An Oral History of the Warren Ellis Forum
December 5, 2018 | Joshua Rivera; Main Image Photography by Ellen J. Rogers
December 5, 2018 | Joshua Rivera; Main Image Photography by Ellen J. Rogers
The Warren Ellis Forum wasn't just an online tool for comic creators to banter and barb; it was a breeding ground for the voices that would define the medium in the years to come. In this oral history from Joshua Rivera, a host of the forum's most activist participants discuss how one man and his website catalyzed a new era of sequential art.
Modern comics owe a huge debt to the Warren Ellis Forum. An entire generation of future creators—some of whom had no interest in making comics at the time—gathered online to discuss everything from the latest comics to the finer points of physics.
From May of 1998 to October of 2002, the forum started by and named after writer Warren Ellis—who was reinventing mainstream comics on a monthly basis across titles like Transmetropolitan, Stormwatch, and The Authority—was a beacon of intellectual progress for the entire comic book medium. Attracting amateurs, pros, and fans alike, the WEF's strictly moderated community became a de facto talent incubator, as a generation of future creators, following Ellis' lead, would eventually define the cutting of edge of sequential art.
"At its height, there were 2500 people in here every day, writing 10000 messages a week, with 20 people in the chat room at any one time; open 24 hours a day worldwide," read Ellis' epitaph, which can still be seen online. "Couples met and even got married here, people found homes and aid here, companies were started and saved here. It was good."
What follows is a brief history of the Warren Ellis Forum, told by a few of the many creators who frequented its digital halls.
Discovering the WEF
Kieron Gillen: It was like the CBGB of noughties comics. That is a completely justifiable line I will use. I could see Warren scream at this point: "Shut up, Kieron, stop being you." But yes, it's the CBGB of noughties comics. A little dive place where a lot of interesting people came out of.
Kelly Sue DeConnick: I found it... I think because of Planetary. I think I really loved Planetary, and I Googled Warren Ellis and found it.
Matt Fraction: I was in my first job where Always-On Internet was a part of employment. And, one new comic book day, I want to say I got Authority and Planetary—it was that time when [Ellis] was also writing Hellblazer and Transmetropolitan. He was writing four killer books. Maybe [the forum] was in the back of one of those. And then I just went to see what it was. It was a brave and exciting time in dicking around at work.
Gillen: At the time, I was working primarily as a games critic for PC Gamer, and I was about two years in and almost burnt out. I wasn't into comics, and I only started reading new comics like The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which started me going into actual comic shops, because I was a trade reader. And when I was in there, I saw the cover of The Authority—I opened the first page and instantly: oh yeah, that's how I always imagine explosions in superhero comics!
Chip Zdarsky: I don't remember the entry point to it. It was all very early days just trying to find places to talk about comics online. And it quickly became apparent that that was the place.
Sam Humphries: I was working at the American branch of a Japanese manga company. I was basically the general American comic book industry consultant for them. One of the things I had to do right off the bat was sign onto various comics message boards and kind of monitor the chatter about things. So I initially signed up and maybe posted once or twice just because I was there, not as a spy, but I didn't sign up with the intent to really participate. I had not written any comics, and I hadn't planned to write any comics.
Heidi MacDonald: I was at DC and I was also very briefly editing Transmetropolitan, so I was kind of like the designated Vertigo emissary to the WEF. I read it all the time. In fact, I think I probably read it way too much.
Fraction: Warren was there. And, Warren was there frequently, but Warren wasn't just there. There were all kinds of interesting conversations and interesting people there.
DeConnick: And funny people!
Fraction: And funny people. My primary memory of the place was just laughing my ass off. But—aside from Warren, other creators and other above-the-line folks, editors and the like in comics who were also acclimating to the idea of Always-On Internet—there were a lot of comic people in the field at all kinds of stages: established pros and people just breaking in and people doing independent work. It was a very micro-focused tribe in a lot of ways.
DeConnick: Micro-focused tribe is the most Warren Ellis thing you've ever said.
