Ennis, Garth

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Garth Ennis

Born January 16, 1970 (Belfast, Northern Ireland)
British comic book, graphic novel author

"If you need someone to write about heaven, hell, revenge or redemption, Garth Ennis is your man."

REVIEWER GEORGE A. TRAMOUNTANAS

Irish writer Garth Ennis has made a career out of telling gritty, violent action stories that explore the meaning of duty, bravery, and honor. Whether he is exploring the motivations of a fallen preacher on an angry journey to track down God, as in his Preacher series; tracking Frank Castle on his mission to wreak vengeance on the criminal world in The Punisher; or following former criminal Jimmy Kavanagh as he tries to protect his kids from the psychotic killer Stein in Pride & Joy, Ennis brings his distinctive sensibility—a combination of foul language, extreme doses of violence, and a strong commitment to old-fashioned ideas like honor and duty—to comics and graphic novels. Ennis was one of the most popular writers of action comics through the late 1990s and into the 2000s, and several of his projects have been turned into major motion pictures.

Best-Known Works

Graphic Novels

Troubles 2 vols. (1990).

True Faith (1990).

John Constantine, Hellblazer. 8 vols. (1993–2005).

Preacher. 15 vols. (1996–2001).

Hitman. 5 vols. (1997–2001).

Unknown Soldier (1998).

The Punisher. 10 vols. (2001–05).

Dicks. 5 vols. (1997, 2002–05).

Pride & Joy (2004).

War Stories, Vol. 1. (2004).

303. 3 vols. (2004–05).

Ghost Rider (2005–).

Comics

Ennis has written hundreds of comics, from single issues to contributions to long-standing series, including the Crisis series, (1989–91); Judge Dredd series, (1990–93); Medieval Spawn/Witchblade, #1–3 (1996); Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight, #91–93 (1997); The Worm, (1999); Adventures in the Rifle Brigade, #1–3 (2000); Just a Pilgrim, #1–5 (2001); Star Wars Tales, #10, #11 (2001–02); Thor: Vikings, #1–5 (2003); and many others.

Other

Co-author of screenplays for The Punisher, 2004, and Constantine, 2005.

Develops distinctive voice early

Ennis was born on January 16, 1970, in Belfast, Northern Ireland. He was an only child, and he and his parents moved out of Belfast to the suburban town of Hollywood when he was just a toddler. Ennis told the Comics Journal in 1998 that "there are no tales of childhood trauma that explain the horror of [his published work]. Nothing out of the ordinary." This may be a classic understatement, for during the time of Ennis's childhood—and through to the 1990s—Northern Ireland was the site of ongoing violence between Protestants and Catholics over access to political power. Both sides formed paramilitary organizations (civilian fighting forces) to fight for their cause, including the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the Irish Republican Army (IRA), considered by many to be a terrorist group. Violence, including bombings, assassinations, riots, and shootings, was a regular part of life in the region. Those who were religious tended to get drawn into the politics of the area, but Ennis, raised in a family that did not believe in God, managed to avoid taking sides. In many of his later stories, however, Ennis expressed scorn for organized religion, which he often depicts as fueling violence, rather than preventing it.

As Ennis finished high school and entered college, he had no clear plans for what he would do with his life. It was at this time that he discovered the world of comic books. He began to read widely in comics, from the political British comics like Crisis to American stories like Concrete, Watchmen, Elektra: Assassin, and other works that came out of the comics publishing boom of the mid- to late 1980s. Ennis thought that he could write a comic about Northern Ireland, a subject he'd rarely seen treated in comic books. "It wasn't really my intention to become a political writer," he told David Carroll, in an interview on the Tabula Rasa Web site. "It was, to be honest, a fairly cynical move.… I thought, if I could present them with this, they'd jump at it, and I was right, and after that it was a case of being in the right place and the right time.… They just grabbed the first half-decent looking thing they got, phoned me up, and I was on a plane to London, within a couple of days. Straight over, sorted it out, and home again, and the rest, as they say, is history."

