I reread Desolation Jones: Made in England this week. It’s a collection of the first six issue story in what was intended to be a two year or so comic book written by Warren Ellis with a rotating cast of artists. As often happens, life got in the way and the book finished after issue 8. Technically it was placed on hiatus but Ellis is of the opinion it will probably never return and let’s face it, he’d know.
The interesting thing is, rereading it that sudden end fits perfectly.
Desolation Jones is set in Los Angeles, which, here is a covert and open prison for the throwbacks off the intelligence community. Men and women who’ve seen the wrong things, done the wrong things too well or in some cases are no longer fully human. It’s not a superhuman book by any stretch, rather one about the blind alleys of weaponized transhumanism. One of Jones’ closest and only friends has had her pheromone production pushed so high most people can’t stand to be in the same room with her. One of his employers has been modified so he only needs to eat four times a year. But when he does, he needs vast amounts of raw protein and his ‘meals’ are responsible for most reports of cattle mutilation.
And then there’s Jones himself; an alcoholic field agent who was subjected to the Desolation Test. Pumped full of drugs, kept awake for a year and subjected to an unending stream of horrific images for no reason other than to see what it would do to a human being.
Jones is a physical and psychological wreck, skin blasted grey by a year without sun and barely able to be outside without a blanket or industrial strength goggles. His liver is barely functional, his body can’t take any more drugs and he’s in constant pain. In the great pantheon of Ellis lead characters he’s Spider Jerusalem’s near invalid younger brother.
He also has a conscience. And may be the only person in his LA who does.
The story follows Jones as he’s hired by one of the few people in the city in worse shape than he is; a former intelligence officer who curated an unusually esoteric porn collection. One of his historical tapes has been stolen and he needs Jones to find it. Complicating matters are the officer’s three daughters, his own past and the fact that everyone, without exception, is lying.
The entire thing is, very deliberately, a riff on Chandler’s The Big Sleep and it manages to do the thing few homages manage; hit all the right notes but in a different and mostly very successful order. A huge part of that is Jones, who along with contemporaneous Ellis leading man Michael Fell, is a quiet, principled and really bloody angry human being. The Desolation Test has sharpened his empathy to a fine point even as it’s burnt his capacity to actually like anyone much to a crisp. He can’t help but get involved, and Ellis cleverly uses language to show us the toll that takes. Jones plays the crotchety old spy when it can get him something and the rest of the time is either gentle and reticent or terrifying. His demolition of two opponents in close combat shows why he was a field agent. The fact he calls an ambulance (albeit a spook one) for one of his victims shows why he washed out. Down these mean streets a lonely Brit must walk and he’s painfully aware of just how bloody lonely he is.
That brings us to Robina and Emily, the other two lead characters here. Robina is an explosives artist, a woman who paints with detonations. She’s a fiercely gifted engineer, a deeply instinctively brilliant weapons specialist and that brilliance has exiled her to LA. She’s one of the only people in the city who isn’t clearly broken and that’s why Jones likes her. It’s also one of the things that causes the pair of them the most damage.
But it’s Emily who stays with you. She’s the human pheromone storm mentioned earlier. Originally intended as the ultimate honey trap, her surgical mutilation has instead turned her into a shut in. She triggers the arachnid reaction, people instinctively terrified of her rather than drawn to her. Everyone apart from Jones who has so few nerve endings left he barely notices.
There are two scenes in this book that break my heart and one of them is the first time we meet Emily. She’s an immensely gifted analyst and the casual sexism that’s led to that being overlooked in favor of her attractiveness is one of the quietest tragedies in a book full of them. But it’s the way the scene ends, with her clearly panicking at the thought of Jones leaving that gets me. The effortless compassion he shows when he stays is one of Jones’ finest hours and one of the most haunting moments in a book full of them.
As is the interlude where Jones talks to Nicole, a porn actress with a lead in the case. It’s essentially a monologue, her talking about the industry and how it will affect the woman Jones is looking for. That alone is a fierce piece of writing but combined with JH Williams III’s art it’s impossible to forget. We see her from Jones’ perspective, his constant hallucinations shifting her age, her health, mirroring what she’s saying. She becomes what she’s talking about in a way that’s either honest, the embodiment of male gaze and guilt, or both. It’s a searing, uncomfortable and brilliant piece of storytelling that only comics can really pull off.
Storytelling like this is Ellis and Williams at their absolute best and there’s a lot of it in Made in England. The one off key note is Filthy Sanchez, the porn mogul and sometime arms dealer who Jones annoys in the course of the investigation. The book spends a lot of time in LA’s underbelly but Sanchez is the only part that feels like she doesn’t belong; a collection of cliches and early C21 porn jokes that didn’t take work too well at the time and only feel more dated now.
But Filthy is the only note that doesn’t land. The rest is a haunting, occasionally very funny and thematically complex piece of neo LA noir. It’s a story about a broken man in a fractured community that is itself locked in a city that’s more an idea than a place. It’s difficult, unsettling, upsetting stuff that’s often far smarter than it first seems and is always more powerful than you expect. It’s a book about unfinished business in a city based around the idea of reinvention. Looked at that way, the incomplete nature of the series helps immensely. It’s a glimpse of a grey, broken man on an LA side street, talking with unusual care and gentleness to someone you’ve just crossed the street to avoid. Then, traffic passes between you and he’s gone.