Chronicles of Wormwood – A Review

Writer: Garth Ennis
Artist: Jacen Burrows
Published by: Avatar Press

Do you remember Garth Ennis’ The Boys? And how it was cancelled by DC, despite its strong sales, due to content issues? Well, luckily there’s always Avatar, the indie publisher often the home to pet projects from creators like Ennis, Mark Millar and Warren Ellis which the major publishers wouldn’t touch. Well, with his Chronicles of Wormwood, it’s not like he has tamed anything. And I have no idea why no major publisher would touch this. I’m going to make a casual list of some characters and scenarios. You decide if this book is for you:

-Danny Wormwood, the Anti-Christ, has decided to turn his back on his destiny and simply goes about his business running a cable company much like HBO.
-He hangs out with a talking bunny named Jimmy.
-He pals around at a bar with Jay, what he calls Jesus Christ. Jay, upon his second coming, had his head bashed in by the LAPD and received brain damage. Yeah, a buddy story between the Anti-Christ and Brain-Damaged Jesus.
-His dad, Satan, isn’t exactly please that he’s turned his back on the family business.
-He spends his evenings buggering Joan of Arc
-There’s a drunken, sex-addicted Irish Pope who has him in his cross-hairs.

To say the book is filled with Ennis’ trademark coarse humor, profanity, blasphemy, and sex, is like saying he puts the “F” in satire.

Exploring the nature of religion and faith is familiar territory for Ennis, with Preacher being the highlight of his career thus far. He has several ideas about Jesus and heaven. For example, he believes that Jay “didn’t want God to be a bogeyman. He wanted compassion and tolerance and peaceful coexistence. He wanted to tear down the temples of the money lenders, wanted men to live by sharing.” … but that “didn’t work out too well for him.”

By issue three, Wormwood and Jay visit heaven and come to find out that heaven’s about being a decent person and loving one another while you’re alive. And that just because you don’t believe in God doesn’t mean you haven’t lived according to the life He’s called you to or done His will.

Despite Ennis wanting to move past the “myth” and constraints of religion, just because you’ve removed God and the devil from equation of your life doesn’t mean that the reality of the spiritual dimension, or its occasional intrusions, is also removed. You still are a free moral agent who has to choose what kind of life to lead, to make heaven or hell.

The other theme that jumps out is the idea that you don’t have to be who you think you are. You don’t have to be trapped by a default setting idea of who you are expected to be. You are a precious creation of God. Precious. Accept this definition of yourself. No, better stated, accept the truth of yourself. Recognize that you, too, are an eikon, an image-bearer of God; worthy of respect, value, and love. We participate in the Divine Being, meant to partake in the Divine Life and Happiness. We were created in love, for love, and are to open ourselves to the possibility of love. Embrace that love.

Here’s the kicker: if you can take it, The Chronicles of Wormwood is fast-paced, entertaining, clever, and surreal. No bit of sacrilege is left unturned. He wants to jab a finger in the eye of religion all the while exploring and getting to the root of religion’s core. It’s not exactly a challenge to make spiritual connections to this book. If nothing else, it’s a definite conversation starter.

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JLA-Hitman – A Review

“Types of Courage”

Garth Ennis (Midnighter, The Boys, Ghost Rider) enjoyed the best runs of his comic book career when he was writing Hitman, Preacher, and Constantine. Hitman was always one of my favorites because it was his most mainstream work. Because he had to work within the constraints of the PG comic book universe, Ennis was forced to be more clever, not depending on his standard tools of over-the-top crassness and vulgarity. Yet he still retained the humor and humanity that bring his characters to life, after all, this is the same character that vomited all over Batman in his first issue. During his sixty issue run, Ennis managed to inject all kinds of ridiculous concepts and make them work (I won’t get into the zombie zoo animals).

Tommy Monaghan was a super-powered assassin who lived by his own code and for his friends, maintaining honor and relationships in a world of constant betrayal. With the title ending the way we all knew it had to end, we readers didn’t think we’d see anymore of the adventures of Tommy and his best friend, Nat. Then along comes JLA/Hitman.

