Filthy Genius: A Birthday Tribute To Garth Ennis
There might be writers more talented than Garth Ennis, but none are as bafflingly talented as Garth Ennis. Nobody else has such an immense capacity for complex human drama hidden beneath a surface so utterly drenched with puke jokes.
An unabashed lover of scatological humor, extreme violence, and vicious satire, the Northern Ireland-born writer, born 46 years ago tomorrow on January 16 1970, is something of an acquired taste. One might even go so far as to call him polarizing. For everyone who dismisses Ennis as juvenile, vulgar, and vile, you’ll find at least one more who will tell you that Garth Ennis is a special kind of brilliant.
Ennis got his start in comic books very young, around eighteen or nineteen, when he wrote Troubled Souls for Crisis. Like many of his British peers, he honed his voice working for 2000 AD but he made the jump to American comics very quickly, debuting on Vertigo’s Hellblazer just two years later, and one could already describe his writing as “worldly.”
With an uncanny ear for dialogue and a knack for crafting and exploring three-dimensional characters — heavily assisted by artist Steve Dillon, once he brought his expressive nuance to the title — Ennis already possessed an inimitable voice and quickly built his reputation.
Amid the stellar character work in Hellblazer, Ennis showcased his propensity for extreme violence (writing it, not perpetrating it), conjuring a series of brutal and gruesome scenes that pushed the limits of what some deemed as acceptable, even for a “mature readers” book. He bolstered his controversial reputation on The Demon with artist John McCrea, who shared Ennis’ fondness for gross-out humor and intense violence, and together the pair created Tommy Monaghan, who soon appeared in his own series. And if it wasn’t already apparent that Ennis didn’t care much for superheroes, Hitman made that abundantly clear.
Having grown up primarily on British war comics, Ennis found the superhero genre ridiculous, and frequently skewered its sacred cows — actually literally skewered them — with a viciousness typically reserved for war criminals, and that’s primarily why there’s such a clear division among readers. Some won’t read Ennis because of the violence, the humor, and the disrespect for superheroes; others love him because of the violence, the humor, and the disrespect. Then there are those who really don’t care what he does to superheroes; they just know that, no matter how extreme or grotesque some of his work can be, beneath that outer layer of filth is a rare gem.
The initial shock of many of Ennis’ comics can easily turn readers off. Ennis’ three best-known works are probably Hitman, Preacher, and The Boys, and each is filled with enough graphic violence and toilet humor to power a small country (or at least a small country’s toilets). Hitman is suffused with penis jokes, testicle jokes, masturbation jokes, and beer-vomit. Preacher features disfigured rednecks and bestiality; a character with a penis for a head, and another with an anus for a face. A major story-arc in The Boys revolves around a superhero orgy, and speaking of anuses, there’s also a gerbil that used to live inside one. (Or was it a hamster?)
And somehow, Hitman, Preacher, and The Boys is each arguably a genuine humanist masterpiece.
Garth Ennis writes people better than anyone in the history of comics. He’s often been labeled a cynic or a nihilist, but in truth he’s a rational humanist, and this philosophy guides everything he writes. He carries an abiding love of all that’s good in people while remaining acutely aware of all the bad they’re capable of, and it’s not just the dialogue that makes his characters so real. It’s their decisions and their depth, and how they navigate the world, capturing fleet moments of love and glory in the meatgrinder of chance, choice, and consequence that is human life.
Ennis might really be at his best when he’s not trying to be funny. His historical war comics are dead-serious, and they can be remarkably visceral and striking, especially the Battlefields and War Stories series. Crossed is likely the most intense apocalyptic comicbook of all time, a nightmare excursion into the bleakness of human nature touched with a tear-jerking glimmer of hope. Rover Red Charlie is a completely different kind of end-times comic, and it could break a stone man’s heart.
And the first half of his work on The Punisher, with Steve Dillon and Darick Robertson, is very good parody; dark, violent, and fun. Punisher MAX has rare moments of humor, but the parodic elements are dropped entirely, and that book sings the obsidian poetry of hell. When he’s not concerned with comedy at all, Ennis’s work is beyond exceptional.
But when he gets the balance right — when he finds the right mix of graphic violence, stupid jokes, and human nature — it’s absolutely magical. Nobody else can do what Garth Ennis does. Nobody else makes us laugh so loudly at the darkness that fails to extinguish hope.
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