If you’re talking about British comics, then the chances are, you’re going to end up talking about Garth Ennis. The Northern Irish writer was behind some of the biggest comic franchises of the 1990s, and heralded the arrival of a new wave of young creatives who continued to bend and break the rules of the medium.
His work over the past few years has seen him deconstruct (metaphorically and physically) superhero egos in The Boys, play out a seriously nasty zombie apocalypse in Crossed, and even kickstarting funding for a children’s book project, of all things. But, for anyone who hasn’t yet had the chance to experience his uniquely violent and humorous take on comic books, here’s a brief introduction.
Son of a Preacher, Man
Perhaps Ennis’s most obvious accomplishment was the legendary Preacher series for DC. The 66-issue main arc centred on Jesse Custer, a Texan preacher who unwittingly becomes the host of an unnatural angel/demon offspring known as ‘Genesis’. When God abandons Heaven at the moment of its birth, Custer sets out on a journey across America in an attempt to track down the absent deity, discovering that he may now be the most powerful being in existence along the way.
Preacher took Western themes and stylistic devices, and turned them into a moral (and immoral) journey across an America that even Cormac McCarthy would struggle to survive. Serial killers, corrupt government agents, and a secret society dedicated to preserving the bloodline of Christ. Oh, and a guy called ‘Arseface’. Yep, in Preacher anything goes, and Ennis’s provocative writing style and flamboyant disregard for anything resembling normality made it one of the standout comics of the 1990s.
While the comic’s run may have ended more than a decade ago, its legacy lives on in the hearts of comics fans, and may soon be introduced to an entirely new audience. With top Hollywood ‘geeks’ Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg producing an upcoming TV adaptation for ABC (also home to the phenomenally successful adaptation of Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead), readers will have their fingers, toes and crucifixes crossed (geddit?) that the adaptation does justice to this unique and thoroughly entertaining piece of comic history.
Crime and Punishment
Beyond the Preacher series, Ennis’s other crowning achievement is probably his reinvention of The Punisher. Prior to his involvement, The Punisher had appeared to be in a terminal decline. Since his first appearance in 1974, the character had stood out as a ruthless, lethal beacon amidst a Marvel roster whose inherent ‘goodness’ made them seem like wannabes in comparison. His willingness to kill, his tenuous hold on his supposedly ‘heroic’ role, and of course his incredible character design (courtesy of Gerry Conway and John Romita Jr) earned him plenty of fans. However, by the time the late 90s rolled around, that popularity was on the wane, and with Marvel tempted to pull the plug on the whole thing, they instead roped in Garth Ennis to give the character one last jump start.
Ennis took The Punisher and stripped him back to his lone, vigilante roots. His story lines became more complex, and gained a deeper undercurrent of black humour. The character design also changed, losing its more ‘costume-y’ aspects in favour of a militaristic appearance that tied in with Ennis’s grittier, more realistic interpretation of his role. Exploring The Punisher’s roots as well as his current vigilante activities, Ennis oversaw the writing of the mini-series ‘Born’ with artist Darick Robertson, where US soldier Frank Castle is transformed into The Punisher during his third tour in Vietnam. Under his watch, the character fell firmly into anti-hero territory, literally so in the 1995 one-shot ‘Punisher Kills the Marvel Universe’ (which does exactly what it says on the tin).
Best of British
An avid fan and strong proponent of the British comics industry, this rather overt destruction of the bastions of American heroic tradition wasn’t totally out of character. Ennis grew up not on the traditional escapades of Superman et al., but reading the Boy’s Own-esque War Stories that filled the pages of British comics in the 70s. It’s a field that Ennis frequently returns to, and even as recently as last year he was writing these tales of military heroism and triumph in collaboration with Avatar Press.
There’s a very specific brand of ‘Britishness’ that comes with these stories, but at the beginning of Ennis’s career, he explored an identity struggle much more closely tied with his own Irish upbringing. In ‘Troubled Souls’, his first ever publication, Ennis wrote about the experience of a young Protestant man during the ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland. A part of Fleetway’s Crisis series, it was a dark and ambitious story to tell in the comic medium, and while Ennis is somewhat critical of this writing debut, it nonetheless remains a powerful and unique piece.
This guy sounds pretty cool. Where do I find him?
If this has whet your appetite for a good ol’ comic geek out, head over to this year’s London Super Comic Con, where Ennis will be one of the special guests in attendance, along with John Romita Jr and Neal Adams.
The convention will also be the first outside of the US to be attended by the Certified Guarantee Company, the world’s leading independent comic book grading service. So, if you have any old issues of Preacher lying around, bring them along, and find out just how valuable they are! Heck, do it in an awesome Punisher cosplay, and you might just be able to win a trip to Dragon Con!