The Rules of the Forum
Gillen: Warren ran it, and his nickname was Stalin. He ran it, and his filthy assistants, they rule it. If you wander off what is a sensible boundary, or are a classic internet fucking idiot? You're out.
Fraction: I didn't buy into Warren's grumpy Stalin routine. I recognized it as being funny—there's a lot of, "Senpai, notice me!" I think. But, at the same time, it was like, "Oh, this is just funny." And, if you could joke, you're fine. That's why it was so relentlessly audited. What's the word?
Fraction: Bullshit had a very short shelf life there.
Deconnick: He banned Chip.
Fraction: He banned Chip Zdarsky. Chip Zdarsky posted once, and he banned him.
[What did he say?]
He banned Chip Zdarsky. Chip Zdarsky posted once, and he banned him.
Fraction: I don't know. Probably just Chip shit. He was just, "My name is Chip, I'm from Canada." Warren was like, "Bad news."
Zdarsky: I don't remember the joke. Something like gentle ribbing, the kind of thing that you do as if the person is your friend, but they're not your friend? So you deserve to be banned for a bit. I was, at first, put off and then they realized, oh no, this is the best way to run something like this, where you had to figure out the rules, and if you don't follow them then you're gone.
MacDonald: It was heavily moderated. That is absolutely 100 percent the key to why people remember it as being a wonderful place.
Humphries: Warren ruled with an iron fist, and nowadays people are literally begging Jack to lock down Twitter. They're literally begging Mark Zuckerberg to shut people up on Facebook, you know what I mean?
Christopher Sebela: Warren and I, at times, had a very adversarial relationship on the board. I was probably more sensitive back then about online joking, and Warren is a dude who will, you know, probably cut his best friends with a remark. So I've learned to judge it, but at the time I was like, “Fuck this guy! Like who the fuck does he think he is?”—without actually coming out and telling him that. And then Warren emailed me on my birthday when I was in Dublin, and then I hadn't talked to him until earlier this year when I hit him up to get a pull quote for my first Image book, and he got it to me right away. So, I guess, uh, water under the bridge?
Gillen: I'm sure there are some people who have never liked Warren Ellis because he banned them. It was a very big web forum, which was often quite political, and when I say political, I mean in the sense that Warren especially had an idea of where the industry should go, and that definitely percolated into the intellectual construct [of the forum].
Humphries: The Warren Ellis Forum was different because here was a message board forum where people were really getting into the guts of the comic book industry and what was making the comic book industry tick—not just in a big-picture sense about where the opportunities were and how it looks, but also doing it with shitkickers on it, if that makes sense.
Gillen: It was my liberal education in the forum. I came to the WEF not knowing anything. I describe it as not listening to music until you're 25. You know music exists and you like some songs, and then suddenly you discover there are shops full of this shit, the history goes back 100 years, and you can learn it all.
Humphries: Bringing in outside influences was not just accepted, but it was crucial. We weren't just talking about comics. We'd be talking about movies, we'd be talking about music, and we were talking about novels and tv shows and art and video games.
Fraction: I remember getting my ass handed to me about something by a brilliant and difficult dude. I want to say his name was Tim Pilcher, which I remember because I felt so thoroughly schooled in whatever it was. Also, it was done with such insight that I remembered it. That's rare for me that I remember that. I believe he died… because he insulted me. No. It was a freak accident, like something terrible. He was brilliant. Warren writes physics porn, right? Warren writes science. Every now and then, you'd get physicists. You'd get scientists. You'd get coders or engineers. Pilcher was one of those guys. I can't remember what it was about now. Then I remember seeking out whatever he would talk about because he was sharp.
Warren writes physics porn, right? Warren writes science. Every now and then, you'd get physicists. You'd get scientists. You'd get coders or engineers.
DeConnick: Tim Pilcher is the same Tim Pilcher. He is alive and well and Tweeted 11 hours ago.
Fraction: There was a dude. He was real smart. I bet Warren would remember. I want to say he slipped in the shower and it was a freak thing.
