Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Comics You Should Own – ‘Aetheric Mechanics’

You know you dig the pastiches of Sherlock Holmes!

Aetheric Mechanics by Warren Ellis (writer), Gianluca Pagliarani (penciler), and Chris Dreier (inker).

Published by Avatar Press, cover dated September 2008.

[As usual with all of Warren Ellis’s comics, if you don’t buy them on moral grounds, I understand, and if you want to skip this, feel free. What Ellis did is very icky, but I still like his writing, so I apologize if you’re annoyed by me writing about his comics as if he’s not icky.]

I try to avoid SPOILERS if I can, but you should always be aware that I might accidentally give something away!

The place is England in 1907, and Dr. Richard Watcham arrives back in London after a tour of duty in the war on the Continent against Ruritania. He returns to his apartments on Dilke Street, where he finds his old friend, Britain’s top consulting detective … Sax Raker. Raker tells him almost immediately that he has a case to solve – a mysterious murderer seems to flicker in and out of existence, and the witnesses are all eminent and sober scientists. The game, as they say, is afoot.

Yes, this is Warren Ellis’s Sherlock Holmes story, except … it’s not, really. Ellis had been writing for Avatar for over a decade by the time Aetheric Mechanics came out, and this, along with a few other shorter comics, were part of his “Apparat” imprint that Avatar set up for him, which didn’t last very long. This book is the crown jewel of the line, a clever mystery but also a rumination on reality itself, and Ellis does a marvelous job, as he often does, in paring things down to their essences and creating a wonderful world that hints at so much more than what’s on the page. Aetheric Mechanics is a mere 44 pages long, the length of two “regular” issues from DC or Marvel, and yet it’s packed with a weird murder mystery and philosophical musings that make the reader think more each time they read it. It might be a largely forgotten entry in the Ellis bibliography, but that does not mean it’s unworthy.

Ellis wants to do a lot in this book, which is why it’s so impressive that it’s so short and he still manages to cram it with a lot. The biggest flaw, to me, is that the mystery is not really explained all that well. Toward the end of the book, the murderer explains himself, and the explanation of what’s going on is pretty keen … but the question of why he murders people is left unanswered. We can, perhaps, infer it, but there’s more behind the murders – several kidnappings, in fact – that are also not explained, and it seems like the murders exist only so Sax Raker can get involved in the case and the murderer might have found a better way of doing things so the world’s greatest detective didn’t get onto him. But that’s, ultimately, not terribly important, because Raker must be involved so that Ellis can make his points. The book begins with Dr. Watcham returning from the war, as I noted. “Ruritania” is a generic term in the modern world for a minor European country, but it comes from a very specific source, that being The Prisoner of Zenda and other novels by Anthony Hope. As it’s a fictional country but “exists,” such as it is, in central Europe, Ellis is using it here as a stand-in, it seems, for Germany, moving World War I up by a decade or so in order to set it during a time when “Sherlock Holmes” was still, generally, in his prime (Holmes would have been 53 at the time of the story). With Ellis, of course, nothing is arbitrary, and although “Ruritania” has been used for decades as a “placeholder” name, it’s not in this case. Watcham gets on a platform that flies, and it’s clear that this is a quasi-steampunk story – Ellis doesn’t indulge completely in the clichés of the genre, but he uses some of the tropes in order to make this world a bit more alien than ours. English battleships fly, Ruritanian planes are much more developed than they would have been our world in 1907, and the weaponry is more menacing and futuristic. Floating cars jockey for position alongside horses and carriages, and it’s a new-ish development, as Watcham is bothered by the proliferation of “motor cabs” in just the relatively short time he’s been away. Ellis is creating a world in which technology has advanced further than it did in our world by this time, but still blending it with a Victorian – or Edwardian, I suppose – sensibility. Yes, it’s steampunk-esque, but for a bigger purpose.

What Ellis is really doing in Aetheric Mechanics is hoping we’ll think about things other than the mystery. The mystery, as I noted, is the weakest thing in the book, which isn’t surprising as it’s a bit of MacGuffin. By using “Ruritania” instead of, presumably, Germany and by calling his detective “Sax Raker” rather than “Sherlock Holmes” (despite the fact that he probably could have gotten away with it without paying, although Holmes’s public domain status was a bit wonky at the time), Ellis is creating something of an uncanny valley in readers’ minds. It is definitely Sherlock Holmes, but … not really. It is definitely John Watson and Irene Adler and Mrs. Hudson and Baker Street, but … it’s instead Richard Watcham and Inanna Meyer and Mrs. Archer and Dilke Street. It’s definitely Germany, but … not really. By tweaking the names just a bit, Ellis can comment not on Sherlock Holmes, but Victorian/Edwardian fiction in general. The name “Sax,” for this reader, conjured up Sax Rohmer, who is not fictional, of course (although his name is), but who wrote pulpy stories and novels beginning around the time this book is set (Rohmer’s first published work was in 1903). A little bit of research reveals the existence of Sexton Blake (which sounds a bit like Sax Raker), a lesser-known fictional detective who first appeared in 1893, notably right around the time “The Adventure of the Final Problem” was published and Holmes was killed off. Ellis doesn’t want us to focus specifically on Holmes, he wants us to focus on fin de siècle pulp in general. What does this kind of fiction say about us? What does a character like Holmes really mean? Who is more “real,” Holmes or an actual human being from a century ago who is now dead, while Holmes remains “alive”? Even a relatively minor character like Sexton Blake lives on in the minds of readers, and so is Holmes, or Blake, or Watson, or even Fu Manchu, any less real than you and I? Ellis loves toying with this kind of “reality relativism,” and he does so in this book with a bit more subtlety than he and other writers often do. Raker is not real, of course, because he’s a figment of Ellis’s imagination, but like Holmes, he will live on in these pages after his creator, an actual human, is no longer around. Does that make him real? Writers have grappled with this conundrum before and will do again, of course, but that doesn’t mean it’s not an interesting topic to ponder. Ellis wraps it up in a pulp adventure, but it’s still something that comes through as we’re reading the narrative.

