‘Stories are what make us human,” comics writer Warren Ellis told an audience on 28 April 2005, as that year’s Toronto Comic-Con began. “They’re an advanced form of play. Cats have play. Sometimes very sophisticated, dramatised forms of play. But they’re not communicated or externalised. So far, only humans use stories to dramatise the way they see the world.”
Two days after that, on 30 April, a 23-year-old woman flew to the convention to surprise Ellis, whom she believed was her boyfriend. The pair had spoken on video chat and email regularly since they first met online in 2004, with some of their conversations lasting through the night. She alleges that Ellis, then 37, never told her that he had a long-term partner, and that he had asked her to keep their relationship secret because of his fame. They had sex in his hotel room that evening.
A second woman, who was 22 at the time, tells the Guardian she believed such secrecy was necessary because Ellis had not told his long-term partner about her; she says she slept with him in the same hotel room the day before, on 29 April. And a third woman, who also went to his room on 30 April, said she had believed Ellis was in an open relationship, but says she was “not informed of the assembly-line nature of his evening”. It appears Ellis had dramatised the world differently for each of them.
In June this year, as scores of young women began to publicly make allegations about the behaviour of men in senior positions in comics and science fiction writing, several women began to speak about their relationships with Ellis, some dating back to the early 2000s.
Now, more than 60 women have come together to launch the website So Many of Us, to document their concurrent relationships with Ellis and encourage others to come forward. They allege that Ellis has pursued sexual relationships with a staggering number of his female fans, all the while deceiving them about the number of relationships he was in; based on the account of these women, it appears he was maintaining at least 19 relationships simultaneously at one point in 2009.
Jhayne Holmes, a writer and photographer whose relationship with Ellis lasted eight years, initially set up a server for women to talk to each other. She says that roughly 100 women have come forward, while 33 of them have composed written statements, supported by emails and text messages, which have been seen by the Guardian. In individual interviews, several of the women allege that Ellis was sending identical text and photo messages to them at the same time. He would tell them they were “bewitching” or “hypnotising” and extend his friendship, sometimes offering mentoring and advice. Eventually, he would ask them to send him sexually explicit photos. Some of them did. In some instances, if they said no, he’d stop talking to them.
Many of the women were in their late teens and early 20s when their contact with Ellis began. Sometimes they initiated the conversation, sometimes he did. Some of these relationships were conducted entirely online, while others were physical. Some of the women work in the comic-book industry, while others are artists, writers, photographers and alternative models. Many of them say Ellis gave them career boosts, using his newsletters, blogs and influential forums to draw attention to their work. But as they hear their own stories coming from other women, many say they feel used in what they consistently describe as a pattern of friendship, then escalating sexual contact, then exclusively sexual contact – and silence if they refused, or stopped.
I have hurt many people that I had no intention of hurting. I apologise
On 19 June Ellis posted a statement on Twitter, denying he had “ever consciously coerced, manipulated or abused anyone, nor have I assaulted anybody”. He added: “I have always tried to support women in their lives and careers, but I have hurt many people that I had no intention of hurting. I apologise.”
I corresponded with Ellis at some length over the course of writing this article. He does not deny these relationships happened, and he does not dispute that many of these women were not told about each other. “What I have always tried to do is make sure other people feel protected. I have been asked for discretion, and I have asked for it. Some of the personal work I have to do now is about bad or limited communication in my life,” he told the Guardian by email. He only denies that he hid his long-term partner from these women, saying that she is mentioned in his books: “I’ve never tried to hide my relationship status. I am in an open relationship with my partner. Like many long relationships, ours has had troubled times, including brief periods of separation.”
These women do not accuse Ellis of illegal behaviour. But they describe their shock at the sheer magnitude of his pursuits, feeling heartbroken when he stopped talking to them, or angry after discovering he was sending many of them identical messages. What they want now is to start a conversation about how men with power and influence treat young women as part of a culture of impunity granted to celebrities – and not merely those who appear in Hollywood blockbusters or play Madison Square Garden.
