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The Essentials: Garth Ennis

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When we talk about the greatest comic creators of all time some names are just etched in stone at this point. Jack Kirby without question, Alan Moore has to be, Grant Morrison as well, Frank Miller even though he’s been trash for the better part of two decades. Classic creators like Walt Simonson, Chris Claremont and Neal Adams probably belong on that list. Newer names like Brian K Vaughan, Warren Ellis, Neil Gaiman and Daniel Clowes as well. And then there is Garth Ennis which depending on how you were exposed to his writing you’d either think he belongs in the same breath as Kirby, Moore and Morrison or that he’s a fucking awful writer that lives off shock value and grotesque imagery. I’m in the former group but I understand the latter and that’s because nobody has seesawed between levels of quality on his comics the way Garth Ennis has. Warren Ellis has stated Ennis is the only creator whose first comic didn’t suck while Ales Kot has called him one of the great humanist of our time and dedicated issue #2 of his Zero series to him. Brian K Vaughan called his 2012/2013 Fury Max series as the best thing Marvel has done in the last fifty years and he let Ennis be the only person to guest write one of his creator owned books on Ex-Machina. But Ennis has also made some truly terrible comics though out his career such as the extremely unnuanced The Boys, the ultra crappy Back To Brooklyn, stupid 90’s relic The Darkness and the absolutely terrible Crossed while the less said about Dicks the better. Ennis is the unique comic creator that doesn’t just dislike superhero’s so much as he totally despises them and thinks that they’ve ruined the medium. Still even with avoiding comic’s most popular genre he has managed to carve up an extensively strong bibliography with DC and Marvel over the years that was part of a ten year run from the middle 90’s to the middle 2000’s that is nearly perfect. He revamped character’s, created new ones that lasted for 60+ issues, published major books with DC, Marvel, Vertigo and Image all while still managing to keep his unique and unflinching voice from title to title without feeling derivative. There is a through line in all his work that explores themes of religion, war, humor, politics, race, sex, love, crime and most importantly family but not in the traditional sense of the word. For Ennis the world is a disgusting and cruel place but what makes us thrive as individuals is the family WE make with one another and the creation or lack there of is a theme that permeates his work. So while he has certainly done some work that is less then stellar to say the very least his best work is better then almost anybody else’s. Click below to find what his five best works were and find out what it is that makes Ennis that ultra special talent in comics.

Hellblazer: After working his way up from local Northern Ireland publishers up to 2000 AD Ennis was invited by DC Comics to take over their Hellblazer title in 1991. He would stay on for three years and create what is one of if not the signature run on the title. In Hellblazer Ennis manages to clearly establish the voice of John Constantine as the smooth shit talking, chain smoking brit who was somewhere between spiritual medium and con artist on a sliding scale depending on the day or situation. His first arc has John Constantine literally cheating death by tricking a demon and then just get’s crazier from that point forward. Moreover the theme that remains a narrative through line of his entire run is the concept of death. Obviously death is a hallmark of all occult fiction but with Ennis it was different and much more human. His Hellblazer run was as much about dealing with the absence of someone because of death and coming to grasp with the certain finality of it as it was about supernatural elements, which to be sure always played a major role but to Ennis’s credit was utilized as a tool as opposed to a plot point. The way he writes Constantine made it fun, the realism he injected into the plot made it gripping and the way it wresteled with life and the absence of it was a purely excellent exercise in existentialism. If were talking about the great DC books of the British invasion his only peers here were Gaiman on Sandman, Moore’s Watchmen & Swamp Thing & Morrison’s Animal Man and Doom Patrol. Nothing else comes close. Hellblazer would also mark the beginning of the working relationship between Ennis and artist Steve Dillon; an important collaborator for the next two entries on this list.

Preacher: Quite simply a masterpiece and without a doubt one of the greatest comics of all time. Ennis teamed with Dillon to create a sprawling large scale epic love story about one man and one woman’s attempt to love one another against impossible odd’s that was also a satire of religion, pop culture and really America in every way possible. Preacher is at times hilarious, horrifying and heartening often all within one page. It is also where you can truly see Ennis pull no punches as he refuses to shy away from the brutality of violence that was always earned and always poignant no matter how absurd. Preacher also has one of the greatest casts in comics history and while Jessie Custer, Tulip O’Hare, Herr Star, Cassidy & God himself were the central cast it was the characters on the perefrials like Arseface, The Saint Of Killers, The Eunich, Jody and TC that truly enriched the story and created a fully formed world. There has not been a comic since that has spawned such a lushly detailed and immersive fully formed fictional universe since Preacher which is up there with Jack Kirby at Marvel and DC or Mike Mignola’s Hell Boy in the level of creativity, innovation and detail  with which the world was created. But it is at it’s core that Preacher truly shines with the contrast between the made up family of Jessie, Tulip and Cassidy built on love versus the ideology of Herr Starr who works purely on the impulse to acquire power. To say it’s just comics greatest love story is an insult to the story itself as it’s up there with Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls in all time great love stories period and that takes a lot when a central character in your narrative is named Arseface.

