Friday, 1 June 2012

Books: 303


Written by Garth Ennis
Art by Jacen Burrows

Available now from Islington Libraries
You can reserve this item for free here:

Garth Ennis - when he started out - was a bit of a joke.

I mean - (wait. Back up): I mean - he wasn't really someone whose writing people took that seriously - more a court jester type than a big proper serious "writer" (the kind of person - well - guy (it's always a guy) who smokes a pipe and furrows his brow and wears a jacket with patches on the elbows and only has his photo taken in black and white). His big breakthrough hit was Preacher (still the thing that most people seem to know him for) and although that it had a contemplative side (Jesse and Cassidy standing on top of the Empire State Building springs to mind) the things that lingered was the gross-out humour, juvenile delinquency and - well - the fact that one of the main supporting characters was a guy called "Arseface." Not the type of guy you want to let into the "Serious Writers" club then (because if you did - there's always a chance that he might take a dump on the floor because - hey - jokes and stuff - and nobody wants poos on the floor thank you very much).

But then - something happened - slowly, very slowly - Ennis started to mature and grow and evolve into comics version of - erm -who's a famous war novelist? (sorry war novels aren't really my strong point) - I'm thinking someone way more high brow than Andy McNab and more hard-bitten than Ernest Hemingway (lots of loving descriptions of guns and stuff like that): maybe I'm thinking of Sven Hassel? [1] I'm not that great on the chronology of when his stuff came out (one of the downsides of only knowing the books from the collections): but I guess it was around the time he started doing The Punisher MAX series (which is great and which you should seek out) and War Stories (also top banana) that it was first apparent that - hey - this is good stuff: all the childishness had kinda faded away and all that was left was the steel: the typcially male fasination with the military, the effects of violence and honour (that's very important apparently).  

303 [2] is all of that sort of stuff distilled into purest form and served neat. Best example of that: The title isn't a character name - it's the name of the gun that the main character carries. And I guess so that you know that this book means business. 

Teaming up with artist Jacen Burrows (who went on to work with Ennis on the mighty (altho often misunderstood) zombie epic Crossed) 303 opens up in Afghanistan during the heights of the War on Terror (wait - is that still a thing?) and manages to mix high-tension explosive gun fights with ruminations on how there's no good wars anymore and everything in the past was better and have you seen the price of cup of tea? (Oops - sorry Garth - it's actually kinda effective when you read it - it just sounds a little bit silly when you try and talk about it). I like the artist Burrows has turned into - but his stuff here is a little bit plump compared to the hard-edged thing it eventually turned into - and the computer generated colouring makes everything look a little bit too shiny - but once the story settled in - I kinda forgot all about it as I got jolted and chucked around by all the twists and turns.

I guess that some people might deride it for being a touch simplistic - but I think that would be missing the point: although it does seem slight - it covers a lot of ground - and isn't timid when it comes to edging ever so slightly into the poetic and making big points about stuffs. It's almost like some sort of strange modern fable - although good luck trying to condense it all down into one pithy maxim ("war is bad" maybe?)

If you're a fan of Ennis from way back - but haven't picked him up in a while because you thought you'd outgrown him - then I would recommend you giving this book a shot - because - you know what? - he's grown too - and he ain't a joke no more.

[1] Hello wikipedia! "Hassel's view of war is brutal. In his books, soldiers fight only to survive, the Geneva Convention being a dead letter to all sides. People are killed by chance or with very little reason. Occasional pleasant events and peaceful meetings are brutally cut short. Unsympathetic Prussian officers constantly threaten their men with courts-martial and execute them with little provocation. Disgruntled soldiers occasionally kill their own officers to get rid of them. By graphically portraying war as violent and hopeless in such manner, Sven Hassel's books have been said to contain an anti-war message. His first book Legion of the Damned has been compared to a much grislier, darker more terrifying version of Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front." Book titles include (I love these): Wheels Of Terror, Reign of Hell, Blitzfreeze and (my personal favourite) The Bloody Road to Death: so yeah - that sounds about right. (And if you google "Garth Ennis" and "Sven Hassel" together you get this Newsarama interview that he did for his Battlefields series that include this line from Mr Ennis himself: "I read a lot of fiction. The genre of military fiction, particularly WWII fiction is one that’s almost passed from the earth. You do get the occasional novel coming out. When I was growing up again the seventies and early eighties there were a slew of paperbacks in any book store, the fiction section would have tons of material by, there were writers like Gunther Lutz and Sven Hassel and David Williams and they would be -- they were pulp fiction, but they were tremendously enjoyable too. Nowadays you just don’t get that, uh, so there’s one writer I would mention... a guy called Derek Robinson who’s written some absolutely tremendous books, I have to say if you think my humor’s black .you should try this guy. He wrote books called Goshawk Squadron, Piece of Cake, A Good Clean Fight... mostly deals with the war in the air and a great debunker of myths, but tremendously entertaining, quite violent, very funny, brilliant characters -- so he’s someone I would recommend to any fans of that kind of fiction."

[2] I'm going to admit now that it's no coincidence that I've selected this book as my 303th book post. Yes - I am that easily amused. And yes - I wish that I had held off writing about that Frank Miller book with that stuff about Sparta - but hey - you live and learn. (I did write about Ex Machina for my 100th post which tickled me - so whatever): let's move on.

Links: Comic Book Resources Interview with Garth Ennis.

Further reading: RedThe ShadowCrossed, War Stories, Battlefields, The Punisher: The Punisher MAX.

Profiles: Garth Ennis.

All comments welcome.


Tam said...

One author who's a huge influence on Ennis (and in particular 303 and the Punisher Max stuff) is the thriller writer Stephen Hunter. Hunter's politics have been getting steadily more obnoxious and Pro-republican/ anti Democrat over the years, (his latest novel opened with a gleeful assassination of Jane Fonda and other liberal chums) but he writes about guns well enough to make them interesting to even someone like me and structures his plots brilliantly so they're compulsive page turners. Oddly almost no one seems aware how similar they are; I guess there's not much crossover between airport thriller readers and mature comic book readers, but I'd really recommend 'Black Light', 'Dirty White Boys' or 'Time to Hunt' if you like Ennis' more testosteroney stuff.

Islington Comic Forum said...


Do you know if Ennis has ever copped to being a fan? Or is it more than the styles are just so similar?

Am tempted to try him out just based on your description of "his latest novel opened with a gleeful assassination of Jane Fonda and other liberal chums" (Jane Fonda??! wow - how topical) - but have just started on Book 1 of the Dark Tower so gonna have to get thru that first........... (which might take a while).