Gender issues don’t play well in comics. The most notorious example is Dave Sims’ Cerebus series, which, as soon the topic was raised, degenerated from a hilarious and inventive series into self-indulgent, misogynistic rants that quickly became unreadable. By contrast, though, Garth Ennis has not only been discussing gender issues repeatedly in his series, but doing so in with an artistry that makes what he has to say intelligent even if – as I do – you have reservations about his opinions.
This suggestion, I realize, requires some defense. Garth Ennis? The hard-swearing, raunchy, ultra-violent, hilarious Garth Ennis, who had to start his own publishing company to write the sort of things he wanted? And there is no denying that Ennis is fascinated by machismo and war, so much so that his treatment of super heroes almost always involves men trained in violence overcoming those with super powers.
Remember, though, that this is the same writer whose best-known work, Preacher, ends with the hero literally riding into the sunset with the love of his life – the same writer who gave loner John Constantine a major love interest in Kit Ryan, a tough, cynical woman from Belfast, and even managed to make their breakup poetic and sentimental.
If you focus on the scripts and ignore the often gratuitously sexist artwork, he is also the writer who manages believable portraits of strong women like Deborah Tiegel and Bloody Mary. Yes, there is a large degree of male wish-fulfillment in female characters like Tulip O’Hare or Annie January, but there is also an effort to give them their own inner lives and concerns in a way that few male writers of graphic novels have even attempted.
I have read much of Ennis’ work, but far from all of it. To say the least, he is prolific, and some of his work, such as his war stories, would only interest me because they were done by him. However, three of works stand out as places where gender roles play a major role.
Pride and Joy
The first is Pride and Joy, a relatively little-known series that fits into a single trade paperback. Pride and Joy tells the story of Jimmy Kavanagh, a petty criminal who goes straight because of his love for his wife. His wife dies, to Kavanagh’s frustration as much as his despair – cancer being something he cannot fight – leaving him to raise their daughter and son on stories of his own father’s exploits as a tailgunner in World War Two. These stories cause endless conflicts with his son, a quiet, more intellectual type than Kavanagh.
One of the most interesting scenes in the series shows him with his wife in the hospital. She asks if he remembers her reply when he assumed that he would be making the decisions in the marriage. With a wistful grin, he quotes from memory, “Like hell.” She replies:
That amazed look on your face . . . It was priceless. You were such a little boy. I gave you such a hard time about that stuff, that Being a man thing. I used to really hate it. My Mom and her Mom, they both lost their men to wars. Men off being men, chasing some ideal they’re meant to live up to. My Mom used to say, ‘All men can do is die and leave the women and children to suffer.’
Now, she is doing the same to him. Yet even in the stress of the moment, Kavanagh needs her reassurance that this is a case where he can cry.
Another key scene is his discussion with his son. While his son asserts that “we’ve got nothing in common,” Kavanagh expresses concern that his son needs to toughen up in order to survive. He remembers his father’s war stories, which Kavanagh’s wife condemned as “macho bullshit,” and for a moment father and son bond. “I guess that’s why she made sure you . . . . You saw a different side to things, maybe. But I still think your Grandad had a point.”
However, as they flee a killer from Kavanagh’s past, any fragile understanding is broken by Kavanagh’s admission that his accidental killing of a child has poisoned his life. His son considers the admission proof of the underlying hypocrisy of Kavanagh’s machismo.
The story ends with the issues unresolved. The son stands up to the killer long enough for Kavanagh to kill him, but as Kavanagh lies dying, it is him, not the son, who cries. As the authorities close in and ask whom he is kneeling over, his son fights to keep from crying – apparently remembering his father’s advice about how not to cry — and replies simply, “He’s my Dad.” Belatedly, the son has found some truth in his father’s philosophy, although there is no reason to believe he accepts it whole-heartedly.
The Boys is a twelve volume series about an off-the-books CIA team whose job is to keep super heroes in line. The series cynically assumes that super powers lead to corruption, and is full of thinly-veiled parodies of mainstream comics – for instance, the creator of the G-Men, and most of his original team, turn out to be child molesters. However, beyond the obvious critique of the traditional morality of comics, in many ways the story centers on Billy Butcher, the leader of The Boys, and Hugh “Wee Hughie” Campbell, the newest recruit.
