Continuing OTF’s coverage from Baltimore Comic-Con, we had the opportunity to attend a Q&A session with writer Garth Ennis, the talented scribe responsible for such standout works as Preacher, The Boys, and Hitman. Joined by Dynamite Editor Joe Rybandt, Mr. Ennis fielded questions ranging from what to expect from his future projects to his facination with military history and how it has influenced several of his stories. However, the most interesting discussions revolved around subjects such as the smaller, yet popular, comic publishers (Dynamite, Avatar, etc.), creator-owned properties, and his unique style of writing.
One fan broached the topic of the current relationship between publishers and the creators, and asked Garth to elaborate upon his vocal opinion that the comic industry has become less creator-fiendly as of late.
“I know a lot of people are talking about Before Watchmen. I’ve not read it. I don’t intend to. It’s a superhero book done quite well with nice artwork so it’s of no interest to me whatsoever. [laughter] I think that what Before Watchmen is is more important than the comic book. I think it’s a message. I think what it’s saying is DC have realized what Marvel have known all along, which actually is you don’t really have to indulge creator’s rights. You don’t need to encourage creator-owned comics. What you can do, and Marvel have proved this, is you can put out the same thing over and over and over again and people will buy it in huge numbers. And Vertigo, as an example of the opposite, is a commercial disaster. It’s bleeding to death right now. In its 2-year history, it’s had about 6 actual successes. Maybe another 6 that kind of relied on the trades, half a dozen miniseries, and the rest have tanked. How many Vertigo series can you think of that lasted a year and a half? You saw it every single time. There’s the ad, ‘New book from Vertigo! Exciting new monthly series!’ Lines from other writers and artists saying how much they’re looking forward to it. I know, I provided some of that b******t. ‘Oh great, a new book! I can’t wait to read this.’ But that’s Vertigo. It’s essentially failed. I think that DC have kind of realized that. They’ve realized that Marvel are a better model to follow. The important starting point for that is to let people know that the balance is swinging away from writers and artists and back toward the corporations. DC is not a particularly creator-friendly place right now, as I understand it. There are multiple re-writes going on and writers being pissed about. It’s just generally a grim time. That’s why, I think, the smart thing to do is to go to the smaller publishers – Dynamite, Avatar, Image, Dark Horse – and get as much of your own stuff into print as possible. I’m not talking about changing anything. I’ve been hearing about changing comics for 20 years and they don’t look that different to me. I’m not talking about changing things. I’m talking about survival. I don’t want to be the 80-year-old writer or artist who coughs up a lung on his deathbed and that inspires people to give him charity. We have no union. We have no organization. We have no one looking out for us. We’re freelancers, and that’s part and partial of what we do. But no one’s looking out for us, so we have to look out for ourselves. The other person I don’t want to be is the guy standing in line to do the Catwoman/Huntress series that I’ve always been dying to do. [laughter] You know, at age 65 or 70 and still knocking this stuff out. I don’t want to be that guy either. If I am, you’ll know something has gone horribly wrong. So this, to me, is a question of survival. Just sensing something in the air and deciding whether it’s time to take action.”
With Garth’s anti-corporatism opinion now on the table, another fan addressed Garth’s apparent view of humanity as “complete s**t” as his writing has become “more bitter and political” throughout the progression of his career.
“Yes, we can be appalling, but yes, we can also be great. It’ll be interesting for you to read the last two issues of The Boys. That might answer some of those questions for you. It’s hard to write about conflict realistically and not touch on some of the grimmer aspects of human existence. I don’t know if you read a book I do called Crossed but it’s about as rough as it gets for my writing. Essentially what Crossed is is the notion of human evil as a virus. Everything vile that we’ve done to each other over the years and everything that certain kinds of people do when they have a free hand is, essentially, a viral infection. That’s the enemy. But at the same time, what I try to do with Crossed is show that when human beings are in disastrous situations, they can act awfully, but they can also act brilliantly and inspiringly. That’s something I get from reading military history. You read stories of mass slaughter, of horror, and of degradation, but you also read about courage, self-sacrificial courage, which, given that you’re reading about people in the most extreme ends of human experience, you sometimes find that people behave magnificently. I hope it’s something I bring across as much as the horror and degradation.”
