Garth Ennis: It’s Not About the Shock Value

Garth Ennis has a bad reputation. Well, that’s not entirely true. But his reputation is often for the wrong thing. When people hear the name Garth Ennis, they usually think of the more perverse things he has done, and the sickening portrayals of sickening people that show up in the pages of books he has written. I’m guilty of it as well. To this day, perhaps because it’s an easy joke, when you say Garth Ennis or Preacher to me, I will immediately think the words “Sausage Sex Doll” in my head. 

It is, of course, no secret that I find Preacher to be one of the most valuable pieces of comic book work we have available to us, and I easily recognize that the most apparent aspect of the story to most people is the shock value. That fact holds true to a greater extent for much of Ennis’ other work.  The Boys was maligned (by myself and others) for being too much on the side of the repulsive. Hitman was very shock oriented.The Punisher went with Russian transvestite violence. The list goes on and on.

The other thing Ennis is known for are his war stories, which are often very interesting, if not a bit cold. I mean, they’re actually called War Stories. But as they’re almost an entirely different facet of his work, I’m leaving them out of the discussion for the moment.

Yet, something has occurred to me about Ennis recently, while reading a combination of Ennis’ Hellblazer trades, and Dan Dare. The guy has a handle on character like nobody out there, and the shock value often overshadows the fact that Garth Ennis is one of the finest character writers working in comics today, and he never gets much credit for it. But if he really wants you to, he’ll make you love or hate these characters like no one else.

We’ve talked Preacher to death, but it should be noted that he made me feel for Jesse, Tulip, Cassidy, and even Arseface, as much as, or more than any other characters in comics. Ennis and Dillon drew man tears from me on more than one occasion. It could be said that he used archetypes for those characters, but they’re all very simple on the outside, and very complicated on the inside. The backstory for any one of those characters is extremely unique, and all are different from one another by large degree. Take Jesse Custer, whose family history is so dense, and explains so much about what he became, losing his loving father at an early age, and being raised by his evil grandmother and her henchmen. It all tracks in a single line from where he started, to what he became. The same can be said of Tulip, tracing her childhood to what she became as an adult, and even Cassidy’s long road to not-quite-redemption. Those are the things that make Preacher great. The sausage sex doll is just a garnish, and without that foundation, it wouldn’t be worth a second, or possibly even a first glance.

Reading through Ennis’ Hellblazer work has been a very enlightening experience for me. In the 7 or 8 years I’ve been reading about John Constantine, I’ve never seen anyone come close to the level of character development that Ennis so succinctly conjures in his run. Jamie Delano, who had the reigns for a good long while before Ennis, may have done, but it was too obfuscated in flowery language for me to take much notice. Perhaps it’s a combination of Steve Dillon’s not-nearly-as-simple-as-it-looks art, but these are the first Hellblazer stories I’ve read that really get into who John is. If you don’t read Hellblazer, then I’ll use Daredevil as a comparison. A long time back, Constantine decided that he’s bad news, and pretty much swore off being close to people. He’s been a loner for as long as I’ve been reading it. So he’s like Matt Murdock is right now. And he’s been that way for a good long while. When Ennis was writing him, he had friends, and lovers, and family, so it’s like before Murdock went off the deep end, and was in a happy relationship with Milla, or Karen, and he and Foggy were doing well. The difference being that Constantine as a loner is a lot more fun than Murdock as a loner psycho. But either way, he’s been in this state as long as I’ve known him. It appears that Ennis is the one who broke him, or at least broke him to where he is now. Ennis gave him love and good friends, and really got in to his head, and showed us what makes him happy, and then took it all away, piece by piece. And never since I’ve been reading him has anyone given it back to him. The difference is that Ennis made me feel bad for him in a genuine way, rather than when I read it now, and I just say, “oh, that’s just John Constantine,” and enjoy his solitude.

It goes further. In this run, John has a real girlfriend, and it’s the only one he’s ever let himself be vulnerable with, and she’s an awesome character. She’s strong like Tulip, but a different character to be sure. Ennis then spends entire issues with Kit, so we can get to love her too, and then when John loses her, we feel the loss all the more. At the time, you might be wondering, “why am I reading this?” but when it all goes to shit, as you know it has to, the feeling is all the more real.

By the way, lest you be a spoiler nut, I’m not giving anything away. Hellblazer is about loss, and you’ll know immediately that when something good is part of John’s life, it’s going away. It is just a matter of time. That’s his dramatic flaw, and it’s usually his fault.

