Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Masked Drinker's Bourbon Pairing: Garth Ennis comics

I’ll be honest. I’m not doing so well right now, folks. I have had a bit too much too many days in a row. Jobs that start early and nights that go late can add up. And that goddamned animal holiday yesterday filled every bar with rank amateurs of questionable skill, knowledge, hygiene, and moral fiber. But I soldier on, fear not. I’ve got another bourbon pairing aimed right at your soul, high caliber style.

You may have noticed I’m a man who enjoys the occasional dip in the nerd pool. OK, fine, I’m prune-fingered from staying in too long. THIS METAPHOR IS GETTING TIRED. So this week’s bourbon pairing is all about me bringing you, the reader, into a pleasant nerd cave filled with excellence.

See, one thing that always goes well with bourbon is the comics of one Garth Ennis. Ennis is an Irish writer that came to American comics by way of a slightly different route. Most comic writers grew up reading the same superhero comics that are around today, but not Ennis. He grew up on a steady diet of British war comics, more anthology-based, more morally complicated, and often laden with irony and honor like ketchup on a classless person’s steak.

He’s worked on a number of books that are prime bourbon material. One of his few forays into (somewhat) traditional superhero fare was Hitman, the story of an Irish gangster with x-ray vision. Superheroes were skewered and satirized while keeping the action going and the humor ribald. Friendship between men, a common theme in his work, is an important strand throughout. I honestly don’t think it’s his strongest work, as some of it seemed derivative of the works of John Woo.

He’s more famous for the series Preacher drawn mostly by Steve Dillon. There were sixty-six monthly issues now collected into nine trade paperbacks. Both a love letter to the myth of America and a deconstruction of Judeo-Christian (especially Catholic) belief, Preacher is the story of Jesse Custer, a tortured man with a complicated background and a strong right hook who one day acquires the “Word of God,” an ability to make people do whatever he says. He, a hitman girlfriend, and a vampire best friend go off to find God and “make him pay for all the suffering.”

The tone moves from slapstick, gross-out humor to elegiac romance to action buddy-movie and everything in-between. Steve Dillon’s artwork is clean, full of expression, and representational enough to ground even absurd concepts, like the failed suicide called Arseface. There are lots of great moments and overall it’s an impressive, personal work. There are unfortunately points where Ennis falls a bit too in love with his characters, and tidies things up a bit too neatly, and other points where his critique of religion is more adolescent petulance than thought-out theology, but it’s a remarkable work well worth checking out.

It’s my masked opinion, however, that a more recent epic is even better, and it comes from the strangest place. Ennis and various artists spent the past few years working on the Marvel Superheroes gun-toting vigilante, The Punisher. The character debuted as a Spider-man villain, but eventually became popular enough to support several of his own titles (including a near pornographic “file” book detailing the various guns he uses). Largely and for ages thought of as something of a joke by readers over the age of 13, Ennis was given free reign to do whatever he wanted with the character. He started with a dark comedy called “Welcome Back Frank” that teamed him again with Steve Dillon. Sort of a morbid Road Runner cartoon, villains were dispatched in increasingly violent, absurd methods. But then Ennis wrote “Born,” a sobering look at The Punisher’s time in Viet Nam and here is where he seemed to really find what he had to say about the character, and, more, through the character.

He quickly relaunched the book with rotating artists for different stories and a darker, more serious tone. Now an adults-only book, it tackled various issues in the world today from sex trafficking to the war on terror. In truth, it became a years-long epic examination of the world and especially the United States, in today’s both post-Viet Nam and post-9/11 environment. Harrowing, poignant, and yet never losing the pulp excitement and action that carries the character, the series is one of the most significant pieces about America I’ve seen in the form. Frank Castle, the Punisher, is portrayed as a man of his time, completely dedicated to his psychopathic war, a relentless killer who just happens to kill terrible people. But the Punisher is more a vehicle for the social examination that Ennis is doing; he’s often less a character than a device.

A book about a guy with a skull symbol on his chest killing bad guys has no right to be such a vital, amazing work of art. But it is. Also collected in trade paperback form, I cannot recommend it more highly. Crack it open, pour yourself something brown and hot, and let the two things rattle your brain together with toughness and meaning.


  1. CROSSED with artist Jacen Burrows is also an excellent series by Garth Ennis. Amazing artwork, horrifying story. There's also THE BOYS with artist Darick Robertson. Great story, diverse cast of characters, a unique look at superheroes. But, of course, if you'd rather revisit characters you like, there's also Punisher BORN, which was excellent as well.

    Great blog, by the way.

  2. Oh man, I could not agree with the Masked One more highly than on this post. I honestly think the Punisher Max series by Ennis is the single finest comic of this decade.

    It reaches levels of intensity other comics can only dream about and deftly mixes horror and humour, while never forgetting about the action.

    And it also manages to be an incredibly moving and indescribably sad work. If you told my 1992 self that I would cry genuine tears over the fate Frank Castle had made for himself, I would never have believed you, but it has happened, all the same.

    As far as drinks go, I like to read this comic with a nice aged glass of red wine.