Warren Ellis talks rum, drone wars and synthetic biology

The acclaimed author's got a new graphic novel project on the go - and plenty to get off his chest
Warren Ellis

He's written about gonzo journalists of the future, Iron Man and feral cities.

Now comics maestro Warren Ellis has turned his hand to a scion of the Bacardi rum dynasty – Emilio Bacardi, who led a dual life as a business leader and subversive political activist in the late 1800s.

Together with artist Mike Allred, he's penned The Spirit of Bacardi – a graphic novel based around Emilio's life and work. We find out what attracted Ellis to the project – and what he thinks about the future of comics, corporate drone wars and synthetic biology.

The Spirit of Bacardi
The Spirit of Bacardi

It all started when Bacardi got in touch. I was contacted by a friend of a friend who's a Bacardi representative, and I was iffy about it. They asked to send over some stuff from the Bacardi archive; I thought, the least I can do is spend 15 minutes reading this. And I found the story of Emilio; I thought a palimpsest of that would actually make a terrific little book. I just found his story fascinating. I think Bacardi's original angle was going to be based around the beginning [of the company], with Don Facundo, but I found Emilio's story much more interesting, and that was something I wanted to play with.

Digital comics never took off the way I thought they would. Digital comics as a whole – which is obviously a broad church – have not really made the impact that I thought they would. With just a couple of rare exceptions. I'm not honestly a big proponent of the all-singing, all-dancing digital comic; I think it normally ends up looking like really cheap animation.

Motion comics are obviously something different, because that is an attempt at a comics/animation hybrid. But too many people will stick some walking and talking and a bit of music on something and call it a digital comic.

I was actually more interested in what Thrillbent were doing, with the tapping to reveal panels. It wasn't quite there, and it was very reliant on a certain bag of tricks, but it was very interesting. They're still playing with that, and I think eventually that might turn into something interesting.

Augmented reality in comics has a long way to go. The AR stuff is interesting, but I think AR as a whole is hitting that trough of despond. Where everyone's just f***ing bored of it, and maybe in a few years someone will get something interesting out of it. I was actually more interested in the possibility of drilling down; I've seen some digital comics that have preserved every aspect of the work, so you can swipe your way back to the pencils. And you can identify elements on the page and drill down into the history of those objects, or find the maps of where the characters are, or pull up relationship maps.

Coming back to comics after prose, the big difference for me personally was a page of a novel is more densely packed with information than the page of an ordinary comic. I found that comics were peculiarly light on information – and a way around that would be to layer things under the page, as it were.

AR is absolutely dependent on you having a phone that can do AR. Which is a bar I'm not quite prepared to call low.

Too much of Transmetropolitan has come true, which is the thing that I was never expecting. I've been following drone technology a lot, just for the book I'm writing right now – and there's this weird, ugly thing that looks somewhere between a fish and a beetle – I saw a photo of it yesterday – and it's an air-sea drone; it flies and it's amphibious.

I'm waiting for the Google/Facebook war over the skies in Africa. Google's doing Project Loon over there, the balloons that work as internet stations. And yet Facebook's building drones to fly over Africa as internet portals – but you'll have to use a Facebook account to use them. Everyone wants Africa's internet business, because it's the last emerging market. So the skies will fill with Google balloons and Facebook drones, all vying for your business. And it's only a matter of time before they start hacking each other, shooting at each other, knocking each other down. It'll be the first inter-corporate war. That'll be fun!

Synthetic biology is the future. I'm acquainted with a synthetic biologist called Rachel Armstrong. She's currently involved in plans to grow the interior of a starship; I met her first when we were at a think tank in Holland, talking about ways to grow a city – coral, mussel shell. We were talking about what my daughter wants to do at university; she wants to do biology, and Rachel turned to me and said, "Biology is the new engineering."

Once you start the ball of disruption rolling, it multiplies and the balls go bloody everywhere. This is the problem with disruption; everyone has come into digital spaces to talk about disruption; we can disrupt this and disrupt that, and make money. What they don't get is that disruption is a feral process; once disruption is out in the wild, it doesn't stop. And then eventually, you will be disrupted. In 10 years' time, there are going to be kids in basements 3D printing additional organs, and working out ways to stitch them into their bodies.

The Spirit of Bacardi, written by Warren Ellis and with art by Mike Allred, is available to download from bacardi.com/spiritofbacardi