A follow-up question from another audience member inquired about Garth’s tendency to “unmake God in some way, shape, or form.” The fan also asked about why Garth’s writing sometimes contradicts itself when he portrays some characters serving God (Just a Pilgrim) and others looking to destroy God (Preacher).
“If you look at Pilgrim, his faith in God is that of a lunatic. He’s a cannibal who finds God in prison and becomes a fanatic. Generally, when I write, the stories either feature no God at all or God as a complete bastard. I remember talking to Mark Johnson, who I briefly worked with on adapting Preacher for HBO and he said, ‘You know, I don’t think this is going to go. I think we have a real problem here and we can’t get around it. No one’s ever said this before. No one’s ever said, ‘God exists but he’s a dick.’ [laughter] And in the end, that’s what’s going to kill us.’ And I think he was right. As for the wider sense of my work, I’m an atheist, more and more hardcore with every passing year, so I tend to write God either as a monster or I ignore him completely.”
Switching gears from the rougher aspects of Garth’s writing, one fan asked about his ability to create strong, female characters who show great initiative in his stories.
“I would probably start with what I read as a kid. In British comics, at least in the ones I read, you tended to get some pretty strong female characters. I first read about the Night Witches, the female Russian aviators in WWII, when I was about 8 in a story called Johnny Red. It was about a British fighter pilot who flew with a Russian squadron. One day, he almost collides with a biplane. He lands, finds the pilot, goes charging up to them and goes, ‘Listen here, comrade…’ and that’s as far as he gets because the pilot turns around and decks him. And it’s a woman. Now, that doesn’t sound like much today in the early 21st century, but I can assure you, reading it in 1978, I found it quite stunning. I didn’t know that girls flew planes, never mind won fights with boys, but when I read about it there, I found out, yes they did. So for me, being interested in characters at a very early age, I think, set me on the road to putting characters like that in my own work. Throughout my life, I’ve never really read or experienced anything that would change my mind about that. Each gender has its own particular aspects, of course, but you experience human behavior every day. You draw on your own experiences and you draw on things that happen around you, but in terms of how you avoid a character seeming any particular way, you just don’t write it like that.”
One of the last questions posed to Garth regarded his work on one project of his that is very dear to my heart – his 6-issue run on Dynamite’s The Shadow comic. Garth was asked if he would be returning to write more for the series in the future.
“I was only going to do 6. If I wanted to go back, I would. I did find that… and I was surprised by this actually, but I didn’t find The Shadow was as interesting a character to write as I had hoped. He, himself, is not that interesting. I’ve compared him before to a walking gun. Once he shows up, only one thing’s going to happen. Lamont Cranston is the interesting character. Partly because he’s such a splendid s**t and partly because he’s also the planner. He’s the thinker. He’s the one that effectively gets The Shadow into position to do what has to be done, but the schemes and thoughts and plans are his.”
To close out the Q&A, Garth was asked if he has any plans for a new, long-term story in the future.
“None right now. I remember when Preacher ended and didn’t think I would do another one, but one run on The Punisher and The Boys later, it turns out I was wrong about that. So, nothing planned, but it’s possible. Technically, my new war book from Avatar will be ongoing, but that’s going to be self-contained, three-issue stories. And also, we want to test the waters. We’ll do 12, and if it looks like it’s going to survive, we’ll do more.”
Many thanks to Garth Ennis for taking the time to sit down with his fans to share his thoughts and stories. Preacher continues to be one of the most astounding and entertaining comic series I have had the pleasure of reading, and if you are looking to sample some of Ennis’s writing, I highly recommend it.