If there’s one thing that’s universally consistent across Garth Ennis’ work – aside from gratuitous head wounds, masculine concepts of loyalty and frequent exploration of Irish identity – it’s his strength of characterisation. A combination of his knack for dialogue and dialect, and a persistent desire to make sure that even the smallest incidental character has some measure of depth and a hook with which to engage the reader’s interest, means that almost every major work or run to which he’s turned his hand has featured a memorable and fascinating supporting cast.
With that in mind, it’s something of a difficult task to pick a list of ten of his best creations, but we’ve only gone and had a go anyway. So here are our favourites from the likes of Hellblazer, Preacher, The Boys and Hitman…
The circle of friends that Ennis gave John Constantine didn’t actually get huge amounts of page time during his Hellblazer run, but they were each so well-defined that it felt like they’d been around for a lot longer. Header, while a more obvious attention-grabber, was a relentless Ennis stereotype, but Rick was that bit more fun – and plenty more likeable. A practicing vicar with a firm, unshakeable belief in God – and yet little to no tolerance for all the bullshit and hypocrisy of organised religion – he’s the kind of priest that, if they were all like him, would make people like Ennis have far less of a problem with the church. His end, in which he makes a (literally and figuratively) fatal error of judgement when confronted by the First, was perhaps the most painfully tragic of the lot.
Here’s a funny thing about The Boys: not once (unless I’m badly misremembering) do the “supes” involved in the series ever actually fight any supervillains. The series is entirely about how corrupt all these ridiculously-powerful people are, but they’re all people who would consider themselves to be heroes. It’s not actually until the final arc of the series that an honest-to-goodness supervillain comes along with a plan to wipe them all out: and that supervillain just happens to be the lead character’s best mate. Billy is very rarely a likeable character, but you can always see why Hughie sets so much stock by him – and there’s a fascinating internal argument raging inside him that ultimately culminates in his decision to let himself become the bad guy he thinks the world needs.
Other readers might have placed Tulip higher in this list – I still find it difficult to look past her status as a “Gosh isn’t she amazing can’t all women be like this eh?” kind of figure. Yes, it is kind of awesome that she drinks and swears and shoots things, but it’s also kind of easy to make people like a character by having them do all that. Tulip’s best moments tend to be when she actually cuts through the machismo bullshit, and it’s the extensive flashbacks in the “All Hell’s A-Coming” issues that give her some welcome depth.
A character so good Ennis used her twice. In truth, the version from Hitman – originally little more than a Dana Scully pastiche in the “Local Hero” arc until the writer decided to bring her back as a proper character for the final storyline – didn’t really get much in the way of development. She was pretty badass, but cut little more than an “idealised smart gun-toting woman” figure – not to mention suffering from being Tommy’s new love interest when most readers probably still wanted to see him with Tiegel. But when a very similar character (Ennis has never confirmed that they’re supposed to be the same, but… come on) showed up in his Punisher run with a new surname and an extended backstory, she became significantly more excellent. A lot more damaged, often difficult to trust, and someone able to fulfil the rarely-successful function of being a direct foil for Frank Castle.
The fact that Jesse Custer is probably the weakest character in Preacher does at least have the positive side-effect of allowing Ennis’ amazing cast of supporting characters to shine. If John Custer were the lead for the whole series, however, you suspect some of them would struggle a bit to assert themselves. He’s just so much more damned likeable than his son – perhaps deliberately, as he needs to be that bit more of an idealised father figure – but in the two issues that specifically focus on his time in Vietnam, his flaws are shown alongside his moral courage. Perhaps it’s for the best that his appearances are limited, however – they leave us wanting to see more of him, adding to his mythical status in both ours and Jesse’s eyes.
Ringo manages to live quietly in the background throughout much of the first half of Hitman – ice-cold and quiet, never really revealing much of his character (beyond the obvious influence of Chow Yun-fat). Then, though, comes the “For Tomorrow” arc – possibly my favourite Hitman story – in which we suddenly learn so much more about his background, giving him not only a much stronger personality, but some jarring parallels with Tommy. Their relationship is one of the more fascinating elements of the series, and it’s only a shame that events mean we don’t get to explore it for very long.
“Cassidy came onna boat from Ireland ’bout a hunnerd yeaz ago, useta drink inna place here with Mick McCann anna crew. Cassidy the fuckin’ crazy man, awayz lookit me, lookit me… Cassidy can’t go out inna sun. Funny thing ’bout Cassidy. All ya ever gotta say’s the bastard’s name. He tol’ ya a buncha stuff ’bout himself an’ then ya found out whadda sonuvabitch he is, an’ now ya wanna know the truth. Right?”
“That’s Cassidy. That’s his fuckin’ trick. What you gonna do to him ya ever see him again?”
“Hehh! That’s his other fuckin’ trick. Gets ya to fuckin’ love him an’ then stabz ya inna back. Love him so much ya don’t believe he did it. Blood all over ya, big fuckin’ knife in ya back, an’ ya don’t believe he did it.”
It’s not easy to bring in a significant love-interest for John Constantine – and not only have them survive their relationship with him, but go on to star in an almost entirely unconnected one-shot of their own. Vertigo took the unusual step of letting Ennis and Steve Dillon publish the Heartland special, which gave some measure of emotional closure to Kit’s story (at least, the part of it that related to John), having previously let her strike out on her own after Hellblazer #70 (also, confusingly, titled “Heartland”). Aside from being a likeable, yet take-no-shit, character in her own right, Kit also allowed Ennis arguably his best opportunity to explore his ideas about his own Northern Irish identity.
A stupendously good villain, Starr manages at times to be Preacher‘s most terrifying character, and at others its most hilarious. Introduced initially as a purely cold-hearted antagonist, perhaps the scariest thing about Starr is that on occasion, we’re invited to sympathise with him: whether that’s because he’s usually surrounded by incompetents and fuckwits, or because he’s busy having all manner of indignities inflicted upon his person. There’s also something slightly to be relished in the way he will simply and frankly say the kind of things most people would, for diplomacy’s sake, keep to themselves.
On the other hand, he really is an absolute motherfucker.
If many of Ennis’ other series struggle with the fact that their supporting characters are more interesting than their leads, Hitman is the one where he firmly gets it right. Tommy is pretty much the archetypal Ennis character, fusing together everything the writer likes to do elsewhere: a loveable rogue, a killer who nevertheless has a strong moral heart, part-Irish, treats women well but more than anything else is concerned with male friendship, ex-military, smart-arsed… the list goes on. But he manages to rise above simply becoming a checklist of characteristics, carrying the reader along on a wave of good humour and bad decisions, to the point where we really do end up caring a hell of a lot about the stupid bastard. And while his pep talk to Superman might be one of many examples of Ennis simply talking through his characters, Tommy is the one who most convincingly carries his author’s voice.
Narrowly missing the list: Featherstone and Hoover (Preacher), Danny Wormwood (Chronicles of Wormwood), Sixpack (Hitman), Ellie (Hellblazer), Barracuda (Punisher), Tiegel (Hitman), Anna Kharkova (Battlefields).