Category: garth ennis

Three Chose Adventure!

The Straight Story: written by John Roach and Mary Sweeney; directed by David Lynch; starring Richard Farnsworth (Alvin Straight), Sissy Spacek (Rose), Everett McGill (Tom the John Deere Dealer), Kevin and John Farley (The Twins), and Harry Dean Stanton (Lyle Straight) (1999): David Lynch had no part in the writing of this movie so far as I can tell, a first in his career. The visuals, the soundscape, and the performances of the actors are all Lynchian, though. 

It’s a brilliant, based-on-a-true-story look at one stubborn old man on what seems to be a quixotic quest to visit his ailing brother whom he’s not talked to in a decade. The quixotic part concerns the fact that our protagonist Alvin Straight is too near-blind to drive a car and too poor to afford a bus or train visit from his home in Iowa to his brother’s home in Wisconsin. So he decides to make a six-week trek on a John Deere riding lawnmower pulling a hand-modified, covered cart.

And he does. The bulk of the movie concerns that trek going down the road, the people Straight meets along the way, and the natural landscapes through which he passes, quietly observing. Lynch punctuates the movie with Sublime scenes of thunderstorms, vast fields, and the starry sky above, all of them subject to Straight’s quiet regard. 

It’s the acting, though, that makes The Straight Story especially special. This was a cancer-wracked Richard Farnsworth’s final role before his death. His Alvin Straight is stoic and stubborn, but also extremely protective of those whom he loves — including his mentally challenged adult daughter, marvelously realized by Sissy Spacek. He’s a straight shooter. And his stubborn decency wins over everyone whom he encounters. It’s an extraordinarily sweet movie, especially for Lynch, but I don’t think it’s as out-of-character as many critics did at the time.

For one, Lynch has always been fascinated by idiosyncratic characters. Well, he must be — he’s written so many of them! Alvin Straight is perhaps most similar to the eponymous character in The Elephant Man, achingly human while faced with hardship. But the idiosyncratic characters support the movie throughout as well, from the fine Everett McGill’s (Big Ed!) John Deere dealer to the fellow World War Two vet with whom Straight commiserates about the mental scars of those long-ago battles.

And while the movie takes its stubborn optimism from Alvin Straight, it’s also shot through with darkness remembered and long contemplated by Straight, from a horrible secret of his World War Two career as a sniper to the bitterness and alcoholism that led to falling out with his brother. Maybe the movie contains one too many Alvin-delivered homilies about the importance of family, but I think what’s put on the screen earns those homilies their imaginative space. It may be a sweetheart of a movie, but it’s the dark moments that put that sweetness into high relief. Highly recommended.

Garth Ennis’ The Demon Volume 1: written by Garth Ennis; illustrated by John McCrea and others (1993-94/Collected 2015): Ennis and McCrea’s anarchic, vulgar take on Jack Kirby’s non-anarchic, non-vulgar Etrigan the Demon is a hoot for those with a strong stomach. It’s no more faithful to Kirby’s original conception of a demon who fights on the side of the angels than, well, pretty much every other take on The Demon after Kirby’s. Indeed, the only comic book that ever came close to Kirby’s energetic mix of super-heroism and the supernatural is Mike Mignola’s Hellboy

Ennis and McCrea, like Alan Moore and Matt Wagner before them, make Etrigan a barely controlled monster. They make the human Etrigan shares a body with, Jason Blood, into a whiny incompetent. They make the various supporting characters into buffoons and punchlines. So it goes. It all works because Ennis and McCrea are really good at ultraviolent horror comedy. It also works because they introduce their super-powered hitman character (cleverly dubbed Hitman) in the course of these issues. Hitman would get his own series. As is pretty much always the case with Ennis, he’d seem a lot more comfortable and a lot less scabrous writing his own character.

The standout story arc here sees Ennis and McCrea bring back DC’s venerable weird war series The Haunted Tank. The cognitive dissonance generated by a story of an American tank haunted by a Confederate general taking on a bunch of resurrected, supernatural Nazis with the help of a nihilistic Demon is a wee bit mind-blowing. Perhaps never moreso than in a scene in which the Demon explains to the Nazis why he finds them repugnant. It’s crazy fun, and it allows Ennis to himself resurrect some of the ridiculous maneuvers the dinky little Haunted Tank once performed so as to defeat seemingly endless hordes of vastly superior Nazi machinery.

