After spending about 10 relativistic decades writing about Alan Moore’s best of, I’m here to give you the deep truth about Garth Ennis’ top 10 books.
Friends, I want you to imagine a man, a man from Northern Ireland. A man who decided every second or third word out of his mouth would be curse word. Garth Ennis is a human pendulum swinging between bawdy tastelessness and righteous outrage.
Ennis’ professional life as a comics writer is, as far as I can tell, based on two obsessions: male friendship and hating superheroes. That’s not the top and toes of Ennis—there’s a lot more ground to cover, as the painter told her subject, but those are the bookends. In reality, Garth Ennis is a studied artist, contrary to how he is presented (and how he’s occasionally presented himself), but most of Ennis’ works are drawn from those two deep wells. Saying an artist has one subject, or two, is not a diminishment. I’ve never seen Ennis and Jane Austen connected in a sentence, but get ready, Lucille, because that’s exactly the direction we’re headed in.
Ennis is concerned with male friendship, in the way that Austen was focused on marriage among rural English gentry. For Ennis and Austen, those paths are their way of talking about literally everything else in the world. In philosophy, there is a famous division of humankind into hedgehogs and foxes. Hedgehogs know one or two big things. Foxes know lots of little things. Ennis and Austen are hedgehogs. In art, however, being a hedgehog works—if the artist is gifted. Wise hedgehogs may speak about anything through speaking about one thing. Austen did, and Ennis does. Using the subject matter of landed matrimony, Austen dissects all human matters. Kind of like how your crank uncle uses any news item to shoehorn in his views about how athletes had hustle back in his day.
Who cuts the middle class to their bones? Who catalogs the inner lives of women? Who has a keener grasp of politics? Austen does. Her obsession is like a highly polished pearl set in the middle of a busy room. There’s one, bright, keenly focused spot. That single point is able to catch everything by way of reflection, like Escher’s drawing of the mirrored balls. In the same way, Ennis has used male friendship and hating superheroes to lecture about politics, drinking, film-making, ethics, killing, the settlement of the West, theology, marriage, toxic masculinity, poetry, Irish revolutionary history and pretty much every topic under the sun. Such as:
Goddess Cover Art by Phil Winslade
Artist: Phil Winslade
Publisher: Vertigo/ DC Comics
This is the strangest Ennis, and I put it here to remind me, and my readers, that Garth Ennis is not bound by our preconceptions, any more than George R. R. Martin is bound by human schedules. It’s one of his earliest works, too. Goddess is an eight-issue story about a woman, Rosie Noland, who discovers she’s a deity. There’s not a lot more to it than that. Of course, this is Ennis, so gratuitous abuse of power and flouting of good taste are what follows. Rosie learns about her new skills, and has to make her way through a world of appalling nastiness and gore.
I put Goddess here because it’s Ennis writing a female protagonist. Which brings me to an important point about everyone’s favorite Northern Irish comics writer: there’s a fair amount of early Ennis that rings false and hollow, including an early strain of sexism, reactionism and a certain amount of transphobia and homophobia. He joins genuine empathy with bush-league Reddit contrarianism, and his arguments for atheism would convince a fifteen-year-old—and practically nobody else. He’s uncomfortable writing female protagonists who aren’t action girls. And it shows.
On the other hand, Ennis regularly talks about class and the hollowness of toxic machismo. He addresses injustice and human indignity in a visceral, no-kidding way that most creators don’t. His protagonists face difficult moral choices without easy answers. Above all, when writing characters, Ennis does not cheat. A large part of his canon, even in the problematic years, centers on men who cannot grow up, and suffer for it. Goddess is the first part of Ennis’ long battle against his own worst tendencies as an artist. Despite the deficiencies, it’s still worth reading.
The Boys Cover Art by Darick Robertson
9. The Boys
Artists: Darick Robertson, Russ Bruan, Peter Snejbjerg & John McCrea
Publisher: Dynamite Entertainment
The Boys is the story of a Scottish man named Hughie, who lives in a world of reckless, stupid, celebrity superheroes. He suffers a terrible tragedy, and hooks up with an undercover CIA team of assassins, nicknamed “The Boys.” Led by a grinning psychopath named Butcher, The Boys go around kicking the hell out of anyone with a cape.
The Boys is serious business for a lot of reasons, and it’s got my favorite Ennis villain, Vought-American Vice President James Stillwell. I started reading The Boys and finished the entire series in about three days. It’s propulsive entertainment…even if the gratuitous Ennis-ness makes it kind of a slog. The writing isn’t surprising or innovative. But the scope and ambition of the story are enough to win it a place in the top 10.
What can we make of the series? The Boys is a great work, but not a particularly enjoyable one. It’s Ennis deliberately trying to “do Ennis,” and it shows: there’s a weird mean-spiritedness to the story that, curiously, you don’t often find in the rest of his books. The best parts of The Boys are Robertson’s artwork, Hughie’s parents, the terrifying Homelander and Superduper. Reading The Boys is a bit like reading a book by a really gifted writer who plays for the other political team. He’s misreading everything, but he’s not entirely wrong. What if there was no man in the sky, just a bastard with heat vision?