Ennis's first comics work was published in 1989 in issues 15-20 and 22-27 of Crisis, the British anthology, and later republished in graphic novel form as Troubled Souls. Troubled Souls is a serious story about the unlikely friendship that develops between Tom, a Protestant, and Damien, a Catholic, and their realization that the political violence of Belfast is a force that destroys families and friendships without cause. Ennis's follow-up to Troubled Souls, called For a Few Troubles More, was published in 1990 and offered a different view of the troubles of Belfast. In this second story, the political troubles form the backdrop to the crude and bawdy lives of Belfast's citizens, like a violent nightmare that only occasionally erupts into normal life. With these two works, both illustrated by John McCrea, Ennis established a distinctive comic voice that would grow and develop in years to come.

Lured to U.S. comics

Ennis's work was well received in Britain, and the money he earned allowed him to drop out of college and commit himself to writing comics stories full time. Over the next several years, from 1990 to 1993, he wrote dozens of stories in the Judge Dredd series, published in the British comics weekly 2000 AD (see sidebar). Judge Dredd acts as the judge, jury, and executioner in the futuristic Mega-City One, and the character allowed Ennis to work out his writing style and explore themes of justice and retribution. Perhaps more important to his later work was the 1990 publication of True Faith. True Faith tells the story of a man driven insane by the death of his wife, who then launches a series of fiery attacks on churches in order to get revenge on God. The book was intentionally inflammatory, Ennis admitted to the British magazine New Statesman & Society: "Oh, I was having a go all right.… I don't like evangelicals, I don't like the Church [of England], I don't like Christianity." Defenders of religion took Ennis's bait and drummed up a campaign to ban the book and prosecute its author. One British religious leader, quoted in the same article, said "The book is undoubtedly a classic example of bad taste, it denigrates the faith of many, it's unlawfully blasphemous and would create deep offence to all who retain a belief in God." The publisher of the book, Fleetway, withdrew the book after protest from church groups. This action only increased its fame. Grant Morrison, in the introduction to the book, provided a different perspective on the whole affair when he wrote, "Above all, it's a bloody good laugh and if you can't see the funny side of crucified Alsatians [a breed of dog], burning churches and mass murder then you're probably well enough to go home. As for me, I'll stay here and gloat over this ruthless, shameless desecration of everything that normal, decent folk hold dear."

Poking fun at established values and religious piety, and finding humor in violence and gore, proved to be hallmarks of Ennis's growing body of work, and it brought him to the attention of the much larger and better-funded American comic book industry. By the early 1990s, American comics were considered to be in one of their periodic slumps, and they turned to Britain to find a new generation of writers. As Ennis told Carroll, "DC [Comics] needed some fresh blood, so they sent Karen Berger and a couple of people over to England with a big chequebook, just to sign up every writer and artist in sight.… And because the rights and conditions you worked under, in terms of money and freedom and decent treatment by editors, were ten times better at DC and most American publishers than you would get in the British ones, people were quite happy to drop what they were doing." Ennis didn't quite drop what he was doing—he continued to do occasional stories for British publishers—but he did begin a long and very productive relationship with DC Comics beginning with the series Hellblazer.

Hellblazer is an ongoing series about a social outcast/con-man/sorcerer named John Constantine who tries to survive in a morally complicated modern world. The series has been published since the 1980s by Vertigo, the "mature audiences" branch of DC Comics. Ennis was brought on to write the series when the original writer, Jamie Delano, left the project. Ennis, paired with artist and frequent collaborator Steve Dillon (1962–), wrote issues 41 through 46, and issues 62 through 133, which were collected in a series of graphic novels. Ennis attacked the project with verve; he told Carroll that he thought "you're really only going to get one shot at this, so you better impress the hell out of them first time, and do something extreme, and do something radical." He reshaped the character of John Constantine, making him more fun loving yet still with a "miserable doomed heart." Booklist reviewer Gordon Flagg, reviewing Hellblazer: Rakes at the Gates of Hell (2003), wrote that "Ennis gave Constantine cheeky irreverence, especially evident here in his confrontation with Satan, and perfectly captured the character's mordant [biting or sarcastic] charm."

From preacher to punisher

Ennis's Hellblazer stories were a huge success for DC, and they offered Ennis the opportunity to create his own comic series with artist Steve Dillon. "I felt it was time to do something, the kind of thing I've always wanted to do—a comic that will entertain me," Ennis explained to Carroll. The result was Preacher, which Washington Post comics reviewer Mike Musgrove called "just about the best thing to come along since comics started finding their way into books." Preacher is the ongoing story of Jesse Custer, a fallen preacher who becomes host to a strange spiritual force called Genesis, itself a product of the love affair of an angel and a demon. Jesse Custer travels the United States with his girlfriend, Tulip, and a hard-drinking Irish vampire named Cassidy, in search of God's reasoning for allowing the world to become corrupt and fallen.