I’m currently reading The Boys, and 19 issues in, it’s really been in this last arc that Ennis has started to sprinkle his magic dust and make it feel like something I should be reading. I’m honestly surprised I’ve lasted as long as I have, but finally Hughie is getting some character development, and at the same time moving forward. Of course, he started out the series by losing the love of his life, and at this point, he’s finding love again, and the title is just starting to become interesting in that way. It’s amazing that almost 20 issues in, we still know very little about the actual “Boys” themselves. This is not Ennis’ best work, but it is getting better every issue. For me, it’s just interesting to watch the process of trying to make it something real, with feeling. The real key has been, like with all Ennis’ best work, good, strong character work, and making you care about what happens to these people. I absolutely do care about Hughie, and I’m even starting to care about Butcher, but I want to know more, and that’s exactly what seems to be going on in the current issues. So I just keep hoping for the best.

Unfortunately, the best is happening over at Virgin Comics, and under many readers’ noses. Dan Dare, in a scant 6 issues, has shown me that Ennis still absolutely has it. I’d never read word one of this classic British comic hero, but in a short time, with a story that actually features little green men, this has been one of my favorite mini-series of the year. With remarkable swiftness and a small amount of pages, I’m deeply involved in the lives of these characters. I want to know what it is that’s going on in Dan’s head, and more, I want him to succeed. When Dare’s longtime friend Digby goes to his great reward, I was affected. I’d known the guy for maybe three issues. When Dare took the young female officer under his wing, I rooted for her, and really care that she makes it through the story. It’s obvious in these pages that Ennis has a goal for the story, and an incredible handle on who these characters are, and why they do what they do. It’s nearly intangible, but it’s a feeling that’s familiar from other work he’s written.

So if you’ve never really understood why Garth Ennis is Garth Ennis, I think this is where his real talent lies. Sure he can gross you out more than anyone out there. That’s just natural to him, but at the heart of things, he can make you love a fictional character by making them so understandable and real in your mind that when he turns the winch, and grinds them up in the mill of his story, you feel it, and that’s what the best storytelling does.

Comments

  1. Excellent work Josh. When the video show about preacher Sropped, I decided to be impulsiv.e I bought the trades – I don’t regret it for a second.  I’m defintley going to pick up the Dan Dare trade/hardcover.

    I find that the schock value argument works to a certain degree for Kevin Smith as well. Admittedly, the man’s elf referential indulgences and dick jokes can be vringing inducing and sometimes excesive (Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back), but I really enjoyed Chasing Amy as an example of Smith’s character driven sensibilities. The characters in that film were real, nothing was wrapped up with  a tidy bow and the film made a genuine attempt to articulate the imperative need for honesty between indviduals, gay or straight, male or female, in sex and life.

    Anyway, awesome job. The content extravaganza on IFanboy lately has been awesome.

     

  2. This is why Ennis is one of the greatest writers today. He can bring the gross and over-the-top stuff, but also work that character magic. I’ll admit, there were times during Preacher where I felt sorry for Starr!! That takes talent – to get the reader to care (a little) about the main villian.

    Glad to hear you’re finally getting around to the Hellblazer stuff. As much as I enjoyed Delano, Jenkins, Azzerello, Carey and the rest, it was really Ennis that made John Constintine my favorite character in all of comics. And Kitt – what an amazing character. Be sure you don’t miss the Heartland one-shot that spotlighted her and her family and friends in Ireland.

    And The Boys – 19 was just brilliant. It was like a George Lucas movie (all the jumping around), but really good. Can’t wait to see how the Butcher stuff plays out, and Hughie and the Legend was just some really messed-up conspiracy shit (although knowing Ennis and his obsession with war stories and the like, probably mostly true).

  3. Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    I will admit that I’ve avoided Preacher and other Ennis works for just the reasons cited in the opening of this article.  But I did enjoy the interview you guys did on the video show way back when, and the conceit of the thing is just too compelling to deny anymore.  So, this just seals the deal.  Mad respect for a good character writer.  It’s a noble tradition, and writing for character is such a big part of comics.  Larger than life stories require larger than life personalities.  And it must be such a challenge to come up with an original and provocative idea, that shock and awe are almost unavoidable.  I imagine he embraces that.  

    Great work, Josh.  Really thoughtful piece, and you have me convinced that I need to take another look at a catalog of comics that I’d left for dead.   

  4. Great article Josh.

    Ennis’ amazing characters and development is WHY I get kind of annoyed when I see him doing that "hey lookit me over here doing this craaaazy stuff" writing. He doesn’t NEED to do that. It actually detracts from the stuff of his that is amazing. Never really got into his war stories though, just not my cuppatea.

    His Hellblazer is one of the best and Preacher is always my #1 recommendation to new (mature)readers at the shop. I just wish he’d stop going for the easy gross-out gags. (haha, oh look menstrual blood. how clever!) eh.

