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A Look at the Work of Garth Ennis

Garth Ennis is a force to be reckoned with. He stands out and provides a unique perspective in an industry already full of incredible imagination and talent. The Irish-born American writer has worked on books for Marvel, DC, and independent publishers. His body of work is enormous, with content ranging from a children’s book (Erf) to one of the nastiest pieces of fiction ever put on the page (Crossed).

Ennis is known for creating comics with loads of violence, black humor, male bonding, and distaste for religion. He’s not a fan of superheroes and has said he prefers his characters grounded, like Judge Dredd or the Punisher. Over the years, he has contributed to dozens and dozens of franchises. He has been nominated for four Will Eisner awards and won one, for his work on HitmanPreacherUnknown Soldier, and Bloody Mary: Lady Liberty.

After a successful first season of AMC’s Preacher and a second season already confirmed, Ennis’ work will gain more attention. Here’s a quick guide to the best works of a prolific man. WarningThe works of Garth Ennis tend to contain lots of violence, sex, swearing, and controversial content. Proceed with caution. 

Preacher

Preacher Garth Ennis

Easily Ennis’ most monumental and influential work, Preacher is a foreigner’s ode to everything great and terrible about America. Naturally, one of those targets is Christianity, and Ennis explores this ancient ideology with no holds barred.

Preacher tells the tale of Reverend Jesse Custer, a true blue Texan who has lost his faith in God. When Jesse is possessed by an unknown power which grants him incredible abilities and divine knowledge, he sets out on a road trip across America to literally find God. Along for the ride are the love of his life, tough-as- nails Tulip O’Hare, and a hedonistic Irish vampire named Cassidy. During their travels, they have to contend with an ancient organization known as The Grail, Jesse’s demented redneck relatives, and an immortal cowboy assassin known only as the Saint of Killers.

Preacher is the book that brought Ennis’ love of the transgressive to a wide audience. Every issue is brimming with wanton violence and bizarre sexuality, often playing the two for twistedly humorous results. Nestled amongst the delightfully gratuitous content are explorations about faith, friendship, loyalty, equality, and rebelling against corrupt and obsolete institutions. It’s a challenging book that makes its abrasive elements work thanks to a genuine heart beating at its center. If there’s any book in Ennis’ bibliography that is mandatory reading, it’s Preacher. It’s the perfect entry point into Ennis’ warped sense of humor as well as his surprising warmth. [Drew Diestch]

Hellblazer

Hellblazer Garth Ennis

Quite a few talented writers have worked on Hellblazer, including Neil Gaiman, Warren Ellis, Alan Moore, and Jamie Delano. Each brought their own unique take on John Constantine and the hellish world he inhabits, but it was Garth Ennis’ three-year run that first gave the magician some humanity.

Ennis’ first Hellblazer story arc, “Dangerous Habits“, forces Constantine to face his own mortality for the first time when he develops terminal lung cancer. (It’s not really a surprise because the guy pretty much always has a cigarette in his mouth.) Instead of battling the forces of Hell, Constantine takes a hard look at his own demons. He has a series of nightmares about the literal ghosts of his past coming to haunt him, has magical booze with a friend also dying of cancer, and tries to make friends in a cancer ward. The arc also introduces the First of the Fallen, Satan, who comes up from Hell to personally collect Constantine’s soul.

“Dangerous Habits” is widely regarded as one of the best Hellblazer arcs, and was the source material for the (mediocre) Constantine film starring Keanu Reeves. The arc is only six issues long, however, and Ennis wrote 42 for the series before ending his run in 1994. Bookending his run with greatness, Ennis’ final arc, “Rake at the Gates of Hell“, is another of the series’ best. The First of the Fallen returns to destroy Constantine and take Gabriel’s heart for himself. The arc features a vicious battle between the Triumvirate of Hell that leaves all but the First dead and completely reshapes the mythology of the Hellblazer universe.

