Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Dearly Departed: Who Is Jake Ellis?

Dearly Departed is a semi-regular column where I look back on recently completed or canceled series.  

No individual element of Who Is Jake Ellis? is particularly new or original in-and-of itself. We've seen this kind of spy action-thriller countless times, where one character has to improvise a fight against some large and powerful organization. And we've seen characters dealing with voices in their head, real or imagined or somewhere in between, on numerous occasions as well. Hell, in some ways the series even follows a buddy cop formula: two men forced to work together who don't necessarily get along at first but over the course of the story come to understand, respect, and care for one another. My point is, there's not a lot of groundbreaking ideas contained within Who Is Jake Ellis?, but the storytelling is so well-executed, in words and images both, that the end result is a series far, far greater than the sum of its parts. As a story and a comicbook, it is a lesson in contrasting forces cooperating to create a cohesive whole: Jon and Jake's opposing styles and priorities, the stark artwork coupled with the subtle scripting, and within the art itself the various degrees of shadow accompanied by brash, bright coloring. And of course there's the ending, which somehow wholly satisfies and addresses the story's central mystery while at the same time serving only to raise further, larger questions than we had before. It's an excellent little series---by which I mean only five issues---well-paced, action-packed, and filled to the brim with compelling characters and stunning visuals.
     One of the strongest aspects is the way writer Nathan Edmondson so carefully feeds information to the reader. Take the opening scene in the very first issue. Rather than holding our hands and explaining to us what's happening, or even starting at the beginning of Jake and Jon's adventures, Edmondson throws us immediately into the action. For the first few pages, we're as confused as the criminals from whom Jon runs. The book then rewinds and shows us what we were missing: Jon has an unseen, possibly-imagined ally in this fight in the form of Jake Ellis, a man who seems to live in Jon's mind, yet somehow has access to knowledge and information which Jon does not. From there, we continue to learn about both men, the nature of their partnership, and their histories not through info dumps or even, at first, through flashback. Instead, Edmondson crafts subtle, realistic conversations between his main characters that let the reader in on what's happening without ever feeling forced. It's not easy to write expositional dialogue that still feels organic, but Edmondson clearly has a knack for it, and even in later issues when we do have some flashbacks and more overt explanations, this technique is never abandoned and always well-used.
     It helps that Edmondson creates such strong characters to work with, and that his two stars rarely see eye-to-eye. Jon worries about short-term survival and hardly ever wonders where Jake came from or how he does what he does. Jon basically assumes Jake must be a figment of his own fractured psyche. Jake, on the other hand, has been planning for the future, and wants nothing more than to solve the mystery of his existence. So the two have plenty of legitimate reasons to discuss and debate not only their current situation, but the experiences they've shared in the past, and because we're fortunate enough to overhear these arguments, we get to learn about our heroes along the way. Who they are as people, how they differ, the ways in which they work together, and the horrible things they've lived through all come to light gradually and naturally.
      Edmondson doesn't deserve all the praise, however, and if I am being honest he may not even deserve half of it. Because the art of Who Is Jake Ellis?, handled top-to-bottom by Tonci Zonjic, is simply spectacular. Zonjic's work grabs your attention, especially his brilliant use of color. Often, an entire panel or even a full page will be a wash of one bold color, but it always serves a distinct purpose. Like the transition from deep, soft blues to alternating Day-Glo panels as Jon and Jake move from couch to dance floor at a nightclub. Or the harsh red lighting of the labs and alarms in The Facility. Or, one of my personal favorites, the rich tans and muted maroons of Marrakech, covered in thick clouds of sand and dust. Even something as seemingly simple as the gray-on-black design of Jake Ellis brings a lot to the book. Immediately, we see that this is a man who isn't a whole man, who's there but not really there. This look alone does as much for our understanding of Jake as anything Edmondson provides.
      It's not just in the coloring that Zonjic impresses, though. His action sequences are alive and clear. His characters are consistent and expressive, even the near-faceless Jake. And each new location, of which there are many, has as much detail and care devoted to it as the last. Zonjic really builds a world in these five issues, a stylized, sexy, beautifully-lit world that I only wish I could somehow spend more time in.
     One more thing I want to point out about the art: Zonjic's treatment of death. There's a fair deal of action in Who Is Jake Ellis? but not that great a number of fatalities, and only three characters who have any lines ever die: the girl Jon sleeps with, the DIA agent, and the bald old doctor at the end. Each of these deaths is given a specific weight and significance in the way it's presented visually. The young woman Jon spends a night with takes a bullet through the head, which we see as a stark black silhouette on a bright yellow background. It's a powerful image, with the thick blood spatter like black paint flung carelessly at a canvas from its brush. And it's a powerful moment for Jon, watching an innocent die in his place, because of his actions. He is rattled by it, and it reminds him (and teaches us) of the kinds of enemies he has. The same is true of the DIA agent's unexpected assassination. For that, Zonjic gives us a perfect portrait of surprise: the agent's stunned look as his head explodes against the car behind him, Jon's gun flying through the air as he abandons his grip on it, the startled fear in Jon's face as he rears back from the blast. And in the next panel, reflected in a mud puddle where Jon's gun lands, we see the agent's face again, frozen in that same terrified expression. As the weapon sinks into the dirty water, the loss of a potential ally sinks in for Jon and the reader alike. For both deaths, Zonjic displays the sadness and especially the suddenness that make these kinds of violent attacks such brutal experiences.
     Then there's Jon's murder of the doctor (or whatever he is---Jon calls him "this doc"). Though it begins as suddenly as the other two, the actual moment of the doctor's death is slowed down a little while still being contained in one panel. He is bathed in the flash of the gun, made so pale as to appear almost ghostly, except for his strong black shadow being cast on the white wall behind him. Jon fires two bullets, and without any sound effects added we see both shells expelled from the weapon and both entry wounds on the doctor, one on each side of his chest. We may only be seeing half a second more here than with either of the two deaths discussed above, but really that's twice as much time. This is the closest thing to a victory against their oppressors as Jon and Jake ever get, so Zonjic gives it special attention, making it last as long as it can in the physical space of a single panel.
     If there's one thing Zonjic and Edmondson's styles share in this book, it's this expert use of space, this careful pacing. Edmondson tells us exactly what we need to hear, and Zonjic shows us what we want and need to see. So even though the ending doesn't explain in any detail the goals or methods of The Facility, or what exactly connects Jake and Jon to each other, by the time we get there it hardly matters. Because Who Is Jake Ellis? does for its readers the same thing Jake does for Jon. It guides us through this incredible adventure with more knowledge than we have, but still only limited information. And it gets us to care about Jake as a person, it makes us want to see Jon step up and try to figure out who Jake is. Which is exactly what happens. Jon finally gets to take on the bad guys all by himself, watching Jake's back instead of vice versa, and while we may not know the details of Jake's background (or Jon's, really) we know now that he is, in fact, his own man, and that The Facility no longer has him in their grasp. More than enough to make me happy, and of course on the final page Edmondson throws us a bone, leaving the door open for possible sequels. Sequels which I will consider "highly-anticipated" until further notice.

Who Is Jake Ellis? was published by Image Comics and is dated January 2011-October 2011.

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