Is this Kirbyesque? No. And Ennis’ decision to have Etrigan speak in rhymes all the time — based on a long-standing, DC-wide misreading of Kirby’s original Etrigan , who only occasionally spoke in rhyme — can make for some truly godawful writing at points. But, you know, Nazi zombies in tanks! Recommended.

Ramsey Campbell, Probably (1968-2015/Collected in 2015 Revised Edition) by Ramsey Campbell, edited by S.T. Joshi: 40 years of non-fiction pieces by World’s Greatest Horror Writer Ramsey Campbell. There are autobiographical pieces which illuminate Campbell’s often harrowing early life, essays on various writers, pieces on social issues related to horror, and essays and introductions originally written for Campbell’s novels and short-story collections. 

In all, they’re dandy. And so many of them in this big book from PS Publishing! Campbell is thoughtful and often self-effacing when he writes about his own work, and those essays that do this offer a wealth of information about how and why certain decisions were made in the writing process, and what Campbell thinks about those decisions in retrospect. 

He’s also debilitatingly funny in many of the essays, never moreso than when he deals with The Highgate Vampire hoax. There’s also hilarity to be had in portions of his self-appraisal (for some reason, a section on his attempt to include the word ‘shit’ in a Lovecraftian story submitted to August Derleth’s Arkham House nearly had me lying on the floor). 

His essays on writers are occasionally scathing but for the most part positive. A melancholy essay on the late John Brunner stands out as a painful meditation on what happens when a very good writer is forgotten in today’s publishing climate. A wide-ranging essay on the novels of James Herbert is a sensitive reappraisal of that (alas, also late) best-selling writer’s work as a foundational stratum of working-class, English horror shot through with deeply held social concerns not usually seen in English horror up to that time.  Many of the writers Campbell writes about are also friends, thus shedding a certain personal light on writers ranging from Robert Aickman to the (then) Poppy Z. Brite.

General pieces include the almost-obligatory ’10 horror movies for a desert island’ essay, several examinations of horror in general and the general public’s attitude towards horror, the ‘Video Nasties’ censorship hysteria in the Great Britain of the 1980’s and early 1990’s, and examinations of the history of horror. Campbell’s lengthy autobiographical essay “How I Got Here” is also invaluable in understanding his life and work. He’s almost painfully self-revelatory at points, while remaining refreshingly free of self-pity. 

Oh, and there’s an essay on British spanking-based pornography. Really, you can’t go wrong with this collection. How often is one going to find revelatory close readings of major H.P. Lovecraft stories and brief ‘plot’ synopses of faux-English-school-girl spanking pornography in the same book? Highly recommended.

Prequels, Sequels, and Adaptations

War Against Crime! Volume 2: Issues 6-11: written by Al Feldstein, William Gaines, and others; illustrated by Johnny Craig, Graham Ingels, and others (1949-1950; collected 2001): Beginning in 1950, EC’s New Directions comic-book line would represent a brief high point in American comic books. But it didn’t spring full-blown from the forehead of publisher William Gaines. A couple of years of experimentation preceded it as Gaines acclimated to the comic-book business and the talents began to assemble at EC.

War Against Crime! ran for eleven issues. It fed off the post-WWII crime comics boom. But by the end of the run collected here, it was clearly showing the way to the artistic and writerly excellence of the approaching New Directions line. And it didn’t really die after 11 issues — it was retitled The Vault of Horror with issue 12 and became one of EC’s great horror comics. The stories and art in this volume aren’t up to the standards of the approaching EC books, but they’re still well-crafted, occasionally gonzo tales of suspense and horror. Recommended.

