Saturday, January 26, 2013

Blogathon 24: Garth Ennis's Best Female Characters (Brian Cronin Guest Post)

While you and I both love the work of Garth Ennis, I think it is a reasonable criticism that as good as his work is, it tends to be a bit on the male-centric side. There is little doubt that one of the driving forces of much of his work is the bond of friendship between two men and how the said two friends play off of each other. That's the driving force of three of his most famous works, Preacher, Hitman and the recently finished The Boys. However, because that aspect of his work is so prominent, it also leads people to dismiss his work with women, which is unfortunate, because he HAS done some strong work with female characters in his career, including one of the most impressive handlings of rape that I can recall ever reading (not just in comics, but period). Here are my takes on the two best female characters Ennis has created.
Interestingly enough, his first major mainstream work, the work that led to him having the freedom to create Preacher in the first place, also introduced one of his best female characters, Katherine "Kit" Ryan, one-time girlfriend to John Constantine. Kit is from Belfast. She met John when they were both still teenagers but she was dating a friend of his. Years later, when the friend died, Kit and John became involved in a serious relationship. The greatness of Kit comes both from her steely resolve and her frank nature. She is willing to put up with a lot of shit for the people that she loves, but at the same time, it is clear that there is an imaginary line in the sand that she will not let people break and once they do, she is willing to cut people off, even people she loves. With John, that line mostly involved his dealings with the occult. If John were to have a real life with her, he had to be willing to give up his occult dealings and he, as much as he could, really did try to do so for a time. However, this being John Constantine, shit happened and Kit was forced to break things up. Really, in a lot of ways, what it seemed like was that Ennis just loved the character too much to see her be written by a different writer, It is no coincidence that she left Hellblazer at the same time that Ennis stopped writing the book. It is a testament to how well Ennis developed Kit that the editors of Hellblazer and future writers were willing to respect the way that Ennis essentially put her aside for protection. In a comics world where the supporting characters of previous writers rarely get respected and typically get brought back simply to kill (which actually has happened a number of times in Hellblazer itself - very few people who had extended dealings with John Constantine live to tell the tale for too long), Kit was different. She was so interesting that Ennis and his Hellblazer collaborator, Steve DIllon, even wrote a one-shot solo story about Kit featuring her time back in Belfast (Where she left after things with John ended). It is a compelling tale of Kit and her siblings and the things Kit was willing to do to protect them. It also, of course, deals prominently with the conflict in Northern Ireland between the Protestants and Catholics living there.

Tulip O'Hare is one of the most popular female characters Ennis has created, but while she was certainly a force to be reckoned with in Preacher, like I noted before, the driving force of Preacher was the relationship between the title character (Jesse Custer) and the Irish vampire Cassidy. Tulip definitely got a bit of the short straw when it came to the great character work in the title.

The female character that stands out the most for me from Ennis is a recent creation, Carrie Sutton, of the mini-series Battlefiends: Dear Billy (as a quick aside - let me express my gratitude that a series of books like Battlefields even EXISTS. Dynamite takes good care of Ennis by giving him these series of war comics where he can tell whatever kind of war story that he wants. He hasn't had this type of avenue for his work since Vertigo's War Stories, which were almost a decade ago. The first Battlefields mini-series, The Night Witches, is also about a strong female character, one of the many female aviators for Russia during World War II, who were forced to use such outdated planes that they actually developed plans where they would cut their engines and just glide into attacks since their old engines made too much noise. Their silent attacks on German forces earned them the name "Night Witches"). In Dear Billy, Ennis explores the lesser-explored aspects of war, the treatment of female prisoners by the Japanese. Carrie was a nurse who was captured with a group of other nurses in Singapore and after they were all raped, they were gunned down, Only Carrie survived. Carrie eventually develops a relationship with Billy Wedgewood, a British pilot who was tortured by the Japanese. Wedgewood was stabbed so many times by Japanese bayonets that it is shocking that he survived. Here, though, is where Ennis gets into the disgusting yet fascinating issue of surviving rape. For lack of a better term, both Carrie and Billy were violently pierced by the Japanese. However, as Ennis rightly notes, there is no real comparison when it comes to actually being raped. Where Billy is a damaged person, he is able to heal. You can cure his stab wounds. You cannot cure a rape. Ennis gets that and the series follows the fact that while they love each other, Carrie and Billy are on two very different paths. Billy is like a broken chair. You replace the leg and you have a working chair. Carrie is like a broken mirror. You can't ever truly repair what happened to her. Carrie tries to explain herself to Billy through a letter (the "Dear Billy" of the comic's title comes from the letter, naturally) but as you go through the series until its tragic ending, you know that this powerful, fascinating woman is just too broken. But by the time the series ends, you will come to enjoy Carrie so much that the depravity of her rape feels that much more painful, that it robbed us of a woman like this.

[Don't forget to donate what you can to the Hero Initiative (Details in this post)! After you do, let me know via comment or e-mail (found at the righthand side) so I can keep track of donations -- and who to thank.]