Garth Ennis is the Eisner Award-winning author of Preacher, The Boys, Chronicles of Wormwood, The Punisher, and numerous other books. Dynamite Comics hosted a panel with Ennis to discuss his work on The Boys, which landed there after being dropped from WildStorm, and to introduce his new project on their imprint.
Ennis will be writing a new series of war comics for Dynamite under the title Battlefields. They will continue his tradition of taking a closer look at the lesser-known aspects of past wars. The first book, Night Witches, will be the story of Russian squadrons of female fighter pilots during World War II, with art by Russ Braun of Jack of Fables.
The Night Witches came partly out of desperation on the part of the Russians, but also, Ennis said, because “Stalin was interested in the notion of Communism truly meaning equality, and he was keen for women to play their part.”
Despite Stalin’s lofty notion of equality, Ennis noted, the women in the squadrons found it hard to gain acceptance among the men, and faced extra dangers if they were captured, not to mention were given lesser equipment to use.
The second Battlefields book will be called Dear Billy, and will be the story of a nurse in the aftermath of the invasion of Singapore. Ennis called it “a very dark story.” Third off will be a book called Tankies, which will revolve around Normandy after D-Day.
Before taking questions, Ennis paused to thank everyone who’s stuck by The Boys through the transition to Dynamite.
He was asked about his personal investment in war stories and why he keeps coming back to them, and he replied that he has no personal experience with the military at all—“Really, no thank you,”—but that he grew up reading war comics in Britain the same way American comic fans grew up on superhero books, and that he uses the war stories to acknowledge heroes and villains that otherwise get lost, like the Night Witches. “Courage like that is worth remembering and acknowledging.”
Another fan brought up Nick Fury as a character that Ennis seems to have a connection with, and he replied that it wasn’t the soldier background as much as it was the “filthy old whoremongering cigar-chomping bastard” that he liked.
He joked, when asked about research for war comics, that “there’s a guy on the other side of town,” but in all seriousness, he has fired guns as part of his research. Growing up in Britain, he explained, you don’t do that very often, but he found it helpful “to get the taste and smell of it,” particularly when writing the Punisher, who is so connected to his weapons.
“Frank Castle is so in tune with the weapons he’s using that they have a comforting familiarity to them…he seeks refuge in firearms,” he said.
While on the subject of Punisher, he was asked about Barracuda, the villain. Ennis actually said that he based the character on Stagger Lee, the subject of a folk song “about a large terrifying man and the terrifying things he does to people.”
Ennis had planned on killing off Barracuda sooner, but his editor at Marvel asked him not to do it yet, and then he realized that there was a larger story to tell, though he noted “I don’t believe you can survive two encounters with Frank—maybe one, by the skin of your teeth, minus some body parts.”
He found the character Jigsaw much less interesting because he did keep surviving, and said that “it’s healthy to keep coming up with new characters,” rather than falling back on the old reliables over and over again. He wouldn’t find Jigsaw interesting even if he was able to kill him, because it simply wouldn’t have any meaning to it, it would just be killing another villain.
Punisher is a character that Ennis likes, and he feels that a lot of writers simply don’t like him. “We were made for each other,” he said. “I think that most writers dislike the Punisher. They see him as a one-note monstrous murderer with no supporting cast…I see him the same way, but I think it’s great.”
Most American writers, Ennis thinks, prefer superheroes because that’s what they grew up on. He grew up on war comics and violent books like Judge Dredd, so that’s what he likes to write. Plus, “The abuse that I was able to put superheroes through was part of the draw.”
Regarding the Hitman comic, which did not come out with a mature readers tag, he said that he was happy with the level of freedom he had on it, and that the only difference with mature readers would have been “a lot more salty language and gore.”
He was asked both about the Preacher TV show and The Boys movie, but had no new information on either one, and was also asked if he could cast anyone in a Preacher movie, who he would choose. His picks, after some thought, were Lucas Black (of Jarhead and American Gothic) for Jesse, Simon Pegg, who had been nominated already as Wee Hughie by a fan, for Cassidy and Katee Sackhoff (of Battlestar Galactica) as Tulip.
One fan wanted to see more positive portrayals of Russians, and was pleased to hear that Ennis plans on more Eastern Front stories in the Battlefields series. Others were pleased to hear that he has more plans to work with Steve Dillon in the future, on a Vertigo series and on a Punisher series.
While he has a hard time saying which book he is most proud of, Ennis did say that Nightengale, a war comic with art by David Lloyd, would be the answer “if I had to hold up one thing and say this is what I can do, that would be it.”
Another fan was more impressed by the “Slavers” Punisher story and wanted to know the origins of that one. Ennis noted that most of the time when writing Punisher, he knows that it’s an unrealistic character, but after he read an article on human trafficking, he said “I really wanted there to be a Punisher to just kill them and kill them and kill them until they weren’t there anymore,” because it was so horrifying.
As for The Boys, Ennis confirmed that it will run for a planned 60 issues, and that there is indeed an end in his mind for it. He also said that each character will get his origins told, that the story behind Mother’s Milk’s “mama” is going to be horrifying, we will get to see the Female doing what she does best, and that Butcher will get his own six-issue miniseries to tell his origins. “His story is a doozy,” he said, “and he needs a bit of space.”
When asked why WildStorm dropped The Boys, he didn’t have a specific story or situation that they objected to, just the idea that “you can have a book in which people do dreadful things to each other, but you can’t have a book in which superheroes do dreadful things to each other, because that’s too close to mainstream DC product,” noting that DC is very corporate and everything has to pass through a legal team, something that doesn’t happen at Dynamite, where he has complete freedom and they work hard to promote his book.
The Preacher backstories, specifically the motives he attributed to God, came from being an atheist, he said, and trying to apply logic to the stories in the Bible to find the motives behind it, and coming out with some fairly base motives.
Beyond another series of Chronicles of Wormwood, though, he has no more plans to write religious satire at the moment. Instead, he’s moving on to “the most extreme stuff” he’s ever written, with Crossed at Avatar, which he described as “What happens when humanity turns evil.”
Ennis lives in the United States currently, and does take inspiration from the States in his work. “I love it, sometimes it’s frustrating, but I love it,” he said.
More questions about artistic freedom rounded out the discussion, with a question about 303, which a fan said was the most extreme political message he’d ever seen in comics. “The publisher of Avatar is a filthy degenerate, and I say that in the best way possible,” Ennis said, “And he told me ‘I’ll never tell you you can’t do something, ever.’”
“I just write as honestly as possible about things that upset me,” he said, and noted that even though he had great creative freedom at Marvel’s MAX imprint, there were certain lines they could not cross—for example, he wanted to have the Punisher kill a pedophile priest, but Marvel wouldn’t approve it. At Avatar and Dynamite, he polices himself, and can write about anything that he wants.