To play catch up, Bloodlines was a storyline that ran through the DC titles’ annuals in the mid-90s wherein many people were infected by aliens and given powers. The meta commentary in JLA/Hitman about the heroes produced from that saga sums it up best: “those guys are really lame” (Green Lantern), with stories “inventing just the worst reasons for team ups” (Flash). Obviously, Hitman was a rare exception, but the situation that brings about this team up is a return of those aliens parasites which leads to the JLA bringing Tommy to their Watchtower on the moon to mount a defense. His methods stand in stark contrast to those of the assembled JLA heroes (Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, and the Green Lantern).

“Did you even stop to think once about what you were doing? About the moral implications of aligning yourself with this man? Did you consider the disgrace you would bring on yourself, on this league, on the institution?” –Batman

The framework for the story doubles as the theme of the story. A young reporter goes to Clark Kent (Superman’s alter ego) to question how the paragon of superheroes could ever have worked with a murderous thug like Monaghan. The chief question it explores is what it means to be a hero. There are moral implications of the methods of Tommy himself as well being associated with him. Not to put too fine a point on it, but there is social relevance to examining immoral men vs. immoral methods such as torture and killing. Is this “doing what you have to do” mentality moral courage?

“About the promise and hope of it. About doing what you can do to help.” –Superman

There are things that (super) heroes aren’t supposed to do. Though we’ve seen before (Jack Bauer in 24 comes to mind) that sometimes they do have to get their hands dirty and still be able to maintain their heroic nature, but there is a price to be paid. I’m reminded of the account in the Bible about King David. He was “a man after God’s own heart” and was the warrior needed to defend the nation of Israel, but his hands were too bloody to oversee building the temple. That was left to his successor, King Solomon.

“I’m someone who does what he can. Aren’t we all?” –Superman

Granted, we’re all heroes in our own stories, but we also have a certain idea of what a hero is and are too quick to label people heroes without considering what we mean by the term. After all, even the best of people are but flawed vessels, yet flawed vessels are the only kind of person God works through. We were created in His image, there is good in us and any of us are capable of contributing something positive.

“Do not think you’ve found redemption by your actions here.” –Wonder Woman

Yes, JLA/Hitman was a love letter to the fans of Hitman, replete with in-jokes, John McCrea art, and appearances by the extensive cast of misfits we’d come to know and love. A chance for readers to re-visit an old friend and a reminder of how much this character was beloved. And it gives us an excuse to dig out those original issues or for DC to put the collected trades back into circulation.

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Midnighter – A Review

Writer: Garth Ennis
Artist: Chris Sprouse
Publisher: Wildstorm
Price: $2.99
Release Date: November 1, 2006

The relaunched Wildstorm line seems like the product of a bunch of movie executives putting together a movie, one of those “great ideas on paper” sort of productions. Let’s get the hottest writers out and stick them on our most popular titles and see if we can relaunch this baby with a bang. A good strategy, especially since some of those creators made names for themselves originally in the Wildstorm line.

Thus we come to Midnighter, a member of the super-hero team The Authority, who has been handled by some of the best names in the business: Warren Ellis (The Authority, New Universal), Mark Millar (The Authority, Ultimate X-Men), and now, Garth Ennis (The Authority: Kev, Preacher). Midnighter is the perfect Ennis character. That movie executive-type ought to be patting themselves on the back for this (obvious) pairing. Few people can get to the brutal bastard essence of Midnighter like Garth Ennis ought to be able to.

Midnighter out-Batman’s Batman. He has the ability to anticipate and counter hostile action; basically, he knows the moves you are going to make before you do. Playing to Ennis’ strengths, he gets to do a lot of bad things, to bad people, with dark glee.

In the opening story arc, Midnighter’s been kidnapped out of the Bleed (don’t ask), his ability to “see” the outcome of fights has been taken away from him, and, after taking the rare butt-kicking, a bomb has been implanted in his chest to ensure his cooperation. All this so that the mysterious Mister Paulus’ can entangle him in what boils down to the philosophical conundrum: if you had the chance to kill Hitler at a baby, would you?

