Cemetery Beach Only Dips its Toes into Deeper Water

Part of Cemetery Beach front cover. in silhouette, a helicopter is chasing two figures across a red and white background.

Cemetery Beach

Warren Ellis (writer), Fonografiks (lettering and book design), Jason Howard (artist and book design)
Image Comics
June 11, 2019

In Cemetery Beach, Warren Ellis presents an often brutal, bleak, and technologically-filled world (so not exactly a hundred miles from our own). The story explores themes Ellis has embraced in his previous work: absolute power corrupting absolutely, the inequalities of social hierarchies, and transhumanism. Collecting issues #1-7, the volume is an action-packed introduction, helped in no small part by Howard’s energetic style pulling the reader along. It’s a shame, then, that the story doesn’t establish much more depth.

cemetery beach

From the beginning, this is an action caper, albeit an extremely violent one. Mike Blackburn is first seen handcuffed in a windowless room, lounging naked in a chair while a uniformed captor interrogates him. Though Mike is a blond-haired hero with typical square-jaw and rugged good looks, Ellis subverts the stereotype while also playing into it. When threatened with torture, Mike doesn’t resist, explaining it doesn’t really work, but he’s also not being paid enough to get hurt. Instead, he spills everything: he is a scout from Earth (Oldhome), tasked with infiltrating this off-world alien colony established by wealthy industrialists and scientists in the 1920s. It’s a quick way to throw exposition in, but it’s an effective method and sits well within the narrative.

Of course, Mike escapes. Like all witty and supernaturally capable (or lucky) heroes, he’s always thinking ten steps ahead. Outwitting his guards, he stumbles upon Grace Moody, a dissident detainee of the regime. With her as his guide and partner, Mike learns more about the dangerous world he is trying to escape from.

Mike Blackburn and Grace Moody have panicked faces as they run from distant figures who are shooting at them

Jason Howard doesn’t shy away from portraying the bleakness of this strange new land, using grainy shading and bold lines to emphasise the colony’s hostile character. It’s also impressive how Howard evokes a vivid, bombastic atmosphere while using the muted and often grey-tinged palette. Vast vistas of imposing structures showcase the alien world. Unfortunately, the effect is hampered in the copy I read for review, with drawings spanning two pages broken in half thanks to the digital format.

Gore flies across the panels, with this violence sometimes employed in an effort to humanise Mike. In an early panel, he discovers a blood-splattered cell containing a (presumably) dead captive tied to a chair in the middle of the room. In another cell, the word “HELL” is scrawled on the door’s interior, mixed in among the blood and flesh painted across it. Mike’s shocked and horrified expression allow the reader to start seeing him as a person rather than merely a stoical, witty hero trope.

Sadly, this impact doesn’t last. Upon meeting Grace Moody, the comic ramps up the action, leaving little room for story development. One-liners whiz between Grace and Mike, interspersing frenetic scenes of the pair dodging bullets, racing vehicles across the wastelands, and leaping away from explosions. Mike at one point talks about his personal losses, an almost casual recitation of loved ones lost to various modern day tragedies, from HIV deaths to school shootings. Ellis isn’t exactly subtle in pointing out our world can be horrifying as well, but sometimes subtlety isn’t appropriate.

Ellis also examines a system that favours those with power exploiting those without it. This is partly accomplished through discussion of Grace’s imprisonment and the social hierarchy that oppresses her. She’s an immediately likeable character, though it does feel forced and predictable when Ellis introduces characters as roguish wits, automatically employing a stream of prepared banter.

However, Grace’s vulnerability is better explored than Mike’s. At one point, she explains that it never had to be a bad place, but the problem lies in the ideas of those inherently drawn to colonising and creating a new world in their image. The people in charge have elongated their lives thanks to a mysterious substance on the planet’s surface, and their determination to hold control has a cost. The end result is that Cemetery Beach delivers a portrayal of how those with power use up and abuse other sections of society.

Yet Ellis often walks a fine line between pointed social commentary and heavy-handedness, usually in how characters are designed. It is depressing to see President Barrow’s clichéd physical depiction. As leader of the colony, Barrow is essentially a cruel, petty and barbaric dictator. The visual shorthand for this is to show him as a sweaty, obese man, who shoves sugary treats into his gob while dressed in self-important decorative garb. The soiled underwear is an additional touch that’s designed to disgust, but it all feels like well-trodden ground. Cemetery Beach isn’t the only comic to employ this trope of using fatness to signal villainy, but it’s been done to death. (Ellis’s earlier work Transmetropolitan also portrayed The Beast in a similar manner.) It just plays into old, harmful and lazy stereotypes.

A close-up panel of President Barrow. He is a large man, and he is alarmed, sweating. Speech balloon reads: "Oldhome is finally coming for us. And I will not allow it"

Cemetery Beach doesn’t really have characters as much as it has archetypes. President Barrow is a clumsy personification of corruption, and Mike and Grace’s characters feel thin. Mike has a shopping list of stereotypical hero traits: charming and capable on the outside? Check. Hidden tragic backstory and nothing to lose? Check. Throwing himself into danger for the good of others? Check. Grace is likeable, but her only personality traits are being a Strong Woman™ Joss Whedon would be proud of, as well as a determined fighter. Her vulnerability lends her more credence, but it’s used as a way to give human suffering a relatable face. It’s ironic, considering the amount of people Mike and Grace kill along the way and only briefly reflect upon.

There’s a conflict at the heart of Cemetery Beach between what it wants to achieve and how well it executes this. There’s a sense that Ellis wants to explore the destruction of colonisation and the harm inflicted on people by systems. This kind of story often requires careful exploration and time to reflect. In Cemetery Beach, there is no time, and I’m not sure there could be in a comic that Ellis purposefully designed to be action-packed and “the most relentless action book” he has ever created. There’s a lot of style, but the substance feels like it’s always competing and ultimately loses.