Hellblazer is the kind of series Ennis can be his best in, with lots of opportunities to make fun of religion and the establishment, a deeply damaged protagonist, and loads of dark humor. He’s a master of disturbing content, and his Hellblazer run is some of the series’ finest. [Danielle Ryan]

Punisher Marvel Knights

Punisher Garth Ennis

The Punisher returned as part of the Marvel Knight revamp of several of Marvel’s urban titles. Coming in under the command of Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon, the creators of Preacher tried to bring dignity back to Frank Castle. Exorcising the awful guardian angel trappings that came before, Ennis wanted to get back to Punisher’s roots: a grim killer gunning down the ills of society.

While his war against organized crime is focused, his actions are spurring copycat vigilantes to take up his mission. Before long the Punisher is having to make the most out of his fellow apartment dwellers and deal with the aftermath of a botched hit. Ma Gnucci is no Herr Starr, but she’s the most memorable villain that the Punisher has faced in the recent era.

Ma Gnucci sics the Russian after Frank and this leads to one of Castle’s funniest executions ever on-panel. Elements of the story were lifted for the 2004 film adaptation of The Punisher. But, the less we talk about what Hensleigh did…the better. That film was a Bronson wannabe action piece. Ennis got what it took to ape the dirtiest of action fiction without becoming a joke. Plus, Ennis showed that the Punisher knows how to use a polar bear as a weapon. It’s great stuff all around that would only be topped by Ennis’s time with Punisher MAX. [Troy Anderson]

Punisher MAX

Punisher MAX Garth Ennis

After Ennis’ well-received run with Frank Castle in the Marvel Knights line, the House of Ideas allowed the maniacal Irishman to do anything he wanted with the character in their new MAX imprint. The MAX books were an attempt to let authors tell unbridled, viciously adult stories that weren’t beholden to the regular Marvel continuity. Ennis jumped at the chance and delivered what might be the definitive Punisher comic.

The Punisher strips away any hint of superheroes and tackles Frank’s bloody crusade against the mob and organized crime. While there are moments of black humor in the book, it’s a mostly joyless affair that dissects the broken and damned man that Frank has become. The violence is impacting and unrelenting, often bordering on gut-churning.

At the center of it all is a man who was born a killer – Ennis’ miniseries “Born” explores Frank’s time in Vietnam and how it helped shape him into a monster – and knows that his mission is a never-ending one that can only lead to the grave. It’s a bleak outlook that can turn a lot of readers away, especially when Ennis digs into such horrifying topics as human trafficking. It’s not an easy book but it’s one that feels incredibly true to the nihilistic character it’s examining. [Drew Diestch]

Hitman

Hitman Garth Ennis

Hitman is a superhero comic that takes place in the regular DC comics universe.  Tommy Monaghan is the book’s titular hitman who first appeared in Garth Ennis’ run on The Demon.  Tommy lives in The Cauldron, a district of Gotham so downtrodden and crime ridden that even Batman scarcely visits.  Thanks to the Bloodlines crossover, Tommy has alien-given superpowers in the form of x-ray vision and limited telepathy.  Unfortunately, Tommy’s powers give him horrible headaches so he dampens them by wearing dark sunglasses constantly.

Interesting characters pepper the cast such as Natt the Hat, a former gangbanger and Tommy’s right-hand man; Six-pack, a drunken mess in a patchwork superhero costume who claims to have once served in the Justice League (his superhero team Section Eight features Dogwelder; a deranged man who welds dead dogs to people.); and Baytor, a purple leech demon creature who tends bar and communicates only with the words “I am Baytor!”

Hitman is, in my opinion, Ennis’ masterwork.  Hitman manages to be ridiculously irreverent and yet heartbreakingly poignant.  The series can have you belly-laughing one minute and fighting back tears the next.  Ennis draws his characters with very fine detail but yet makes them larger than life at the same time.  This realistically detailed yet cartoonish style is perfectly complemented by John McRea’s art which fits the book perfectly.

