I've been reading comic books on and off since I was 15. Out of all of the books I've read, Irish writer Garth Ennis' Preacher has always been at the top. It's violent and offensive and completely subversive. On top of all that, it's a classic in modern storytelling.
But Garth Ennis is much more than Preacher. He's been an active and prolific creator for over 20 years, staying away from the mainstream with his decidedly adult works until his recent work on Marvel Comics' The Punisher, upon which both recent movies were based.
His most current books are a great revival in war comics, such as 303 and Battlefields.
As much as I would have loved to sit on the phone with Mr. Ennis and translate his accent, I was allowed a handful of answers via email from the always busy man.
Stephen Conley: Who was the young Garth Ennis? How did you spend your childhood, what were your influences growing up?
Garth Ennis: I really only read British comics, most notably the sci-fi/action weekly 2000AD and its WW2 sister publication, Battle. Also a good number of Picture Libraries, excellent little 60-page war comics. Always been a big fan of Asterix. Outside of comics, I went from Tolkien and Frank Herbert et al, to Stephen King and other horror writers, which is probably a familiar path for many people of my generation.
Movies- I liked war and westerns, the latter usually with John Wayne or Clint Eastwood. Later got into the big action/horror flicks of the early 80s, like Alien, Terminator, The Thing and so on. Comedies like Animal House and Blues Brothers. On TV I watched mostly British stuff, like Blackadder and The Young Ones, and the truly stunning drama Edge Of Darkness.
SC: Can you walk us through your creative process, from an idea's conception to execution?
GE: Not really. I can do it, I'm just not very good at describing it- I'd be a lousy teacher. And it varies wildly from story to story, anyway.
SC: Any authors you're excited about? What are your favorite novels right now?
GE: I've become one of those people who reads mostly non-fiction, which still surprises me a little- I used to hear other people say it and think, that'll never be me, but here I am. Lots of military history by people like Max Hastings, John Keegan, Richard Overy, Antony Beevor, Richard Holmes and Rick Atkinson. A good number of personal accounts of military service or journalism, most recently War by Sebastian Junger. And some contemporary political stuff, including Andrew Anthony's The Fallout, which I thought was great.
What interests me in history, I think, is nothing more complex than the old adage: truth is stranger than fiction. You find yourself reading about the most bizarre circumstances, the most grotesque characters, the truly wildest outcomes. Stuff you realise that no one could ever invent.
When I do read novels, the guys I find myself coming back to are Irvine Welsh, Richard Price and James Ellroy. Really enjoyed Charlie Huston's Hank Thompson trilogy. Old favourites include Joe Lansdale, Cormac McCarthy and Derek Robinson, who wrote my all-time top novel, Piece Of Cake.
SC: What about young and upcoming writers, in comics or otherwise? Who should we look out for?
GE: I think the best two writers to enter mainstream comics in the last 10-15 years are Brian Vaughn and Jason Aaron. Truly original, unique voices, both with something to say. Beyond that I'm not sure; I'm more the sort of person who hears what's hot from friends or acquaintances, rather than actively seeking out new talent.
SC: What's the best cure for writer's block? Inspire us.
GE: Never had it. Sometimes I think I do, but I just force myself to be honest and admit I'm being lazy.
SC: You've been a very prolific creator. Which work is your masterpiece, your favorite work? Is it Preacher or one of your more recent works like The Boys or your work with Marvel?
GE: I'm very fond of large parts of Preacher, Punisher (the max series), Hitman and The Boys. Other favourites include Crossed, Dicks, Fury (first series, not the WW2 one) and Kev. But I think I've done my best work on war comics; in particular 303, Dear Billy and Nightingale.
SC: How much of Preacher was plotted from the beginning or did you just let the story follow its own path?
GE: Very much the latter. I think once I moved away from the fantasy/horror trappings I'd been playing with up 'til then, and into what might be called neo-western territory- with, therefore, a specifically American feel- Preacher truly began to take on a life of its own.
SC: Any plans to expand your work into other realms like movies? I know Crossed is currently being developed.
GE: It's always tempting, but I have to admit I'm loath to give up the kind of creative control I have in comics. Writing for film would mean some heavy compromising in that regard.
SC: Can you explain the need (if any) for the violent and offensive in art for those who aren't so artistically savvy? I can't quite explain it myself.
GE: The only need I really respond to is to keep the story going the way that feels right. When it comes to violence, I feel a responsibility to be as honest as I can about both its immediate physical effects and the longer-term implications for both perpetrator and victim. As for any notion of giving offense, it's more a by-product than a deliberate aim- let's face it, all you have to do these days to be offensive or controversial is have a couple of opinions of your own, that's enough to get some people screaming their heads off. So while it's good to wake the audience up now and again, don't let it become the be-all and end-all of what you do.
SC: I haven't read comic books regularly in quite some time. What's the state of the industry right now? Are movies still having a big influence on them?
GE: I'm actually not far off that either; I read a handful of titles each month and let the rest pass me by. Any influence tends to go in the other direction, with more and more blockbuster films turning to superhero properties for inspiration. I know movies remain a major influence on my own work, but those tend to be films I saw 15+ years ago, rather than what's coming out now.