Monday, July 13, 2015

No. 32 Garth Ennis

First Prog: 700 (but prior to that, Crisis 15)
Final Prog: 1280

First Meg: 1.01
Final Meg: 206

Total appearances: 245
-including his strips for Crisis and, more controversially, the episodes of Preacher reprinted in the Megazine*

Creator credits:
Troubled Souls; True Faith; Time Flies, Sleeze ‘n’ Ryder; The Corps

Ennis's characters: deeply earnest, or utterly glib.
Art by Carlos Ezquerra

Other writing credits:
Judge Dredd
Strontium Dogs (not Strontium Dog) / The Gronk
a handful of one-offs for Crisis

Notable character creations:
Bertie Sharp
Trace Bullet
Recurring Dredd villains Marty Zpok and Jonni Kiss

Emerald City and the first Judge Joyce
Wally Squad Judge Lola Palmtree

Notable characteristics:
Ennis has gone on to be famous for many a stylistic trope in his American comics work that it’s hard to separate out his 2000 AD stuff sometimes. But I think it’s safe to say he’s always had a predilection for male camaraderie, cheap sex-based jokes, religion / god-bothering, movie references (especially action films of the 70s and 80s), outsiders and, of course, the comedic potential of ultraviolence. Not sure how often he brought up buggery until he began on Preacher, though.

An Ennis speciality: finding bloody uses for household objects.
Art by Steve Dillon

On Garth:
Ennis has something of an odd position in 2000 AD. On the one hand, he was part of a wave of hot new talent that wrote funny / slice of life comics for Crisis. On the other hand, he didn’t carry this across to create funny / slice of life comics for 2000 AD. Well, he tried it once with comedy series Time Flies, but frankly this just wasn’t very funny.

Telling us the joke is bad isn't always enoguh to redeem yourself.
Art by Philip Bond
Instead, he was tapped early on to take over from John Wagner as the regular writer on Dredd, as well as taking over Chopper for the Megazine, and also continuing the world of Strontium Dogs post-Johnny Alpha. These were all far better than Time Flies.**

Pertaining to comedy, but not actually funny.
Art by Philip Bond
You'll have to buy it second hand.
In interviews, Ennis is pretty down on his 2000 AD output, but he’s too hard on himself. He didn’t rack up more than 200 episodes in a prolific 3-year stint because he had no talent! His first published work, Troubled Souls, was much praised in Tharg’s Nerve Centre, who also pushed the reprint collection pretty hard. Ennis thinks so ill of it he managed to secure the rights and refuses to reprint it. You can certainly tell it’s an early work, but it’s not terrible. It’s actually kind of charming in lots of ways – for those who don’t know, it’s about young men (and women) in Belfast getting pissed and playing pranks on each other and generally avoiding stereotypical storylines about the Troubles until, of course, the same stereotypical terrorism / family honour stuff creeps in. 

True Faith, his second project in Crisis, was brilliant, and remains one of my favourite of his stories. It’s nothing like Preacher, but there’s a lot of the DNA of Preacher in it. Obviously the main plot is about angry men ailing against God, devoutly faithful people and what this kind of faith can do to them - although the real meat is the acutely-observed everyday stuff. It’s also an early outlet for Ennis to explore the horror and banality of violence – something that went on to inform most of his Dredd output, although for the most part that was played purely for laughs, where True Faith plays it for shock value and not a little bit of actual intelligent point-making, as well as for laughs. Highly recommended.

People sitting around talking: it shouldn't be good comics, but Garth Ennis makes it work.
Art by Warren Pleece
 Ennis today is a writer known very much for writing original stories using his own characters and ideas. He didn’t do much of this for 2000 AD, one imagines partly because he was offered Dredd, so didn’t have much time left over, but I can’t help but think he was canny enough not to want to hand over rights to his original creations. Good for him!

