The Writer and his Editor: Ennis & Rybandt
Garth Ennis - Checking in on The Boys
Hi there, I’m Joe Rybandt Associate Editor for Dynamite Entertainment… I spent a few minutes this week talking with The Boys and Battlefields writer Garth Ennis about the last few issues and next few issues of the Boys. We’ll be back with another such chat in October to discuss the release of Battlefields and some of our favorite war movies. Until then, enjoy…
Joe Rybandt: Now, technically, I “edit” The Boys, but to peel back the curtain, all I really do is make sure you don’t slip any of your fancy “English” spellings of American words into the script and the final issue… which is twice as challenging as our letterer, Simon Bowland, is English. Seriously though, The Boys is your vision, along with Darick [Robertson], and is truly a creator owned book, but is there anything you have put into The Boys that you thought we may say “Garth, are you sure about this?”
Garth Ennis: Nothing that I thought you guys would blanch at, because I know you fairly well now and also Nicky [Barrucci] and I talked about it beforehand and I got a pretty good sense that when he said creative freedom he meant it. It’s a complete contrast with turning in the scripts into Wildstorm and [editor] Ben Abernathy -- who is a great guy and a great editor -- who had the unfortunate job of having to read the scripts and mark anything he thought would be trouble and really just play that DC game of trying to decide what you can get away with, what you can’t, what you should change before you show it to anyone else, what you should try and get past them and eventually having to come back to me with the bad news of which there always was plenty. And we all know what that lead to.
JR: And we haven’t had that conversation and we are going on our second year now or so.
GE: Yeah, yeah.
JR: You saving that for the final year for us?
GE: Oh yeah, I’ve got some special stuff lined up for then, you’ll really like that.
JR: Last month’s issue, The Boys #21… have you seen or has anyone reacted directly to you about the strong allegorical content of that issue?
GE: I haven’t. I don’t scour the Internet for reaction like a lot of people do… there might have been. One thing I’ll say, anytime I’ve gotten in trouble I haven’t seen it coming. Anytime you brace yourself for impact it never comes. It’s something that you write that you think is completely innocuous, that’s the one that always gets you in trouble.
JR: Was it hard to work up that story and balance it against the real world events?
GE: Not really, it was a question of making sure that the story developed the way I wanted it to, while at the same time not using those real world events in a cheap way -- not cheapening what happened on 9/11 by doing a particular take of it in The Boys. Ultimately, I think although the events in the book obviously developed and ended very, very differently than what happened in real life on that awful day, the commentary provided by Hughie and The Legend I think do give a pretty a pretty clear indication of where we stand, and I would like to think demonstrates that we are not exploiting that just for narrative purposes, that we did have something to say.
JR: The reaction I’ve seen to the book was that it was one of the more -- for comic book allegory -- it was poignant and meaningful and did not cheapen the event in any way shape or form. That’s the reaction I’ve seen to it, which is rewarding, I would imagine from your stand point, and certainly from ours.
GE: Yeah, it’s not something I want to take lightly, that was the day the world changed. Obviously it was the day the world ended for so many thousand people and that in itself is the miserable tragedy beyond description, but what it lead to in terms of the world changing and in terms of the place the world then became I think, compounded the tragedy several thousand fold.
JR: Yeah, exactly. Now, the entire “I Tell You No Lie” [The Boys #19-#22] storyline was one of the more extreme we’ve done… and powerful stuff as well… do you pay attention to the world around you in the sense of what’s becoming more forbidden to say, think, or do? I’m thinking of Homelander’s reaction to the situation in issue #21 and his demonstrative use of the “n-word.”
