Being conscious is an utter wank these days

Rereading True Faith by Garth Ennis and Warren Pleece.

I’m an atheist, but I’m not a New Atheist. Neither are they, or so they claim, but there has to be a term for the evangelical atheism that’s been so voluble this century. With Richard Dawkins as their teacher and de facto leader, the New Atheists proclaim their desire for evidence, their belief in the scientific method and its products, and recite a skewed view of history in which religion is the cause of all man’s problems. They hate to be compared to a religion but they share many traits, not least being the sincere belief that a new way has been found, that truth has finally been revealed, and that everything’s going to be different now.

I’ve studied history. The desire to leave religion behind, to blame it for the suffering humans inflict on humans, seems no different to the Victorians blaming sex or the hippy drive to eradicate war. Religion is no less a part of the human condition than those two. It isn’t a virus beamed in from space. Put any group of humans together, in whatever circumstances, and they’ll invent a religion.

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That said, I’m no fan of the religions I’ve come into contact with. I got thrown out of Sunday School as a kid for being disruptive, which was a lesson in how God’s love has gatekeepers within the church. That was counterbalanced by the family of the vicar of the church associated with my primary school’s church, who demonstrated how a community can coalesce around a religious institution and the power of leading by example. But I also, through coincidence and proximity, associated with various branches of a fundamentalist church throughout my childhood and early adulthood, and I’ve seen the damage it does. Apostasy is alive and it works. A friend as a kid has never been far from mental institutions because of this kind of Christianity. I’ve been able to track the damage that was done to my contemporaries into their adulthood. So I can understand why Christianity is hated.

TF Chap 1 Image 0017Teenagers – I was no exception – are naturally prone to mock it. Demolishing a metanarrative that can’t even fight back because it doesn’t cast the first stone is hard to resist. And it positions you as an adult who’s into sex and drinking and drugs and unGodly music without you actually having to go through the hurdles of getting those things. We had a Christian Union at my school and my sixth-form college and I thought them well deserving of my contempt. I never actually went along and heckled but I would’ve thought it hilarious if someone had. Or if, like True Faith’s protagonist Nigel Gibson, I’d called them all mindless cop-out pricks in the pub.

I use the word adolescent far too much on this blog. I’m aware of that. It’s borne of necessity: superheroes are adolescent power fantasies, they’re read by adolescents, and I’m writing about comics going through their adolescence. And, in this particular case, the writer himself wasn’t far out of his adolescence. The photo of Garth Ennis in the original trade, hands clasped in parodic prayer and eyes gazed ironically to the heavens, shows him to be a longhair youth not dissimilar to Nigel Gibson, removed by a couple of year. The comic’s set, or begins and returns to, in the sixth form of a school, some anonymous comprehensive not far from London. And calling Christianity a load of shit is, as discussed, a very adolescent attitude. So we’re really doubling down on the adolescence here.

But, somehow, True Faith manages to transcend that. It’s not a mature work; indeed, it’s perhaps false to call anything by Garth Ennis mature. But it stands up. The penultimate Crisis series to be published in trade by Fleetway, and that trade suffering some distribution problems because of Grant Morrison’s gleefully blasphemous introduction, it’s the only one to have been republished. Vertigo printed their own edition when Garth had become one of their guys, and I have to guess the writer was involved in pushing for that. He knew it was worthy of a wider audience. Perhaps accidentally, he and Pleece produced something that is bounded in its internal universe and is without flaws.

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A large part of that is because of the art. Ennis has, in his subsequent career, placed storytelling above every other artistic concern. You don’t work with Steve Dillon for 1,700 pages of Preacher if you like your art fancy. You do it because you put the story and the characters above any neat turn of phrase you might come up with or any meticulously-detailed background the artist might come up with. Perhaps the writer learned that here, because Pleece doesn’t put a mark on paper that isn’t dedicated to selling this outlandish plot, to making it hellishly mundane. Printed with deep, almost luminous blacks and grimy watercolours, it’s art that redefines the much-abused phrase gritty realism. Pleece’s art depicts a rain-sodden, grime-tinted, low-skied UK in which no superhero but the Newport Ninja could possibly survive. His first page is a church surrounded by urban sprawl: a council towerblock, a Victorian viaduct, rows of terraces and in the foreground the choice detail of a man with dog walking away. The dog’s just pissed on the church. If that’s symbolic it’s of the black humour which drives the book, the British laughter which makes the sheer mundanity of bad circumstances hilarious.

Making the outlandish plot ordinary is an underappreciated job. Ennis writes a story which takes a teenage boy from sneering iconoclast to terrorist’s disciple to soldier in a holy war in less than 90 pages. He throws in an arsenal of guns, which are not available to the common man in this country, and the SAS. The tone is what carries it, and the pace. We oscillate between humour and portentousness, never settling on either. The story of Terry is a tragedy, a man who trusts in the Lord finding his faith betrayed, but even in the first episode it’s told with a cruel eye. When he discovers Nigel in his flat it’s a moment pregnant with menace, our protagonist in no doubt that he faces death at the hands of a madman, but then there’s the God-as-blockage-in-the-U-bend analogy that can’t be taken seriously. On almost every page there’s a grim sense of dread, of the worst unfolding, and at the same time there’s a black joke about it. The story gets away with being ludicrous by acknowledging how stupid it is, but being stupid doesn’t stop it being frightening.