The Incal: Orphan of the City Shaft: written by Alexandro Jodorowsky; illustrated by Zoran Janjetov (1988-1991; collected 2001): Part of the prequel series to Alexandro Jodorowsky and Moebius’s Incal series of the 1970’s, The Incal: Orphan of the City Shaft features sharp, detailed, and often grotesquely imaginative artwork from Zoran Janjetov. Jodorowsky’s story is bananas, as one would expect. It’s all Euro-Comics-SciFi in the tradition of Heavy Metal/Metal Hurlant, a dystopian adventure story explaining the origins of Incal anti-hero John DiFool.

Weird, occasionally unpleasant, occasionally poetic, visually and narratively imaginative, it’s also compulsively readable and extraordinarily dense compared to most American comic books. The whole thing pays homage to Metropolis and The Time Machine with its stratified society, a literalized hierarchy oriented around a vast shaft sinking deep into a planet. But there’s a lot more sex, drugs, and fetishes than in either of those estimable forebears. This is the sort of European comic book that the TV series Lexx tried and mostly failed to emulate. Highly recommended.

Just a Pilgrim: Garden of Eden: written by Garth Ennis; illustrated by Carlos Ezquerra (2002): Ennis and Ezquerra’s brutal post-apocalyptic Western continues here, as the gun-slinging religious fanatic known only as the Pilgrim encounters a team of scientists attempting to flee the devastated Earth to the stars. Terrible monsters and events abound, and Ennis and Ezquerra flinch neither in the grimy, bloody writing nor the grimy, bloody art. Recommended, but not for the squeamish.

Hypothetical Lizard: written by Alan Moore and Antony Johnston; illustrated by Lorenzo Orente and Sebastian Fiumara (1987 – 2004/2005): Alan Moore’s World Fantasy Award-nominated novella from the 1980’s gets the graphic treatment from Avatar Press. Antony Johnson preserves much of Moore’s prose (the album includes the novella) while doing an able job of turning it into a sequential comics narrative.

The art by Orente and Fiumara is competent, though perhaps somewhat too prosaic (haha) for the fantastic goings-on. The novella appeared in a shared-universe anthology with its roots in the weird, magical cities of writers that include Fritz Leiber, Clark Ashton Smith, Jack Vance, and M. John Harrison. Moore’s tale focuses on one tragic relationship in the city of Llaiven, all of it playing out in the weird and sinister brothel known as The House Without Clocks. Recommended.

Spider-men and ‘Spides’

Dicks Volume 1: written by Garth Ennis, illustrated by John McCrea (1989-90, 1997, 2002): One of the earliest collaborations between the dynamic duo of Ennis and McCrea (Hitman) takes us through the hyper-violent, occasionally supernatural adventures of two Belfast screw-ups.

Your degree of enjoyment will depend a lot on how funny you think Ennis and McCrea are when they get all hyper-violent and super-offensive. I think they’re funny, and the dense Belfastian slang just adds to the humour. Recommended.

Spider-man: The Original Clone Saga: written by Gerry Conway, Bill Mantlo, Len Wein, and Archie Goodwin; illustrated by Ross Andru, Sal Buscema, Jim Mooney, Frank Miller, and others (1974-75, 1979-80, 1989-91; collected 2011): The ‘Original Clone Saga’ comes in at about 500 pages, which works out to about two-dozen comic books spread out over nearly 20 years. However, it would also spawn what is probably still the longest Spider-man narrative in history. That would be the redundantly titled ‘Clone Saga Epic.’

The ‘Clone Saga Epic’ was much-hated when it occupied every issue of every Spider-man title for a couple of years in the 1990’s. The ‘Original Clone Saga’ (TOCS?) is really three story arcs that occur with several years separation between each one.

The first gives us the story of the attempts by somebody to drive Spider-man crazy by convincing him that murdered love Gwen Stacy is actually still alive. The second traces the strange story of Spider-villain Carrion. And the third…well, the third is one of those ‘Everything you knew was wrong!’ scenarios that, in the process of ostensibly making a previous story make more sense, actually causes that story to become completely goofy.

