Tuesday, March 22, 2011

FYC replay: Garth Ennis's 303

Another one of my Pulse columns for the archives, in which I had the chance to interview Garth Ennis and Jacen Burrows about their brilliant collaboration on 303 from Avatar Press. Other than Preacher, this may be my favorite Garth Ennis book. I regularly re-read it, and if you haven't checked it out, go and remedy that right now.

For Your Consideration: Garth Ennis’s 303
By Chris Beckett

The 411:
Written by Garth Ennis
Art by Jacen Burrows
144 pages, full color
Avatar Press

What It Is (with apologies to Dave the Thune):

A Russian Colonel, carrying the weight of history in his wake, leads a band of kids into the Afghan desert. They walk this godforsaken wasteland in search of the same objective as the British S.A.S. – who are in front of them – and the Americans – who are not far behind. A United States transport plane went down somewhere in the area and the American Government has clamped down on all communications regarding the aircraft. The Russians aren’t surprised at being left out of the loop, but the fact that the Americans rebuffed offers of assistance from their allies, the British, is a puzzle. And the subsequent dispatching of an S.A.S. squad adds yet another layer to the mystery of this downed plane.

An anachronism, the Russian Colonel is out of place in this new world, having been trained in a time when soldiers understood their mission and acted accordingly, exhibiting discipline and focused resolve. The children making up the military today, which includes those with stars on their shoulders, know nothing of what it means to be a soldier or to have honor. They think it’s all a game. In the Colonel’s opinion, the bulk of those enlisted in the Russian army wouldn’t pass muster with the memories of fallen comrades and fallen enemies that haunt him nightly. Unwilling to indulge his men’s sense of entitlement, he snaps off difficult decisions with no hesitation, demanding the respect of his men despite their unmerited bravado that elicits snide remarks behind his back. But none of them can hold a candle to the man he is, and more likely than not, none of them will survive the desert unless they first listen to him.

A career soldier able to think like his enemy and react in an unconventional manner, he exudes a sense of the heroic walking among the barren rocks of Afghanistan with his short magazine Lee-Enfield Three-Oh-Three caliber rifle, which says as much about the man as anything else. Having no time for fools, the Colonel does what he can to keep his men alive, quickly upbraiding the brash youths unable to keep their spacing while also taking time to discuss strategy with the only one among them exhibiting officer qualities. Fair and uncompromising, the Colonel is a man capable of doing things with an ancient rifle that others find difficult to achieve using the latest technological advancements in military equipment. Living by a code of honor he has carved out through conflicts over the years, the Colonel is one that can lead men out of places into which they would not typically dare to tread.

The cat and mouse game in the Afghan desert is an intricate chess match, and the Russian Colonel plays it as well as any. Having studied his foes for decades, he brings his ragtag group to the downed plane, but the confrontation they stumble into ends in a bloody horror with soldiers from three of the most powerful countries in the world fighting for some scraps of paper. Despite the carnage, this is not an ending for the Colonel but the beginning of one final quest that will take him thousands of miles to the west where he will confront his destiny, a destiny that has been awaiting him for years.

Garth Ennis is best-known for his ground-breaking VertigoPreacher, which he created with the able assistance of artist Steve Dillon. Since then, Ennis has created a number of new comics, including his work at Marvel Comics revamping the Punisher for a new generation. Though this has been his most high-profile work since Preacher, Ennis has also been creating a number of other comics outside of the mainstream, including The Boys, John Woo’s Seven Brothers, and 303. This latter book is easily one of the most powerful stories I have read in the past year.

Ennis is known for his over-the-top characters and premises (Arseface? The Pro?), and fans who have come to expect the brutal honesty exhibited within his writing will not be disappointed with 303. Ennis writes a scalding tale that is at once a history lesson and a statement on where the world stands today thanks to the proactive military action taken by the United States. With this work, Ennis lays open the wounds of the twenty-first century and does so in a manner that is not only provocative and entertaining but also forces readers to think.

Even with the brutality and penchant for grotesquely black humor that have become Ennis trademarks, he never forgets to inject his stories with humanity, nimbly achieving a precarious balance between making his audience care and leaving them properly disgusted, while making it all look effortless. It would be a simple thing to allow this Russian Colonel, and all the prejudiced baggage within the western market that entails, to be a simple two-dimensional character. The Colonel’s choice to leave a wounded member of his squad behind so the rest of them are not hampered or the cold manner with which he discharges his rifle are actions beyond the scope of most readers picking up this book and could easily distance Ennis’s audience. But within the conversations and inner dialogues of this character, as well as an unexpected detour in the middle of the narrative, Ennis manages to create a three-dimensional person with feelings – though they may be buried deep – to whom people can relate. It is a masterful bit of writing, and this humanity of a soulless creature of war elevates 303 above a vast majority of books on the shelves today.

Ably facilitating Ennis’s vision is artist Jacen Burrows who adds to his impressive body of work at Avatar with 303. His art continues to improve with each project, which is saying quite a bit since he entered the medium a number of years ago with a clean style and storytelling sense far beyond many of his peers. His is an amazingly refined style that is as appealing to the eye as the art in any comic today, but he is also able to fling gore with the best of them, and it is obvious Burrows revels in letting loose when Ennis asks him to portray a body atomized by a claymore while also evoking the vast desolation of the Afghan desert wonderfully with his clean, artful linework. It is easy to see why Burrows is afforded the opportunity to work with such noted authors as Alan Moore, Garth Ennis, and Warren Ellis. He is one of the top artists working in the medium today.

