I’m David: Garth Ennis, Heroes, & Assumptions
I’m starting to get the feeling that Garth Ennis doesn’t like heroes very much. I don’t mean superheroes, either. His ambivalence toward the spandex set is well-established and can easily be taken as read at this point. But heroes? The men and women we’ve built up to be larger than life and forces for good, immaculately moral and righteous? I’m starting to notice that he’s pushing away from that concept in his work more and more often. He treats heroes like we would treat stereotypes or urban legends. He wants to debunk our idea of a hero, and it shows in his work.
I’m David, and I want to talk to you about a specific strain of anti-heroism in Garth Ennis’s work.The thought first occurred to me while I was reading Battlefields: The Green Fields Beyond, his collaboration with legendary artist Carlos Ezquerra. Sergeant Stiles, the focal point of the book, is a World War II veteran and tank commander in the Korean War. He’s made it through a lot, and you could easily call him a genuine hero. He certainly fits the type, having led more than a few crews to safety, fought like mad to save the lives of his men, and generally survived one of the worst meat grinders the planet’s ever seen.
The Green Fields Beyond is the third and final entry in the story of Stiles. At this point, he’s a quiet man, worn well down by life and war. He’s meek, honest, and he knows what he’s doing. A young man joins his command by the name of Frankie Robinson. In World War II, Stiles saved Robinson’s older brother from a burning tank. The elder Robinson lost a leg in the conflagration, but his younger brother picked up on one part of the story: Sergeant Stiles is a hero. Stiles saved his brother’s life. So why wouldn’t he leap at the chance to serve with the man?
We like heroes because they give us faith in reality. Life is hard, right? Having someone there that you can point to and go “He did it” or “I look up to her” is a good feeling. It’s a sign that life may be as random and stupid as we think it is, but that we can still make it through. Robinson joins up for dangerous duty, and he does it because he believes that Stiles can keep him alive.
Stiles wants no part of it. The first thing Stiles does after Robinson spills his story is to seek out a superior and try to get the man transferred. He doesn’t want the pressure, and he doesn’t want to be responsible for another dead body. He knows that there are no such things as heroes, merely men who are trying to get by. His request is rejected, of course. In times of war, there is precious little space for personal problems. But he made the effort.
Billy Butcher in The Boys is another guy who fits the profile, though he’s more in the hard-hitting hero realm than the purer type represented by Stiles. He’s the hero who does the hard thing that needs to be done, and even that is a comfort. He’s the bogeyman who fights bogeymen, but by the end of The Boys, the rot in Butcher’s soul has become crystal clear. Butcher is savage, selfish, and more than willing to destroy anything to make sure he gets his way.
Butcher is the lone man who rides into town and makes things right by any means necessary. Ennis just takes his story to the logical conclusion. If you have a hero who is used to getting his own way because might makes right, what happens when his might is applied to your rights?
In The Shadow, Ennis presents a clean-cut All-American type character who is explicitly called out as being the blueprint for an espionage hero. The character is worthless, continually screws up basic tasks, and is entirely out of his depth on every single page. The Shadow himself is darker, more cynical, and well aware of the ways of the world. He doesn’t pretend to be a hero. He is simply Death, and he understands that he has a job to do. He knows that heroes are smokescreens.
You could look at Preacher as being both the indulgence and exorcism of heroic tropes. Jesse Custer isn’t complete as a human being until he sheds the ridiculous macho trappings he grew up idolizing. Ennis’s take on Frank Castle in The Punisher is that of a man who is utterly and irrevocably broken, who has given himself over to making things right at the expense of any genuine human interaction.
The closest Ennis has come to scripting a true blue hero are when he co-created Tommy Monaghan and Natt the Hat in Hitman. They were moral men, but hitmen nonetheless, and whenever one of them got big ideas about being a hero, they were quickly and immediately shot down. They don’t get to have those thoughts, because those thoughts get people killed. It’s a trend that runs through many of Ennis’s major works.
I almost feel like Ennis is actively trying to address how we view heroes, and his way of doing that is to take a heroic type (Butcher, The Shadow) and show us their feet of clay or souls of rot. The heroes in his stories either run screaming from that description, as in Sgt Stiles, or luck into it by simply refusing to be an awful person, as in Hughie from The Boys.
Ennis generally doesn’t focus on characters who are as innately good as Superman. He keeps throwing these flawed and broken characters at us, characters who succeed in spite of their own massive shortcomings, and leaving the typically heroic characters broken and discarded in the gutters.
It’s fascinating to me. I’m curious about Ennis’s motivations here, because I don’t think I’ve ever seen him address pure heroism in his comics. But I enjoy reading these characters and his relentless interest in breaking down mythology in favor of humanism.
Santiago Killing from the comments section asked: When you start reading a book and you don’t have any way of knowing what the main character is supposed to look like or if it’s a man or a woman, do you imagine a black male in your mind?
I honestly laughed out loud when I read this question, because it’s so good and I don’t think I’ve seen anyone ever talk about it before.
I do! If there are no details in a novel, I do tend to imagine a black dude as being the main character, though I mean that in a very general sense. He doesn’t look like me, though. He doesn’t look like anyone, really. Just a generic guy that gains definition as the story goes on. I don’t do it consciously or even really think about it at all.
There’s only been one time where this actually paid off, at least as far as I can remember. I was reading Colson Whitehead’s Zone One a couple years ago. I don’t know anything about Whitehead and I’m not particularly into zombies, but a friend recommended it to me. A few pages before the end of the book, Whitehead reveals that a certain character is black. It doesn’t mean anything, spoiler-wise, it’s just another bit of the character’s tapestry.
I had to put the book down for a minute before I finished reading. I couldn’t believe that a character I’d assumed was black just because actually was black. It was the first time that ever worked out in my entire life. It was a good feeling.
It helps that it was a really good book, too.
If you have a question, let me know by leaving a comment or hitting me on Twitter @hermanos. Let’s talk comics, movies, music, video games… anything goes.