Garth Ennis is an icon. With titles ranging from The Boys to Crossed to Preacher, he has established himself as a vivid storyteller who isn’t afraid to push the envelope. Famous for presenting the rougher side of superheroes, Ennis prefers writing gritty war stories to men with capes. His run on The Punisher MAX showed a war torn hero trying to piece himself back together. In Preacher, the hero was a man struggling to survive as Heaven and Hell literally descended upon him.
I caught up with Ennis at the 29th Barcelona International Comicon to discuss his latest projects, why he loves shaming superheroes, and his impressions of the convention. We started off by talking about his recently attained American citizenship. Originally from Northern Ireland, he fell in love with New York about 20 years ago.
MTV Geek: What is it that you like about America and its culture, and why did you want to live there?
Garth Ennis: Largely, there’s not much that I don’t! Particularly living in New York, which is of course a slightly different kettle of fish. I’ve been coming to NYC for about 20 years and I’ve been living there for eight. I just had that feeling the first time I arrived, like ‘this is home. After 22 years I’ve come home’. Which is a weird feeling to get! Other people that I’ve spoken to say they know what I’m talking about. But it’s just looking around and feeling so utterly comfortable, and at the same time challenged and at the same time excited. I’ve seen a fair bit of the States and the rest of the world, and I’m convinced that there’s nowhere I’d be happier, there’s nowhere I’m missing out on because I’m in NY. Becoming a citizen just seemed to be the thing to do, to commit.
Geek: I had no idea that you lived in the States, I figured that you were holed up somewhere in the UK!
Ennis: Yeah, a lot of people, no matter where I go, whether its Europe or the States, are like 'isn’t it a long way to come from Ireland'? (laughs) NY’s been home for a long time now.
Geek: Let’s start off by talking about The Boys. I’ve always wondered if you specifically based the character of Hughie on Simon Pegg?
Ennis: (laughs) When Darrick (Robertson) and I were talking about Hughie I was describing a smallish chap, quite dapper, with slightly sort of alternative look to him. But really kind of shabby, down at heel, smiles a lot until what happens, and I thought he could look a little bit like the guy from Spaced. Darrick’s a very literal minded guy so of course he drew a literal representation of Simon. In terms of Simon’s actual involvement, he wrote the intro to the book and he got in touch when he saw himself. It’s really just been a happy accident and it’s been great to have him associated with it. Funny thing is, I met Simon a couple of years ago and he’s very near my height! (laughs) He’s not Wee Hughie at all.
Wee Hughie with Simon Pegg
Geek: I was reading an interview from a few years back where you mentioned that The Boys would be around for about 60 issues.
Ennis: It’s wound up being 72 plus the three miniseries so it’ll actually end up at 90. In terms of planning it wasn’t so much a specific number, I just sort of threw 60 out there. I allowed myself the luxury of saying ‘this is going to go the whole way. We’re not going to get canceled. If I look at Preacher, Punisher, Hitman, there’s going to be enough of an audience there to sustain this. So let’s just assume that we’re going to be around for the whole run and let’s do the story that way.’
Geek: That really comes through in the storyline of The Boys. Some series read like they are expecting cancellation at any minute, so they squeeze in as much information and action possible.
Ennis: That’s an unfortunate reality of comic books, particularly these days as we are going through one of those periodic contractions. I happen to believe that this time the main victim is going to be mature readers material, as in non-superhero material. You’re seeing Vertigo dying its death of thousand cuts and Marvel is finding it very hard to maintain sales on their MAX titles. I think what you’re going to see is writers and artists of that material simply shoehorned into superhero books. But on the other hand, particularly in the case of Vertigo, they had a damn good run and got away with a lot of stuff. To do material like that at a mainstream company with the biggest corporation in the world behind it is not a bad achievement.
In terms of how that affects something like The Boys, you have the luxury to write it as a graphic novel with the emphasis on the novel. You are writing 90 chapters and you know one day that this will exist on the shelves in twelve books, just as Preacher is nine. And you can develop the story that way rather than, as you say, thinking at any moment we’re doomed, where every issue has to be written like it’s the last.
Geek: You obviously enjoy portraying the darker side of the superhero. Why do you shy away from the superhero genre?
Ennis: It was more that I had almost no experience with superheroes at all. I grew up reading British comics where the superhero genre never really took off. It sort of appeared in the 50s and 60s then kind of staggered to a halt. The comics I read as a kid were much more influenced by TV and movies. Encountering superheroes as an adult without that kind of childhood sentimentality, it just doesn’t allow you, or in my case at least, it wouldn’t let me take the characters seriously. I also had to deal with the frustration of working in an industry where superheroes make up 95% of the books. So, I’m bound to have a slightly skewed impression of them.
At the same time, it can be fun to indulge that skewed impression and you can get a certain amount of mileage out of that. The Boys is ultimately a look at what would happen if you had the kind of part rock star/part politician/part reality TV type characters out there affecting our world. There would obviously be a reaction, and eventually the government would feel the need to do something about it.
Geek: I can understand that experience! I lived in Europe for a few years and grew up with titles like Tintin and Asterix and Obelix.