Butcher and Wee Hughie each see the woman they love murdered by self-indulgent super heroes. However, as the son of an abusive father and as an ex-Marine who saw action in the Falklands War, Butcher’s response is to launch a decades-long campaign for revenge that ultimately leads to the attempted genocide of everyone with super powers in the world.
By contrast, Wee Hughie is “an ordinary bloke.” In that respect, he resembles Butcher’s deceased young brother. He learns to fight and kill, but, unlike Butcher, not to enjoy it. Hughie also resembles Butcher’s maternal grandfather, who lost an arm in World War Two, but refuses to dwell on those aspects of his life. Butcher is constantly trying to get Wee Hughie to accept the need for violence, but he also views him as someone who, like his younger brother, can potentially keep him from becoming a complete sociopath.
Wee Hughie’s back story is given in the eighth trade paperback of the series. Despite being an orphan, he turns out to have had an idyllic childhood, complete with adventures straight out of popular children’s literature – in fact, as the cover art makes clear, he has a childhood straight out of the British children’s annuals. However, a return to his childhood home ends in the death of one of his childhood friends. Innocence, clearly, is no option for him; violence can still affect him.
Butcher’s back story is given in the tenth trade paperback in the series. Like Kavanagh in Pride and Joy, Butcher was raised by a tough father. But where Kavanagh’s was simply macho and ultimately fell short of his own ideals, Butcher’s was outright abusive.
Uncomfortable in his growing resemblance to his father, Butcher is saved from becoming his clone by the love of his wife Becky. Trying to be worthy of her, he quits drinking, and learns to control his temper. Thanks to Becky, he also manages to get his mother to leave his father and free herself from abuse, a move that he considers the best thing he has ever done in his life.
Becky sets the limits in the relationship the first time they are in bed. She notices a scar, and as he launches into what is obviously an often-told tale, silences him with, “I don’t wanna hear war stories.” Later, as she runs a finger down his body, she muses, “All this strength. All this power. It has to be tempered. Men without women, Billy. It ain’t a good idea.”
As he lies dying at the end of the series, Butcher expands on her viewpoint: “All that macho shit, that gunfighter, Dirty Harry bollocks – it looks tasty, but in the end it’s fuckin’ self-defeatin’. It just leaves you with bodies in ditches an’ blokes with headfuls of broken glass. Men are only so much use, Hughie. Men are boys.”
Ennis does not spell out the message, but, considering the behavior of the super heroes in The Boys, it seems that men’s physical strength and social positions are just other forms of power that lead to corruption. The dying Butcher’s last advice to Wee Hughie is to return to his estranged lover. “Grab hold of her, Hughie,” Butcher advises. “Feel her strength inside yer own. An never, ever, ever let her go.”
In the closing pages, Wee Hughie takes this advice, and the series ends with a classic romantic happy ending at the end of all the destruction and political upheavals.
Preacher is generally considered Ennis’ major work to date. The main plot concerns Jesse Custer, a young Southern minister who becomes possessed by Genesis, a creature whose power causes God to flee from heaven. Angered by this literal abdication of responsibility, Jesse sets off with his girlfriend Tulip and a hard-living vampire named Cassidy to hold God to account.
However, the story is as much about Jesse’s self-discovery, in which gender roles play a major part. The dialog even includes references to feminist theory that are used as humor for those in the know – for instance, Jesse mentions that he much prefers reading Germaine Greer to “the Dworkin woman.”
Jesse is the ideal of a Southern Gentleman: Good-looking, polite, and slow to fight but more than able to hold his own once he does. In fact, he is so much the epitome of traditional male roles that he channels the spirit of John Wayne. Early in the series, he witnesses Tulip being killed. When she is resurrected by God in an effort to placate Jesse, he remains haunted by the fear of her dying again.
After a firefight in which Tulip’s shooting skills help them to survive, this discussion takes place:
TULIP: If I was another guy, you wouldn’t have given it a second’s thought. You’d just think, “He can handle himself. Cool.” but you can’t accept the fact that I can deal with this stuff, can you?
JESSE: Honey … What I been trynna tell you is, it ain’t what’s happened at one time or other that worries me. It’s the thought of what could happen to you. It scares the livin’ shit clean out of me.