Linked to this idea of fictional characters outliving their creators is the idea of what makes life worth living. In Aetheric Mechanics, Ellis creates an odd love story, which is perhaps another reason he didn’t use Sherlock Holmes. Holmes can probably never express his love with Irene Adler, but Raker and Inanna Meyer are under no such restrictions, if Ellis so chooses. Raker is typically Holmesian in that he expresses nothing but disdain for Meyer as he figures out that she is somehow involved in the case. Ellis is able, in a few panels, to clue us in that Watcham knows more about the human heart than Raker does, but Ellis leaves it at that until the end, when Raker is faced with a choice about the case. Raker is not Holmes, as Holmes would certainly not choose what he does, but Raker proves that love makes us do unusual things. Does he love Inanna Meyer? One of the excellent choices Ellis makes in this book is leaving that ambiguous, as he final words to Meyer could be read in a few different ways. But the notion of love driving humans to do marvelous and monstrous things is a nice, subtle theme in this book, and Ellis ties it back into his idea of how real or not real Raker/Holmes/Blake is. If someone loves, does that make their world better? Will they defend it more fiercely against an existential threat? (The war with Ruritania is not going well in this book, and it hangs over the proceedings.) Does love redeem all actions? Ellis cleverly brings up these questions without hitting them too hard, and that makes the final few pages of this book poignant as well as fascinating.

While Ellis is trawling in some interesting philosophical waters, the fact is that the book is still a pulpy adventure, and for that it needs good art, and Pagliarani and Dreier provide that in spades. There isn’t a lot of action in the book, so Pagliarani doesn’t get to show off that way, but the steampunk-ish nature of Ellis’s world allows him to get into detail of both the quasi-futuristic machinery of steampunk and the turn-of-the-century fashion and architecture of the actual time period. His first page – a double-page spread – is a perfect example of this. Watcham and hundreds of other soldiers are disembarking, and among the many wearing dun-colored uniforms (the book is uncolored, but we can practically see the brown khaki) are two ladies with feathered hats, stylish dresses, and sun-blocking parasols. The troop carrier that brings the men home looks like your standard ironclad ship of the imperial era, until we see the intricately worked cannon on the deck, the last thing we see before the page turn, that looks as if it came off Ming the Merciless’s flagship. That sole anomaly is enough to let us know that something is different about this book, and as there are no words on the page except a tag telling us when and where we are, Pagliarani’s art is the way we realize this. Pagliarani’s thin line is perfect for what Ellis needs on this book, because he doesn’t muck up the details of the machinery with thick, scratchy work, so we can marvel at the engines on the horseless carriages and the computing machines in the London sewers near the end of the book. We also get amazing work on Raker’s apartment, for instance, with its chemistry set, packed bookshelves, and finely worked fireplace. Pagliarani doesn’t take a panel off, and he gives us a beautiful and slightly decadent London, contrasting with the new mechanical marvels the British have invented. His characters are very well done, too. Raker looks like Sherlock Holmes, of course, and Pagliarani does a very good job keeping him aloof from human emotions until the moment when he doesn’t, and the shift is startling and very effective. Watcham is also done well, as his haunted look never quite leaves him, as Pagliarani manages to remind us constantly that he’s been in the war and has seen horrific things. In his only revealed memory, Pagliarani not only draws the terror on his face beautifully, but he gets to draw a marvelous steampunk robot, the source of Watcham’s terror, and it’s one of the best pages in the book. Dreier’s inks are superb, too. He has to add heft to the thick, woolen clothing people wore at the time without marring Pagliarani’s thin lines, and his spot blacks are effective and unobtrusive, adding roughness to the pencil work without sacrificing the amazing details. It’s not easy to make sure the machinery is cleanly delineated but still indicate that there’s a grittiness to the rest of the world, and Dreier’s/Pagliarani’s hatching work is excellent and precise, which gives the illusion of roughness without overwhelming the details. Despite the lack of action for much of the book, a reader can still linger over each panel finding interesting things to look at, and it makes the experience even more fulfilling.

Aetheric Mechanics is a thoughtful book, one that rewards careful reading, and one that makes you think about a lot more than the mystery Sax Raker solves in it. It’s beautiful to look at, which is always nice, and it’s a clever look at a literary icon that isn’t beholden to that icon, which means Ellis can toy with the formula a bit. Avatar’s Apparat line didn’t last long, and Avatar itself doesn’t seem to be doing well these days, but you can still find this on Amazon if you want to check it out, which I would highly recommend you do. Or, you can just head over to the archives to see what else is going on!

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