The Punisher: Garth Ennis time on The Punisher is the definitive take on the protagonist and should be mentioned with runs like Moore on Swamp Thing, Miller on Daredevil, Simonson on Thor, Claremont on X-Men or Ostrander on Suicide Squad. It’s also the last great long term run from a single writer on a super hero title with the exception of Brubaker on Captain America. That’s because Ennis gives both Frank Castle and perhaps more importantly the world around him a level of depth and gravitas that is three dimensional and realistic in the best way possible. This also made his version of the Punisher more elastic then he had ever been prior while still staying true to the base level urban vigilante roots of the character. Ennis’s Punisher could have Frank Castle punching a polar bear or taking out a sex trafficking ring and neither felt out of step within the tone of the run as a whole. It’s a testament to Ennis’s skill as a writer that he could take what’s been reduced to a one dimensional idea, acknowledge past continuity and then expand the scope of what the comic was about by injecting just the right amount of realism without going over board on the gritty. Frank Castle himself is given much more depth throughout the series while still remaining the dark avenging cypher that makes up the core of his personality. If I’m being honest not every part of Ennis’s Punisher is “essential” in the way that all of his Preacher or Hellblazer is as that’s nearly impossible for any 115 issue run on a character but the arc’s Welcome Back Frank, Slavers, Barracuda & Born certainly qualify as that and nothing he’s ever done on the book goes below very good. Ennis is also blessed with a murderer’s row (no pun intended) of art talent from Preacher, Hell Blazer, The Demon & Hitman collaborators Steve Dillon and John McCrea in addition to such star illustrators like Darick Robertson, Howard Chaykin, Richard Corbin, Goran Parlov, Lan Medina, Doug Braithwathe and Leandro Fernandez among others.  There is Ennis’s time on The Punisher and then there is everybody else.

Battlefields: After more then fifteen years spent doing comics with DC & Marvel Ennis did more work then anybody would think was possible from someone who disliked and avoided writing superhero comics. But by 2008 it appeared that Ennis has done just about all he could within the confines of those companies respective fictional universes and it was time for him to move on to smaller publisher’s where he could continue to write his type of comics without restriction. If were looking at this particular time period Battlefields is both his best work from that era of his career in addition to being among his all time greatest works. Ennis is a sharp and brilliant war historian that has forgotten more about it’s history then I probably ever learned as a political science major in undergrad and while he has managed to incorporate that interest to varying degree’s in several Marvel and DC comics like Preacher, The Punisher, Hitman, War Stories, The Unknown Soldier & The Phantom Eagle it’s in Battlefields that we get the full breath of Ennis’s knowledge on the subject combined with his gift for story telling, dialogue and brilliant character work. Battlefields is a series of three issue titles that create fictional stories within real events in World War II with the allied powers creating a stark and brutal portrayal of the war’s history that manages to touch a nerve on the very human elements of that history like nothing else. Battlefields is also impressive for the way it manages to avoid focusing on United States soldiers (a rarity in WWII fiction from this country) instead opting to look at it from the perspective of the Russians, English and Australian’s in addition to having many of the stories focus on womens contributions to the war effort in combat celebrating both their heroism in addition to showing the obstacles and brutality they faced from the ingrained sexism of society. It’s a brutal and unflinching work that never shies away from the horrors of war but it’s strongest trait is the level of humanism that is given to those that are fighting against the axis powers in his stories. These are soldiers that are as unique and thoughtful all around and even when you think Ennis is making one guy the dumbass he pulls the rug out from under you and shows a level of depth and sophistication for the character that you didn’t see coming. Battlefields is easily one of the greatest modern war comics ever created and it would possible be Ennis’s best work on the subject if not for the next title on the list.

Fury Max: In Fury Max Garth Ennis creates a hauntingly beautiful portrait of one man in the center of the United States Millitary Industrial Complex leviathan as he watches it destroy everything within it’s sphere of influence. If Battlefields is a mediation on the heroism of the allied powers soldiers in WWII then Fury Max is the proper damnation of the United States post WWII and the consequence’s of it’s global policy. In it we are shown Nick Fury sitting in a chair after an orgy with hookers speaking into a tape recorder about his memoirs as a career military professional following his exploits in Vietnam, the Bay of Pigs and Nicaragua. It is a raw and sobering examination on the hubris of America’s global domination as it takes a very real look at how these military actions wreck the lives of all parties involved while exposing the greed of it’s leadership that keeps the business of American warfare going in spite of it’s destruction. Ennis fills the series with a core cast that is instantly relatable, likable and ultimately copable for the brutal atrocities that we witness in the series pages and even though this is a fictional story in a fictional universe the over arching events and the impact they had are very real and relevant to the world we live in. This is all drawn excellently in artist Goran Parlov’s trademark European style cartooning that manages to always hit on the right detail while giving the book itself a unique and easy to read visual narrative. Last winter I said this comic was the third best superhero title of 2013 but if I’m being truthful right now I think about this comic more then almost all of the other book on that list combined. It’s a near perfect portrayal of the historical failing of military industrial complex with an ending that still haunt’s me over a year after I last read it while also working as a fine example of how to use decades old characters within the confines of a fictional universe to say something very poignant on our world NOW. Fury Max is a modern masterpiece that feel’s like the sum total of all of Ennis’s best work put into this grand statement about humanity and our place in it that acts as harsh critic of the American military while ending with a reminder of it’s greatness. A stand out work in a lifetime of them. But as you can see above there is more then enough to explore if you get the inkling.