Tuesday, April 28, 2009

It's A Wrong Idea: Adventures In The Rifle Brigade

When people talk about Garth Ennis, they tend to talk in glowing terms. They applaud his grasp of human nature, his witty dialogue, his dark humor. Or, they just shout a lot. Like, at the moon, or a tree, or maybe a passing dog with floppy ears. Frequently, whther they're complimenting his work or denouncing it, they talk about some of the really messed up things his characters do. A fair example is Arse Face, the teen suicide idol from Ennis’ premiere selling book, Preacher. You see, Arse Face was a little under the weather when Kurt Cobain elected to eat a bullet. Idolizing the singer, the young man decided to suck on the barrel of a shotgun too. Only he lived, horribly scarred. After surgery his face was pinched in and looked like… An arse! HAHAHA! Get it? Oh wait, except no one in the US knows what the bloody hell an arse is. It’s Brit slang for ass. See? His face looked like an ass. Oh man, comedy gold.

Preacher is full of archetypes so profound and over the top that they border on caricature. An Irish vampire, who’s a drunk! A small town preacher, who has doubts about his faith! A rural American man, who is a sociopathic killer and enjoys sexual congress with dead fish! Oh my! Ennis sure has turned a critical eye on our society! Ennis just doesn’t do subtlety very well, if at all. His oeuvre is hyper violent sadism combined with off color humor. The narrative, such as it is, is usually employed in service of connecting scenes of unhinged sadomasochistic meat product rape with effervescent beheadings and detailed examinations of cannibalism.

Despite that, Preacher was a phenomenal success. You can talk a lot of trash about the book, but it resonated with audiences and made a pile of money. Making a Pile of Money is just about the only barometer for success that the comic book industry has left. You can draw your superheroes sporting bandanas constructed from a multitude of pouches, with three foot long ankles hinged like a rabbit, and fingers with more joints than Tommy Chong, but as long as shmucks lay down cash for each of the nine variant covers, the industry will treat you like Einstein with two brains and a meter long phallus.* What I’m getting at, is that success in comic books has less to do with the quality of your work than it does with the audience’s capacity for self loathing.

Which isn’t to say that Preacher, or Ennis, is without merit. For what it’s worth, I bought Preacher and I enjoyed it. Most of it. There were good parts, parts that shined. In characters like the Saint of Killers, Ennis has created some enduring mythology. His approach to the Scion of Christ and a global Catholic conspiracy that spans centuries is constructed in a fashion that far outshines Dan Brown. Ennis’ use of a John Wayne hallucination to serve as narrative device sounds hokey, but works exceedingly well. There are bits of Preacher that work great, and display that Ennis is capable of being a good storyteller.

So when I saw Adventures In the Rifle Brigade for sale, I opted to pick it up. The cover promised some WWII action, and I was interested in seeing just how far off the rail Ennis could take the Second World War. I’m not sure what I was expecting. Perhaps a critical examination of the war from an alternative perspective, delivered in between combat scenes of nearly surreal amounts of gore.

What I did not expect, was a clumsy satire of WWII adventure stories populated by characters so puerile as to surpass caricature and dive straight into toilet humor, only to leave the toilet behind as the story scrambled down the pipe in search of more juvenile material, as if it was saying to itself in shuddering tones "this poop isn't poopy enough." It seemed as if the lesson that Ennis learned from Preacher was “I’m not very good at delivering subtlety, so why bother?” Three of the six members of the eponymous Rifle Brigade (which is really more of a squad) never vocalize anything other than their catch phrases. Fortunately for the reader, they repeat their catch phrases with such frequency that you never expect anything else from them and when they shake up the delivery a little bit with an exclamation point, or the entire phrase in capital letters, you can really tell they’re emoting extra hard.

Satire is an art. It requires a complete and accurate knowledge of the subject, a biting witt, and a degree of subtlety to deliver humor in a fashion that the audience won’t expect.** Repeating the same joke over and over, is not the way to accomplish this goal. I’m familiar with the axiom that repetition is the crux of humor, and despite repetition being the crux of humor, it requires a certain flair and restraint.

One of the principle jokes of the books, repeated numerous times, is the relationship between Capt. Darcy, a proper English officer and adventurer, and Lt. Crumb, a rather effeminate and modern young British Officer in what I suspect is supposed to poke fun at the generation gap felt among the old and new guard of the British Military during WWII. Capt. Darcy is very manly. Very gentlemanly. Very British. T. Darcy has something of a crush on Darcy. At least once per combat scene, Crumb will become the target of violence and believes himself to be mortally wounded. He begs Darcy to bestow on him some intimate act. At first a kiss, as the books progress the requests become more ribald. Darcy is flustered, but always relents out of sense of duty to the young officer. At the last minute, Just as the request is to be granted, it’s revealed that Crumb is not wounded at all, and he recovers, refusing to admit what has transpired. HAHA! He is confused about his sexuality!***

The story itself is just this side of nonsense. I’m not spoiling anything by telling you that the narrative hinges on retrieving a misplaced testicle that was formerly attached to Hitler. For reasons that aren’t really clear, the testicle appears to have some magical properties. At one point it is accidently ingested by one of the Rifle Brigade (BY THE GAY ONE! HAHAHA!) and what follows is a nightmare of ethnic stereotyping wherein the man goose steps about and shouts in nonsense faux German before vomiting up the Evil Essence in a black wave of putrescence that seemingly immobilizes the enemies.**** With the enemy soundly vomited on and no other obstacles in their path, the Rifle Brigade return to England for a cup of tea and a shot of a dusty warehouse filled to the brim with testicles in specimen jars. I guess the point of the story was, the British like balls? Frankly I don’t know.

Reading the Rifle Brigade is an exercise in stamina and masochism. It requires you to be a fan of Ennis’ work, or a 10 year old boy fascinated by genital jokes. I persevered this book on the hook that if I just read one more page, the pay off would certainly be there. Just one more panel, and something interesting would happen. That bit of Ennis brilliance never came though. There was no introspective moment for the characters; they are static. Their circumstances are not changed, and it’s not even clear if the war was negatively or positively impacted by their actions. The story exists in a void of causality that leaves you wondering why you bothered reading it.

* Yes, I'm talking about you Liefeld.
** This is why I never attempt it.
*** Gay is hilarious!
**** No seriously. This not only happens, it's the climax of the book.


  1. Those are all totally fair points about Garth Ennis, and frankly none of his books are lacking in machismo, homophobia and/or racism. But, if you want to read a less juvenile take on WW2 by Ennis, I recommend the War Stories series, which are all pretty enjoyable. Each issue is a stand alone story, and they all approach the war from a different perspective. They're still all about being bad-ass and macho, but they're way more nuanced than some of Ennis's other work.

  2. I guess I should note that I'm not endorsing homophobia or racism but that I do enjoy some Ennis stories despite their questionable qualities.