Ennis: I love Asterix and Obelix! It’s great and super sarcastic. The way the characters talk to each other is just wonderful.
Geek: It’s such an adult comic while also being suitable for kids. I love comics that can transcend the boundaries of age.
Ennis: It’s that classic multi layer thing. The kids see the brightly colored funny people and big fat Obelix doing ridiculous things, while the adults are looking at the beautiful dialogue and the clever subtext and historical aspects. What a wonderful comic!
Geek: So, let’s talk about Nick Fury!
Geek: Your first Nick Fury series was a little too controversial for Marvel, and they shut it down after a few issues. What is it about Fury that motivated you to try writing him again?
Ennis: Coming to a character like Nick Fury, it’s a little bit like looking at the Punisher and seeing characters that I like, I can write, and I have an angle on. Not that skewed angle that I approach superheroes from, but it’s seeing something in the character that attracts me directly. Now in the Punisher it’s an obvious one, he’s a character very much based on movies, TV and crime novels of the early 70s. Meat and drink to me! Nick Fury is a little different.
He’s the kind of black ops, master spy, adrenaline junkie who’s never going to give this up. I count that first Nick Fury series among my favorite things that I’ve ever done. I felt that it was 6 issues of high-octane madness and it was exactly what I wanted it to be! However, it’s not surprising at all that Marvel would not build on that. You can’t an ongoing franchise out of a guy who is ultimately a very negative character. He’s a war junkie, a guy who would almost start a war just so he can indulge his favorite passion.
What really interests me about the character is the notion that the guy has been at war for effectively 60 or 70 years and still has the energy for it.
Geek: What sort of madness can we look forward to in the series?
Ennis: The new series, though I can’t say too much about it, will look quite closely at the Cold War. It’s a period of history that fascinates me and we will sort of move through its greatest hits. French Indochina, Cuba because you have do the Bay of Pigs, Vietnam in the early seventies when it’s really gotten going, and then on to Nicaragua and El Salvador in the 80s. Those last two allow me to use the Punisher and Barracuda as supporting characters. So, it’s going to be sort of the Marvel MAX ultimate whirlwind cauldron of hell book.
Plus Goran Parlov on the artwork, which is just the icing on the cake. He’s tremendous, he really is.
Geek: Will this series be dark and comical like The Boys or pure action like The Punisher?
Ennis: I think it’s going to be a lot darker. I used Fury as a supporting character in The Punisher a couple of times, and I had him show up as a behind the scenes fixer kind of guy. The last time we saw him in The Punisher he was a bitter old man drinking bourbon and muttering darkly about what was going on in the world. What we’ll see in this story is what turned him into that.
He’s been fighting a war for 40 or 50 years against the ill-defined enemy of communism or communist aggression only to see the whole thing come to an end in 1990. As you know, the Cold War ended and the Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain came down. We’re going to see the frustrations that have led to him being this bitter old man in a bar sending someone like Frank Castle out to do his bidding.
Geek: Speaking of The Punisher MAX line, I am absolutely fascinated by your run. After reading Punisher: Born I began to wonder if Frank is actually driven by some sort of supernatural dark force. Could he be considered someone that's been gifted with a higher (or lower) power?
Ennis: To me, that whole sequence was about – it’s written in that classic way where maybe it’s there, maybe it’s all in his head. It’s more a man coming to terms with his own fate, his own destiny, and the path he’ll walk through the world. A man being honest with himself about who he is. At home he has the wife, the kid, the other kid on the way, meanwhile he’s up to his neck in horror. He likes it, and he’s coming to terms with that and admitting it.
Ultimately, it’s his ability to embrace this that allows him to survive and come home to his wife and kids. He’s made a kind of deal with the attraction to the violence in himself that will, in a way, draw his family into that world too. Again, you can read it anyway you want (laughs) but that’s my own personal take!
Geek: Is there one specific genre that you really enjoy writing?
Ennis: If I had to pick one, I’d have to say war stories as I love writing those. I grew up with so many different influences from TV, movies, novels, and comics that I bring all of that to my writing. I think a lot of people in comics only bring the one genre, which is why you get the superhero genre kind of repeating itself forever. Where as I on the other hand, that’s the one genre I have no interest in. Even when I do write it I have to find a particular take. It’s very much a product of the stuff that I grew up on.
Geek: How are you enjoying the convention so far?
Ennis: It’s been pretty interesting! It’s that European thing, where things are taken just a little bit more seriously. I mean we’ve got the Minister of Culture walking around (laughs)! And also, I haven’t been to SDCC in about 12 years, but what I’ve heard is that it’s taken on this kind of Hollywood aspect. That is lacking here, they are focusing very much on the comics.
Geek: Besides the Nick Fury series, what else are you working on right now?
Ennis: There’s about a dozen issues of The Boys I have to write to finish it, but the Butcher series is done! There’s going to be more war stories for Avatar and Dynamite, and there will be a new Crossed series starting in the summer. I’m doing the first three issues and Jamie Delano is going to take over after me. That’s what I’m up to right now!