Wednesday, November 11, 2009

My mate Garth

When he was 20, Garth Ennis was writing Judge Dredd and I’ve been jealous of the prick ever since. If he wasn’t the best writer in comics, it’d be pretty easy to hate him.

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I keep my comics in banana boxes: they’re sturdy, easy to move and store hundreds of issues. On top of them I scrawl a brief description of what’s inside. One of them has eleven different titles on it, from Secret Origins to Minx to Ultimates. One of them just says ENNIS.

This is what’s inside:

Fury: Peacemaker. Every issue of Dicks and Adventures of the Rifle Brigade. The first three issues of Tangled Web. 303. Unknown Soldier, both Bloody Mary comics. Every issue of Goddess and a shamefully few Hitmen comics. Every issue of Just A Pilgrim bar one, and every War Story bar two, which I can’t find fuckin’ anywhere. The first six Midnighter comics and all of the Chronicles of Wormwood. Every issue of Punisher that Steve Dillon drew. 12 issues of The Demon. Battler Britton. Thor: Vikings. 90% of his Hellblazer issues and 100% of Preacher. Punisher – The End, The Cell and The Tyger. Three Battlefields minis. The first 32 issues of The Boys. The Ghost Rider series with the horrible art, and the War Is Hell one with the great art.

There’s more, scattered all over the show, in that pile of 2000ads and on the bookshelf in the main room, where the Punisher max series gets a place of pride, because it’s that fucking good.

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I will read everything Garth Ennis writes, because it’s always good. Sometimes it gets a bit too obvious, sometimes it gets a bit too silly for its own damn good, but there is always something worth noting. A turn of phrase, a slice of humanity served up to you in a story about people getting shot in the face, a dumb joke. There is always something good in there.

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And sometimes, it’s just spectacular.

Take Punisher: The Tyger. That’s one comic that had no right being as good as it was. A simple story with an easy plot: young Frank realizes the world is a horrible place. Excellent art from the great John Severin help make it look attractive, but Ennis’ pacing, subtext and execution of the plot is flawless. The use of Blake’s poem and that explanation for that stupid bloody skull that is worthy, clever and truly poetic. It’s a fantastically simple story that says multitudes about the character, what he represents and what it means for all of humanity.

And this is just one of his comics. It’s not even the best of the Punisher one-shots that Garth did. The End and The Cell were both incredibly complex and equally horrific tales with a weary resignation for all the world.

Nobody expects this from a Punisher comic, but its fucking brilliant when it does happen.

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Whenever Ennis starts a story about soldiers, you can always rely on some cocksucker piping up to complain that he only ever writes war stories and needs to branch into other genres if he is ever going to get anywhere in the foetid world of comics.

This usually means they would fall over themselves to see Ennis give Batman the same treatment he gave the Punisher, but sneer at his war stories because they’re not important in the Grand Continuity.

(They don’t matter? The greatest horrors of the 20th century and the vast events that surround them don’t compare to seeing the Joker dropkicked right back into his Arkham cell? Really?)

Geeks love to put everything in their right little boxes, and this includes defining a creator by a particular genre. By this reasoning, Geoff Johns is the current god of superhero writers. Chris Ware is the king of 'Oh God, Why Is This Happening To Me' comics. And Ennis is that guy who writes war comics.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. Some of the finest comic stories ever created have appeared in war comics, pushing aside testosterone fuelled action blasts to show the true horror of conflict and the effects it has on the human soul. From Kutzmann's tales of terrified action in the Korea War, to Pat Mills and Joe Colquhon's sublime Charley's War, comics set against a background of battlegrounds and conflicts can be emotionally devastating. Ennis has contributed his fair share of tales like this, something the writer must be congratulated for.

Unfortunately, comments about the fact that Ennis is working on another war story often present this as a negative feature. That the Irish writer is falling into a well-known subject, taking the easiest route to get to a story.

Considering the amount of new superhero comics that flood the shelves every week, complaints about a bit of variety in there are stupid and illogical. If Ennis wants to square things a little by applying his easy flow and sharp insight to comics books about war, you can’t blame the man.

