Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Does Garth Ennis hate Super-Heroes?

I got some good feedback from the look we did at Crossed (and I do wish that more of the feedback was being posted here to start some good discussions, but too many of the readers seem to prefer to contact me directly.  I don't mind, but it would terrific to get some good discussions going here guys!) and as a part of one of those conversations Cameron and I started to discuss whether or not there were common threads that worked their way through the works of Garth Ennis and Warren Ellis. We even thought that we might challenge readers out there to do a brief review/study of some of the works the two men have put forth and then raise the issue as an open debate right here on the blog. So let's ask the questions:

1. Is anyone interested?
2. Does everyone know their works?
3. If we could only pick six things to review for each person, what would it be?

With the questions out there, I'll wait to see what kind of responses we get before I press on in that vein.

Today though, I thought I would spend a little more time talking about one of my all-time favorite writers. Before I get into it though, I wanted to point out that I find myself most fascinated by non-traditional super-hero comics that are written by writers to have come out of the British Isles.  Coincidence or is there something in the water? Ellis. Ennis. Gaiman. Moore. Millar.

Now, while I love a good super-hero tale as much as anyone, I'm also impressed by writers who can keep me interested in comics with other genres, and few people have done that better than Garth Ennis.  A quick look through his bibliography on Wikipedia ( will show you just how much time he has spent outside of the core market of comic books.  Compared to most, you would be hard pressed to understand how exactly he has become such a success. The truth is that super-hero comics are what pays the bills, and those people who abstain from them with the regularity that Garth does foten cannot get a proper foothold in the industry.

Because his work with DC is probably his most extensive mainstream North American work, I thought I would take some time to walk those of you unfamiliar with it through the various books and demonstrate what I think is a pattern of avoiding traditional super-hero writing.

Let's start with his nearly four year run on Hellblazer, a book that is much darker and grittier than the Constantine movie that featured Neo. Four years on an occult book, writing some of the most inspired stories of a ruthless bastard magician who fights dirty and seems to have equal contempt for both God and Satan? That's a lot of time for anyone, and yet it's a magnificent run of storytelling, with black humor and deep, thought provoking storylines.

He also did a year and a half on The Demon, which was a character traditionally drawn into standard super-hero books, that never really seemed to belong.  Ennis added an edge to the series, and wrote stories of Etrigan that were disturbing, without losing their place in the hero genre.  For me this was a marginal hero genre book (Etrigan is NOT a hero) that didn't live up to the run on Hellblazer, but did give us one magnificent by-product; HITMAN.

In 1995 Ennis wrote a couple of vertigo titles which were deeply woven with religious tones.  Goddess was an 8 issue limited series, that does make for a very good read, but picking between the two of them is easy for me; Preacher is the winner. Now before you go out and pick it up to read it, be aware that it is blasphemous, crude and vulgar to the extreme.  As I have said before, at the time that it was released I believed that there was an excellent chance that it would be banned.  Six years later the story ended, and not one bit of it was ever banned (at least not in Canada.) It is a twisted and dark look at religion and God, and while I do not endorse the subject matter, the storytelling is brilliant.  Arseface alone is worth the series.

Shortly after the launch of Preacher, Garth brought a character he introduced in The Demon to the world in his own comic series.  Hitman followed the exploits of Tommy Monaghan, a professional hitman who had been attacked by an alien parasite and had acquired limited short-range telepathy. Like Demon, I think this was one of those effort by Garth to be just on the fringe of the hero genre, without fulling entering into it, and unlike The Demon, I think that this one was a home run. It's twisted, funny and completely outrageous, and it doesn't miss a beat.....even when Tommy meets Batman.  How the man makes retarded seem reasonable is beyond me.  I think he was dropped on his head as a child.

Anyways, I could walk through numerous more titles, and continue to illistrate how little work Garth did for DC in the hero genre, but the pattern would remain the same. From time to time he would do some hero work, and when he did it it was often exceptional.  But the breadth of his superior writing was often saved for other genres, and he has put together terrific character studies that are well worth the read.  Even just a quick glance over his other work at DC gives you....

1. Bloody Mary
2. Heartland
3. Pride & Joy
4. Adventures In The Rifle Brigade (feels like Hitman)
5. Enemy Ace
6. War Story (multiple tales taken from wartime)
7. Unknown Soldier (a very grim take - I liked it)

Getting outside DC, he has two other books that I think are "big." The Boys & Punisher.  Both appear at first glance to be hero genre books, but if you read a little bit deeper I think you'll see that neither of them really is. The Boys is, on many levels, an assassination of the super-hero genre, while his epic Punisher run was so far removed from the anti-hero with a gun feel of standard Punisher books that it got a mature rating and moved to a different imprint to distinguish it.  I recommend both of those titles, and I suspect that once you read Garth's Punisher you'll have a hard time taking anyone else's as seriously.

Garth just seems to really like working on stories that give him a real chance to delve into people and their issues, and he appears to prefer to do it in less common genres.  He's done terrific books in a variety of genres like war (Battlefields), the apocalypse (Just A Pilgrim), horror (Crossed), religion (Chronicles of Wormwood), science fiction (Dan Dare), western (Streets of Glory), mafia (Back To Brooklyn) and others, and he never fails to deliver.

But you have to wonder, given his industry and his surroundings.......

does he just not like super-heroes?


Unknown said...

His work on Preacher was at the pinnacle of his career. Downhill from there. The so called "revival" of the Punisher is a sham since he's now driven the character into pretty much every stereotype out there and don't get me started about his work on Captain America. My god...he can't wait to get his hands on a good hero and twist and turn that sucker like a bendy straw.

Cam said...

I disagree that his career has gone down since Preacher.

His current work on The Boys is amazing and definitely furthers the Ennis hates superheroes thesis. One of Ennis's real strengths is writing stories about male bonding. He gets the emotions and banter just right. There's not as much of a place for that in a superhero book.

Also, I suppose he doesn't have as much creative freedom when working for one of the big comic companies as with another. Particularly when writing well-established top-tier characters like Punisher or Captain America. I think to judge Ennis fairly you've got to take his independent titles (like The Boys, Wormwood, Crossed) into consideration, and they're fantastic.

Unknown said...

Ennis was asked this straight out in Barcelona and he said A, He doesnt hate but dislikes the notion of a superhero being all good for no reason other than to be so so good and nice. He further claimed, real people given powers would use them for personal gain at least to some degree. He admitted however that as he never read comics as a child he may not have developed the bond needed as an adult.

B, He dislikes writing for US comics because he is limited in what, why, when and how much more than if he did his own work or worked in europe.