“People love the idea of changing [the past]. They think that’s how they’ll solve all their crap. But it is inevitable: it’s over, it’s done with. It can’t be fixed like bad plumbing.” –“Sgt. Bitch”

The springboard for the story stems from Paulus wanting to protect the ones he loves. An idea that goes squandered in the story is how we can’t live from a place of fear; we can’t be afraid to love out of fear of losing those we love. All we can do is love without taking one another for granted, pray for one another’s continued safety, and anticipate the bad times while still being there for one another when the bad times come. Which should be what Midnighter is all about: fear and love.

The past is set, something to be learned from, but that’s no excuse for not trying to change the present. Or the future. Sometimes we find it impossible to just “forget”, or move on from, the past and we need a tool more active than simply “forgetting.” To move on, you have to have closure, and we have different ways of finding this closure. While Midnighter’s emotional closure typically stems from breaking necks, cracking skulls, and blowing up tanks, there are other ways.

While we’d all like to prevent pain, we just won’t be able to stop it all. Sometimes we have to wrestle with a spirit of forgiveness rather than a spirit of vengeance or well-intentioned prevention. Asking forgiveness opens dialogue. Forgiving, even if unasked, helps the process of healing, and may lead to an eventual peace. Returning hostility for hostility, Midnighter is the antithesis of reconciliation:

Reconciliation is much more than a one-time event by which a conflict is resolved and peace established. A ministry of reconciliation goes far beyond problem solving, mediation, and peace agreements. There is not a moment in our lives without the need for reconciliation. When we dare to look at the myriad hostile feelings and thoughts in our hearts and minds, we will immediately recognize the many little and big wars in which we take part. Our enemy can be a parent, a child, a “friendly” neighbor, people with different lifestyles, people who do not think as we think, speak as we speak, or act as we act. They all can become “them.” Right there is where reconciliation is needed.

The problem with giving superstar creators superstar characters is that they face raised expectations. In Midnighter, you don’t feel like Ennis is truly giving us any real insight into Midnight, merely a Midnighter adventure. He doesn’t even have to “Ennis it up”: Midnighter is already basically an Ennis character. He’s unlikeable, a jerk with too much power, who leads a visceral existence of doing what he does. However, with no real exploration of him, the whole endeavor feels fairly superficial. Which is fine, but you can’t escape the feeling that this was written to fill out a contract (“you’ll pay me how much? I’ll do it!”). Like with his Ghost Rider run, you get the impression that Ennis doesn’t especially like writing super-heroes. His best work has at best been on the fringes of super-hero folk (Hitman, The Boys, even his The Authority work has centered around his character, Kev). However, even phoning it in, Ennis is better than most.

The Boys – A Review

Issues 1 – 6
Written by Garth Ennis
Art by Darick Robertson
Published by DC/Wildstorm Comics
Price: $2.99

We live in a time of entrenched cynicism about our institutions. Where we are distrustful of government, distrustful of churches/religion, and distrustful of (super) heroes. Why? Because they have given us plenty of reasons to be cynical about them. It’s no wonder we’ve grown uncomfortable with the idea of unchecked (super) powers moving about at will, no matter their stated good intentions. This theme continues to unfold in many of the most popular comics today.

The events of Identity Crisis, Civil War, Powers, to Squadron Supreme, we see this unifying thread of “who watches the watchmen?” Which brings us to Garth Ennis’ latest opus, The Boys.

The Boys are a team of five super-powered individuals, recruited by Butcher, the kind of “alpha dog holding [the pack] together.” He’s the brutal sort of barely redeemable bastard character Ennis loves to write who we’re to believe is two steps ahead of everyone around him. His sidekick is his dog, Terror, with the power to hump anything on command. The Boys work for one of those shadow departments that seem so prevalent in the U.S. government with their job requiring them to monitor and keep in check superhero behavior. The Boys are the government’s tool to keep superheroes on a tight rein, or put down as need be.