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Terry’s gun speech, his last moment of independent consciousness and power, is the standout example. It’s a silly moment – a toilet cleaner reciting lines from Dirty Harry while waving a revolver around and planning to burn down an anonymous suburban modernist church – but you’re in Nigel’s shoes, and that gun’s in your face, and so it’s terrifying. All the more terrifying, in fact, for how ridiculous it is; true terror, as Stalin taught Russia, requires absolute submission to ideas that are plainly, laughably, false. Terry could never inspire a religion, or destroy God. But the personal relationship that Christians claim to enjoy with Jesus undeniably exists between Nigel and Terry. The schoolboy is transformed from sneering iconoclast to an unwilling acolyte transfixed by awe.

The introduction of Cornelius – and it had never occurred to me before, but that name has to have come from Skizz – is another leap of faith for the reader. One madman, a very ordinary madman, with one follower can be swallowed. A small army of church-burners, with objectives no more sane than that one madman, should be impossible to choke down. Ennis, with an insouciance you’d expect in a more experienced writer, ignores the implausibility entirely and cranks up the speed of the plot. Within two episodes the anonymous followers of Cornelius are all dead anyway, and eight pages later so is its leader. Like Terry’s earlier sudden lynching of a policeman, we’re given events with such breathless haste that it doesn’t occur to the reader to question them.

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Belief in the protagonist goes a long way, too. Despite Nigel not exactly being a likeable character, he’s our guy. We need him to get out of this okay. A spotty, lank-haired, Christian-baiting perv, he’s the authentic article. I wasn’t him, even when I was younger than him and had similar hair and could conceivably have aspired to be. But it wasn’t hard to understand him, and the bad decisions he made while intoxicated with teenage freedom that trapped him in a nightmare. Again, the pacing is great; we get a big chunk of Nigel at the beginning to establish him in our minds, a sublime slice of the total wank his life has become in the middle and an idea of how it’s changing him, then we’re back with him for the thousand-yard stare of the conclusion. The story may be silly, but Nigel’s journey isn’t.

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I don’t often agree with Grant Morrison’s public pronouncements these days, with our main disagreement is that he thinks he still writes comics worth reading and I don’t, but he’s spot on in the introduction: “It must be kept in mind that True Faith is Garth Ennis’s second published story and I’m entirely astonished that a twenty year old writer could arrive upon the comics scene with such a distinct voice and confident grasp of his material. Most writers have the decency to spend at least one or two years imitating their favourite role models. Not so Mr Smartypants Ennis who… introduces and develops his own personal themes and characteristic imagery. Without having to work his way up via brain frazzling five page science fiction stories or realistically gritty superhero adventures, he has planted his flags, drawn his lines and staked out a territory uniquely his own.”

A number of Garth Ennis trademarks, the territory that’s his own, appear here for the first time. Gratuitous violence. A knee-jerk anti-Christianity. A love of old jokes; indeed, most of the plot could be based on the joke that concludes “Your wife’s dead and the baby’s a spastic.” The guns, and the fascination with the elite security services. The unquestioned assumption that government is lackadaisically corrupt. The toilet humour.

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But what’s always made Ennis worth reading is the journey. The character arcs. Preacher began with the cardboard character of Cassidy, the hard-drinking Irish vampire, and turned him into an exhausted, weak monster longing for death or redemption. The Punisher’s MAX series explained the vigilante to himself, made it plain that he’d become his own punishment. Hitman, among all the arsenals up arses and Dogwelder, admitted that those who live by the bullet want to die by it.

Nigel’s journey is a religious one. He is taken from a state of innocence to a fervent belief by Terry, then that belief is taken away. The key chapter of the whole story is the eighth, The Fall, which follows Nigel through his day, going to school with the secret of his belief held to him but his faith making him strong enough to smash a bully’s head with a cricket bat. The power of what’s happening to him, the transgressions of his hidden life as a suburban terrorist, has changed him. His religion, warped parody that it is, has done what religion historically does.

The final chapter tells us that God is dogshit. By now, that’s almost irrelevant. This was never about Christianity; it was about religions, about where they come from and what they do. Nigel has had his own revelation, seen his own truth, and is making his own challenge to authority. A dead PE teacher, though really it could have been anyone, and then he walks calmly out to the playground to await his martyrdom. I imagine him shooting it out with the police and being killed. Maybe he kills himself. Maybe he ends up arrested and imprisoned, though that seems least likely. The discovery of faith and of truth, of what’s hidden behind the veil of life, of the luminous power inside us all, has left nothing of Nigel Gibson. He is transfigured, made new, made whole. He was bound to be, sooner or later.

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True Faith by Garth Ennis and Warren Pleece appeared in Crisis #29-34 and #36-38, and has been reprinted in trade paperbacks by Fleetway and Vertigo. It is currently out of print. 

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  1. […] Third World War, New Statesmen, Skin, Dare the Future, Rogan Gosh, The New Adventures of Hitler, True Faith, even Straitgate. Given its longevity and the measure of its influence I would’ve expected […]



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