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December 27th, 2011

Ennis & Ellis: First Impressions.

Among the many -- many! -- collections of comic books that I checked out from the library in 2011 were the first installments of three edgy series, only one of which is still being published: Garth Ennis's Preacher and The Boys, and Warren Ellis's Transmetropolitan.

My first exposure to Ennis's work was a square-bound edition collecting his first comic book work, Troubled Souls, a nearly didactic look at the conflict in Northern Ireland, illustrated by John McCrea (who would collaborate with Ennis again on the DC Comics series Hitman, featuring an irreverent assassin for hire named Tommy Monaghan who once used one of his two super-powers -- x-ray vision -- to check out Wonder Woman during an open-call audition for membership in the Justice League of America (but I believe this was in the pages of the Grant Morrison-scripted JLA, not in Monaghan's own comic); while I enjoyed Troubled Souls, it was very much a freshman work, and didn't prepare me for Ennis's 2001-02 six issue mini-series featuring Col. Nick Fury, Director of S.H.I.E.L.D., for Marvel Comics's MAX imprint (Fury); illustrated by Darick Robertson (a name I'll be mentioning again in a little bit) and Jimmy Palmiotti, Fury was an aggressively, nearly oppressively gory look at paramilitary intelligence agents operating in a post-Cold War world on the cusp of 9/11: that Ennis's writing here was, if anything, more shocking than the post-modern Grand Guiginol rendered by Robertson and Palmiotti speaks volumes as to the vigor and bile of Ennis's pen (or, most probably, word processor). Fury was rife with moments of blackest humor that had me sometimes literally clapping a hand over my mouth, as though laughter was the last response that I should've had. Even with this mini-series being set outside of Marvel's mainline continuity (as too with Brian Azzarello's and Richard Corben's Cage mini</i> of 2002, starring an extremely sullen and ethically ambiguous Luke Cage, the former Hero for Hire and Power Man, and current mainstay of the Avengers franchise), I had problems with Nick Fury being so goddamned grim, bilious and misanthropic.

I'm not a huge horror fan, but I periodically dip my toe in the murky waters in an effort to keep abreast of the major trends, and in half-hearted hopes that someone will change my opinion of the genre.

Accordingly, I checked out Preacher: Book One (2009), which collects Preacher Vol. 1, #1-12 (the "Gone to Texas" and "Until the End of the World" story arcs, originally cover dated Apr. 1995 -- Mar. 1996, and previously collected in two trade paperbacks titled Preacher: Gone to Texas and Preacher: Until the End of the World). Preacher was a 66-issue series published by DC's Vertigo imprint, and was the story of a young ne'er-do-well with a horrific childhood named Jesse Custer, who was terrorized by his grandmother into becoming a minister; he becomes possessed by an entity named Genesis, the offspring of an angel and a demon, and gains the Word of God -- the ability to command anyone to do anything (these commands are subject, however, to the hearer's interpretation, as when, for example, Jesse tells a sheriff to go fuck himself) -- and becomes a person of interest to a variety of supernatural and ordinary human entities, including his loathsome grandmother (the main antagonist of the second arc collected here).

These first two arcs of Preacher were readable: not great, not terrible. I found Preacher a little too Joe Bob Briggs-ish for my liking (much like reggae, I can only take "hellbilly" in small doses); it was neither as mordantly humorous nor as horrifying as Ennis apparently wanted it to be. The art, by Steve Dillon, was serviceable -- that's the last page shock ending to Preacher #10 below, two issues away from the conclusion of the "Until the End of the World" storyline -- but it didn't blow me away, as Darick Robertson's did in Fury, or J.H. Williams III's did in Alan Moore's Promethea. I'll probably try to check out further Preacher volumes in 2012 as I get bored, but, based on what I've read thus far, I'd rather revisit Mike Carey's Lucifer (which was also a Vertigo series; it was a spin-off of Neil Gaiman's Sandman series that I actually preferred, on the whole, to Gaiman's original) if I'm in the mood for creative theodicy.



More to my liking, to my surprise, was The Boys, the superhero satire by Ennis and Darick Robertson that is still being published; I read the first two trade paperback collections, The Name of the Game (collecting The Boys Vol. 1, #1-6 [cover dated Oct. 2006 -- Feb. 2007]; these issues were published by another DC imprint, Wildstorm, but the series was jettisoned because DC was uncomfortable with the profanely negative portrayal of superheroes; Dynamite Entertainment, which has co-published several comics with Marvel Comics, picked up the series from #7) and Get Some (collecting The Boys Vol. 1, #7-14 [June 2007 -- Jan. 2008]). These two collections contain four story arcs: "The Name of the Game" (#1 & 2), "Cherry" (#3-6), "Get Some" (#7-10) and "Glorious Five Year Plan" (#11-14).

I'd avoided picking up The Boys at the comic book shop because my first exposure to it was spotting the cover to a spin-off six-issue mini-series, Herogasm (that's the cover to Herogasm #1 below; this mini-series is supposed to be read between The Boys #30 & #31); what with my disposable income ranging from "tight" to "non-existent" these days, I figured I didn't have the bank to check out a title that would most likely only annoy the hell out of me.