You pretty much know what you’re going to get with a Garth Ennis (Ghost Rider) project. Other than Preacher, Hitman, War Stories, Constantine, and arguably Punisher (I get that a lot of fans love his run on Punisher, I simply got bored of it), he tends to mine the same territory with his standard bag of “look how shocking I can be” moments. Unchecked Ennis, reminds me of “extreme” horror writers: crude, crass, visceral, over the top. Because it seems easy to do (and much more difficult to do well), things done in the name of extreme too often lead to all effect without much substance. Sure it allows more freedom, but sometimes complete freedom to push the boundaries allows some folks to give into their excesses. Back to Ennis, even with Preacher, he was relatively reigned in. There was a sense of his excesses not wanting to overshadow his story. With The Boys, and an insatiable need to keep pushing the envelope, he teeters on distracting us from what he’s trying to say.

“I can’t decide if its worth staying to find out whether or not it was all worth it.” –Hughie

After putting the band back together, Butcher directs The Boys to go after the sidekick supergroup, Teenage Kix (analogous to The New Warriors group whose actions precipitated the events of Civil War). Another group of out of control amateurs putting on spandex and running amuck with the power of a weapon of mass destruction in their hands. The story feels artificially bloated (to fill out the magical six issue initial story arc in order to make a tradepaper back from).

Actually, I wish more of the story was told through the eyes of Hughie (a bystander who’s fiancé was killed when a super hero runs into/through her; he is the last recruit to The Boys) or Starlight (the newest addition to the Seven, an institution of super heroes similar to the JLA or the Avengers). Through their eyes, yes, everything would be shocking, but it wouldn’t feel so forced, as much of Butcher’s antics seem to be.

“They’re all so scared of losin’ whatever little fortune it is they thing they’ve got …” –The Butcher

The Boys boils down to an examination of institutions. Sometimes, even institutions we need or hold dear degenerate into hotbeds of corruption, from illicit sexual scandals to squabbling over money. They become self-satisfied, full of pride, bloated, or over confident. They could become irresponsible with their actions (such as the superheroes acting without concern for innocents) with others, the faithful, allowing or making excuses for them (such as the government giving the heroes a casualty allowance of 60%). In other words, they lose their sense of mission.

Whenever an institution has lost its way, the Spirit behind the need for them, the work of the mission remains. Other organizations may spring up to do their job or otherwise leave the original organization behind. If the organization is paying attention and sees an erosion of some sort, it might be spurred into reform and a renewed sense of mission.

“I’m over here about a job. Only I don’t know if I’m gonna take it … I think I might enjoy it quite a lot. It’s just … some of the people …” –Hughie

Advertised as out-Preacher-ing Preacher, The Boys has to live in the shadow of raised expectations. Considering that it lacks Preacher’s scope and complexity, it barely out-Hitmans Hitman. The Boys lacks the intimacy, the emotional depth of his best work, instead it goes for the crass laugh. There is a casual disregard, disrespect for women and a trading on homophobia that serves as a springboard for a lot of the humor, which makes it kind of hard to “laugh along with the boys” about. So while it treads the line of being smothered by its own excesses, one can see the emerging threads of stories to be told, such as the background stories of Mother’s Milk, the Frenchman, and the Female (of the species). Plus, The Seven need to be taken down.

However, the book is already cancelled. Rumor has it that it is too rough for DC/Wildstorm, even though it stood among the top-selling of Wildstorm books. However, like Fallen Angel, it is sure to find a new lease on life with someone else.

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Ghost Rider

“Road to Damnation”
Writer: Garth Ennis
Artist: Clayton Crain
Publisher: Marvel Comics

Garth Ennis has been on quite a roll. I’ve forgiven him for that waste of perfectly good trees known as Goddess, as he has enjoyed phenomenal runs on Hitman, Preacher, Hellblazer, and Punisher. Quietly, he has established himself among the top echelon of comic book writers, alongside Ellis and Morrison, especially for writing redeemable bastards. Which makes him a perfect match for giving voice to the character of Ghost Rider.

