Who is Jake Ellis? by Nathan Edmondson (writer) and Tonci Zonjic (artist)
Who is Jake Ellis? is an excellent thriller that defied my expectations for the wonderful reason that I had so much trouble figuring out what my expectations should be in the first place. In other words, the story is so unique, I couldn’t see it fitting easily into any specific template. At first glance, it’s merely a thriller of the James Bond variety, but the James Bond character doesn’t actually seem to have any real skills of his own or seem to have any mission to accomplish other than not getting killed. Part of me wonders if the author is making a comment on the absurdity of life in general and our lack of preparation for it.
The main character is Jon Moore, a CIA analyst who has not been trained for the field, yet the entire story takes place “in the field” as he flees his enemies. To complicate matters, he’s not quite sure who his enemies are. And to complicate things fully, he’s not sure who this associate Jake Ellis is, the “person” who is making it possible for him to survive at all. The reason Jon isn’t sure who, or what for that matter, Jake is, is because Jake is a shadowy man who can be seen and heard only by Jon, who has been on the run for about four years.
At first, we might guess, in answer to the question posed by the title, that Jake is merely a projection of Jon’s imagination, but the comic book makes clear fairly early on that Jake is a separate entity of some sort, with knowledge that Jon, on the conscious and sub-conscious level, would never have. The problem we face in trying to identify the who or what of Jake Ellis is that the entire comic is realistic, with no fantastic or science fiction elements. The relationship between Jake and Jon is real and practical except for the minor detail that it shouldn’t be possible.
This practical relationship is quickly shown to the reader: The first six pages concisely establish the type of life Jon is living and the manner in which Jake assists him. The first three pages show Jon on a yacht making some sort of deal with a man backed by bodyguards. The deal goes bad. Jon flees, making clever moves and narrowly dodging bullets before jumping ship to save his life. Page four announces clearly to the reader that we are going to see the scene again: “FIFTEEN SECONDS AGO.” And sure enough, the scene is exactly the same, except this time, we can see the shadowy Jake in the background and see his words in gray word balloons as he speaks to Jon. Though Jon says the same thing through the scene this second time through, we now realize that some of his words are actually direct replies to Jake, replies that the villains think are responses to their side of the conversations since they can’t see Jake Ellis. This quick six-page introduction shifts our reality quickly as we going from thinking we are seeing a brilliant Bond-like character take initiative to knowing that we are watching somebody take orders and only surviving because they are taking orders.
But who is giving those orders? Even though the action keeps us hooked, that key question remains the vital one in the book. The book is a five-issue mini-series collected in trade, so the answer is provided fully in less than 150 pages. Fairly early on, we are told that the answer involves experimental technology and shady government involvement. The specific nature of these projects and the facility in which they were conducted are described in the comic, and thankfully, we aren’t left scratching our heads, thinking the writer came up with a good idea with which he couldn’t follow through. The ending is what makes this comic book so good to me: It satisfies.
In the course of the story, though, there are some great questions asked directly or at least implied as Jon and Jake ask each other questions, trying to solve the problem of identity. Philip K. Dick would have admired the way a character with a voice in his head would explicitly ask questions of that other voice, that other identity. Is that “other” truly a separate identity? Even if it belongs to another real person, does that identity become part of our own if it’s “within” us? The fact that we can think about different sides of an argument makes all of us similar to Jon/Jake; therefore, perhaps identity is always of this sort, lacking in unity and simultaneous vision. Perhaps the fact that we all house multiple, conflicting voices and opinions within a single, physical body creates the illusion of unified identity. Perhaps the pursuit of a single, harmonious whole is naive and wrong-headed.
Not all these questions are explicitly raised — the book is not quite as philosophically focused as my previous paragraph suggests, but there are enough moments, enough specific bits of dialogue scattered throughout the pages of the comic to push us to ask related questions in other places where the author does not bring up these issues explicitly. The author keeps the action going, stopping only occasionally to explicitly address the concept of identity. For example, Jon gets angry when it seems as if Jake is starting to give him directions and advice that he doesn’t really want. Jon yells at Jake: “How could you do that? Work against me? You’re my own mind, Jake! My own mind tricked me! I tried to get myself killed.” Jake’s response calls into question Jon’s assumption that they are one: “If I am you. If you are me.” As most of us would respond if part of our own minds started to act independently, Jon tells Jake: “You are me, not the other way around.” More philosophically, Jon admits, “The voice in my mind has developed a mind of his own. You can’t make this stuff up.”
In addition to this great dialogue and compelling action, the comic offers up excellent artwork. I’m at a bit of a loss to describe accurately the art of Tonci Zonjic in this comic. He seems to shift the entire palate of colors he uses for each scene, and then within many of the scenes, it’s as if he takes a sheet of colored plastic and shows us the scene through that sheet. Zonjic, however, is not a one-trick pony. In some scenes, he uses a basic realistic approach, particularly during daylight hours. And then he’ll shift to a noir style one would expect in this type of thriller. Much of the art functions to mark shifts in scene, particularly as we get scenes from four years ago when Jon first went on the run. But some of the art is just pleasing on an aesthetic level — it really is a beautiful work of art.
All in all, this comic is a solid one. Better yet is that enough people apparently liked it that the author and artist have started a follow-up story: Where Is Jake Ellis? At the moment, they are three issues in. You can catch up with the story on Comixology — they have all three issues available. Or you can wait until the story is collected in trade. I just hope the story of Jon and Jake continues. It’s a fun ride.