    I do have to go back and check out all his Punisher Max stuff though

  5. Fantastic article, Josh.

    I really couldn’t agree more that his tendencies to shock and repulse do unfortunately overshadow his compassionate, human writing – sometimes unfailry but, yes, sometimes because he does let these tendencies overwhelm him.

    Incidentally, I really, really recommend his Unkown Soldier Vertigo mini from quite a few years back as a title that truly showcases his ability to create characters that you actually care about as well as intelligent storytelling and very real emotional resonance. It has its share of violence but unlike much of his work, it is never gratuitous and has very real reasons for being there.

    I honestly could not recommend it enough. It’s right up there with Preacher and his Hellblazer work so yes, it really is that good. 

     

  6. I have to admit I’m not the biggest fan of Garth Ennis.  I don’t deny his quality as a writer if for no other reason than I haven’t read enough to objectively say "He sucks", but I really have no desire to read his stuff.  I read Welcome Home, Frank and some of his earlier Punisher stuff and really don’t get into amidst all the shenanigans with bears and an appendage-less mafia queen trying to bite Frank’s legs off coupled just really overdone antics.  I’ve read some of Preacher and it’s just too much blasphemy for my personal tastes.  I’m sure he does character plotting very well, but often he just does themes and stories I don’t want to see.  And the fact that he said his Dredd sucked because he likes the character too much kind of tells me all I need to know about how he writes.  I don’t disparage anyone who likes the guy because there’s clear reasons to like the guy but I personally find his stories to be in bad taste and clearly not for me.

  7. Josh, good article, I get your point, but;

    I recently went back, after your gushing recommendation in the video-cast to my old Preacher back issues, filled in the holes in my run and dove back into the series ready to discover all the amazing things that I must have missed as a young man picking the series up in issues. I made it to about issue 15 or 16 and had to stop, it was just too full of what I felt were cheap "shockers", that I’m not opposed to on any highbrow level, but if they don’t progress the story I didn’t see any need for them–leaving me saying, "why am I reading this? This is just… nasty for nasty’s sake." 

    Point is, I have no problem with nasty, S&M/blood and guts/sausage sex doll/ etc., scenes in comics, but if there is no need for them in the story, I feel like they are just cheap thrills that don’t really help the stories, the argument that Ennis is a good author, OR that I should really slog through all the gratuitous, extranious horrors in the next 40 some-odd issues ahead that will get me to the big finale where you say all the great character development lies beneath all the other shite.

     

    But then… I don’t really have anything else to do, so why not.   

     

  8. If you think Hitman was  "very shock oriented" then you haven’t really read it. It featured the most brilliant characterisations he has ever done.

    Also noticable in it’s absence is any mention of his Punisher Max series – simply the best comic for the last 5 years. Easily up there with his War Stories.

    If you do like Ennis shock stories hunt around for "True Faith" – it’s very funny but not for the religious (although they should read it anyway!)

  9. @SamMorgan – THE PUNISHER was mentioned in the second paragraph.

  10. I think the problem with Ennis is that you have a guy who people either really like for very justified reasons (characterization, black humor, etc) or really don’t like for very justified reasons (gross-out situations, shock value) so you have a writer that some will defend to the hilt and that some will bash all day long.  Really, it’s all in what’s your flavor and what isn’t.

  11. I only read the Punisher a little into the second year, and it never did a lot for me.  It was more along the shock side of things, and he never did too much with the character that I remember.  However, I have unearthed the first 12 issues, and I’ll be re-reading them, so I’ll let you know what I find out.

  12. @Tork – That’s only if you find the other side’s reasons valid or as having merit.

  13. Well, I think that both sides have valid reasons for liking or hating the guy.  If you find his characters compelling and realistic and his themes interesting, that’s a very good reason to like the guy.  If you don’t like very extreme gross-out jokes and over-the-top violence or feel that he bashes your beliefs/lifestyle viciously, then that’s a very good reason to not like his work as well.  I think anybody could have very legitimate reasons to like or not like a polarizing guy like Ennis.  It’s just that the guy is so extreme in what he does, the opinions are extreme as well when it’s really a matter of apples and oranges.

  14. Tork, give Dan Dare a look.  It has none of that stuff you find so offensive.  Also, the Hellblazer work is fairly tame.  But then, it is somewhat steeped in religion, so if you’re sensitive to that, Ennis clearly has his issues that show up in the work from time to time.  But there’s none of that in Dan Dare.

  15. I might check out .  In all fairness, offense probably isn’t the right word. It’s more I just don’t enjoy his work because I just find some of his plot threads (like the Saint of Killers thing in Preacher) to be hard to buy and I find some of his "shock" stuff to be kind of childish.  I’ve been think of picking up his War Stories stuff and his stuff with Fury, though, to check it out if nothing else.