Fraction: Warren totally remembers it. The dude's name was Tim Maroney!
Gillen: I hung around there for a long time before posting a thread. And then my first ever thread, and I believe Charlie Chu remembers this and still mocks me for it, it's like I did a thread and it's the most me thread you might imagine. I picked a subject that was, "Why is the nine-panel grid, as a form, so irregularly used in mainstream comics?"
Fraction: It's where my stupid fucking fake name came from. The first time I had something printed, the only marketing I had to contribute was my login name on Delphi. The only people I knew in comics were on that board. I was like, "Well, they know me as Matt Fraction, so that should be..." That's what I had to contribute to the marketing of my first comic. People in comics who know who I am, know me under this name, so I should have this name.
Zdarsky: [The WEF] introduced me to the idea of the cult of personality. Warren was so good at creating a persona, which was mostly him, but there's definitely an aspect of show there, and people wanted to read his books as a result.
Gillen: Warren taught a whole generation about being in public on the internet as a creator. And there were a lot of people that did bad Warren Ellis impressions. That kind of like, hard drinking... Warren isn't really like that, at least to that degree.
Zdarsky: I was just going through a divorce, and I think I found the Warren Ellis Forum like right around that time? The Chip Zdarsky persona was tied into both of those things because I never existed online as myself, as my real name or my real thoughts or ideas. So it was fun to have a place where you saw people being characters and you could be a character as well. I went so far as to have a fake name to go with it, but most people didn't because they were actively promoting themselves.
MacDonald: Warren was essentially inventing how people build their brands online.
Zdarsky: I thought I wasn't going to have a career in comics, so I was just like, I'm just going to be this guy named Chip Zdarsky on the forum and just have fun every day! But even in the act of doing so, people gravitate towards me or find my books. And it was directly because of Warren—Warren casually mentioned enjoying something of mine. And then the next week, I'd have tons of orders for that thing. It was kind of fascinating to watch and experience.
Seeding the Future of Comics (and Inappropriate Santa Memes)
Fraction: I had a zine that came out of it, because I came from art school. I came from a critique culture. And a group of like-minded people started to publish a zine. I was involved with it for a year.
Sebela: I specifically remember that I had gone to New York to visit a friend of mine. I'd driven there, and while I was there, I remember checking my email and there was an email from Matt saying, “You're in New York and Warren Ellis is putting bugs in my brain.” I was like, “Is everything okay?” I guess that was the weekend that Matt had been inspired to start Savant.
Fraction: It was cool. You could fall on your ass a lot, and you could learn in public. And, as difficult and as awkward as that was, I came from art school. I came from a show-and-tell culture. I felt right at home right away.
Zdarsky: You saw the people who were interesting, and then when you found out they're interested in making comics as well. You could tell who in the room was going to go on to make comics. Not all of them did, and some I still look at [and think] it's a shame they didn't actually give it a proper go.
Gillen: I mean, there was the joke of, oh yeah we're gonna take over the industry in five years. You know the punchline: no, no, it took us 15. [Laughs] You know all the ideas is me or Matt Fraction or Kelly Sue, our whole Image wave is 100 percent Warren Ellis pop comics in practice.
...there was the joke of, oh yeah we're gonna take over the industry in five years. You know the punchline: no, no, it took us 15... our whole Image wave is 100 percent Warren Ellis pop comics in practice.
Humphries: We thought we were right. We believed we were right—and we were, some of the time, but I don't think a lot of us felt like we would grow up and spread out and take over the comic book industry the way that we have.
MacDonald: Another very important thing is that 1999-2000 was the darkest night for the United States comic book industry in the postwar period. The lowest sales, the most companies going out of business, Marvel's firing hundreds of people, companies going under—it was a very dark, bleak cut.
Fraction: It was the moment that Western comics changed. And we knew something was happening, but we didn't know what it was. I remember people who, to this day, you will see still writing things saying women and children do not like comic books, period. And then, you go to Barnes & Noble on the weekend, and there's the women and children laid out like cordwood reading manga and buying $200 stacks of books. Fat fucking books.