It’s certainly the case that his work with existing characters on 2000 AD far outshone his original ideas. I’ve already made the joke twice, but Time Flies, technically his first published work in the comic, was a trendy comedy that had charm but not wit, and much of that charm came from artist Philip Bond’s way with facial expressions. Honestly, breaking down the characters and situations it kind of works as a sketch show – with a hit rate of about 1 good joke to 5 bad ones - but the characters were perhaps a bit too broad. Time Flies II was advertised a few weeks after the first one finished, but didn’t appear for something like six years – partly because the artist didn’t want to draw it, and partly because the editor didn’t want to print it. Arguably, it was funnier than the first, and if nothing else it produced this delightful panel from one-time wonder John Beeston:

It's right out of a Jeunet/Caro film.
Art by John Beeston

By complete contrast, Ennis exploded onto Judge Dredd with Death Aid, essentially predicated on the same broad humour as Time Flies but for whatever reason it worked. Charity events are as solid a target for satire today as they were 25 years ago, I guess. World War II flying aces, not so much. More to the point, the story also dared to pick up a dangling Wagner/Grant plot thread from years earlier.

Who doesn't love a killer with a smile?
Art by Carlos Ezquerra

Actually, it wasn’t so much a dangling plot thread, more an old story that Ennis (and no doubt many other readers) remembered fondly and thought worth another look – the Hunter’s Club. Ennis used this trick a few more times – A Magic Place being the best example, but also bringing back seldom-mentioned Judges Perrier and Dekker (if only to kill them off rather cheaply), but even having a go with classic villains Judge Death and PJ Maybe. One could argue that this sort of thing, while crowd-pleasing (I enjoyed it, anyway) is a bit lazy, but I think he did it respectfully enough. More importantly, he didn’t actually do it very often, setting a trend for future Dredd writers who would go on to mine the strip’s history sometimes, but not too often. And, to be fair, he wrote a good year’s worth of all-original Dredd material, inventing his own villains with them. Some of them armed with multi-purpose potato guns.

There's also a 'mash' setting...
Art by Steve Dillon

Ennis’s other main Dredd trick, again borrowed from Wagner and Grant, was to take something out of pop culture and throw it into a Mega City setting. Honestly, I think these were often his weaker stories, even as they could be some of Wagner& Grant’s best e.g. Twin Blocks wasn’t as funny as The Secret Diary of Adrian Cockroach. Probably the most fun Ennis had in this vein was with two stories about Marty Zpok, murderous rockist, although the music and TV references are very of the 90s. Artist Dermot Power did an extraordinary job of predicting the existence of actor Michael Shannon, though, who’d be perfect in that role. 

Ennis is an equal opportunities satirist - the poptimist idiots
Zpok kills are genuinely annoying, but Ennis reserves his true bile for Zpok himself.
Art by Dermot Power
All in all, Ennis’s Dredds were good enough to get him the chance to write two separate epics: Judgement Day (with an e) and Helter Skelter. Neither of which are the best of Dredd, but both of which provide fannish glee. Judgement Day remains an exemplary cross-over, combining Judge Dredd and Johnny Alpha. 

Who's the hardest?
Art by Carlos Ezquerra

If you ignore the overall plot and just enjoy these two going through the classic motions of fighting each other then working together, it puts many a superhero crossover to shame, even the Dredd/Batman stuff. Helter Skelter saw Dredd tackle villains from his own and wider 2000 AD history, but this tine the nostalgia factor couldn’t make up for the lack of excitement inherent in the story.

Over in Strontium Dogs, Ennis was trying something very different – being serious. Monsters was, in essence, another story about angry young men hanging about in bars, and felt nothing like any old Strontium Dog story. Phenomenal art and mutant design from Steve Pugh lifts the material, but even without that it’s another interesting look into the young disenfranchised mind, a continued concern for Ennis. Bringing back the Gronk as a short-tempered gun-toting revenge seeker pushed back into the world of comedy, and somehow paved the way for Ennis to bring in some pretty horrific imagery as Gronk and Feral hunt for the body of Johnny Alpha. 

In an Ennis comic, sooner or later everyone meets their maker.
Art by Nigel Dobbyn
Ennis can do heartfelt, too.
Art by Nigel Dobbyn

Johnny Alpha in a flesh-made hell. In context, this is John Smith level horror.
Art by Nigel Dobbyn
I have no idea if he, or indeed Tharg or subsequent writer Peter Hogan had any idea where the story was supposed to be going, but it was never less than solid comics.