  16. "The guy has a handle on character like nobody out there, and the shock value often overshadows the fact that Garth Ennis is one of the finest character writers working in comics today, and he never gets much credit for it.  But if he really wants you to, he’ll make you love or hate these characters like no one else."

    Hell yeah! I couldn’t agree with that more.

    The stuff that people label as "shock value" in his writing are pure entertainment in my eyes. Things that make me laugh out loud or make my jaw drop. These are the reasons I read comics/watch movies/read books — to be entertained & surprised.

    Being offended by something is totally subjective, and if you find his humour offensive I can understand how you couldn’t get into a lot of his stories. But, for those of us who think his work is hilarious & entertaining, we get to enjoy some of the best character work not just in comics, but in any form of entertainment.

    Awesome article Josh, I agreed with your assessment of The Boys, but I’m shocked & offended (more than I ever have been by an Ennis comic) that you don’t like his run on Punisher MAX! His run on that book has been off the chain.

    One last thing to all the Ennis fans reading this — please go read 303 by Ennis, if you haven’t already. It’s one of the best comics I’ve ever read, and up there with all his best work and seems to be way underappreciated.

     

  17. Great article Josh.

    Like most of the posters, I’m also a long time Ennis fan. I have to admit, I did really like his Punisher stuff, as ‘Welcome Back Frank’ really helped get the character back to basics.

    As an aside, it was actually iFanboys episode on Preacher that got me interested in this site. Still one of my favourite episodes.

  18. @Conner – All the "Russian transvestite violence" in the Marvel Knights Punisher are a world away from the realistic grittiness of the Max Punisher.

    The Max and the Knights versions are like Chalk and Cheese. Both good but very different.

  19. Personally ‘The Boys’ leaves me cold, but that’s an odd exception to most of his work. I loved ‘Preacher’ (hell I’ve got all the original issues bound in hardcover), all his war story stuff, his recent run on ‘Punisher’ and ‘Dan Dare’. Even his long run of ‘Judge Dredd’, which he admitted he had difficulty writing because of his love of/respect for the character, was up there with John Wagner’s stuff in my opinion. 

    So I have to agree with Josh – Ennis is one of the best out there (when he wants to) in making you care.

    In a recent interview he said that the single issue he was most proud of was ‘War Story – Nightingale’ & I’d have to agree. If you haven’t checked it out and want to read Ennis at his most profound and moving, this is the book.

  20. great article, enjoyed that.

    there’s a scene in ennis’ hellblazer (one of many, sure, but this was *the* one for me) when the bad guys talk about going after one of his friends, and the way that scene plays out (to a cliffhanger issue ending) had me ready to run out to their defense.

    it was a small character (or so i’d mistakenly thought up until that point). all of a sudden i realised a character that had been around for a while and i had no real interest in was actually someone i’d come to know and care for.

    think that was the first time for me i’d reacted so strongly like that to a comic and i’ve been an ennis fan ever since. his hit/miss ratio for me is definitely on the plus (and i agree about True Faith – that’s going back a ways..)

  21. The problem that I see with Ennis is that although he may be brilliant at characterization, this gets completely overshadowed by the shock factor that he puts into every book.  His use of shocky material is so omnipresent that it completely overshadows what could otherwise be a really good series like Preacher.  Do you really need a guy with an Arseface, a guy with a dick for a head and a faucet for a penis, and a sausage sex doll all in one story?  It’s just too much.  I recently heard an interview in which a writer was talking about the number of "buys" that you are asking of an audience when telling a story.  He was talking about a tv show but I think the same principle applies here.  These are just too many buys for one story. 

     My other problem is that if is such a brilliant writer, why does he need to put shock in every story?  He’s rapibly approaching one trick pony territory for me.  For the time being, I’m avoiding him like the plague until he works out whatever issues he clearly has.  

  22. @JGG – You must have only read PREACHER because anyone who has read PREACHER, WAR STORIES, DAN DARE or HITMAN would never call Garth Ennis a one trick pony.   It’s almost laughable to do so.

  23. @ Conor – I’ve actually read Preacher, The Pro and The Boys.   The combination has pretty much scared me away from Ennis for the time being.  I never read any of his War Stories because I’m not much of a war story kind of guy.

  24. Nice article Connor and I think your right. However, I agree with sentiment I am seeing above. The shock value overshadows everything else. It might even be fun or funny at first, but it gets old fast. Ennis has such cool ideas for comics (preacher was a really interesting idea) and such great characterization. This makes it all the more disappointing when he resorts to gross adolescent shock value. As JohnnyDestructo said above, he doesn’t need this to make a great comic.