The sixty-six-issue Preacher series, published in serial form from 1995 to 2000 and collected in a series of graphic novels, features Custer in a number of violent, profanity-ridden encounters with corrupt corporations, morally bankrupt religious leaders, and crooked lawmen. Musgrave wrote that the series is "part buddy movie, part private-eye mystery and part existential drama—and all three parts work exceedingly well." According to Ken Tucker, reviewing the series for Entertainment Weekly, "Preacher features more blood and blasphemy than any mainstream comic in memory." In his confrontations with killers and angels, and even when he comes face to face with God, Jesse Custer holds fast to the notion that there is right and wrong in the world, and he tries his best to do what is right, even if it means murder. In the midst of the mindless violence and the endless stream of profanity, this moral center to Custer's quest elevates the Preacher to something more than mere blood and guts.

2000AD

Like so many British comic book writers and artists, Garth Ennis published much of his early work in 2000AD, a comic weekly that ran continuously from February 1977 through September 2005, when it reached prog (issue) number 1457. The comic was started by IPC Magazines, which later changed its name to Fleetway, then was sold to Rebellion Developments in 1999. Under the ironic editorship of Tharg the Mighty, an alien from Betelgeuse, 2000AD has introduced a number of popular series and characters, many of them science-fiction related, including Judge Dredd, Nemesis the Warlock, Rogue Trooper, Sinister Dexter, Strontium Dog, and many others.

2000AD was known for its hard-edged wit and innovative approaches to contemporary issues in the late 1970s and 1980s. By the late 1980s and early 1990s, 2000AD had become so popular that the American comics industry giants DC Comics and Marvel Comics began to lure the magazine's best writers with higher pay and greater creative control. Among the writers to have started at 2000AD are Alan Moore (1953–; see entry), Alan Grant, Cam Kennedy, Grant Morrison, Bryan Talbot, and of course Garth Ennis. 2000AD continues to publish today, and can be viewed online at www.2000adonline.com.

When they finished their work on the Preacher series in 2000, Ennis and Dillon were widely acclaimed as the new masters of the tough-guy comic. Their reputation made them the perfect pair to take on The Punisher, a long-running Marvel Comics series that had nearly died in the late 1990s due to lagging sales and several unsuccessful revivals. The Punisher series centered on the murderous career of Frank Castle, a veteran of several campaigns in the Vietnam War (1954–75; a controversial war in which the United States aided South Vietnam in its fight against a takeover by Communist North Vietnam) who turns vigilante (a self-appointed doer of justice) after his wife and children are killed by the mafia. Castle is a highly trained killer with a thirst for blood, though his targets are all criminals or wrongdoers. Comic book critics are divided over whether Castle himself is a hero or a criminal; most label him an antihero, or a hero who is lacking any noble qualities.

Ennis told an interviewer for the Maxim Web site that what drew him to the series was the fact that "he kills a lot of people and he does it proactively, not in self-defense.… [I]n the one-step-removed-from-reality world that the Punisher lives in, you can dunk a man in a piranha tank and he'll come out a skeleton. You can punch a bear in the face and get him angry enough to rip your opponents to pieces." Of course, Ennis's treatment of Castle, who had been in comics since 1974, wasn't all blood and guts. Wrote Publishers Weekly in a 2004 review of The Punisher: Streets of Laredo (2003), "Ennis adds a bit of dimension and soul to this cold, calculating man by revealing details of his life and world through the eyes of the people the Punisher encounters." Ennis and Dillon teamed on multiple issues of The Punisher, resulting in ten graphic novels collections between 2001 and 2005, with more to come.

New frontiers in the tough-guy world

Ennis is nothing if not prolific. His work on the Preacher and The Punisher series—while the most popular of his efforts—represents just a portion of his output since the late 1990s. In 1996, he began work on Hitman, the story of an Irish-American hired killer working in Gotham City—home to many DC Comics superheroes—and usually failing to utilize the superpowers he received after being bitten by an alien. Illustrated by John McCrea, Hitman is considered to be funnier than many of Ennis's other works. He told Steve Johnson, in an interview on the Mania Web site, that "a big attraction of the book for me was the lead character, Tommy, and his whole attitude, his rather light-hearted, not taking anything too seriously, laughing at superheroes."

