Comics criticism has a Garth Ennis problem.
Despite a considerable body of work spanning almost three decades which shows little sign of stopping – at the time of writing, he’s currently working on two monthly miniseries – there is a dearth of critical engagement with Ennis’ comics, particularly at the academic level. Often his name appears in passing on lists of British Invasion authors: Moore, Morrison, Ellis, oh, and Ennis too; he wrote that Western with all the sodomy jokes, didn’t he? We haven’t read it, but it’s one of the Vertigo books most readers know about, so he should be on the list.
Perhaps it’s the violence that keeps Ennis relegated to an item on a list rather than the focus of numerous papers, conferences, and books. Holding forth on pages of gunplay and gore, some might argue, won’t really help encourage those not in the field to accept comics as legitimate art. Yet underground comics, for instance, depict shocking levels of violence and are still considered suitable subjects of critique, and in the closely related field of film studies, gunplay and gore don’t seem to pose much of a barrier to criticism, judging by the amount of existing research on Tarantino’s work.
Is it the sexual neuroses of Ennis’ comics that keep academia and critics at bay? A regressive attitude toward sexuality does permeate much of his writing, especially his earlier work; for a man in an Ennis comic, nothing is more terrifying or more illustrative of villainy than anal penetration. However, Moore has attracted his share of controversy (to put it lightly) for his depictions of women suffering sexual assault, while Morrison, we must remember, named a black female supervillain “Jezebel Jet”: a first name colloquially meaning “whore” and a last name meaning “black.” And the misogyny on display in some alternative or art comics is jaw-dropping – I’m looking at you, Chester Brown, and your phalanxes of faceless female sex workers – but this hasn’t stopped critics from praising, or at least analyzing, these texts in great depth.
Is it because Ennis’ comics are accessible to large groups of readers without requiring them to possess advanced knowledge of the Kabbalah, image/text theory, the history of 19th-century British literature, or the occult symbology of Illuminati conspiracy theories? Not to devalue comics that do ask such things of their readers, but obtuseness to the general public isn’t equivalent to intellectual merit, although academia still tends to confuse one with the other. There is immense potential for critical exploration in the straightforward if you know where to look. With Ennis you don’t have to look very hard before you find it. Just be ready to look, and his comics will reward you richly.
Or maybe these are all symptoms of an underlying problem for academics and critics, something it’s easier to leave unanalyzed than to confront. Comics by Ennis have a habit of destabilizing the dominant narratives of their genre and medium, which includes not only the sociopolitical structures shaping them but the degrees to which we as academics/critics/readers are participants in or willing to challenge those narratives. What is our engagement with the toxic masculinity that drives his characters’ violent acts and supports real-life communities where the acts of men are prioritized over anyone else’s – like academia, criticism, and so much in the public and private sphere – doing to us? Are we tainted by association? If we examine Ennis’ comics with the level of scrutiny that analytical criticism demands, will we see ourselves reflected in the self-corroding figures that populate their pages?
This series, unfortunately, doesn’t have the answers, although it will hopefully get readers closer to constructing those answers for themselves.
What this series does provide is a critical overview of Ennis’ comics from his debut in 1989 to the present day, taking in his major works along with his less-discussed comics to provide as full a picture as possible of the complexity, thematic significance, and evolution of his contributions to the world of comics, and to take a major step towards remedying his absence from the critical canon.
Although it’s fair to describe Ennis as trading in violence, to stop there would be highly reductive. His approach to writing violence takes into account the various authorities, gendered codes of behavior, socioeconomic dynamics, political conflicts, and other institutions from which such violence stems – with the conclusion that the powers at the source of our atrocities seldom have our best interests at heart, whether it’s the Punisher bargaining with Death in Vietnam or phallic-bodied aliens turning their “bigotry ray” on sectarian Belfast – and is fascinated with the degree to which we as humans are controlled by or gain independence from these. In Ennis’ world, violence is almost never an end in itself. Instead, it is a response to a broken, malignant society, a sustained manifestation of destructive anger in (and against) bodies both personal and politic that corrodes the enactor’s psyche at the same time that it satisfies.
A key element of the constructs underlying Ennis’ violence is their patriarchal nature. These operate on rules dictated by men to men in an endless battle to establish male dominance where women are treated as auxiliaries at best and casualties at worst. This is particularly applicable in the case of his war comics, which focus on men killing other men on behalf of wealthy cold-blooded men, but holds true for his works as a whole. The quintessential Ennis comic follows a stoic, straight-talking man dedicated to upholding certain moral codes through violence who will (and often does) suffer numerous mortal wounds without shedding a single tear. While many other authors have written male heroes according to a similar model, Ennis sets his paragons of masculinity apart by portraying such behavior as deeply unhealthy in a way that the characters themselves are unable to acknowledge, due to their inability to engage with their own emotions; his characters, as well as the readers, start out seeing this lack of engagement as a manful virtue, but over the course of the narrative come to recognize it as the product of grave trauma. For these men, the struggle is twofold: in addition to dispatching their enemies, they must learn to accept their less conventionally masculine emotions or be destroyed by their perpetuation of violence. Put another way, this is a choice between toxic stereotypical masculinity and masculinity that allows for personal wholeness and growth. Ennis undermines the codes of masculinity that inform the genres he operates in and the degree to which he is complicit in perpetuating them, attempting to dismantle the mechanism from within.
But as this series will reveal, Ennis’ comics are not entirely able to shake off the codes of masculinity they seek to repudiate. What they do manage to achieve, however, is almost as impressive. For Ennis, revising the gendered constructs that shape the genres in which he writes involves revisiting his earlier work, frequently with more than a hint of self-derision. For all that he may be a mere entry on a list for most academics, his Vertigo work still situates him among the key influencers of American mainstream comics. As his career progresses, he has continually been questioning the effects of that influence as well as his role in maintaining a toxic masculinity-oriented status quo, and recontetxualizing his legacy within a medium that cylically overwrites its own narratives.
In the spirit of Ennis’ work, where undertakings on the largest scale are at their core deeply personal, I would like to close this a brief recollection:
The first time I read a Garth Ennis comic I was twenty years old. I was studying abroad at Oxford, in a country and social milieu that, for a child from Hawaii whose father didn’t wear shoes to school until he was eleven, were like being on a parallel Earth. Then I found Preacher, and amongst the angels, paramilitary religious conspiracies, fear of anal invasion, and of course gobbets of blood, every page turned seemed to bring new insights into the factors making us who we are.
Since then, I have cried during Hitman, laughed past the point of all dignity at All-Star Section 8, stared into the void of humanity presented by Punisher MAX, uttered incredulous obscenities at Dicks, and spread panels from Judge Dredd: Emerald Isle of Dredd talking about potatoes across projection screens for official academic presentations. Ennis’ writing has left a lasting impact on me that will likely remain, to paraphrase one of his most famous creations, until the end of the world – and its importance for comics is not far off.