TULIP: So no matter what you see me do, you’ll never believe I can take care of myself? Jesse, that just doesn’t make any sense.”
What makes this discussion work is the fact that both views have some validity. Tulip is proud of her competence, so her anger at the thought that it might be ignored is understandable. At the same time, while Jesse’s attitude is part machismo, it is also the natural concern for someone he loves.
Unable to overcome his fears, Jesse abandons her to rescue Cassidy. When he rejoins Tulip, she leaves him handcuffed to a bed for several hours in revenge. Later, they discuss what happens:
TULIP: You know what the worst thing about it was . . .? It reminded me of when I was eight and the boys wouldn’t let me play soldiers . . . . And when you dumped me in that motel and ran off on your big guy’s adventure, I felt just as dumb and useless and stupid as they made me feel all those years ago.
JESSE: Well . . . um . . . I ain’t trynna get off the subject her or anything like that, but I really got to ask . . . How come you wanted to play soldiers, instead like with dolls an’ stuffed toys an’ shit like that?
TULIP: Remind me why I have sex with you again?
. . . .
JESSE: I know, I know. I’m constantly reexaminin’ my approach to gender issues. But sometimes I slip up . . .
Despite the humor and Jesse’s best efforts to act differently, the problem remains. In the sixth trade paperback, they discuss it again:
TULIP: Nothing but demeaning, patronizing, sexist, macho crap
JESSE: Or badly phrased love.
TULIP: Can you think of a single reason why I shouldn’t kill you for trying a line like that?
Yet, as they start to make love, and, she murmurs, “Don’t ever change,” suggesting that, at some level, she responds to the machismo that she verbally condemns. While the limits of Jesse’s ethics anger her, his code of behavior is part of what makes him deeply attractive to her.
In the end, Jesse is unable to overcome his fears, and abandons her again as he goes into action. Waking after being drugged by Jesse, Tulip arms herself while muttering, “I’m going to kill him. I’m going to save his stupid fucking life for him – and then I’m going to kill him.”
For Tulip, this is the last betrayal. At the end of the series, when Jesse catches up with her at the bus depot, she asks him, “Do you think breaking your word doesn’t matter when it’s to a woman? Do you think honor is something that only counts between men?” Jesse starts to give his usual rationales, but even he is aware that he has gone too far. He breaks off with, “I ain’t got no defense.”
Chasing after her, he finally admits that their love is what matters most to him, and that “I do know that I have to change a little, if this macho bullshit you talked about is gonna keep getting’ in the way.” Unable to shed a tear ever since he watched his father’s murder, faced with losing Tulip, he finally manages to cry. “I guess I must be learnin’,” he says, and this sign of humanity gives Tulip and Jesse their last minute happy ending.
Yet as though to show that Ennis is not willing to completely abandon machismo, the last pages of the series show Cassidy waking, newly human again. He starts to put on his sunglasses, the symbol of his irresponsible lifestyle, then throws them away. “I think I’ll try actin’ like a man,” he tells himself. The macho code may be flawed, but it is still better than the amorality with which Cassidy lived as a vampire – if for no other reason than because it prohibits abusing women.
The Power of Ambiguity
I am not claiming that gender issues are all that Ennis’ work is about. But I do suggest that their importance have been overshadowed by more obvious aspects of his work, such as the critique of the comics tradition. No one who is not deeply interested in a subject would return to it as often as Ennis does gender issues.
Nor am I agreeing with Ennis’ positions. If nothing else, I can imagine few women who want to think that their role is as the redeemers and moral compasses for their lovers and spouses. Yet, despite everything, Ennis’ discussion of gender roles works in a way that Dave Sims’ does not, and is far less offensive.
The reason, I think, is that Ennis seems genuinely divided on the subject. On the one hand, he is obsessed with machismo, and of how manly men interact with each other. On the other hand, he also views machismo as ultimately childish, and needing to give way to a less violent maturity that can only be won through the love of wife and family. The places where machismo operates may be the places where he finds stories, but he also considers those who remain there too long as immature.
This unresolved dichotomy, I suspect, is what keeps Ennis from descending into polemic. Genuinely fascinated by all perspectives on gender – including women’s – he weaves his interest into the sub-plots rather than interrupting the action to lecture. You don’t have to agree with his perspectives to see that the result is the complexity of true art.