but in a style more reminiscent of manga, in that it takes its time and concentrates on character, and of European comics, where a good drawing of a location does as much business as a gunshot or a kick or an expository line in a British comic. (So, you know, once again, thank god for Paul Duffield, very probably the best new artist of the last 12 months.)

What people forget, I've found, is thatFreakAngels is very much web-first. The print book's coming out, but every single episode will remain available for free on freakangels.com for as long as we're doing them, if not longer.

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