Garth Ennis' Red Team
Having conquered the comics industry with the peerless Preacher series, Garth Ennis discusses living in New York City, Hollywood adaptations and his forthcoming new title
The geeks have inherited the Earth, and comics are cool again. Check your local cinema and it seems the bulk of the year’s blockbusters are based on comic titles, while The Walking Dead conquers television. Comics are where it’s at – and Garth Ennis is one of the form’s most talented exponents.
Originally from Holywood, County Down but now living in New York, Ennis has been responsible for some of the best and most challenging titles of the last few decades. His mid-90s Preacher series sits alongside Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns and Maus as one of the key graphic novels that pushed comics into the mainstream and broadened their appeal.
Since then, Ennis has been head writer on a long list of titles, taking on classics like Punisher and giving that series its bloodiest run, and more creator-owned projects like The Boys, a 72-issue epic inspired by the novels of LA crime author, James Ellroy.
His comics are funny, readable, brutal and unique, and his latest, Red Team (see exclusive featured panels above and below), due out on February 6, is the lead title in Dynamite Entertainment’s new crime series.
Set on the streets of Ennis’ adopted home, Red Team seems like a return to the violent vigilantism of Punisher, but with cops attempting to operate within legal parameters as opposed to Frank Castle’s pugnacious war.
‘Well, they may not be staying within those parameters as much as you think,’ Ennis explains. ‘Really, the story is about people actually attempting to do what Frank does, without setting themselves up as recognisable, Punisher-esque figures. Is it inspired by New York? A little. More in terms of the commentary the characters have on various aspects of life here than plot-specific stuff. That's all invention.’
It’s a punchy and violent read, and the latest addition to a formidable body of work that started in 1989 when Ennis had his first series published in Crisis, a short-lived older brother to 2000AD. Troubled Souls was set in Belfast and followed two engagingly feckless friends attempting to get ahead in the then conflict-ridden city. So what keeps Ennis so interested in comics as a form?
‘I like writing dialogue, I have full creative control, and the special effects budget is limitless,' he says. 'As a novelist acquaintance of mine put it, if I want Wellington bombers over Stuttgart, I can have them. In film or TV that might not be so simple.’
So the creative freedom in comics is unlimited, unlike the more rigid movie world with its committees and financiers?
‘Yes, it’s a huge advantage. I have no test audiences ticking the happy ending box, no executives demanding changes, and no high-powered director with the vaguest of notions of his own, convinced that your hard-boiled cop drama is the perfect starting point for that vampire policeman idea he's always wanted to do.’
And when it comes to Wellington bombers over Stuttgart, Ennis is an expert, having long been obsessed with real-life conflicts, in particular the Second World War. A keen historian and meticulous researcher, this passion again stemmed from comics and his love of boyhood war titles such as Commando and Battle.
That interest in history continues with his own Battlefields mini-series, most recently The Green Fields Beyond and the character of Sarge, who shares another of Ennis’ traits as a writer: speaking in his own dialect rather than the homogenised speech of most mainstream comics. Does Ennis ever worry this dialogue will get lost in translation, or is it a case of making the reader work harder?
‘The latter,' he answers emphatically. 'My main concern is getting stuff right. To take Stiles from the Tankies stories as an example, his dialogue is taken from a memoir by George MacDonald Fraser, who wrote the Flashman novels. MacDonald Fraser was the only Scotsman in a Cumbrian platoon during the Burma campaign. So Stiles may not sound exactly like a modern Geordie, but then again, he's not meant to.’
As ever, Hollywood adaptations of comics remain lucrative for the studios and alluring to writers hoping for a wider audience. Ennis and his work have been the focus of several attempts by studios keen to source and mine new material. Is there a danger that comics will come to be seen as mere first drafts – and not pieces of art in their own right – for the eventual and more ‘prestigious’ movie adaptation?
‘Many already are,’ Ennis says warily. ‘Many are deliberately written that way. Hollywood adaptations are such crapshoots anyway. No matter what the original intentions were, there are so many variables and conflicting pressures that the end result is always a matter of blind chance.’
Ennis’ pragmatism is understandable, and he clearly remains focused on comics. He has come a huge distance since Troubled Souls and its sequel, the excellently titled Dicks. Since then his work has almost entirely been set outside of Northern Ireland. Does he ever envisage returning to those characters or setting something on his old home turf?
‘Oddly enough,' he says, 'this summer sees the release of the third Dicks series, which, after 20-something years, will feature the sequel to Troubled Souls. You heard it here first!’
And you assume going back to those characters means that Ennis maintains an interest in the North? 'I've been living in New York for about ten years now, so my opinions are those of a concerned expat rather than someone with a legitimate stake in the place,' he admits.
'I find much of it depressing and upsetting, but not terribly surprising. That said, what we're seeing [with regards to flag protests at present], I think are really just spasms on the long, bloody road to final peace. The bottom line is that less people are dying than used to, which can't be a bad thing.’
With Red Team set for iminent release, and his ongoing Jennifer Blood and Battlefields series continuing, Ennis seems as committed as ever. And the comics world, both in Northern Ireland and further afield, is all the better for it.
Red Team Issue 1 is published February 6 by Dynamite Entertainment. Red Team panels copyright 2012 Spitfire Productions Ltd. All Rights Reserved.