The man himself

Rereading Troubled Souls by Garth Ennis and John McCrea. 

I was too young to read the classic Green Lantern/Green Arrow run by Denny O’Neill and Neal Adams, in original or reprint. I wasn’t reading comics in the 1970s. I’ve never seen more than the odd page. So my gold standard of relevant, dealing-with-issues comics is Teen Titans Spotlight #1-#2, by Marv Wolfman and Denys Cowan.

teen-titans-spotligh_superStarfire – the pin-up stroke princess from space with golden skin and blank green eyes whose costume was a spandex mankini stretched over her globular boobs – went to South Africa. I don’t remember why. And this was in 1986, when South Africa and apartheid were the world’s villains. She met the authorities, who were all nice to her like she was a white person, and then she met the noble oppressed who asked her to use her power to win them freedom, and after a couple of lectures to both sides about how they should proceed and why it would be wrong for her to help, she flew off leaving only the trail of her enormous tawny curly porn hair.

That was how we dealt with serious issues in comics back then; through the observing lens of a superhero who calmly explained why the right thing for them to do was nothing. B’wana Beast delivers much the same lecture to a Bishop Tutu analogue in Rick Veitch’s all-ape Swamp Thing annual. It’s the position Miracleman refuted. There were solid editorial reasons for their inaction, of course; let your hero solve problems in a shared universe and your universe starts to unmoor from the real world. But the contradiction between the protagonist’s power and the complexity of the problems they were stumped by became boring over time. Superheroes could only ever be helpless in the face of suffering and it damaged their credibility, so political stories – relevance, as it was called, backhandedly dismissing everything else as irrelevant – appeared infrequently. The fantastic and the political didn’t mix.

So take the superheroes away. Remove them. Instead of that distorting, constrained lens, look at the political problems of the world through the eyes of ordinary people. Resist the urge to jump into the future, too. Deal with the real world by placing fictional characters in actual places under actual pressures. Revolutionary, theoretically. I can’t remember being blown away by Troubled Souls when it was published in Crisis. I probably would have preferred superheroes or sci-fi trappings, something familiar. But I think I realised that this was something new to comics.

2000ADPresents-Crisis#015-28 panel

I’m struggling with that: was this new? Had anyone done real-world fictional comics before? Because I can’t think of anybody. The comix of the 1960s, Crumb and Pekar and Binky Brown, dealt with the real world through parody or autobiography. The black-and-white revolution of the 80s brought new voices into comics but they were still wedded to the fantastic, to the possibilities of a medium where a new world was a few pen-scratches away. The argument could be made that Love & Rockets had a political focus, but it was intermittent and character-led. Newspaper strips in the US were concerned with the political issues of the day but filtered them through their own four-panel gag structure. So I’m trying to think of a fictional story in comics that unflinchingly looked at a hot political issue of the time, that used fiction to explore it in the time-honoured way that fiction does, and I’m coming up blank. Was Troubled Souls the first? Really?

Because I wasn’t planning to lionise this comic. Garth Ennis’s first published writing, pitched to Crisis because he was savvy enough to recognise what they wanted, is no monumental piece of work. It actually doesn’t have a lot more to say about Northern Ireland and the Troubles than Starfire had to say about South Africa and apartheid. Garth Ennis wasn’t a foot-soldier in the battle between Republicans and Nationalists; he may not even have been an observer. I knew a girl from Belfast a couple of years younger than him and she described the Troubles as confined by geography; if you didn’t live in the places where this eternal, bitter struggle was going on, then you didn’t know much about it. And certainly the comic doesn’t seem to benefit from a great deal of first-hand knowledge. The introduction to the collected edition by Irish comics writer and artist Malachey Coney congratulates it on avoiding the cliches of Hollywood Troubles, but instead it satisfies itself with a slightly less kiss kiss bang bang set: the innocent protagonist taken on a journey through the underworld, the killer who begins to doubt the righteousness of his cause, the senior terrorist who is boundlessly corrupt. Tom doesn’t get much further than being the I-guy, as Stephen King calls the heroes of 50s horror and sci-fi; a blank slate kept clean so we readers can project ourselves on him.