Imagine my surprise when The Boys, after the usual groundwork-laying doldrums of the first two or three issues, proved to be the most entertaining thing I'd read by Ennis so far. It had several laugh-out-loud moments (I freely admit that it helps if your sense of humor tends towards the dark and perverse), as well as an absurdly poignant moment or two peeping its head above the, uh, bodily fluid-soaked shrubbery. My favorite superhero name so far: the Sausage of Love, a big, slightly potty bear of a Russian with his heart -- if not other anatomical parts -- in the right place.

The Boys concerns a special black ops team of operatives tasked with making sure that the superheroes and supervillains (but mostly the superheroes) don't get too out of hand; to that end, they are prepared to use blackmail, assassination or savage beat-downs in any combination as needed, and they all are superhumanly enhanced to give them a better chance of surviving their policing duties. Though nominally employed by the CIA, they have as adversarial a relationship with their employers as they do with their subjects of scrutiny. The series is illustrated by Darick Robertson (who also drew the cover to Herogasm #1; John McCrea did the interior artwork); their newest member, the Scot nicknamed "Wee Hughie," is modelled after Simon Pegg, of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz fame (he also played Scotty in J.J. Abrams's reboot of Star Trek).


I've read Warren Ellis in relatively small bits and pieces, with mixed results: my first exposure to his writing (as opposed to his avatar, which I encountered a couple of years ago in a collection of the comic book Powers by Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Avon Oeming) was in the trade paperback collecting the first six issues of the twelve issues-long series Nextwave: Agents of H.A.T.E. Volume 1 -- This is What They Want, a would-be humorous look at some second-stringer superheroes of Marvel Comics, including the Roger Stern-created Captain Marvel (Monica Rambeau), called here Photon. As I checked out a bunch of collected Iron Man comics this year in an effort to see just how badly Marvel futzed with Tony Stark's personality in the wake of their egregious company-wide Civil War cross-over, I glumly checked out Ellis's contribution to the Iron Man mythos, the Iron Man: Extremis (collecting Iron Man Vol. 4, #1-6) arc, which gave Stark next-generation capabilities with his Iron Man armor and the ability to wire his nervous system into every inter-connected system on Earth. Extremis wasn't as wretched as I'd feared; actually, next to much of the ass-clowining that was Civil War, it was downright restrained. I wasn't terribly thrilled with the art (by Adi Granov), and I'm forever annoyed by Marvel's continual retconning of the timeline and backstories of their characters (one particular pet peeve as far as Iron Man is concerned: their ordering the writers of the various Iron Man titles to make Tony Stark more like the Robert Downey, Jr. character in the Iron Man movies; Tony Stark does not rock out to heavy metal music while wearing his heavy metal armor!), but, barring that, Extremis was okay. Pretty solid, actually, given the overall state of Marvel's mainline titles these days.

I finally took the plunge and checked out the first three trade paperback collections of Ellis's fabled Transmetropolitan series, illustrated by -- there's that name again -- Darick Robinson, then fresh off a decent run on Marvel's New Warriors title (a title that I collected back in the day; it was a more recent iteration of the New Warriors that precipitated the events of Civil War); these collections are Vol. 1: Back on the Street (new printing, collecting Transmetropolitans #1-6); Vol. 2, Lust For Life (new printing, collecting #7-12); and Year of the Bastard (collecting Transmetropolitans #13-18 and the Transmetropolitan story from Vertigo: Winter's Edge II). Transmetropolitan was originally published by the Helix imprint of DC Comics, but, when the Helix line was cancelled, at the end of Transmetropolitan's first year, it was moved over to their Vertigo line.


Transmetropolitan is a sci-fi satire starring the journalist/pundit/media celebrity Spider Jerusalem (shown above), who may be thought of as a kind of cross between Hunter S. Thompson and Harlan Ellison, with a pronounced leaning towards Thompson's personal preferences vis-á-vis mind-altering substances. Ellis sets up various straw men and Potemkin windmills for Jerusalem to carry out a whack attack on, and stands back and lets him have at it. The thing is, Ellis's rants in the first eighteen issues of Transmetropolitan are fairly repetitive; the phrase "dead dog's cock" (first and most famously appearing in the Jerusalem-penned column "I Hate It Here" as: "If anyone in this shithole city gave two tugs of a dead dog's cock about Truth, this wouldn't be happening.") appears at least one time too many, and was most likely inspired by a memorably revolting scene in Will Self's 1993 novel My Idea of Fun (the first issue of Transmetropolitan was cover dated September 1997).

I found the first three Transmetropolitan collections to be agreeable time-killers, with the occasional chuckle-out-loud one-liner; however, nothing in these first bakers-dozen-plus-five issues really convinced me that I gots to read some more. I probably will request more Transmetro collections via inter-library loan, but not as eagerly as I will those of The Boys.



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