Telling A Complete Story In Comics – Garth Ennis In The Comicon Interview
by Hannah Means Shannon
Recently, I had the opportunity to talk to comic writer Garth Ennis at New Jersey Comic Expo, courtesy of Dynamite Entertainment, thanks to Ennis taking the time to chat during his limited time at the show. Ennis’ roster of writing credits is extensive, and his track record as a writer has been to consistently produce such quality work that his name alone recommends picking up a book for fans.
For those who might be new to comics, Ennis has written for legacy characters like Batman, The Punisher and Nick Fury, but also substantially within the field of creator owned comics in The Boys, Preacher, Battlefields, War Stories, Caliban, Jimmy’s Bastards, and many more.
Given the opportunity to do an interview, I wanted specifically to ask Ennis about his methods as a writer, how that might have evolved during his career, and what we can expect from him coming up.
Hannah Means-Shannon: What’s the appeal in living in New York City for so long?
Garth Ennis: Oh, I couldn’t live anywhere else. I fell in love with it at first sight. It was 1992, and I just knew I was going to end up here someday. From the very first moment.
HMS: This past year, there’s been a lot of upheaval in New York, with all the political stuff going on. Has that affected you at all? Specifically, all the marches being held and protests at Trump Tower.
GE: I was on the first one back in January with my wife and her pals. Beyond that, I live in the West Village, which is kind of a quiet, leafy area, so not much bothers me there.
HMS: I imagine it can get exhausting with so many marches happening, even if one is into taking part, but the city is incredibly resilient, so life goes on.
To ask you some questions about the craft of being a writer, when you are coming up with ideas for projects, how do you know when that idea will move between just a possibility and an idea that you will actually develop and implement?
GE: You let them percolate, really. I do write them down. I carry a notebook and I write down ideas, whether for a story, or whether it’s just a one-liner. Maybe it’s a character. Any time I’m starting a new story, I go through the notebooks, and I pick out that one, and that one, and that one. And I decide what’s appropriate. Then I gather them all together. You just have a kind of instinctive sense of what’s going to work for The Boys, or for The Punisher, and so on.
HMS: So these ideas are situational things that are not necessarily assigned to characters yet?
GE: Yes. Sometimes you’ll think of a line and it’s perfect for Frank Castle. Other times you’ll think of a line and you think, ‘I will have to create a character for that line, since that’s a good line!’ You know that it’s time will come.
HMS: Is any of that tied to the events that are occurring in the outside world for you? Suddenly, the time comes for a given idea, and does that coincide with it just feeling right for that time in your life or that year of your career?
GE: Yes. I’m doing a new horror book with Aftershock. It’ll start coming out next year. I can’t go into much detail yet, but it’s very much inspired by current events. I had the sense that it was time to say something about what’s been going on in the world, and what’s been happening in the last couple of years. Other things are more timeless, really. I’ve just had a new Punisher book approved at Marvel. Another Vietnam story. That’s because I just wanted to tell that story; it’s not particularly tied to the current era.
HMS: It’s great to have a breadth of projects, and a mix of things, right?
GE: Yes. A horror book, a comedy book, a war book, an action book, and so on.
HMS: If things happened to fall together, and you were doing a bunch of the same types and genres of books at the same time, would that be tedious to you?
GE: No, I don’t have a problem with that. But what has changed for me is that I used to skip between books. In the past, in a typical month, I would write a Hitman, a Preacher, a Punisher, then back to Preacher and so on. What I tend to do now is that I’ll write each miniseries all in one go. So, that Punisher book I mentioned was written over a period of 6 weeks. Jimmy’s Bastards was written in three, three week chunks. A longer, ongoing book, like War Stories, Preacher, or Hitman, happened over a longer period of time. But by the end of The Boys, I was writing that in four issue, monthly chunks. Just because, I suppose the older I get, the easier it is to keep a grip on things, rather than hopping weekly between genres and books.
HMS: I suppose people change over time, creatively, too. And they just prefer one approach over another.
GE: Also, I think, over the years, I got into the habit of thinking of stories as complete stories and not single episodes. Preacher taught me that. I write them to be read in one go; I write them for the trade or the collection. And so, it makes sense to me to have only one story in my head for that time. You can focus more easily that way.
HMS: There’s a lot of detail in your stories anyway, so it would be harder not to do it all at once! Related to that, have you ever written a straight original graphic novel? Just one and done?
GE: Not really, unless you count something like The Pro. But that’s only about 50 pages. I am, however, doing a war story graphic novel that’ll be coming out from a publisher next year. And that will be an OGN. That will be about 150 to 200 pages. They say if they like that one, they’ll do more, so that could see me moving more into that territory.
HMS: That’s awesome news. Do you think you’ll work any differently in that format?
GE: I think I’ll probably just set aside a month and a half and go right through them.
HMS: When you’re writing, what differences affect you depending on whether you are working with characters who are pre-existing, or ones which you have created and you’re writing for the first time?
GE: Not as much as you might think. Obviously, if I have come up with a character, what I say goes, and as long as it makes sense for the character, I can do whatever I want. But even when I’m writing work-for-hire and established characters, I tend to write them the way that I think they should be written rather than what’s appeared before, like with the Punisher and Nick Fury, for example.
For instance, when I wrote that Hitman book where he meets the JLA, I wrote each of those characters the way I thought that they each should be, not according to what DC thought. So that’s why Batman is this overpowering pain-in-the-ass. That’s why Superman is a saint. That’s why Wonder Woman is kind of cold. That’s why Green Lantern is a bit of an idiot. That’s why the Flash is basically irritated by everybody, because everyone is slower than he is, and he’s waiting for them to catch up. These were my ideas for the characters, and I just went with that, rather than what I was, perhaps, supposed to do.
HMS: So you were aware of the history of these characters, as a comics fan, but you were still interpreting them differently?
GE: Yes, but I have gaps. I didn’t grow up on American comics, so I had to kind of learn as I went. It was only when I started reading Swamp Thing, Alan Moore’s run, that I became aware of this huge, interlinked universe. But I was only interested in Swamp Thing. Of course, occasionally, some of those other characters do pop up. And Alan gave you this great sense of this fabulous tapestry, this enormous, multi-colored history for these characters, that stretched back over the age. Then you go and read the actual books, and you realize, ‘Oh yeah, no one else is as good as Alan. And no one else can actually do this.’ But the point was, he made it seem that way.
HMS: Yes. I agree.
GE: So, then, I started working for DC myself, and they put me on the comps list. Even though I wasn’t reading all of this stuff, every month I would get a box of thirty or forty comics. And even if you’re just flipping through them, you can’t help but pick stuff up. So, 15 years on the DC comps list gave me a pretty good idea, at least, of who the main characters were. Then, they took me off the comps list, so I couldn’t really tell you much about DC in the last 10 years. You hear things, like the names of events, but I don’t really know what’s going on. Same with Marvel.
HMS: I think a lot of people are in that boat, even if they do try to keep up with these comics, because there are so many titles coming out all the time now.
GE: Yes. I only did it by accident, anyway. I wasn’t attempting to keep up with this stuff. Ultimately, I have no interest in it, or in what all these characters are doing. But you can’t help but hear stuff.
HMS: It’s like you just happen to be in the same room with a group of people, hearing their conversations.
GE: Sure, yes.
Many thanks to Garth Ennis for fitting this interview into his schedule and sharing his thoughts with us on Comicon.com.
We look forward to hearing about his new horror series with Aftershock and his upcoming graphic novel!