MacDonald: That's the other thing—the graphic novel was just getting established. And Warren was a big believer in the graphic novel, and he tended to attract people who also believed in graphic novels, such as myself… it was very fashionable to be anti-periodical.
Deconnick: You know we had a 16-year-old on the board, too, who also went on to do really interesting things. E.J. Fisher, who is a science-fiction writer.
Fraction: [Tiptree]-winning science-fiction writer.
DeConnick: E.J. was like 15, 16. We got to be like the grumpy old people. Like, you kids don't remember before the internet was shit.
Fraction: "In my day, there were only four manga. Two of them were Akira, and you already read it.”
Sebela: There was also a kid there. His name was David, he was like 14, and he had found his way onto the board, and I remember everybody was very proud of David. We were like, let's make him the coolest kid he can be! But he was already pretty cool when he showed up. I don't know what happened to David, but he just became this sort of like mascot for everybody.
DeConnick: I often feel bad for kids today that they don't have the same. The internet is so awful now. But I also think that's also a very much old person perspective. You know? The kids will always figure it out. That's what kids do.
Fraction: It occurred to me the other day that if a person wanted to, they could find our courtship.
DeConnick: Yeah. Ew!
Fraction: Imagine if we could go back and watch your parents' first date.
DeConnick: I would never go back and read it. I don't remember our first... I remember you asking me about something I had in my signature file. I remember one thread that was mostly you, me, and Warren.
Fraction: I remember one day, again, Always-On Internet, being in one ramshackle office about to move into another one. In between packing, where we were just waiting, I would remember you and I writing haikus back and forth.
DeConnick: Oh yeah!
Fraction: That's my recollection. That's my first recollection of like, "Who's that girl? Who's that?"
DeConnick: That was flirting.
Fraction: That was thirst trapping right there.
DeConnick: I remember that day.
Fraction: Because I remember them being in the office unpacking. We had to paint and unpack, and I kept wanting to see if you had replied to me. I have an acute memory of that.
DeConnick: I remember the desk I was sitting at, at Citibank at that time. I remember that thread. All I remember was a picture thread.
Sebela: “Santa No” was the picture thread I remembered the best, which was where we just started posting inappropriate photos of Santa. It always started right or sometime after Thanksgiving, and it just became this brinksmanship game of who could find the most fucked-up photos of Santa Claus on the internet.
Zdarsky: I had one of my best days ever on The Engine [The WEF follow-up forum] where I convinced all of Warren's assistants to ban Warren from the site for one day and let me run it. And so it was Chips Zdarsky Day, where every thread was about me and my needs. There was a portrait thread where all the artists on the board were doing portraits of me. One of the best things that ever happened to me was Mike Wieringo did a portrait of me, and he was my favorite artist. When he passed away, I was like, oh man I'm so glad I got that from him on that day, and it was thanks to Warren going along with this stupid "ban Warren" idea. (When I convinced them to ban him, at some point I got an email from Warren just saying, “You bastard, did you think they wouldn't tell me?” [I think] he was just happy for the break for the day.)
I convinced all of Warren's assistants to ban Warren from the site for one day and let me run it.
Sebela: My favorite thing was when people started developing their own side forums. I was just fucking around at work one day, and I started the Matt Fraction Forum just as a way to annoy him. And then suddenly, that became its own thing. Like our version of /b/.
MacDonald: When something became a meme, it was so rare and special that you really paid attention to it, you know? I remember All Your Base Are Belong To Us, this dumb video game intro, and people talked about that for a week as opposed to a second, the way it is now. It was definitely a fertile, fertile riverbed for early memes.
Sebela: Did Kieron tell you about drillcock? That's how I first thought—until I got to actually know Kieron, which wasn't until a decade later—he used to post these all-caps rants, and they involved the word "drillcock." So that's how I met Kieron. I guess he wouldn't bring that up.
