For over two decades Garth Ennis has been crafting stories that most writers are scared to tell. Writing with a perfect mix of brutal violence, beloved characters, strong storytelling and dark comedy, Garth Ennis has created a loyal fan base that has followed him throughout his career. His runs on Judge Dredd, Hellblazer and The Punisher are considered classics, his DC series Hitman is a cult favorite and his Vertigo series Preacher is considered a comic book masterpiece by both fans and critics alike. Garth Ennis is a man who never holds back, and as a result has become one of the most celebrated comic writers of the current century.
In 2006, Garth Ennis created The Boys, which would go on to be his most popular comic series since Preacher. Lead by Billy Butcher, The Boys is a super powered group of CIA agents who monitor and control the actions of the worlds’ out of control superhero community. Taking shots at everything from celebrity culture, politics, sex, media, religion and, especially, the comic book industry, The Boys has become a dark and violent, as well as hilarious, favorite amongst comic fans. However, the book had an uneasy beginning. First published by DC Comics’ Wildstorm imprint, Garth Ennis began the series by claiming that he would “Out Preach Preacher.” He quickly showed the comic audience exactly what he meant when The Boys’ newest recruit and primary hero, Hughie Campbell, saved a gerbil from being duct taped up a supes’ anus. Although fans were bemused, DC became uncomfortable with Ennis’ sense of provocative humor and ceased The Boys publication with issue six. Thankfully, they allowed Garth Ennis and artist Darick Robertson to maintain control of the series and shop it to another company. Ennis quickly sold the series to Dynamite Entertainment, which resumed publication with The Boys #7 in early 2007. The book is now a staple in the company’s line-up, and a strong relationship between Ennis and Dynamite has firmly been established.
Now, after seven years and three off shoot mini-series, Garth Ennis is ready to write the final chapter of The Boys, bidding farewell to Butcher, Hughie, Mother’s Milk, The Frenchman and The Female, in what is expected to be a violent and explosive finale. Tying together storylines that he’s been developing for years, the final battle between The Boys and The Homelander, Ennis’ villainous Superman parody, is about to begin. But as fans gear up for what is sure to be a brutal finish for The Boys, Dynamite Entertainment made a surprising announcement. Garth Ennis’ next project will be putting his unique stamp on one of America’s oldest crime fighting heroes, The Shadow! A figure in comics, pulp magazines, radio and film for over eighty years, The Shadow predates most of pop culture’s crime fighting heroes. Now it’s Garth Ennis’ turn to write the next chapter for this pulp icon, which will surely be unlike anything Shadow fans have seen before.
I had the unique chance to correspond with Garth Ennis, looking back on The Boys and forward to The Shadow. Just as in his books, Garth Ennis has a blunt wit and tells it like it is. We in his fan base wouldn’t have it any other way.
CONFESSIONS OF A POP CULTURE ADDICT PRESENTS
A CONVERSATION WITH GARTH ENNIS
Sam Tweedle: At what point in your life did you first get interested in comic books. What were some of the earliest comic books/creators that influenced you?
Garth Ennis: The two that mattered most to me as a kid were British weekly anthologies Battle (a war comic) and 2000AD (sci-fi/action, most famous as the home of Judge Dredd). I also read a lot of what were called the Picture Libraries, little A5 sized war comics. These were all in black & white and printed on what seemed like recycled toilet paper with pisspoor production values, and contained some of the very best comics ever published. The first American comic I read, apart from a few issues of Mad, was The Dark Knight Returns, which made me think American comics must all be completely brilliant and I’d been missing out on this Godlike genius for years and years. I immediately bought as many other titles as I could and found out the opposite was true, but I was at least able to follow people like Alan Moore into US comics, and discover the likes of Howard Chaykln, Peter Bagge, Paul Chadwick and so on.
Sam: You have a unique knack at writing military comics, which can often be a tedious topic to tackle. Your military themed stories are amongst the best comic stories of the genre. What is it that attracts you to this genre?
Garth: The war comics I read as a kid, and a lifelong interest in military history that they then sparked.