Defiantly not solid comics, but rather experimental comedy weirdness, was Sleeze ‘N’ Ryder, Ennis’s idea of how to get a spin-off story out of the world of Dredd. At the time, I found it to be almost entirely indulgent, a bit gross, and not very funny. Nick Percival was very much finding his feet as an artist, too. But on re-reads it holds up rather well, with the two lead characters playing off each other nicely. Also, 1980s Arnie quotes never get old, apparently. Where other weird comics of the 90s were pretentious as hell, this is just plain goofy, and all the more enjoyable for that.

Ultraviolence in comics = reliable laughs

Ennis’s second Dreddworld spin-off, the Corps, comes across as the man writing on autopilot. It’s competent, joke heavy, and properly violent. Basically, it’s a lot like much of Ennis’s subsequent work for the US market, although it might just be even less subtle. I mean to say, it liberally uses Tarantino-esque tropes and has its lead character actually called Tarantino. If you’re in the mood, though, the commitment to hardman characters and grimacing is pretty funny.

Men of violence with erudite conversation: Tarantino in a nutshell.
Art by Paul Marshall and Colin MacNeil

 Soon after this, Nick Percival stepped up his game about 20 levels to paint Ennis’s last major Dredd work for many years with Goodnight Kiss. A much more sombre affair, it pushed Dredd’s own hardman status pretty far, while also probing at that favourite weak spot, innocent victims of Mega-City One’s harsh mutant laws. It was a good note to bow out on.

Guess who gets the kiss-off?
Art by Nick Percival
For someone who has gone on to international and long-lasting fame and glory, Ennis’s legacy as a 2000 AD writer isn’t all that strong. Partly it’s because he was still learning his trade on the page, following a weekly publication schedule, don’t forget! But also I think he was hurt by setting a trend he didn’t necessarily mean to. Ennis’s Dredd was very much Wagner’s Dredd, only he liked to push the violence, the image of Dredd as ultra hard, and the overt bullying nature of the Judge system perhaps a bit more - certainly with less subtlety. The likes of Millar, Morrison and others who handled Judge Dredd next took this specific baton and ran with it, looking for pure comedy without reinforcing the underlying idea. Not Ennis’s fault, but I think he has been somewhat tarred with the same brush.

Harsh sentencing: a little goes a long way.
Art by Ian Gibson

And so, on to Preacher, a story I first encountered in the Judge Dredd Megazine, and which I believed to be original material for that publication. Obviously I was wrong, but who cares? It remains one of the all-time great comic series, and dash it all if it wasn’t the product of two minds steeped in 2000 AD, both as readers and creators. With time, its juvenile qualities stick out more, as also the shock value diminishes, but the sheer number of classic characters live on, and the overall storyline is kinda great. How very 2000 AD to have a hero with a superpower who only ever uses that power once every 10 issues or less, and even then, as often as not in service to some kind of horrible joke.

Ennis has become one of many creators who hasn’t come back to 2000 AD in a long time – but in his case, I get the impression it’s as much because he’d want to find the right project for the comic as for any more selfish reason.

Garth Ennis: like Judge Dredd, he's a safe pair of hands.
Art by Brett Ewins
Personal favourites:
True Faith
Strontium Dogs: Monsters
Judge Dredd: Death Aid, School Bully, A Clockwork Pineapple, Rough guide to Suicide, A Magic Place, Raider, Judgement Day, The Taking of Sector 123, The Kinda Dead Man, A Man named Greener, Monkey on my Back
Sleeze ‘N’ Ryder

More on Garth Ennis
An interview from the Irish Times that focusses on his early work 
Chatting to David Bishop for Thrill Power Overload (twice)
An essay by the man himself about 2000 AD on Bleeding Cool
And a chat with Molch-R on the Thrill-Cast

*which only adds 25 to his total count.

**I will say that his decision to use short-lived pop sensations Bros as recurring characters in Time Flies has actually aged rather well.

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