Gillen: Imagine Hogwarts but only with Slytherin kids. [laughs]
The Forum Finale
MacDonald: The other very important thing about the WEF was just that there were women there. It wasn't equal, but women were very common and were allowed to speak. And I remember there was even a special thread that was just for women—men could read it—and like, I would go in there and post about makeup, you know?
Gillen: As far as comic spaces circa 2000 went, the WEF was an accepting and welcoming place for women, and that speaks for people who were there, the creators who came out of there, and the work we do.
Fraction: The experience of growing up in public is a good one. It's formative. Obnoxious and mean. But also eager and willing to learn. The fun of that place was everybody sucking together.
Bryan Lee O'Malley: I was a wannabe, or I didn't even really know I was a wannabe. I was just in college, and I guess I, in some form, wanted to get into comics. I don't think I really knew much about Warren Ellis when I first started, but he was such a charismatic figure online that everyone fell into his orbit and loved him for what he was and what he provided. That was a really cool thing at that time. I remember asking him how old he was one of the early times I talked to him online, and he was 34 or something, and I was like, that's so old! [Laughs] But he was so young!
Zdarsky: Warren always pretends like he's ancient—at the time, he was probably 30, even though he acted like he was 100 years old. I find it very funny now that he's older. I'm like, oh, you're actually now the age that you pretended to be 20 years ago.
The fun of that place was everybody sucking together.
Gillen: Warren likes to paint himself as an ogre. But so many people explicitly owe him. As in, their careers.
MacDonald: I totally respect Warren for standing up for all these things and for being, you know, a messiah. I think he kind of enjoyed the attention he got as a messiah on the internet. But it's very hard to do that, and he walked away from it. But I think he took it seriously. He wasn't just doing it for attention. He really believed in it, too. That was very inspiring to me.
Zdarsky: Warren has changed so many lives just by the act of maintaining that forum for us. I'm going to miss him when he's dead in a couple of years.
Gillen: If Warren died, a lot of people would be saying positive things. Probably even more than if he was still alive here. You know—if you said something too nice, and he's still alive, he might just kill you.
Sebela: At the time, it was like... this dude hates me and I have to somehow prove myself to him. So I feel like me going away and building up my own comics career without bugging him at any point up until now... I'm like the dude standing outside of the temple, like I just gotta keep standing here, and one day they'll let you in. Warren finally let me in.
Gillen: Warren gives back much more than he takes, I think. And it's a weird thing to think about Warren. I do not think Warren is aware of what a big deal Warren is. I'd say Warren's the most influential writer of the noughties, and it’s literally a disgrace he's never got an Eisner. It's genuinely... I cannot explain how wrongheaded that is.
O’Malley: He's a visionary, and he brought people together basically to complain about stuff, but also, so that they could talk about the future and have a future. And I think that's really important work.
Warren likes to paint himself as an ogre. But so many people explicitly owe him. As in, their careers.
Gillen: My take is scenes are something that serve a purpose for a time and then end. One of the smartest things Warren ever did was close down the WEF.
Fraction: As I recall, we were literally on our honeymoon the last week. I remember, where did it end? I want to say it ended 2002. It was right when we got married, because we came back. I remember being back and sitting down in the apartment and being able to say goodbye. Logging on and being like, "Bye."
DeConnick: I remember having mixed feelings about it. I remember being bummed because it was like someone closing a utility that I was using, but I also remember thinking it was smart. He's always been a step ahead, and it was a big lesson for me in knowing when to…
Fraction: Get offstage.
DeConnick: It's not knowing when to retire—it's knowing when to take a break. Because you need perspective, and you need a little bit of solitude to get perspective.
Fraction: Here's another thing that a smart person said on the forums that I still remember: Dan Curtis Johnson saying, "After a while, a system exists only to perpetuate a system." That's sort of what it had gotten to.
DeConnick: And it's not going to be on the model that I understand because that's not how it works. But, for me personally, I don't miss it. I don't know how the hell I had that kind of time to get it.
Fraction: I had an office job with dicking around time.
DeConnick: And, all of my friends from that board, I still talk to almost daily...
