Look, we all know it's okay for comic book characters to kill people. It's just that when cops do it, it's something of a grey area. Garth Ennis and Craig Cermak's Red Team, recently collected by Dynamite, takes an old idea and makes it new again, exploring the moral conundrum of taking the law into your own hands. One of the least-talked-about great comics of 2013, Red Team is tense, real, and dead-serious. Which is funny, because I used to think Garth Ennis was stupid.

I'm leaving both of those hanging, by the way. Garth Ennis and the killing thing: hanging.

First, let’s talk about me. I didn’t like Garth Ennis for a long, long time. From high school until just a few years ago, actually. I just didn't see why everybody thought he was so great.

It turns out I was wrong, and I know that, but I’m making a bigger point so just go with me. The first Ennis comics I read were a few issues of Ennis’ Hellblazer run back in junior high, but I just thought Jamie Delano’s tenure had more style, so I didn’t keep up with the title. The next time I read anything by Ennis, it was late in high school, and I’d just come back to comics after being out of the loop for a couple of years. Remembering much of my favorite stuff had been Vertigo, I went back to that well for new stuff, and at the time everybody was talking about Preacher.


Red Team


And I hated it. What was sold to me as faith-questioning, supernatural drama turned out to be a juvenile gross-out comedy. When people tell you “If you like Sandman, you’ll like Preacher,” you expect a certain type of book, and it doesn’t include characters with assholes for faces or dicks for heads; it shouldn’t devote so much time to ridiculing the mentally-handicapped. I gave up on it quickly, and wrote Ennis off. As far as I was concerned, he was just that Irish guy who wrote for “generic dark” characters like The Darkness, or vile stuff like The Pro or Dicks. Stuff that just looked disgusting. Literally judging comic books by their covers -- which you’re supposed to do -- I didn’t read another of Ennis’ words for years.

It was The Punisher that got me. Not the Marvel Knights books with Steve Dillon and Darick Robertson, the MAX series. You know, the one where the world opens up beneath you and shows you all the nothing in its heart?

Since then, I’ve read loads and loads of Ennis’ stuff, and loved pretty much all of it. The Punisher, an apparent masterpiece, was all the proof I needed that Ennis really was as good as advertised. I read Preacher again from the beginning and saw past the stupid humor and found unpredictable characters with unique perspectives and natural dialogue; an historical perspective, a willingness to explore moral ambiguities, and an enormous sense of heart. I found more of the same in Hitman, The Boys, and his mountain of war comics, and over the last few years Ennis has become one of my favorite writers. I can hear your collective "no doy." Sorry. I’m way less PC than I used to be.


Red Team


Still, for everybody who considers his best book to be Hitman, or Preacher, you’re wrong. It’s The Punisher, and one of the reasons why it’s The Punisher is because he’s not trying to be funny. I can see now the type of talent that Ennis was all throughout his career, but when he actually restrains himself is when I think he’s at his most interesting. Nowadays I love Hitman, Boys, Hellblazer, and Preacher, but you know what really gets me going? Punisher MAX, Fury MAX, a pile of war comics, and Crossedaka Whoa, Walking Dead Just Got Schooled .

Add Red Team to that list. Ennis may be more restrained than ever before, and with photorealistic wunderkind Craig Cermak, he tells the most electric cop story comics have produced in recent memory; a slow-motion bomb that explodes one of the form’s most exploited tropes.

In Red Team, a narcotics unit of four officers decide to murder a suspect. Reasoning that he would continue to go unpunished, they come to the conclusion to take the law into their own hands. It sounds at first like a lot of stories you’ve seen or read before, but Ennis and Cermak give the vigilante cop genre a morally inquisitive tone and a dramatic spin. With a deliberate pace and pronounced sense of realism, Red Team builds up action and moral tension toward a shocking end we should have seen coming.


Red Team


A dialogue-heavy book that frequently goes for several pages of conversation, Red Team is nonetheless engaging visually. Cermak has an ability to convey the subtlety of human emotion through facial expression that gives a life to Ennis’ words, and draws the reader into those moments when characters are just talking. He adds drama and tension to scenes of four characters sitting around a table chatting about a dude, then bursts into scenes of shocking-but-realistic violence. He has areas in which he needs to improve, but you can see him doing so just in the course of this series. There’s supposed to be another Red Team series at some point, and hopefully Cermak will be handling the art again -- his aptitude for human expression is a perfect match for Ennis’ phone books of natural-sounding dialogue.

Red Team didn’t seem to get a lot of attention while it was coming out -- the irregular schedule didn’t help -- and I can remember one or two reviews that called it various versions of boring, which I simply don’t understand. (But what do I know? I’m the guy who dismissed Garth Ennis for 15 years.) A taut police drama with emotional depth, a moral perspective, and knot-inducing twists, Red Team is another example of just how great Ennis can be when he really gets serious.



Yes, Idris Elba. Yes we are. Red Team may not have a lot of dick jokes, but it's still one of Ennis' best. If you haven't picked it up, you're doing yourself as much as disservice as I did.