Ennis has also shown an enduring interest in war stories, once a staple of the British comic scene. In 2004, he published War Stories, Vol. 1, a collection of four stories that are based on true events from World War II (1939–45; war in which Great Britain, France, the Soviet Union, the United States, and their allied forces defeated Germany, Italy, and Japan); each is illustrated by a different artist. Booklist praised Ennis for the way he "reinvents the war comic for current sensibilities," and took note of the careful research that underlay the book. Fans can look forward to additional volumes of War Stories, but they don't have to wait for Ennis to take on additional war comics. In 2004, Ennis teamed with artists Jacen Burrows and Greg Waller to introduce a new series, called 303, a reference to the. 303 caliber Enfield rifle that was the favorite weapon of the British armed forces for many years. "303 begins as a war story, but changes halfway through into something I'm still not certain of myself," Ennis explained in a preview on the Avatar Web site. "It's the tale of a soldier who's been fighting for nothing all his life, but now believes he's found his purpose, and the one man who can stop him, a worn-out hero filled with fatal sadness. But it's also the tale of two great countries [Russia and Afghanistan], one locked in long and terrible decline, one with a sickness in its heart; and the champions who do battle for their nations in the dark and secret places no one ever goes." Beginning in late 2005, Ennis was at work reviving yet another Marvel comic line: the Ghost Rider series. The Ghost Rider movie starring actor Nicholas Cage is set to release in February 2007.

In his fifteen years in the business, Ennis has succeeded at pushing the envelope for acceptable content for comics with a teenaged readership. "We're constantly having to justify the violence, the sexual context, and the use of Christian icons" in Preacher, he told Ken Tucker of Entertainment Weekly in 1996, but "we can get away with a lot because it's selling well." That his works have not been the target of greater criticism from those concerned about the content aimed at young readers may be largely due to the fact that, for all the violence and profanity in his morally complicated worlds, Ennis's heroes consistently uphold values of duty, honor, and integrity. Perhaps these values, as much as the violence, are what keep readers coming back for more.

For More Information

Periodicals

Comics Journal no. 207 (1998).

Flagg, Gordon. Review of War Stories. Booklist (February 1, 2004): 961.

Musgrove, Mike. "Graphic Novels." Washington Post (January 11, 1998): X04.

Tucker, Ken. "Extreme Comix." Entertainment Weekly (June 28, 1996): 76.

Tweed, James. "True Faith?" New Statesman & Society (February 15, 1991): 19.

Web Sites

Carroll, David. "Trail Blazers: Interviews with Jamie Delano and Garth Ennis" (first appeared in Bloodsong, no. 8, 1997). Tabula Rasa. http://www.tabula-rasa.info/AusComics/Hellblazers.html (accessed on May 3, 2006).

Darius, Julian. "Belfast and New York, Ireland and America, and the Strange Phenomenon of 'Irish Studies' as Seen in the Graphic Fiction of Garth Ennis." Sequart. http://www.sequart.com/articles/index.php?article=597 (accessed on May 3, 2006).

"Garth Ennis." Avatar. http://www.avatarpress.com/www2/categories/garthEnnis/ (accessed on May 3, 2006).

"Garth Ennis." Read Yourself Raw. http://www.readyourselfraw.com/profiles/ennis/profile_ennis.htm (accessed on May 3, 2006).

"Garth Ennis' 303." Avatar. http://www.avatarpress.com/303/ (accessed on May 3, 2006).

"Garth Ennis General Bibliography." EnjolrasWorld. http://www.enjolrasworld.com/HTML%20Bibliographies/Garth%20Ennis%20Bibliography.htm (accessed on May 3, 2006).

Johnson, Steve. "Garth Ennis Writes Heroes without Costumes." Mania. http://www.fortunecity.com/tattooine/sputnik/53/scifi/g_ennis.htm (accessed on May 3, 2006).

Tramountanas, George A. "Seeking Vengeance: Garth Ennis Talks 'Ghost Rider."' CBR. http://www.comicbookresources.com/news/newsitem.cgi?id=5846 (accessed on May 3, 2006).

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