Sam: Looking back at The Boys, it had a bit of a bumpy start but quickly became a huge cult favorite. Are you surprised about its popularity and that the series ran as long as it did?
Garth: No, I can see why people like it. In the end it did what it was supposed to do, which – following the model of Preacher, Transmet, Sandman et al- was to last 5-6 years and produce 10-12 trades, which it would then survive as in perpetuity. When people asked me the same question about Preacher I used to say that I could see why people liked it, but if it had gone tits-up after 12 issues I wouldn’t have been remotely surprised either. The Boys was less of a leap into the dark.
Sam: What sparked the idea of The Boys in your mind? Is there a story to how you came up with the book, concept or the characters?
Garth: There’s no one particular moment or story. Just the general notion of a bunch of people who surveil and occasionally intervene in the filthy, Hollywood Babylon-esque world of superheroes, a la the political/historical crime fiction of James Ellroy.
Sam: What made you decide to bring The Boys to an end? Is there really no more story to tell?
Garth: This was always where it was going to end. This was their story, there’s no more to be said on the subject.
Sam: Over the years you really took a lot of shots, both tongue in cheek and below the belt, at the comic book industry while writing The Boys. Beyond satirizing characters, themes and franchises, you also parodied real life figures like Adam West and Stan Lee. How have comic professionals reacted to the cutting satire of your take on the comic industry in The Boys? Did you ever face any comic professionals who “didn’t get it” or took offense to your satire in this particular series?
Garth: No, none. I always assume that a lot of superhero fans and pros kind of enjoy this sort of parody, and those that don’t aren’t going to get excited enough to bother me.
Sam: One of the most painful moments for me was the death of Terror. What made you decide to make him the team’s first fatality? What was the overall reader reaction to his death?
Garth: That was one of the first scenes I thought of once I got The Boys up and running. The whole idea was to provoke Butcher into showing his nasty side, in which I think it succeeded 100%.
Sam: Over the years that you’ve been doing The Boys, which of the characters developed in a way you didn’t expect? Are there any characters that you felt were underdeveloped that you which you would have provided more back story for?
Garth: Hughie impressed me by remaining consistent throughout- never getting his shit together to the extent that he might seriously influence events, always watching in bewilderment as events whizz out of his control, and whining about it. He can’t really change who he is, like most people in real life, but unlike those in comic books, and yet it’s this inability that’ll stand him in good stead in the long run- as you’ll see. One of my favorites was Becky Butcher, who I could have written a lot more of. I wanted to make sure we got a proper sense of who she was, unlike most doomed heroines set up to inspire revenge (who’s Maria Castle, really?), and I think I did- but I wish I could have given her more than an issue and a half.
Sam: You never provided origin stories for The Seven, making them almost enigmatic. Was this intentional? Do you know what their origins are?
Garth: To me they were just a bunch of irredeemable dicks. They’re supes to begin with, so they’re arrogant shits whose powers make them feel superior, but elevation to The Seven would make them a thousand times worse. I did go into the Homelander’s story a while back, and there’ll be more on him in #65 because his origin’s pretty important to the overall story, but with the rest I didn’t see the point. They are, when all’s said and done, a pretty obvious parody of the JLA.
Sam: One of the most disturbing images I’ve seen in comics, and I’ve seen a lot of disturbing stuff being a fan of horror comics and films, was Butcher’s battle with the super-powered fetus in Butcher, Baker, Candlestick Maker. However, with that said, it was a powerful moment, which really explained to the audience why Butcher hates supes the way he does. It ended up being one of the most brilliant and intense moments I’ve ever read in a comic. You have done a lot of shocking things in your books over your career, but that scene brought the shock value to a new level. Have you ever come up with anything so disturbing that you either frightened yourself that you could think up such a thing, or was unable to put it in one of your books due to it being just a little too outrageous or sick?
Garth: No, it’s all gone in, or it will at some point. I never really think in those terms; I just do what seems right at each particular point of each story.
Sam: You are able to balance the shock value in your books with intelligent plot and three dimensional characters. Is it difficult to maintain the balance between shocking and intelligent storytelling? How do you maintain the balance?
