Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Supreme: Blue Rose Review (Warren Ellis, Tula Lotay)

Supreme: Blue Rose is the strangest superhero comic I’ve ever read. 

Though, to be fair, this is a superhero comic in name only and if you read this cold, you’d never guess that’s what the series originally started out as. It’s more of a psychedelic mystery post-modern take on superhero comics. And yes, it’s as tricky to read as it sounds. In this book Warren Ellis gives Grant Morrison a run for his money as king of the nutjob comics! 

Freelance journalist Diana Dane is hired by billionaire Darius Dax to look into a plane crash in a small town in upstate New York. Except it wasn’t a plane that crashed – was it a person? Who and where is Ethan Crane? 

That’s about as succinct a summary of the book as I can do because, and I’ll be totally honest, I had no idea what was happening at any point in the story! Supreme is Image’s Superman ripoff, created in the early 90s by Rob Liefeld and given a complete makeover by Alan Moore a few years later. I’ve tried to track down the Moore/Supreme books but couldn’t find any copies anywhere that wasn’t going for stupid money so, while I wanted to, I’ve got no background on Supreme the character. I’m guessing characters like Diana, Darius, Doc Rocket, and a half dozen others are significant but, outside of this comic, I’m not sure. 

What Blue Rose reads like instead is a series of unconnected art-film scenes. A man wearing a blank helmet stands on the sea looking at a spiral staircase leading into space while a woman in a pretty dress listens to a dying writer talking to her from the future. A Doctor Who-type show’s characters come to life, Diana’s chauffeur drives her through the time road of space, and the ghost of Supreme haunts a mysterious town called Omegapolis. Doc Rocket is from somewhere in time and wears a modified astronaut suit that gives him superspeed, a man with a scribble for a face is following Diana, and Darius Dax is interested in finding out where Ethan Crane is, though why is a mystery. Supreme never once appears in costume, instead appearing as his alter-ego Ethan Crane briefly a couple of times. 

This next part of the review isn’t really a spoiler as it’s just my interpretation of what Warren Ellis was going for with the book and I’m probably wrong anyway because this odd tale went waaay over my head. It seemed to me that Ellis was commenting on the nature of superhero comics, how different writers come along and offer up their own version of the character and what that might be like to experience from the characters’ perspective.

For example, Liefeld created Supreme and then handed it over to Alan Moore (could there have been a more opposite writer?), and with each new writer, Supreme was written in a totally different way. Then along comes Ellis with his own very spacey take on the character and, by the end, all that talk of finality references the fact that Ellis’ Supreme is over, ready to be rewritten by the next writer.

I’m not sure if that was the whole point of the book as it seems a bit slight to base an entire comic around the very obvious commentary of different writers taking over a superhero comic. Superhero comics are all middle-story, they never really end, and everyone reading them knows this, so an arty story around that seems a bit weak. Otherwise, I couldn’t tell you what on earth the point of the book was! 

While Ellis’ script comes off as far too abstract to be called enjoyable, Tula Lotay’s art is completely gorgeous throughout. The character designs are sharply realised, and the landscapes are frequently breath-taking. The splash page of Supreme’s ruined space station floating with the Earth as backdrop is something out of HR Giger’s imagination, haunting, gothic and beautiful all at once. The theme of communication disruption and an invisible world in chaos is depicted as colourful lines zig-zagging throughout the pages as alternate reality Ethan Crane tries to speak to Diana across time and space. The effect is unsettling but pretty. 

Even as a huge Warren Ellis fan, I’m not sure I’d recommend Supreme: Blue Rose to others. Here he’s neither witty, fun or as compelling as he has been in titles like Transmetropolitan or Freakangels. Instead this is Planetary Ellis taken to the nth degree and the effect is his most complex comic to date. Blue Rose is intellectual and arty but cold, unengaging and completely baffling, which makes it very easy to put down despite the lovely art. I found it interesting because it’s so weird and because it does something creative with the superhero genre, but it’s very hard going, especially if you’re not familiar with the character. It’s worth a look if you’re after a challenging comic.

Supreme: Blue Rose

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