Chronicles of Wormwood Cover Art by Jacen Burrows
8. Chronicles of Wormwood
Artist: Jacen Burrows
Publisher: Avatar Press
“My name is Danny Wormwood, and I’m the Antichrist. How I ended up with a rabbit is beyond me.”
Chronicles of Wormwood concerns the monster at the end of the book, who Ennis makes into a decent dude. Of course the Devil’s firstborn is an Englishman. Also, because this is an Ennis joint, the Beast is friends with a talking rabbit and the brain-damaged incarnation of Jesus. This is a raunchy, tasteless book, like pretty much everything Ennis writes.
That’s not the primary reason for the tale of Wormwood to exist, though. Ennis is writing down his thoughts on politics, religion and morality. If you want to understand how great of a writer Our Man Garth is, consider what a lesser scribe would have made of this setup. A lazy creator would not take the risks Ennis does. This book is also here for another reason: in case it’s not clear by now, Garth Ennis is not a subtle artist. As I’ve said before, he’s careful; that’s not the same thing as subtle.
That’s not an insult—it’s just how the guy rolls. Some anvils need to be dropped, and when Ennis gets around to it, he doesn’t shy away from the message. Wormwood is Ennis going full Heinlein: Here’s what’s wrong with practically everything, and here’s how you fix it. It’s a sign of the man’s unparalleled, ranty skill that it doesn’t tire or weary the reader. It’s also typical of Ennis that his Hell is so much more interesting than his Heaven.
Like most Ennis stories, there’s plenty here that is unsettling, uncomfortable and unfair. But it wouldn’t be Ennis if it didn’t stir you to action, or outrage. Wormwood occupies this space because it’s a categorical example of how Ennis—our godless pastor—is streets ahead of his imitators. If the primary negative emotion in Alan Moore’s works is disappointment, Ennis’ major spring is broad-brush annoyance. This is a story about a man born from the union of a woman and a jackal, which is not surprising…but it’s kind of heartwarming, which is something of a shocker. What can I say? It’s Ennis.
303 Cover Art by Jacen Burrows
Artist: Jacen Burrows
Publisher: Avatar Press
Oh, don’t worry. There’s a fair amount of Paint-It-Black Ennis in this list too. Particularly the next two entries. 303 is the story of a Russian Spetsnaz colonel, a veteran of Afghanistan, the coldest of the cold warriors, and his beloved .303 Lee-Enfield rifle. When the story opens, the Russian is a bygone man with a bygone weapon who has killed in a bygone place. The colonel discovers that 9/11 was a plot, and then goes on a mission to assassinate the president of the United States. That’s the through-line of the book, and it’s more than enough. There’s plenty on the plate besides the targeted killing of an American president who is very much George W. Bush.
Sure, Ennis describes the depravity and folly of war, takes us into a modern slaughterhouse and has words to say over empire and plunder. But here, as always, Ennis wants to tell the stories of men with rifles. He has a fondness for soldiers—especially old, obsessed ones. With all apologies to Punisher fans, this is as close as Ennis will ever get to doing Batman justice, even if he wouldn’t admit it.
The Punisher Cover Art by Tim Bradstreet
6. The Punisher
Artists: Steve Dillon, Leandro Fernandez, Darick Robertson, Others
Publisher: Marvel Comics
And so, The Punisher. The series Ennis made his own.
There had been about three memorable Punisher runs before he set his mind to work. Some of them quite good, but they might as well have never tried. Ennis swallowed up Frank Castle, gobbled him up whole, and what was left over was all Belfast-imported. I don’t mean to say that the Punishers before Ennis didn’t amount to much. But Punisher before Ennis is like Swamp Thing before Alan Moore. The print of the hand that shapes it is so distinct, it can’t be removed.
The Punisher had always lived uncomfortably with the world of superheroes; he’d been a veteran of a distant war, damaged goods, in search of a justice he could neither make himself nor claim from someone else. Ennis carved out what had always been waiting there. He liberated the nihilism of the character. His Frank hated heroes with a passion. No admiration—just pure contempt. His Frank was still a Vietnam vet, but one who had been chosen by Death’s hand even before his tour overseas. His Frank cared about innocence, but had given up any pretense of doing real justice years ago.
As Ennis himself once pointed out in an interview, Frank Castle is a serial killer in all but name. From Ennis’ first issue, where Castle heaves a criminal off the Empire State Building, to the moment in Born, where the Grim Reaper literally tells Castle what he will be, Ennis is writing darkness visible. I can’t claim this is the writer at his bleakest—Crossed has that honor—but this is a book Ennis was born to write. I would not want that honor. As readers, we are fortunate that Ennis did.