Fell is a dark detective story, following our titular character after he’s been newly-transferred to a police department in a town on the verge of collapse. The story can explore some fairly horrid subjects, but Ellis retains a gallows humour that prevents the darkness of the city from becoming overbearing. Meanwhile, Templesmith’s art is the perfect choice to depict a city in decline and the uneasiness evoked by the streets.
Writer: Warren Ellis
Artist: Ben Templesmith
The book opens bleakly and continues in this vein as Detective Richard Fell starts work in a city that seems to be built of nihilism. Recently transferred over, Fell originally worked in the city across the bridge before the transfer was forced on him. The reason for this is never explained in the first volume, it’s a history that’s only hinted at and the only confirmation we have is that Fell cannot cross over again. He’s now a detective in Snowtown’s understaffed homicide division, a department within a police force that seems stretched too thin. Snowtown itself begins to form a character early in the book. Much like Gotham, it builds an atmosphere of veiled threat and promises a history that should both be interesting and disturbing.
Fell quickly develops a relationship with Mayko, the owner of a local bar. This quick friendship soon turns weird, however, as Fell follows her home and is branded by her in a drunken episode. The brand is the Snowtown tag, an “S” crossed out, and is supposed to provide Fell with protection. It’s a symbol that appears constantly on the city streets and reappears throughout the story. That Fell should need protection, and the fact that the residents turn to superstition in the face of a dangerous city, creates a small horror undercurrent that runs through the series. The overtly paranormal doesn’t appear in the book, but a general vibe of uneasiness permeates each issue. Small bits of information, like the Snowtown tag or a mysterious Nixon-masked nun, hint at deeper weirdness and danger.
Readers should be warned that this is an adult book and the gruesomeness of the crimes could be too much for some. Snowtown is a city enveloped by darkness, the definition of the wrong side of the tracks (or bridge as it may be). While Ellis and Templesmith have never been creators who shied away from darkness or brutality, Fell really seems like the book where they explore how horrible humanity can be. At the same time, it can’t be denied that places like this do exist, if not whole cities then at least neighborhoods that remain broken and forgotten.
Fell can be considered a dark mirror to the archetype of the rule-breaking loner detective. While some of them may break the rules because of narcissism, anger or an unassailable faith in justice, Fell is simply a man who’s been worn down so much that he doesn’t give a damn. The cases that Fell deals with, the brutality and the gruesomeness, further underscore the horror vibe in addition to the detective story. While weirdness is hinted at and some of the crimes may be inspired by superstitions, there is no great evil that’s harming the city and populace. Instead, this slide into a dark and feral state stems from the evil that men are capable of.
The style of the book is wonderful, with panel captions drawn as if they were post-it notes stuck to bits of evidence. Ellis and Templesmith create a evocative book, really giving readers a sense of Fell’s life and character through the environment created by the dialogue and artwork. Ellis’ dialogue takes center stage and should be one of the main draws. It’s a familiar voice that Ellis has used in the past, rooted in a cynicism and sarcasm that quickly turns into dark humour. He has a way with one-liners, evoking laughs in absurd or extreme statements that still manage to convey a concise picture of a character’s personality in a single line.
Templesmith uses a mixed media approach to the art, with backgrounds created using manipulated images. It gives a dark and foggy atmosphere to the city, as if grey skies were a constant threat of storms. The style really adds a lot to the book, with slight changes in the style used to emphasize what’s happening. Memories will be illustrated in a grainy sepia panel. As Fell investigates a crime, his imagined rendition of the events is drawn as if they were un-inked pencils highlighted to stand out amongst the cool dark blues of Snowtown. In some ways the art may remind readers of Dave McKean or Bill Sienkiewicz, creating a world that seems ephemeral and darkly moody.
Fell is a dense read, with each individual issue a complete story. As the first volume comprises 8 issues, you get a lot of bang for your buck. These aren’t quick issues either, with a decent amount of dialogue and an atmosphere that makes you want to take your time. By the end it feels like you’ve already spent a long time with Fell and his cases, even though he’s relatively still new to the city. This density of story was part of the original concept for the book, which was priced at $1.99 per issue as Ellis had wanted a lot of value in the book, like when he was younger and comics weren’t so expensive. Even without this mindset, the value in the book is high simply from the quality of the story. It pulled in multiple Eisner nominations and it’s easy to see why when you’re reading the book and can feel the palpable tension.