Like many British-born creators, Northern Ireland’s Garth Ennis cut his teeth on anthology titles like 2000 AD before turning his attention to the darker side of US comics and the birth of DC’s Vertigo imprint, writing critically acclaimed runs on Hellblazer and his long-running mega-serial Preacher.
He’s dabbled in mainstream caped crusading, but while his contemporaries generally traded ‘upwards’ into the world of costumed superheroics, Ennis stayed where the subject matter was grittier and the shell casings plentiful – writing Hitman, Bloody Mary and the Unknown Soldier for DC, and The Punisher for Marvel. If his favourite characters have superpowers, they tend to be the powers that help them shoot better, as evidenced by his current runs – telling Nick Fury’s post-WWII and pre-SHIELD exploits in Vietnam and Cuba in Fury MAX, resurrecting pulp hero The Shadow for Dynamite, telling a tale of fascist infiltrators in the run up to World War 2, and The Boys, in which a team of CIA-backed misfits punch superheroes to death.
“The characters I grew up on – mainly in 2000 AD – were what I think of as the gunfighter type,” Ennis recalls, “some of them lawmen like Dredd, Johnny Alpha and Sam Slade, some soldiers like Rogue Trooper or the VCs.
“So where a superhero audience sees superheroes everywhere, I look at characters like the Punisher, Nick Fury, the Shadow, and see gunmen like the ones I grew up on. Those are quite naturally the characters I gravitate towards, because they feel closest to my own background in comics, movies and TV.
“I find most superhero stories completely meaningless,” continues Ennis. “Which is not to say I don’t think there’s potential for the genre – Alan Moore and Warren Ellis have both done interesting work with the notion of what it might be like to be and think beyond human, see Miracleman, Watchmen and Supergods. But so long as the industry is geared towards fulfilling audience demand – ie, for the same brightly coloured characters doing the same thing forever – you’re never going to see any real growth. The stories can’t end, so they’ll never mean anything.”
Though Fury MAX deals with Cold War flashpoints, The Shadow, along with many of his past works, including the resoundingly non-sci-fi Battlefields and War Stories, deal directly with the events leading up to World War II.
“First, there’d be the war comics I grew up on, and the interest in military history that they sparked,” says Ennis of the reasons this era appeals to him.
“Second is an aesthetic appreciate for the hardware – the particular level of development that aircraft, tanks, ships and firearms had reached at the time Take the ‘planes, for example, the low wing monoplane single seat fighter, most obviously exemplified by the Spitfire. Before that you had biplanes, which are fun but kind of boxy and fussy looking, with all those wires and extra wings. After that you have jets, which are neat but a little soulless for my taste. But that 1936-44 period of design seems bang-on to me.
“But really, the Second World War is the defining moment of the 20th Century, and its ramifications continue for us even today. An entire generation was caught up in a complex struggle between fascism, communism and democracy, and the battles they fought and the sacrifices they made ultimately gave us the world we have today. It seemed to me that just before that generation passes from the world, it might be worth telling some of their stories one more time.”