Join me after the cut as I ponder this question and more as I cover Fell #3 by Warren Ellis, Ben Templesmith and Chris Eliopoulous from Image Comics.
Spoilers for Fell and Ellis’ novel Gun Machine are contained within.
Fell follows Detective Richard Fell as he finds himself in the urban detritus of Snowtown. This is not your normal city or police beat. Darker, more twisted than your usual metropolis, Snowtown has something dark lurking just beneath the surface.
It’s this notion of the hidden that's one of the major themes of Fell. The depravities that take place behind locked doors, the insanity that seeps around the fringes of our everyday lives and the secrets that scratch at the inner cages of our psyche. The back cover for the trade itself even proclaims “Everybody is hiding something”.
The opening panel of Fell #3 is a wide one, the first of three on the page. It depicts the outskirts of Snowtown, the left of the panel taken up by the sign welcoming people to the city (if only they knew). The same sign has a strange, red symbol daubed on it in what looks like spray paint.
In the previous two issues it's already been established this symbol is a special mark, a form of protective magic. Anything (or anyone) with that mark is safe, protected from the city itself and any horror or attack it may pit against you. At the end of the first issue Fell himself is branded by this mark, by Mayko a bar owner who becomes his only friend in the desolate city. The mark, in whatever form it's shown, is always in red, jumping out at us amidst the cold, gloomy patina that Templesmith chooses to daub the city in.
The symbol also speaks to the idea of secrets and hidden networks. Outsiders (like Fell) will intiially be oblivious to the symbol and its meaning as they enter the city. It’s only through pain, suffering and experience or if the city or its inhabitants somehow deem you ‘worthy’ that you come to understand what it all means. In that regard the symbol posseses the kind of arcane exlusivity of Warchalking or even the Hobo Code.
The Post-It note on the right side of the panel is part of an established tic of the series. A few issues open with a polaroid photograph (taken by Fell) of a scene, building or location with a note accompanying it, usually with an observation by Fell written on it. Issue #8 of the series takes this a step further, consisting of a series of photographs or moments (or both) and observations.
When we look down at the second panel on the page we realise the first panel/photo is part of a much larger tapestry, just a small piece of the grim tableux Fell is building on his corkboard. We see the importance of the image and how it's merely part of a collection or set of other interrelated images, a narrative within a narrative.
Every page in Fell is build around the nine panel grid. With this knowledge of the nine panel serving as the default configuration we gain the new knowledge that the opening panel here (and the page as a whole) is a break in the design. A new configuration over a hidden structure.
Gun Machine follows Detective John Tallow as he tries to piece together the puzzle of a room of guns, a collection belonging to someone who has been killing for a very long time.
In the novel the antagonist of the piece, a man known merely as The Hunter, sees the hidden history of New York. He sees its forgotten history. He sees images of the past, before man came along, bleeding into his perception of the present. His final goal and aim is revealed to be something known as a Ghost Dance, a ritual designed to cleanse the land of the white men and the structures they've imposed.
These (hidden) networks are everywhere in Gun Machine. At one point the disappearance of payphones from the city streets is discussed. It’s a nice signifier of the invisible communication strands (mobile, wi-fi, electro magnetic energy) that now coil down our thoroughfares, wrapping themselves around us and piercing our unsuspecting skulls.
It’s obviously a subject close to Ellis’ heart as he also has a forthcoming non-fiction book, Spirit Tracks, which he's spoken about in a number of interviews. The book will be about cities and the future, maybe even cities of the future. The book, in part, is an extrapolation from this talk he gave in Berlin at the Cognitive Cities Conference in 2011.
Here, he talks about many things concerning the present and future of the cities and the invisible forces and networks around us. He touches on hauntology (which I’ve touched upon briefly myself), but also mentions the work of Paul Devereux, a writer and researcher who has done work in the field of geo-glyphs. These are, of course, symbols etched into the terrain of the Earth itself, the original tying together of symbology and our environment. It suggests that symbols, and the hidden knowledge they contain will be with us for some time to come.
The opening panel of Fell #3 hints at the hidden foces lurking bneath the everyday existence. It makes the invisible slightly corporeal, hinting at the power of structure (the ones we make and the ones we choose to believe in) and the marks we leave on the world around us.