When I first read 303 months ago, I was completely blown away by it. I am an avid reader of both comics and prose and was profoundly affected by this book in a manner I had not been for quite some time. In re-reading it for this column, I found it lost none of its power, and in fact, I picked up more than I had in that initial reading. In 303, one is able to experience that rare opportunity of writer and artist meshing so well that the final result is something that will stand the test of time. A book that will entertain you, shock you, tug at your emotions, and – most importantly – make you think, 303 gets my highest recommendation.

An Interview with Garth Ennis and Jacen Burrows:

CHRIS BECKETT: What was it that initially attracted you to comics as a storytelling medium, and what is it that has sustained you as a creator through the years?

Garth Ennis: I was losing interest in comics in the late 80s; all I was reading was British anthology 2000AD, which at that point had started a steady decline. Then I discovered Alan Moore's work for DC, which led me to people like Frank Miller, Paul Chadwick, Peter Bagge etc. I saw these guys doing work that adults could enjoy, and that convinced me that comics could tackle any subject- that they were, in effect, the equal of any other medium. I've never had any cause to doubt that conclusion.

BECKETT: How was the look of the Russian Colonel developed? Did it come to you complete from Garth or was it more collaborative?

Jacen Burrows: He was pretty well described in the script. We did a few rounds of sketches but I could see him in my head pretty early on. Still, he kind of evolved through the book along with my own style. I learned a lot during that project about how I wanted my stuff to look and he became more realistic as the series went on. Before I started the book I did a lot of research about the Spetsnaz and I kept coming across pictures of these tough-as-iron Soviet soldiers. It wasn't hard to get a mental picture of the kind of man Garth described after seeing those guys.

BECKETT: I’m intrigued by the process of creating comics, and it’s interesting to note that with the old 4-color process, shading to achieve a 3-dimensionsal look for the images was achieved with cross-hatching, but with 303, and most books today, that same effect is often achieved through the digital coloring process. I am curious how much input you have with this aspect of the books you work on?

Burrows: I tend to write up notes for the colorist as I draw. Sometimes I'll have suggestions for palettes or lighting. Sometimes I'll suggest effects. I try to give a lot of thought to how color might play a role in certain scenes but ultimately I just let them do their thing. I do think an artist in today's industry needs to be involved in all aspects of how the image will ultimately look if you are going to push your work further. It is like a Director having a good relationship with his Director of Photography (cinematographer). They are going to be able to create a stronger, unified style if they are on the same page and the end result will be far more effective.

BECKETT: The best-known comic scripts would most likely be those of Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman, who are both famous for their intricate detail. How does Garth’s writing compare with these examples?

Burrows: I haven't seen a Gaiman script but I know Alan's work. Alan seems to have an exact visual in mind as he's working, down to the camera angles and composition. It really is like he's describing an already finished page to you while Garth's scripts have more of a succinct nature. Garth focuses on the most important element of a panel and lets you figure out the best way to sell it unless he has something specific in mind. It is easy to pick up the flow of a scene the way he paces it with the dialog and everything else is in service to that.

BECKETT: In 303, the section where the Russian Colonel is holed up in the desert really humanizes this character and elevates the entire story for me. I was curious as to the genesis of this section and the thought process that went into its development within the greater context of the story.

Ennis: I'm assuming you mean the sequence towards the start of part two, where he's stuck in the shack with a busted leg. That was part of a general change of direction for the story, a strong contrast to the first half which- set in Afghanistan- was a pretty straightforward war narrative. Moving the location and focusing on different characters gave me a chance to stop for a moment- to look at the Russian in greater detail, fill in some character background.

BECKETT: Garth Ennis would never be considered a “safe” writer and has certainly provoked criticism from conservative camps, which can sometimes be problematic for creators. I’m wondering to what you might attribute Ennis’s success in this field while, from all signs, refusing to compromise his unique vision?

Burrows: The bottom line is that there are enough cool readers out there that share or at least enjoy Garth's perspective to allow these projects to be successful. I think comic readers for the most part are open minded, intelligent and, thankfully, imbued with a sense of humor. With so much mainstream success, the big guys have to be very careful about not offending anyone in order to protect their trademarks and I think readers like having something a bit more extreme for variety and contrast. Stuff like 303, the Boys and Wormwood help keep a balance because we don't care if someone is offended. We have a story to tell.

BECKETT: With the anti-Bush stance that one can read into 303, have you experienced any backlash, and how have you handled that?

Ennis: None that I'm aware of.

BECKETT: Following up on that, do you, as a noteworthy creator, feel any obligation to include some sort of moral within your works, or should any lessons taken from the books you write be considered coincidental?

Ennis: I generally like what I write to be about something, although any obligation I feel would be to myself. That's not to say I don't still enjoy writing the occasional outright farce. As for lessons, that's a matter for the reader to decide on; I can't write stories and then explain their meaning separately.

BECKETT: What other projects, whether current publications or ones in the planning stages, can your fans look forward to seeing from you?

Ennis: More Punisher and Boys, monthly. A Hitman/JLA two-parter, featuring the "lost" Hitman story that I never had room for in the original book. Dan Dare for Virgin Comics, a revival of the classic British sci-fi character. The Phantom Eagle, a WW1 aviator story from Marvel, coming next year. And from Avatar, Streets Of Glory, a western with gorgeous art by Mike Wolfer.

Burrows: I am working on a new miniseries with Alan Moore [despite this interview being more than two years old, this miniseries is actually the recently published Neonomicon from Avatar, available at your LCS right now] that we're keeping a lid on for now. No sense getting people excited when it is still so far off, right? I would expect to start seeing promotion for it this Fall. All I'll say is that it is going to be big.

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