GE: Yeah, well the Homelander to me is an almost entirely negative character. He is really just a series of unpleasant urges kept in check by his own intelligence, which is enough to understand that he can have anything he wants so long as he doesn’t push his luck too far. ‘Cause if he ever tries to exploit his massive power and strength and simply run riot, they will eventually just chuck a nuke at him. On the other hand, if he plays ball and he’s the Vought America PR creature, and he does their bidding occasionally more as a political tool than anything else, than he can have anything he wants, he can indulge his appetites to whatever extent he wants. So for him to be so obviously and yet casually racist, to start screaming that word as he tries to smash his way into the cockpit because he’s frustrated with The Deep and what The Deep has done, it seems to me entirely in character for him -- a guy for whom words like that are simply things to be screamed at moments of frustration and tension. It might help to think of the Homelander as having all the self control of let’s say a fourteen year old.
JR: It’s wasn’t gratuitous. But, that was one that I thought we might get pegged on if it ever got into the wrong hands, which it didn’t… at least not yet.
GE: As I always say when I’m doing this kind of material, if the book, any book like this, gets into the wrong hands we’re all screwed.
JR: Yeah, exactly.
GE: If it’s not one thing it will be another.
JR: Our next arc, “We Gotta Go Now” [kicking off in The Boys #23], is lighter than the previous, certainly with more upfront humor than the “GI” storyline, do you find it cathartic to vent in and out like that? To balance darkness with a little more light from arc-to-arc?
GE: A little bit… you’ll see actually as it develops that that storyline - and I’m working on the penultimate episode to that - gets much darker as it rushes towards its conclusion. It’s funny, the last issue I wrote was the St. Patrick’s Day one, and there is a lot of ribald humor in that we see G-Wiz out in New York, out celebrating St. Patrick’s Day.
JR: Fantastic stuff… is that how you really feel about the Americanized version of St. Patrick’s Day?
GE: It’s how I feel about St. Patrick’s Day altogether. But I was looking at the script and I was thinking about the sequences in which G-Wiz are doing their thing -- they’re partying and everything else -- it occurred to me that once, I would probably have filled a whole book with that, but now, what I’m more interested in, is looking at Hughie and Butcher’s conversation, looking at what Godolkin is up to in the background with the other G-Men, looking at Hughie trying, just desperately trying, to find out what the hell is going on with G-Wiz and by extension the G-Men in general and being frustrated. So I suppose you know, that is just a sign of me changing, once upon a time I was happy doing a whole party issue and now I’m happy to get a few panels of that in scattered amongst a variety of different scenes.
JR: Which I think is kind of thematic of The Boys in general -- you’re getting a lot of stuff out there in fun, up front, crazy, over the top moments. But there is such a deeper thing going on, either in those scenes or in the arcs as a whole….
GE: I hope so, I hope so. I like to think that if you look at “I Tell You No Lie, G.I.” -- there is this one episode in the middle of the story, this continuous adrenaline rush of horror in the episode that takes place aboard the plane, but the rest of it is a enormous amount of exposition, there is a lot of history a lot of politics in there.
JR: It’s a very powerful issue; I think that one in particular is the one a lot of people have been talking about, issue #21.
GE: Looking at “We Gotta Go Now” -- yes it starts off lighter, by the end it will probably be the darkest story line we’ve published to date, because the secret of the G-Men is a truly awful one… I can promise you that.
JR: When you write these characters, do they have particular voices? I mean, Butcher and Hughie have strong, real world visual cues, but I don’t hear [actors Robert] Shaw or [Simon] Pegg when I read their dialogue.
GE: (Laughs) Not exactly, when I write dialogue it mostly just happens naturally. It just comes. If I ever do have to check myself and run a line in my head, then sometimes I do ascribe actual voices to them. If anyone reading this has ever met Mark Miller at a con, he’s not bad for Wee Hughie, likewise Steve Dillon [for Butcher].
Then you are writing dialogue it helps to know someone who talks the way your characters do. It’s a useful thing to have.
JR: Do they know this?
GE: I don’t know.
JR: They will now.
GE: Which is not to say that either of them is like the characters.
JR: You work in things that you seem enjoy in life – a good pub, a good pint, etc. - is this a case of writing what you know? Is it conscious? Warren Ellis gets sent cases of Red Bull, anyone from the Guinness Company taking care of you?