Nonetheless, this is an enjoyable survey of three different times in the publishing career of Spider-man. And the third arc, written by Gerry Conway, who also wrote stretches of the first arc, may actually be a parody of the ‘Everything you knew…’ trope that super-hero comic books have deployed since almost the beginning of superhero comics. Because if it’s a parody, it’s a funny one in which a new explanation that’s supposed to make more sense than the old one actually requires much more suspension of disbelief.

The art is competent and, in stretches, quite enjoyable (though Frank Springer makes a terrible inker for Frank Miller — their styles just don’t work together). I especially like Ross Andru’s Spider-man, though he, like Miller, is not always served well by his inkers. And the writing gives us, for the most part, that angst-ridden but dedicated Spider-man we know and love. Recommended.

Some Endings and Beginnings

John Constantine Hellblazer Volume 5: Dangerous Habits: written by Jamie Delano and Garth Ennis; illustrated by Will Simpson, Steve Pugh, Sean Phillips, Dave McKean, and others (1991; collected 2013): Brit Jamie Delano was the first full-time writer for occult detective/punk mage John Constantine, a character created by Alan Moore, Steve Bissette, John Totleben, and Rick Veitch over in the pages of Saga of the Swamp Thing in the mid-1980’s. Constantine got his own adult-oriented book in the late 1980’s, with Delano tapped to write it.

Delano wrote 40 issues and a few annuals and miniseries entries before passing the baton to the up-and-coming Irish comics writer Garth Ennis. This volume collects Delano’s last handful of regular Constantine issues and Ennis’s first six-issue arc.

Constantine, hardest of the occult hardasses, is in something of a downward spiral in Delano’s final issues. The psychic cost of fighting evil — and inevitably getting one’s friends and lovers killed during the battle — has taken its toll. Delano probes Constantine’s childhood in a striking horror tale, “Dead Boy’s Heart,” before turning to the incandescent wrap-up to ‘his’ Constantine.

What a wrap-up! Issue 40 of Hellblazer contained rare interior artwork by Dave McKean (probably still best-known today for his covers for Neil Gaiman’s Sandman). I think it’s one of the artistic highpoints for nominally mainstream comic books during the 1980’s, dense and detailed to go along with a dense, detailed prose look at Constantine’s life and works. This could have served as a fitting end to the series had it been cancelled, but Ennis came aboard with issue 41.

Under the circumstances, Ennis wisely went with the tactic of briefly mentioning the events of issue 40 and then never, ever mentioning them again. DC’s decision to put Ennis on the book was something of a stroke of genius. He and Delano are both gifted horror writers, but of almost completely different stylistic modes. Where Delano is baroque and intellectual, Ennis is visceral and bleakly comic in a punk sort of way. To some extent, splatterpunk had come to Hellblazer.

Delano did benefit from some lovely, horrifying artwork at the end of his run, other than McKean. Steve Pugh’s grotesques worked perfectly for the Grand Guignol two-parter he illustrated, while the cooler Sean Phillips meshed perfectly with Delano’s writing on their issues together. Ennis wasn’t quite so lucky early on — Will Simpson, who pencils Ennis’s first six issues, is not a gifted artist when it comes to horror, though he rises to the occasion at points.

Anyway, the first five volumes of the re-edited and re-compiled Hellblazer are marvelous, though why this series didn’t get the hardcover treatment the second time around is a puzzle. Unless DC is about to scrap this reprint series and start another one in hardcover. Which, given the mercurial nature of DC’s publishing habits these days, is entirely possible. Hidey ho! Highly recommended.


The Unwritten: Tommy Taylor and the Ship That Sank Twice: written by Mike Carey; illustrated by Peter Gross and a host of others (2013): Brilliant companion piece to the equally brilliant, ongoing comic-book series The Unwritten delves deeper into the backstory of the series while also offering the reader a dead-on pastiche of Young Adult fantasy novels.

Indeed, the world Carey, Gross, and other artists conjure up for the first volume of the imaginary Tommy Taylor series is filled with more wonder and interest in 60 pages or so than the entire Harry Potter series. And it comments on the sinister implications of a separate race of magic users walking among the powerless mundane. A great work on its own, and a great and rich expansion of the series, which has about 12 issues left to run in its storyline. Highly recommended.