Sam: When you close the doors on The Boys, will it truly be the end or will we see any occasional specials or mini-series? Were there any stories that you meant to tell but never got around to it?
Garth: That’ll be me done with it, story told, nothing else to be said. Twelve trades on the shelf. Job done.
Sam: When I was in university me and my pals would sit around the pub on Friday nights drinking beer and casting the ultimate Preacher movie. Thing was, we would usually pick the same cast week after week. With that tradition in mind, which actors, past or present, would you cast in key roles to a Boys movie?
Garth: I gave up thinking about it years ago.
Sam: I was surprised to see that you are taking on The Shadow book. What has the general response to the news that you are doing The Shadow been so far?
Garth: I’m told it’s fairly positive. Publisher Nicky Barrucci seems very pleased.
Sam: What attracted you to The Shadow? Do you have a personal history with the character?
Garth: Not really, but he’s a great looking character with a nice sense of mystery and a slightly sinister edge. Generally it’s the potential I see in a character that attracts me to them, rather than anything established in their previous appearances. I did like the Chaykin one, but that’s about it.
Sam: You are very talented at creating vivid three dimensional characters. One problem with The Shadow is that Lamont Cranston and Margo Lane have often been underdeveloped in many of the comic stories. Do you plan on focusing at all on them as characters, or just focusing on the hard hitting crime drama? Who are Lamont Cranston and Margo Lane in your book?
Garth: Cranston’s the mind behind The Shadow, the man who sets him loose, explains his thinking, aims him like a weapon. Or, Cranston’s the human face of the Shadow, who uses him to reveal exactly what he wants to the world – and no more. Margo Lane is a brave, intelligent and resourceful young woman who rapidly finds herself out of her depth. This time, The Shadow tells her, the stakes are higher than ever before; wild adventures with colorful villains are no preparation for what they’re about to face together.
Sam: By taking on an established character, have you felt any pressure to play within certain conventional guidelines in writing the book, or are you going to be writing it with your brand of dark humor and shocking violence that we know you for? Are you writing a traditional Shadow book or doing something drastically different?
Garth: To me it’s fairly traditional, but only in terms of how I see the character to begin with. I never worry about pressure or expectations, just get on and tell the story.
Sam: Do you have any knowledge of The Shadow book that Superman creator Jerry Siegel did in the 1960s, and if so, do you have any comments on his version?
Garth: Never seen it.
Sam: The Shadow is one of the oldest crime fighting characters in American literature. What do you feel the appeal and attraction of The Shadow is that keeps readers interested in him for over eighty years?
Garth: He’s an obvious classic; to me, none of the other pulp characters come anywhere near him.
Sam: Is there any other classic franchise/pulp/film characters that you would like to write? Are there any forgotten gems from the history of fandom that you’d like to dust off and bring back in comics?
Garth: The only one I’d drop everything to write would be an old British fighter pilot character called Johnny Red. I’d be happy to do another Battler Britton story, too.
Sam: Thanks again for doing this Garth. I am looking forward to both The Shadow and, while I will miss The Boys, I am really enjoying the way the drama has been intensifying lately. I really hope Hughie and Annie are able to walk hand in hand into the sunset and live happily ever after, but I keep thinking of the way you ended Hitman and knowing that it probably won’t happen.
Garth: Glad you’re enjoying The Boys, Sam. As for Hughie and Annie, you’ll have to wait and see. Sure, there was Hitman – but then there was Preacher, too. The ending of The Boys might best be described as lying somewhere in between.
In the three decades that I have been reading comic books, few writers have had the impact on my friends and I that Garth Ennis has. While his work may not always be the most conventional, his books have always been “must reads” and retain their status as classics year after year. Thus, this opportunity to pick Garth Ennis’ brain has been one of the fantastic moments of my career as a media writer and comic fan. As we say goodbye to The Boys, I know that many fans are gearing up to see what twisted world Garth Ennis will devise for The Shadow. It should be a mad and violent ride. But, with Ennis’ loyal following behind him, The Shadow is sure to become the next cult hit for Dynamite Entertainment.