GE: No, no I’ve been sent beer, but never officially. I didn’t know that Warren likes Red Bull, although that makes a kind of horrific sense. It’s funny, because in The Boys I’ve been consciously avoiding the pub sequences that you’ll see in a lot of my older work. Early on Hughie and Butcher do go into that gay bar to talk to the bar man…
JR: And they talk about their love of beer, I think it’s Anchor Steam…
GE: Well, Hughie does, but at that point you find out that Butcher doesn’t drink at all. Because as he says “it doesn’t agree with me” and as time goes by you find out just why it doesn’t agree with him. And why he doesn’t agree with the rest of the world when he gets a few down him.
Although Hughie obviously likes his beer, no one else in the book does. In fact, in the St. Patrick’s Day story, in that bar, Hughie is the only one drinking.
JR: And in the quieter moments, you can imagine those places are real places.
GE: Yeah, that’s easy to do. Whether you’re drinking or not a bar must be one of the most comfortable places on earth.
JR: Amen to that. Your love of America and New York in particular comes through in a book like this. What is it about this country and New York in particular? I remember we were leaving dinner one night and we were walking up one of the Avenues -- I forget which, maybe 5th -- and you were looking into the sunset and you were in pure heaven looking down… looking at the sun coming down and saying “this place is great”.
GE: Yeah, I don’t think I ever felt more instantly comfortable, more at home, at place, than when I arrived here, nothing ever felt better and it was only natural that I should move here and up here and indeed write about the place so much.
JR: And Butcher seems to be your stand-in for that with Hughie coming along right behind him with how great New York is and the particular things they are experiencing.
GE: Those two are very much representative of my most negative, and I’m not gonna say most positive, but fairly positive views of the world and of America and of New York, and in this instance, I’ll leave you to figure out who’s who. One of them sees the place as absolutely magical, a wonderland, a place to be experienced again and again and never ending… really a series of delights; and the other one sees it almost as a killing ground, a place where a predator like him will always find fresh food.
JR: You’ve covered the Eastern United States with The Boys and the South and the West with Preacher – both long-form series -- is there an area of the US that’s next?
GE: Well, you know it’s funny because I hadn’t really thought of The Boys in terms of geography, not the way I did Preacher, you know Preacher was a decidedly American story. The Boys not so much, and you will see them bounce around a bit. The Boys is a smaller story than Preacher, it’s told on a smaller scale because the stakes simply aren’t as high -- you’re talking about the quest for God on the one hand as opposed to a covert operation. But at the same time, the map on which The Boys story is told will be broader, you will see them travel the world, you’ve seen them go to Russia and they have other places to go to.
JR: New York in particular seems to be, as the place they return to, seems to play a big role whether it’s a prominent role or whether it’s just there in the issues… New York is a character in this book.
GE: Yeah, very much and you know that will continue. Pretty soon we’re going to get into the rebuilding of the Brooklyn Bridge, and there is going to be an episode where Hughie and Mothers Milk sit down and talk about that. That will continue the theme you’re talking about. It is a character in and of itself, it is my home, I love it and no matter what else you may say about it, it is the most spectacular city on earth and it’s the perfect backdrop to set a story like this.
JR: There’s a forum out there on the internet (The V) in which a savvy poster suggested you’d make an excellent novelist. Any thoughts to singles novels or a kick-ass series of recurring characters?
GE: I don’t know about recurring characters, I’ve thought about it, I really have. As in so many things it would take a lot to draw me away from comics. On a purely practical level, someone would have to commission me because I’d need to fill in that gap in income some way. But even beyond that, I’m enormously comfortable writing comics, I really am. I love the form… I love writing the dialogue, I love playing with the dialogue and the storytelling and the various aspects of it, I feel so comfortable doing this and that creative freedom I talked about earlier is very, very important to me. Which is not to say I probably couldn’t get that same level of creative freedom while writing a novel, probably not so much in film though. At the minute I’m happy doing comics but who knows.
JR: Thank you Garth, thank you for your time.
GE: No worries man.