Saturday, 9 July 2011


SVK is a Warren Ellis comic book. The art from Matt "D'Israeli" Brooker is crisp and clean, and the concept behind the project is smarter than anything else available right now.

The titular "SVK", aka Special Viewing Kit, aka Strategic Vigilance Key, allows the wearer to see the thoughts of anyone around him. This is presented as thought boxes trailing from the brain and not the mouth, an extension of the classic comic book tool that has become outdated and outmoded. But instead of anyone being able to see these inner most thoughts, the reader must use their own SVK-- a ultra-violet light that when shined on the pages reveals the thought boxes that have been printed in ultra-violet ink.


Before I continue talking about SVK, a brief moment off topic. I remember a year or so back when Scott Snyder's Vertigo book American Vampire was announced, and Stephen King was involved with a back-up feature that would run through the first arc. I read an interview on The Daily Beast with King, discussing the process of writing a comic book script. King is an old school comic book fan, and his scripts were filled with thought balloons. The following is an excerpt from that interview:
“I got this kind of embarrassed call from the editors saying, ‘Ah, Steve, we don't do that anymore.’ ‘You don't do that anymore?’ I said. ‘No, when the characters speak, they speak. If they're thinking, you try to put that across in the narration, in the little narration boxes.’ ... I think it's a shame to lose that arrow out of your quiver. One of the nice things about the written word as opposed to the spoken word in a movie is that you can go into a character's thoughts. You do it in books all the time, right?”

Apparently, thought balloons are out of vogue with the modern comic book culture. A weird little anecdote, for sure. So SVK embraces this narrative tool wholeheartedly, giving it a modern twist that could have been kitsch and corny, but worked. Reading the thoughts of all these otherwise 2-dimensional characters moved them past what they could have simply been-- boring, staid, undeveloped personalities-- and into the realm of people with dark thoughts and hidden agendas.

Matt "D'Israeli" Brooker is a giant, his work beautiful and well thought out. He carries the weight of the story on his shoulders-- there's only so much invisible ink can do, you know?-- and it's brilliant. Chase scenes flow amazingly, you're there in the flow of it all; fight scenes are kinetic and abrupt-- as they should be. Ellis + D'Israeli (former collaborators on Ellis' 'big break', Lazarus Churchyard) need to do more together. Completely.

SVK itself is set in a Britain post-"incident". Whatever this incident is, we're not given the whole picture. Something big and loud and dangerous happened to the United Kingdom, and everyone's on edge. The main character, Woodwind, is a freelance operative, hired by people who want things doing on the hush-hush. He predicted the incident but his warnings were ignored by the higher-ups in the company he used to work for, and when finger pointing started, he was the first one thrown to the wolves. This act, obviously, made him even more of a cynical, suspicious old bastard that he originally was.

Ellis' main characters exemplify the working class hero, through his work on John Constantine when he helmed Hellblazer, to his earlier work with the creation of Peter Wisdom in Excalibur or William Gravel in the creator-owned Strange Killings series of minis and eventual Gravel ongoing. It enables him to bring his own voice to his work, and for the most part, it works.

The crux of the story is this. The SVK has been stolen, and Woodwind been hired to bring it back. So he goes about it in his own imitable way, but finds that there's more to the SVK than he was first told. It's an intriguing premise, and delivered with the usual aplomb that Ellis usually delivers. To be fair, Ellis has a penchant for going completely off the rails with his projects, his characters becoming grotesque parodies of who they could be. They usually share the same voice, the same sense of humour, and the same personality. It could be construed as a fault with Ellis' work, or identified as his voice, projected loud and clear through whatever the subject matter, but whatever it is, it's tropes like those mentioned that sometimes ruin my enjoyment of his work.

SVK is a done-in-one comic published by design company BERG, and it's a pretty package, beautifully printed and coming with an ultra-violet light. It's compact and sleek and it's everything I expected it to be.

And that's kind of the problem.

Warren Ellis follows a series of tropes in his work. The cynical, hardened "bastard" protagonist. Hard science fiction technology mixing with the real world. The cheeky sidekick. The government being absolutely corrupt. Ellis' work is a product of the era when he started writing comics, back when Thatcher was crazy and genocidal, addled in the brain but hiding it better than Regan. SVK uses every single Ellis trope around. He lifts characters from across his canon and inserts them into a new narrative. Woodwind is Gravel, the same look, the same attitude. Swap "combat magician" with "freelance science-fiction operative" and the deed is done.

The government is corrupt and overbearing, shades of Transmetropolitan bleeding through. They're removing the basic human right of not having someone read your private most thoughts and they'll do anything to get away with it, including murdering the operative hired to retrieve the item that allows you that breach of privacy! The villain of the piece, running a corporation and being devious behind everyone's back... he's The Smiler but sane. Kind of.

I wanted to love this project. I liked it. There was the classic Ellis of sheer beautiful humanity midway between Woodwind's smart arse assistant Bulmer and his mother, and the usual burst of violence that pervades his work. The end was an ambiguous one. Could I read more stories set in this universe? Yes. Was the book worth £10 (+£3 p+p)? I believe so. BERG, with SVK, have revitalised what was considered a tired old narrative tool. The thought balloon has power, when used well. With books from the Big Two (DC and Marvel) the thought balloon is used as a nostalgia tool. I remember Brian Michael Bendis' original Mighty Avengers launch, and the "uproar" when characters had minor asides inside their heads. These are the tools built by the comic book greats of the 30s, 40s, and beyond! Why should comic book writers and editors (and readers!) be ashamed of what came before?

I had an image from a Cho Mighty Avengers issue, but it went away. Bagley fill-in!

SVK was an experiment, and a successful one at that. If I hadn't read any of Warren Ellis' work before it would have blown my mind, but I've read versions of this narrative time and time again. Would a non-fan of Ellis' work pick up this book? Probably not! If a no-name creator had written this it wouldn't have sold out in the three or four days it did. It might not have sold anything; the result could have simply been deigned an oddity of the form. But sold it did, and I'm sure it's being well received everywhere. Deservedly so? At times.

I sometimes wish I wasn't as big a fan of Ellis as I am.

You can purchase SVK here, exclusively through BERG.


  1. Nice review here. I have to agree on Ellis' failings, but he's one of those writers that when you read him he does open your mind to really out-there concepts.

    For me he's always been a melding of Grant Morrison's craziness and Ennis' pushing the envelope or being really upfront about the harshness of reality/violence, but sometimes he loses control of what his message is and flies out of control with his ideas (Black Summer, anyone?).

  2. Is that you, Mas? You're really hating on Black Summer, aren't you? Aha.