Fraction: Certainly weekly.
DeConnick: Just no longer open to the public, you know?
Fraction: I think there was a novelty to it. It's poison to be nostalgic for the novel, you know? It's like wishing you could capture the bubbles in champagne. Whatever is next will feel different in an entirely new way to other people.
DeConnick: It was not about nostalgia. And I think that was formative to who we are in some ways.
Sebela: It was just like—the internet could be good sometimes. I don't know where the internet really took a shitty dive, but it was somewhere after that. It's largely responsible for the apartment that I'm sitting in and my dog and all the things inside my apartment. The fact that I get to do this for a living. I certainly wouldn't want to go back in time and never join the Warren Ellis Forum. So, um, yeah, it was just a magical outpost. It was there for several years and then it was gone and I think if it had stuck around, it just would have gotten awful.
...the internet could be good sometimes. I don't know where the internet really took a shitty dive, but it was somewhere after that.
O’Malley: I met, or I knew of, [Oni Press Publisher] James Lucas Jones through the forum, and that's how I got my first real gigs. I inked an issue of Queen and Country for him around November 2001, so that would have been the heyday of the forum.
Zdarsky: I remember not being very happy about it. I got it on a level. I forget the kind of drama that was kind of going on that precipitated it, how it became kind of a less fun place. Probably in hindsight it felt like it was a good time to do it, but during the period, I was upset because how else was I going to talk to these people? That's the other thing. And no one realizes that even Warren, who spends all his time online, that was a full-time job, just running that place and keeping it going. I belong to three different Slacks now, and they're various comics people, and some of them are from the forums. A lot of times I just wish people could see what we were saying. It was nice to be able to have these conversations that were in the public, how people would be able to read them and participate if they're good. And it's not on me if they're bad and they get banned. These conversations are happening in private that could help people, as a resource, and it's just hidden away because you don't want the shitbags to come knocking at your door—because there's nobody to control the shitbags. Whereas Warren used to be able to control the shitbags.
Probably in hindsight it felt like it was a good time to do it, but during the period, I was upset because how else was I going to talk to these people?
MacDonald: It was sad. We all wanted it to go on and on and on, but Warren was smarter than we, you know? It was our first taste of how you can't have nice things on the internet. There's not a place that's open where you can just wander in and listen to all these people talking about stuff and venting. I mean, I'm sure there was some bad stuff that I've forgotten and I blanked it in my mind, but in my memory, it was a wonderful paradise of the internet when the world was young.
Humphries: I broke into comics by self-publishing a one-shot called Our Love Is Real. It's a one-shot. It's square. It's black and white. Those are like three things that shouldn't succeed in the industry. On top of that, it's a love story about a guy who fucks his dog. I don't think that I would have had the gumption or confidence to pull off such a thing without having been on the Warren Ellis Forum, because on the Warren Ellis Forum, you could talk about doing those sorts of things, and everyone would be like, Fuck it—yeah, this is what comics should be like.
Gillen: Once people have been given permission to do stuff, it becomes easier to the people after them. And Warren's one of those people. Warren gave a lot of people permission. Both metaphorically in the work, and literally in the environment he created in places like the WEF.
Humphries: I feel like he must be proud of all of us, although I've never asked him, and he never told me. But I feel like, on a certain level, he feels to take too much credit would have ruined the whole thing. He didn't want Warren Ellis' Finishing School. He didn't want to churn out a bunch of creators in his mold. He really wanted to create an open place on the internet, a safe place on the internet where a bunch of like-minded people could come together. It wasn't about the forum, it was about the people. Things come to an end, but the Warren Ellis Forum will never truly die. If nothing else, we've got Matt and Kelly Sue's kids, right? [laughs]
Warren Ellis: I was just the person who created the space, and a terribly imperfect host. The people who came, who talked, who took inspiration and joy from each other, were and are the only important thing about it.
I was just the person who created the space, and a terribly imperfect host. The people who came, who talked, who took inspiration and joy from each other, were and are the only important thing about it.