Making his first leap into the spotlight in 1972, at the height of our fascination with daredevils, Ghost Rider has remained a perennial fan favorite. Like Aquaman and Black Panther, he is a B-list character that has been resurrected several times as different writers have tried to nail down him character definitively. But they keep trying because the image of a leather jacket wearing biker whose skull and cycle are on fire is just plain cool.

This also means that the years have brought a tangle of continuity issues that any new writer has to either cut through or ignore. His story, at its core, revolves around motorcycle stunt driver Johnny Blaze who has made a deal with the devil, Mephisto in the Marvel Universe, in order to save the life of his friend who was dying of cancer. Selling his soul for a boon in a fixed game, Johnny Blaze becomes bound to Zarathos while his friend, cured of the cancer, ends up dying in another motorcycle stunt. Blaze and Zarathos eventually battle for control of the body.

In Ennis’ hands, gone is any mention of Zarathos or Mephisto, and Ghost Rider becomes almost a mythological figure, a boogeyman of the spiritual realms. All Johnny Blaze, doomed to damnation after making his pact with Satan.

The digital art by Clayton Crain is gorgeous to look at (again, artists drool at the prospect of drawing Ghost Rider) and proves a great match for Ennis’ story. It’s the Ennis portion of the story that gave me pause. Having read the best of his work, familiarity bred … familiarity. Ennis doesn’t quite phone this story in, but he uses many of his rhythms, characters, and flourishes in this story. Hell and Earth somehow connected in Texas. The gamesmanship of spiritual forces, with the angels and demons not being all that different from one another. All that was missing was his love of soldiers and war stories, though it was hinted at with his fallen reverend character.

However, it’s obvious that Ennis keeps returning to spiritual themes for a reason, a showcase for his various issues with the Church, religion, and how God is depicted. Christianity, for him, is seen through the lens of the KKK and the corrupt rich church, complete with corrupt/fallen leader. Though some will surely say that this is a relevant image, my biggest beef is that it has become such a tired trope that writing this is lazy. And for a writer as talented as Ennis, such cliches are actually beneath him. It’s kind of like writing the evil businessman, which sadly, Ennis also does in this run.

However, his depiction of heaven and hell, angels and demons, are straight out of Medieval times, treating the imagery of the Bible to establish a grand mythology, much the same way the movie Constantine did. Yet this does touch on the nearly universal intuition of a cosmic conflict. That there are gods, angels, demons, principalities and powers engaged in a cosmic battle of good vs. evil, wreaking havoc on creation, bringing ills on humanity as collateral damage. This sense of a spiritual conflict has found its way into various mythologies and religious practices, yet our modern, Western mind has dismissed it as ignorant, primitive, or superstition. People believe what makes them feel safe, but this intrusion of the supernatural into the ordinary is what gives horror much of its thrust.

In a way, myth anticipates reality. Our world is largely shaped by this war between good and evil, both on an individual level (with our personal struggles), on a communal level (as humanity relates to one another), and on a spiritual level (the behind the scenes conflicts of the spiritual realm). Yet, according to the Christian story of the Bible, the devil and his kingdom of powers and demons is defeated by Christ’s death and resurrection. Jesus, the God-man as warrior, defeating these forces in unexpected, even counter-intuitive, ways. Through Christ, Death and evil are overthrown.

Ghost Rider, with his flaming skull and motorcycle, was a chain wielding hellspawn long before Todd McFarlane’s Spawn made it cool. This is a great jump on book for new readers as everything is as new to this “recalled to duty” Ghost Rider as it is to us. However, as a fan of Ennis, it felt like he just threw in all the things he was known for–from violence to his crass humor and his stock badass characters–without stretching for anything new. All this to whet our appetites, bring Ghost Rider to the forefront, in order to prepare the way for the feature length movie from Sony Pictures due out February 2007 and starring Nicholas Cage.

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