A farrago of gutter talk and filth
Rereading For A Few Troubles More by Garth Ennis and John McCrea.
A friend with an iPad, who wants to read comics on a gadget ideally suited to it, asked me for recommendations. And I, who’ve been reading comics my entire life, who has shelves and boxes of them, who writes a blog about them, found myself stumped.
He’s not a big reader, this friend. He’s big on movies and TV instead. He likes stuff that’s being smart in traditional dumb genres, like Anchorman or Cabin in the Woods or Inception. The films we watched together this year were Avengers and Dark Knight, and we intended to go to Looper and Prometheus. So big, exciting, action-packed comics dealing with fantastic subjects with wit and unexpected intelligence would be his thing. Superheroes not a problem, and I’m aware he’d prefer Marvel. But nothing that requires any knowledge of continuity. He neither knows nor cares who the Watcher is and would probably find him silly.
And it’s then, wearing his eyes, I look at the comics on my shelves and find them wanting. The superhero comics are too frequently about themselves, curving around themselves and recycling elements from their own continuity. And the adult stuff, the graphic novels that do so well at being the future of comics, are too literary for him. They don’t have the action that he wants to enjoy. He wouldn’t watch American Splendor the movie, so why would he want to read the comic book?
Who does that leave? Alan Moore writes either literary comics or comics which are about comics, and often both, so he’s mostly out. Grant Morrison writes comics about comics pretty much exclusively. Frank Miller’s done stuff that works, but the best of it – Sin City, 300 – has been filmed, and if you’ve seen the film why bother reading the book? Neil Gaiman’s overly cute, and if you’re not recommending Sandman there’s scant else but 1402. No, to my chagrin, I found myself recommending the blood- and testosterone-soaked work of those eternal teenagers, those unrepentant reprobates, those Crisis debutants Mark Millar and Garth Ennis.
Sometimes what’s good for a medium isn’t what its high-minded proponents, which include myself, want to see. Sometimes you need big guns, lots of gore, hot chicks and musclebound men to get the punters through the door before you slowly turn them on to the good stuff. Or toilet humour. Why, if you’ve got a few good nob gags then you can persuade blokes to read religious epics which conclude that what a man’s gotta do is bullshit and he should have paid more attention to the feminist theory he read, which is what Ennis did with Preacher.
In Ennis’s previous work he’d shown he could do boy stuff; indeed, that he wasn’t completely comfortable with female characters. Liz in Troubled Souls is a cipher only given life by McCrea’s art, and Angela in True Faith is only an object of desire and a witness. (Nigel’s sister Ruth has the same personality as the sister of Viz’s Roger Irrelevant.) In For A Few Troubles More women are almost completely absent, except as the threat of the Other. It’s all about the lads. And over 48 pages the lads do nothing but fuck about; brew moonshine, fail to look after a snake, play jokes with laxative and nudity, get into fights and run away from fights. Suggested for Mature Readers? This shit barely met the standards of a discerning immature reader. The plot, apart from the fixed point of Dougie’s wedding, staggers drunkenly and never met an old joke it didn’t like. All those aspects of Ennis’s work that have annoyed the serious-minded over the years began here. This is the writer who can’t have enough scenes of blokes talking bollocks to each other in pubs, who’s willing to indulge in absurdly lengthy set-ups for weak jokes, who brought traditional British toilet humour to the Americans.
Supposedly a sequel to Troubled Souls, it mentions the troubled Tom but twice. His angst is abandoned for a pair of Belfast Likely Lads getting into scrapes. How is it, 23 years later? Well, you get through it painlessly enough. There were no LOL moments but a couple of subvocalise chuckles. It’s crap, but it’s crap that knows it’s crap. It’s also, to my knowledge, the first time anything like this had appeared outside of the underground. Epic cases of the squits and snakes in trousers and toilet bowl distilleries were the stuff of the Freak Brothers on a bad taste day, and here they were done in slick colour with a Dark Knight parody thrown into the final chapter. The filthy phrases of the moment get an outing, as does the urban apocrypha of murder by stirring tea with a match popular in the 90s. In a comics landscape concerned with being serious and being taken seriously, Ennis and McCrea let rip with a loud fart and can’t stop giggling.
Ennis took the sensibility of Troubles into his later work; the drinkers in Hellblazer, the scatological laughs of Preacher. Even the Punisher’s bleak run had that edge to it, that knowledge that there’s always a cheap laugh to be had. The Boys, his latest epic, has more of the same. And even the characters survive. Thanks to an ownership deal which required Ennis to write a Judge Dredd epic in return for these characters, it’s the only strip from Crisis which has an afterlife. Dougie and Ivor have gone on to appear in Dicks, and Dicks 2. Of all the good stuff printed in a magazine which positioned itself at the spearhead of the graphic novel revolution, these two are the last ones standing.
Sometimes you can be artistically groundbreaking without trying to be or wanting to be. For A Few Troubles More wasn’t examining a troubled political situation or pushing back the vocabulary of the medium or subverting the readers expectations of familiar tropes. It was a stupid story about a pair of dickheads arsing around Belfast making twats of themselves. Maybe comics need more of that kind of thing.
For A Few Troubles More by Garth Ennis and John McCrea appeared in Crisis #40-#43 and #45, was reprinted in the trade paperback For A Few Troubles More, and is currently out of print.