Images & Words – Phoenix Without Ashes #1

[images & words is the comic book pick-of-the-week at OL. equal parts review and diatribe, the post highlights the most memorable/infuriating/entertaining book released that wednesday]

Spoilers Ahead. Forreal.

A couple of days ago, my brother predicted that Harlan Ellison’s Phoenix Without Ashes would be a comic book worth picking up. The Omega Elder also doubted that our local comics shop would carry the title.

Guess what, broseph!? You’re wrong and right — I’ve got a copy of this sonnophagunn in my hands right now! Sweet, sweet funny-mag success! Victory!

Alright, I have to come clean — I’ve never actually sat down and read any Harlan Ellison before today. With that being said, I’ve always enjoyed everything I’ve heard about him. I distinctly remember reading an article about Ellison in Wizard Magazine when I was no more than eleven years old. My prepubescent mind was bemused by the legendary tale of the writer’s single-day employment at Disney; he was fired after a suit overheard him joking about making a Disney-themed porno. Ah, what a yarn! How wonderfully uncouth!

And the best part of that story? It’s fuggin’ true.

With that being said, I’ve found Harlan Ellison intriguing for reasons other than his filthy mind. A number of my personal heroes cite the writer as being a profound influence, Warren Ellis and Patton Oswalt being amongst them. So while I have never previously read any of the man’s work, I have looked at him as a respected figure of the figures I respect.

The first issue of Phoenix Without Ashes is solid. Damn solid. The story takes place in the year 2785 in a “world-village” called Cypress Corners. From what I gather, Cypress Corners seems to be either another planet that has been colonized or a reservation on Earth itself. In either case, it is only fifty miles across and filled with some straight-up Puritan muthafuggers. Led by an oppressive religious regime, the people of Cypress Corners are encouraged not to question their lives, but to toil and revel in simplicity.

The societal expectations are clearly laid out by Elder Micah:

“Fifty mile be all the plot of land given us by the Creator. To work and nourish and on which to find salvation.

T’would be simple for thee to fall into the wicked thought that there be more to the good life, the life given to the service of the Creator than these fifty miles…

…That there be thought ne’er thought, deed ne’er done, that thou might rise above thy fellows with certain deed and certain thought…

…And that the will of the elders may be summarily flouted. Be there aught amongst ye who feel so?”

Oh, the protagonist Devon isn’t willing to be into all of this face-value nonsense. For one thing, he’s curious as to why the sky is made of metal and the ground isn’t. He also wants to know where all their trash goes when they toss it down “the trap.” And most importantly, he’s a bit baffled as to why he and his lady Rachel can’t get hitched even though they love one another; why has her hand in marriage been promised to a peer named Garth?

The Elder consults a machine of the Creator which robotically provides an answer — “Gene pool orders original mating selection without variance. New factor, coded: Devon, unsuitable. Balance maintained. Answer: None.”

Devon isn’t falling for this shit, though. He decides to sneak around some underground passageways and explore the underbelly of what could otherwise pass for Amish Country. Conveniently popping up through a hidden floorboard, Devon watches as Elder Micah records messages into the Creator’s machine! Dastardly! The hero slugs out the Elders present and runs back to town to warn everyone. Unfortunately, social programming and herd mentality endure, and Devon flees town as Rachel tearfully declares her love for him.

The issue ends with Devon escaping the torch-bearing townsfolk. More interestingly, he discovers a grate of sorts built into the ground itself. Where does it go? What is the true foundation of Cypress Corners? Can truth and love persevere? We’ll have to read on to find out.

And I plan on moving onto the second issue of Phoenix Without Ashes. Alan Robinson’s pencils are pretty rocking, providing suitable visuals for the story at hand. But what really wins me over (in case you couldn’t figure it out by now), is the story itself. It is far-fetched and kooky and alien to anything I’ve ever personally experienced. Yet, there is an embedded earnestness and sentiment with which I really connect. In the vein of true science fiction, the strange scenario serves as a means of conveying familiar feelings.

We all know what it’s like to be attracted to a forbidden lover. We have all felt trapped by our surroundings, the environment in which we were raised. We’ve all felt like there were hidden truths and deeper meanings to be discovered.

In a sense, we’re all Devon.

More importantly, however, is the fact that Phoenix Without Ashes has popped my Ellison-cherry. I am, without a doubt, going to snag one of his collections (Ellison Wonderland was suggested to me). After scouring the Internet for interviews and video clips, I’ve come to the conclusion that the writer is angry, opinionated and incendiary. In all the right ways.

Hell, check out this clip in which Ellison describes his resistance to being pigeonholed as a science fiction writer:

Again, Ellison seems spiteful and angry and ready to throw down…but for all the right reasons.