(And thank God he never uses is superheroes in combat settings. It’s all right seeing them on the home front, digging out ratzi spies, but they just look wrong on the grime of the battlefield. The recent team-up between The Flash and the Blackhawks in Brave and the Bold was far more tasteless than anything in Herogasm.)

There are a millions of stories that could be told with a war background, the intensity of combat and the horrendous toll of human life. You can plunge into the depth of depression and depravity of trench warfare and still find hope in a flower that has avoided the bombs.

Most of mankind have managed to avoid getting into wars for decades, but our ancestors lived with these horrors on a regular basis, and they helped create the world we know today.

There is almost no story that can’t be told in a war setting. It covers all the bases of basic drama, and tells us something about ourselves, about humanity, and about how fucked up we can be sometimes.

I’ll never get sick of Ennis stories set against the background of war. His Battlefields and War Stories are some of the best he has ever written. The fact that his tales of war are often his most emotionally satisfying is a testament to the idea that much of the horrific shit going on in these stories actually happened. That is what happens when you drive over somebody with a tank or fill a confined space with fire.

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He also writes a wonderful Superman too.

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The dialogue Ennis puts in the mouths of his characters helps, with each given a rich, idiosyncratic vocabulary that conveys so much characterisation. It’s there in the captions, where Ennis manages to find just the right phrase to enrich the story and it’s there in the interactions between characters.

It’s all subjective, this dialogue thing. I can’t say why someone like Brubaker has characters that sing like Pavarotti, while Geoff Johns’ characters sound like they’re reciting dialogue from a hot teen musical.

As far as this reader goers, Ennis writes the very best dialogue in comics. His words are lyrical, his conversation are sincere. It’s just sad that this remains so rare in modern comics.

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And then there is the humour.

Ennis recognises the humour in everything, and the lower humanity goes, the blacker the humour gets. At one level, there is the hard slapstick of Dicks and a significant part of Ennis’ work does sit at this low-brow level.

And then there are the dead serious works, bemoaning the human condition and showing the worst the world has to give. But even then, there is the humour of absurdity – the nervous laugh at transgressive gore, amusement at the limits the story strives to breach.

Because it is a laugh, this whole world is so crazy and so odd. There are laughs to be found anywhere, even in the horror of the skies over the Russian Front in The Night Witches.

Because we have to laugh to get through the tough times. Humour isn’t just an entertainment, it’s a coping mechanism, and there is nothing worse than a serious story with no sign of this human trait.

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And that’s why I keep reading Ennis’ comics. It’s the humanity. A fierce hatred of all injustice anywhere, combined with a healthy disregard for those in authority, are all well and good, but the sheer humanity on display makes them unmissable. Ennis’ characters feel like real people, with all the awkwardness and unpleasantness this can bring.

No matter what the situation or plot, this is a constant in Garth Ennis’ comics, and could be seen in the earliest days of Troubled Souls, when the main characters try to break out of the cycle of violence they are in, by treating each other as human beings.

It’s still there, in The Boys and Battlefields and everything else Ennis has on his plate. That humanity ensures I’ll always be there to buy everything he does.


Duncan Falconer said...


Anonymous said...

Right on, brutha. Managed to sum up everything I thought about Ennis but could never articulate.

Unknown said...

Hell yes. It's so true that he writes characters that feel real, even when they're in absurd (yet often true-to-life) situations. He's a hell of a lot better than people give him credit for, and there's a lot more going on in his comics than violence and gross-outs. And when it comes to war, there are few on his level in any medium. He's awesome, and I can't get enough of his comics.

Zom said...

It is the humanity, isn't it? He's very good at the humanity, and, yeah, the way humour lurks in even his most serious stories contributes significantly. I suppose that's why I get frustrated with him, because I'd like to see his very human perspective break free of some of his obsessions and tics. I'm not so much talking about war as his fixation on tough men and even tougher women, and on the more puerile extremes of his humour, which, while I wouldn't want entirely shot of (his DC One Million foray still gets belly laughs from me), does sometimes seems to overwhelm his better nature.