By Mark Peters
The creative team behind Trees—the engulfing sci-fi comic about alien towers redesigning Earth—has reteamed for a new project equally unafraid of big ideas and epic stakes: Cemetery Beach, an interstellar thriller by Warren Ellis (Injection, Transmetropolitan) and Jason Howard (The Astounding Wolf-Man, Super Dinosaur). As in their previous collaboration, the pair produces a visceral, thinky comic that allows both creators to stretch their action chops.
In an email interview, Howard gave an enticing elevator pitch for the series: “100 years ago, a secret program launched a colony ship to a newly discovered planet. The mission details were lost to history and only recently discovered. An operative is sent to the colony to see if it survived, recon, and report back. He immediately gets captured and has to escape and try to make it out alive.”
That operative is Mike Blackburn of Earth (the planet is known as “oldhome” on the colony), sent to explore this secret planet and what this lost segment of humanity has crafted. Blackburn encounters Grace Moody during a prison break—she’s in jail for self-admitted “Murderous shit.” Plenty of mystery abounds, including the details of Moody’s murderous shit, Blackburn’s background, and the details behind the colony, whose denizens don’t appear obsessed with humanitarianism and pretty flowers. Howard’s shorter elevator pitch is equally enticing: “Trapped in a forgotten colony on a nightmare planet filled with generations of lunatics.”
Protagonists Blackburn and Moody deal with one of the most persistent themes of Ellis’ futurist approach to comics: someone secretly leaving this planet, often for sketchy reasons. In Planetary, the Four (an evil version of Marvel's Fantastic Four) sold Earth to scumbags from another Earth. In AfterShock's Shipwreck, scientist Jonathan Shipwright leads a mission to an alternate universe looking for a new home for humanity in case of an extinction event. And in Cemetery Beach, “People in converted bathyscaphes with electric heaters and telescopes and sextants” used a scattershot process to find and colonize a habitable planet during the 1920s.
Ellis reversed that Earth-escaping theme in Trees, where the third planet from the sun receives visitors that immediately attempt to unmake the globe. NBCUniversal optioned the comic, which revolves around tree-like monoliths from space that announce the existence of aliens in the most depressing terms: they are completely indifferent to humanity. That series balances the massive scale of the titular trees with the many consequences for individuals and governments in their shadow. The series merges 2001: A Space Odyssey-level awe and wonder with a nanoscopic concern for how a changed Earth affects everyday lives. In Cemetery Beach, Ellis and Howard channel their teamwork in a new direction, staying in the broad genre of sci-fi but moving into full-blown action, which was a request of Howard’s.
“I wanted to do something where I could draw more kinetic action and also lean into my love of sci-fi tech,” Howard explains. The artist leans impressively, creating the distinctive tech of the “lunatics” on the colony—in particular, their flying bikes, which are armed to the teeth. The rainy cyberpunk look of the colony has an alternative history feel that fits perfectly: if humanity took a detour to another planet 100 years ago, it would probably look equally futuristic and primitive today.
Howard’s scratchy, kinetic style makes action-movie clichés such as breakouts, chases, and explosions fresh and new. And Ellis is no stranger to strong action comics, having produced two classic James Bond arcs with Jason Masters and Red with Cully Hamner, among many, many others. The propulsive action of Cemetery Beach results from Ellis’ full scripts interpreted by Howard. “His scripts are a good balance of giving me the information I need to know and the freedom to draw and not feel boxed in,” Howard elaborates. “As we’ve progressed on Cemetery Beach, he has loosened up with some of the action sequences, but I still send him layouts so he can weigh in if he wants.”
Howard’s art is the product of many influences, some of which might surprise. “Most of the guys I consider influences aren't really visible (to me anyway) in my work anymore—Dave Johnson, Todd McFarlane, Bruce Timm, Joe Quesada to name a few,” Howard says. “In recent years, I’ve been looking at artists who ink in a looser manner, Ashley Wood being a big one for me. I like to try and find a look for each project that feels right for the tone of the story. Usually I do that in my approach to inking and coloring. With Cemetery Beach, I’m using more black with thicker pen lines than I did with Trees, where I used thinner, hatchy lines.”
As for the meaning of the title Cemetery Beach, Howard plays it coy: “It’s a location in the world our characters are trapped in. Its importance will become clear as the story progresses.” There are plenty of other intriguing elements introduced in the debut issue, including President Barrow: a massive, towering fellow first seen sweating over a typewriter in his underwear and dismayed by the arrival of a visitor from oldhome. That combination of multiple mysteries to unpack and visual/verbal fireworks makes the first issue a banger.
Cemetery Beach is planned as a self-contained, one-arc story, but with a story this compelling, the door is open for further tales in this world. “We are focusing on making this story do all we want with no need for a sequel,” Howard says. “Warren has the whole thing written, and I plan to have it all drawn by the time issue one comes out. I think it ends in a satisfying way, but lots of great movies have crappy sequels, so hopefully Cemetery Beach is super popular and we can sell out and make one ourselves!”
Cemetery Beach #1 is currently available in comic book stores. Cemetery Beach #2 debuts on October 17th.