Ellis’s influence can be seen in his message boards: the Warren Ellis Forum, The Engine, and Whitechapel. They were fun places where thousands of artists and writers joined forces to create groundbreaking comics, many of which made their way to television or Hollywood. They were seen as talent pipelines for the biggest studios, including Marvel and DC Comics. And Ellis himself is as influential as the spaces he created: he could be credited with pioneering the “widescreen” movement in his comic The Authority, which starred ersatz versions of the Justice League. Ellis’s writing style transitions as easily to the movie screen as the name implies, and his work has been used extensively as reference material in Marvel films. (The US president in the film Iron Man 3, adapted directly from Ellis’s Iron Man comics, is named Matthew Ellis.) His comic Red has been made into two Bruce Willis action-comedies. His ongoing Batman series, The Batman’s Grave, promises to influence a new generation of creators of comics, film and TV. And Transmetropolitan, a cyberpunk comedy about a crusading journalist – and perhaps his most famous work - inspired artists, writers, reporters and several of the women speaking out against him.
Ellis’s public harem presented a blueprint for others’ behaviour
It is part of a broader problem, says a woman who uses the pseudonym Madolan Greene. She had a relationship with Ellis for five years, and served as a moderator on The Engine for two of them. At least five of the women who sent their stories to Holmes say they were moderators on his forums; several industry figures who have spoken out recently say his relationships with the women working on his forums were an open secret among those who used them.
“Ellis’s public harem presented a blueprint for others’ behaviour,” Greene writes in her statement for the website. “‘Get big enough,’ it invited, ‘and you too will deserve your own sparkling audience of sexy young women.’ This behaviour provided a model and smokescreen for destructive patterns built atop the idea of women as currency.” Consent, these women are arguing, must be understood more broadly than the letter of the law – without knowing about each other, Greene says, “full and informed consent was impossible”.
At the same time, both Greene and Holmes agree that putting creative young women in charge of Ellis’s forums made them better, safer and more successful places for the people who used them. “If you weren’t targeted by Warren, you were pretty safe there in ways that you weren’t elsewhere online,” says Holmes. Indeed, in recent weeks the comics industry has been rocked by allegations of sexual assault and workplace harassment, with several men being fired.
All of the women coming forward want to change something bigger than Ellis: the structures that allowed him to accrue so much personal power. Some of Ellis’s previous collaborators have declared that they will try to help. “I did nothing but benefit from my friendship with Warren Ellis for years. I paid no price. And that incurs a debt,” says comic writer Kelly Sue DeConnick, who has worked with Ellis often over the years and entered the industry through Ellis’s message boards. She says she believes the women’s accounts: “I don’t know if we can make sure this never happens again, but I can think we make it not as easy.”
Critics, including myself, regularly recommend and dissect Ellis’s work. He has changed many lives for the better. People, including those who are now accusing him of hurting them, also say they love him.
“We are all at very different points in our response to the artist v art debate,” says Greene. “Some of us want to burn all the stories and some don’t. Transmetropolitan was a formative part of my life and I don’t give him that. I don’t let him take that from me. Collectively, we’ve acknowledged that the burners should find room to respect the keepers and vice versa, as we are all processing our relationship to Ellis’s work in different and very personal ways.”
Another woman, who worked in comics and has asked to remain anonymous, was more adamant. “I have extremely strong feelings about [his books],” she says. “It is not fair to cancel them. It is not just him. He had letterers, he had artists, he had inkers, he had promotional people. So many people’s hard work goes into these books. You can do what you want, but please remember that other people worked on these things. And Warren’s work is still very good. I think for me, whereas I certainly will not ever support or buy anything ever from him again, I don’t want other people to stop. I don’t want people to burn books! I just want people to know who he is.”
Speaking to me, Ellis responded to these accounts with some self-pity and what seemed to be genuine contrition. He called himself a “bad friend”. But many of the women I interviewed described his attentions not as understandable mistakes of friendship, but as an extremely isolating experience that relied on his attraction to them.
Ellis insists that the problem was relationship trouble, “not predatory behaviour”, but concedes that “[t]here is a differing of perception here, and I’ve been listening to it”. He said he was going to try therapy on the advice of friends.
“When someone flirted with me or engaged with me intimately I was genuinely flattered, and proceeded time and again to make an emotional mess of things,” he wrote. “I will own that, and I will not do that again. I have to do the work on that and many other things now.”
One anonymous contributor on the website says: “I want him to do better by women. I have seen the kindness and good he has within himself. I wish no harm for him. I believe he does have space in his heart for remorse. I wish for him to receive therapy and help so that this never does this to another woman, and he stops this pattern of manipulation. I wish for others to see how negatively this behaviour affects those that are targeted, and not repeat it.”