Since this book is in the main DC universe, the editorial staff manages to curb many of Ennis’ most egregious habits and the book is stronger for it.  Probably the best issue of the series features Superman dealing with regret over a person he was unable to save and Tommy giving him a pep talk.  Even if you don’t like the more serious stuff there’s plenty of zombie aquarium animals, time-displaced dinosaurs, demon mercenaries, and cartoonish gore.  The entire series is finally available in trade paperback and it is magnificent. [Ryan Covey]

The Boys

The-Boys

If you look at Ennis’ body of work, you’ll see that he’s not particularly interested in superheroes. With The Boys, it almost seems like he has outright contempt for the genre that dominates comic book stories. Of course, contempt from Garth Ennis means a sadistic evisceration by way of the darkest humor possible.

The Boys posits a world where superheroes exist and go about their daily adventures with little regard for the people they believe they are protecting. Heroes act more like decadent celebrities than daring do-gooders, and what happens when these godlike beings step out of line? The government calls in The Boys, a ragtag group of miscreants who are given superpowers in order to police and punish those who get too reckless.

It’s a mean-spirited bit of satire that pays off thanks to Ennis’ dependable talent of crafting likable and interesting characters. There’s also a clear attempt to go even farther with Ennis’ usual brand of over-the-top sex and violence, so fans of his trademark wickedness will love it. It’s a short and somewhat simplistic book that is boosted by its ruthless tone and joyous causticness. And the lead character is visually based on Simon Pegg, so that’s a plus in our book. [Drew Dietsch]

Crossed

Crossed Garth Ennis

Zombie stories are a dime-a-dozen, but Ennis’ series Crossed takes them to a new and horrifying level. Crossed‘s zombies aren’t mindless animals in search of brains. Instead, they are their former selves with homicidal tendencies. The infection is different in everyone. For some, the infection causes them to rapidly self-destruct, inflicting as much pain on their surrounding survivors as possible. Others have the darkest parts of their psyche turned up, forcing them to rape, torture, and murder anything that crosses their path. The defining mark of the infection is a cross of sores across the face of the sick individual.

Crossed isn’t just disturbing, it’s one of the most vulgar and demented stories ever published in comic format. If trying to survive the horrors of the apocalypse in The Walking Dead is brutal, then there is no real description for Crossed. The Crossed are monsters in every way, causing as much suffering as possible. Everyone has succumbed to their darkest desires, to do the worst things they can think of. Imagine trying to survive in a world where the majority of people are trying to not just kill you and eat your brains, but first flay, rape, cannibalize, torture, and kill you. (Not necessarily in that order, either.)

It takes a special kind of sicko to write Crossed, and probably to enjoy it as well. It’s not a comic for everyone, but those looking for some truly horrific horror are in for a treat. The series’ recurring tagline, “There is no hope. There are only the Crossed,” is an accurate descriptor. For adults raised on Troma films and horror movies, this might be the one comic that can cause a bit of shock. [Danielle Ryan]

War Stories

War Stories Garth Ennis

War Stories was a collection of four mini-series that focused as anthologies about the great wars of the 20th Century. Ennis started the series at Vertigo but took the last two arcs to Avatar due to outside demands. Frequently citing the final issue of the first series as his personal favorite, Ennis struck something amazing in this underrated series. While his time on Preacher and Punisher treated violence in a cartoonish manner, this was Ennis applying his studies of war to the human condition.

The audience has seen similar tales before, but Ennis brings the realism of a grunt to our comic loving faces. Whether it’s Nazi tank commander Johann Kleist trying to convince his men to surrender or the anger of The Reivers, this is war. The art on the books includes work from Dave GibbonsJohn Higgins and even famed V for Vendetta artist David Lloyd. While each issue is a one-and-done, you can feel the personal connection on the page. These are the kinds of works that should be getting adapted into films and AMC shows. [Troy Anderson]


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