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The story’s simple. Tom, a Protestant with no political affiliations or interest, gets a gun dumped in his lap in a pub by IRA soldier Damien. More from shock than anything, he keeps it while Damien’s interrogated and then gives it back. Because of that compliance, he’s enlisted and threatened by Damien into planting a bomb which injures him and kills British Army soldiers. Damien’s ordered to kill Tom but can’t – he has him at gunpoint on a Belfast street three times in a single series, it gets old – so they hang out together in one of those islands of peace in a sea of violence which regularly occur in war narratives, and then Damien is fortuitously killed. Everything’s resolved except in Tom’s head, and he quits for England. No moral side is taken; we hear more about the evil of the British, but we see more about the evil of the IRA. The only solution proposed to the Troubles is to be so immersed in them you can’t imagine anything else, or to run away.

As a plot, it doesn’t quite hang together. The opening episodes, Tom’s paralysed panic as he holds the gun and becomes an unwitting accomplice, are plausible. He’s an innocent hoping to remain innocent. But his blackmailing into taking an active part is a stupid plan, as Damien’s superior points out, and Damien’s change of heart is equally unconvincing. Their “unlikely friendship” is a pure contrivance and Damien’s death is neatly silly, all problems cleared from the protagonist’s path while he remains perfectly passive. It has the flaws of any political story: an tilted playing-field contrived to prove a point and puppet characters. Unfairly, it has those flaws while not even having a point to prove. It doesn’t have a superhero but Tom walks away from the situation no less than Starfire did, having learned no more than a) it’s terrible and b) it’s very, very complicated.

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Troubled Souls, though a neophyte work, isn’t juvenilia. It’s far ahead, in sophistication and execution, of similarly early work by Moore or Morrison or Miller. Ennis never read American comics as a kid, being hooked on the inky gore of 2000AD and war comics instead, and that’s usually mentioned in the context of him not caring for superheroes. But it also means he doesn’t have the same vocabulary as a Marvel obsessive. He doesn’t have those Meanwhile panels we saw in Paradax, he doesn’t have the love of a slugfest evidenced in Zenith, he doesn’t follow the arcane strictures of the industry like Moore. He comes into comics as his own man, and casually picks up the more naturalistic techniques developed by the graphic novel pioneers. We get first-person captions throughout, we get montage pages on the facts of history and the bloody songs that stir it, all used in service of the story and the journey. And McCrea, though awkward at points, is always innovative. He switches between a smooth airbrushed style for everyday life to charcoal sketches, to caricature and cartoons, to rough, scribbled pages, to pretty People’s Friend watercolours done sideways. In the era of muddy painted comics it’s both contemporary and clear.

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McCrea never quite manages to synchronise his stylistic innovations and the content. The tourist visit to Divis Flats is brilliantly cartoony, the charcoal of twilight conversation is deftly realised, but there are other moments when the style appears to have been switched for little or no reason. At times there’s that pencil-and-colour look that used to happen in 2000AD when deadlines were biting, and there are inconsistencies in the faces throughout. When Damien gets shot Tom looks ruefully bored as his friend bleeds his last, like he’s just spent a fiver on a losing horse. The airbrushed slickness that most of the story appears in was the look of the moment, we’ve got painted colour so let’s fucking well use it, but isn’t a great fit for the content. It probably would have worked better in black-and-white.

But for a writer and artist reaching a decent audience for the first time, the writer having dropped out of education for this punt on an unpromising career and looking like the lead singer of a one-hit wonder band in the photo on the back cover, it’s remarkably adept. Liz’s sexless relationship with Tom – he’s in love with her based on one day’s company around Belfast, a boy with a crush that never seems to get physical – is the work of a teenager, but she’s a well-drawn character. Dougie, the unthinking, ordinary bigot who’s more concerned with his own troubles than the Troubles, has a life that makes him more than just the best friend. The survey of the history is an effective infodump, and Tom’s interior monologue always rings true. The trip out to Rathlin, and the pervasive blood of conflict that runs deep even there, gives valuable perspective in an otherwise brisk story.

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Most writers and artists of the period broke through with superhero or sci-fi stories, disguising what they really wanted to say under the accepted tropes of the medium’s mainstream. Ennis and McCrea did it in reverse; creating something topical and relevant to suit the mood of the moment before going on to war comics, cockeyed action movies, Westerns. I wouldn’t recommend anyone read Troubled Souls unless they’re a student of this particular moment in comics. It isn’t characteristic of Ennis’s later work especially, nor is it interesting enough in itself. But it’s a clear indicator of its creators’ talents, and of better things to come.

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Troubled Souls by Garth Ennis and John McCrea was published in Crisis #15-#20 and #22-#27, and was reprinted in the Troubled Souls trade paperback. It is out of print. 

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