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Hasta la vicar

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Nick Hasted, The Guardian, 23 July 1998

Hasta la vicarEdit

Garth Ennis is a nice boy from Belfast. So how did he come up with the demonic creations that are taking America by storm? He talks to Nick Hasted

The clamp on most writers' minds, the thing that stops them going too far, must have fallen off Garth Ennis at birth. The opening page of Preacher, the monthly comic book that has made his name, contains a joke that would make Gerry Sadowitz blush. What follows would make the cultural commentators who've let Irvine Welsh and South Park through chattering-class customs draw a line in the sand and say, 'No more.' The comic's plot is simple enough. An ex-preacher called Jesse Custer, raised on the values of John Wayne westerns, is on a hunt for God, who's abandoned his flock for the pleasures of a San Francisco bath-house. He's assisted by Cassidy, an alcoholic Irish vampire, and Tulip, his gun-toting lover. The story's startling spark is in its details.

Preacher may be the most foul-mouthed, blasphemous piece of writing in popular fiction. Almost none of its best dialogue would sit happily in a national newspaper. Its supporting players include a redneck so sex-crazed he humps a child's birthday cake, and Arseface, named for the way he looks since taking a shotgun to his face a la Kurt Cobain. Its violence is so extreme that heads minus jawbones are a casual motif.

But that's not why Preacher has become a publishing phenomenon, selling 100,000 copies a month to America's notoriously conservative comic-readers. Nor is that why Clerks and Chasing Amy director Kevin Smith learnt everything he could from its dialogue, citing Ennis above any screenwriter. 'It's like watching an alligator eat a pig,' another fan, the iconoclastic Texan writer Joe R Lansdale, observes. `It touches on a base level. It's not a learning experience, but it's a thinking experience. There ain't two just like it.' Garth Ennis is an improbably quiet 28-year-old, born in a Belfast suburb, and raised, like Jesse, on John Wayne westerns, as well as the black humour of comics like 2000 AD. It's clear that, to him, his world-view is ordinary. Violence and humour and sex and conversation that others would consider unpublishable sit naturally next to each other in his comics, the products of an uncensored mind. Politically correct crutches aren't available to his characters. They find their values from rawer material.

His dialogue is exceptional. As the reader of an early strip complained, his humour is like 'drunks at the back bar of Lavery's bar'. But Ennis captures pub talk at a continual peak, a flow of rhythmic, obscene wit that real drunks only think they've hit. Then there's the quieter talk, conversations between friends and lovers. It's here that the morality that underlies Preacher's carnage is to be found - The Texas Chainsaw Massacre ambushed by True Grit.

Like the late, legendary comedian Bill Hicks, what some call obscene is fuelled by values of old-fashioned purity. But where Hicks at heart believed in God, Ennis prefers John Wayne. God, Jesse Custer notes, is `just another sonofabitch'. Preacher makes the Lord a shallow, shifty hedonist, the Messiah's closest descendant a drooling in-bred, and his Pope-like protector a balloon-shaped, bulimic sadist. Ennis views the very sight of churches with suspicion. It's typical that in his second published strip, True Faith, he had a character burn them down.

'Absolutely,' he sniggers, unrepentant. 'Church-burning isn't something I came up with, anyway. In Northern Ireland, it's a recognised way of expressing one's contempt for one's enemy's sect. That's what angers me, that there are people prepared to use religion, an organised fear of the dark, to justify their petty viciousness. Nothing against people having faith. It's the abuse of faith that interests me.' Preacher comfortably slips from such dismissals of theology to the slitting of throats, from emotional intimacy to exploding heads. It's a narrative that tramples boundaries. What holds it together is its sense of decency, its desire for the values Ennis learned from John Wayne as a child. It also aches with a love of America. Ennis has travelled across the country, absorbed its icons. Like Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven (another influence on Preacher), he coats its myths with understanding of their tawdry base, sophisticates them. But in the end, he believes them, too. Try to draw those ties tight, though, and Ennis pulls away.

`I don't live my life by John Wayne's rules,' he insists. `I'd be insane to do so. What I take from the heroes John Wayne played are values which I see as good, which I apply to my fiction. I test my moral principles with a character like Jesse, who really does try to live his life according to the morality he's seen John Wayne's characters display. But then, his world is like the world of those films. Reality twists to favour him.' It's not just Jesse, though. Ennis shows straight-arrow sympathies in other work. He watched A Bridge Too Far before he saw Easy Rider. Isn't there something in such films he does believe in? 'A loyalty to the people who rely on you, and a sense of responsibility, are what's important,' he sighs, relenting. 'Those are qualities I'd apply to a hero.' Does it describe people he knows? 'I don't know that I've met a lot of people like that. I don't know that I've met many people that made a great point of it, you know?' Most of my friends, we all know that we can rely on each other. We don't necessarily say it. It's a code... not even a code, because once you start applying these words you're in so many traps. It's more a way of behaving which one thinks of as good and which one tries to live up to. An idea of honour, of doing what's right. Beyond that, I don't see much point in casting these ideas in stone.' Ennis is mild and easygoing as he talks, a nice suburban boy. It's hard to see where the floods of extreme prose come from. 'When you see Preacher, and it's full of chicken-fucking and extreme violence and people's faces getting blown off and the Christ-child wandering around as a drooling weirdo and a fat Pope falling out of a helicopter, then it has to be different {from real life},' he says. 'One of the most important aspects of writing fiction is being able to tell it from reality. I've never had that particular problem. I can see, I suppose, why people will read Preacher and expect me to be a lunatic. But surely a moment's thought will show them that it's fiction, that it couldn't be anything else.'

Preacher is up to its 38th issue now, half-way through the story Ennis plans to tell. Its surface is so routinely blasphemous that in a medium more inspected than comics, it would have been banned long ago. In America, the attentions of real preachers might yet destroy it. Ennis hates such figures so much - does he want to provoke them? `The idea appeals to me very much. However, because of Preacher's serial nature, I would like to get the thing finished before they start pointing the finger. You get the feeling it's only running because they haven't noticed, and I want to get the other 30 issues out before they do. Once it's finished, it doesn't matter - I win. I would like to change minds with Preacher. That would mean it had done some good. Some people would say I'd be doing bad. But I don't really care what those people think.'

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