If there is one thing I can glean about Garth Ennis from his writing, it’s his platonic ideal of a man. Such a man is beholden to neither government nor religion, to no authority save himself, whose code of conduct is dictated solely by his conscience and whatever values he carries in his heart or mind or soul; such a man unwaveringly stays true to those values without compromise.
That is not to say that those platonic Ennisians are heroes. They can be either heroes or villains, good or evil, light or dark, but there is never any gray. Without a higher authority influencing decisions, and with consistent behavior based solely on the character’s sense of right or wrong, every protagonist is black or white. The only gray area is whether the reader decides that the character is hero or villain.
“Ancient History” is full of these characters. This trade contains one miniseries and two one-shots on supporting characters in the Preacher series – Preacher Special: The Saint of Killers #1-4, Preacher Special: The Story of You-Know-Who (it’s Arseface, if you didn’t know), and Preacher Special: The Good Old Boys (Jody and T.C.).
The Saint of Killers is the perfect embodiment of Ennis ideal of man. (One could argue that the Punisher is actually that perfect embodiment, but seeing as they’re virtually the same character save for the timeframe of their backstory, the Saint of Killers should probably get the nod since he’s an original Ennis creation and not a character he helped mold after it was created.) Personally, I think the Saint of Killers is a real bastard – for example, in the character’s first confrontation, he shoots an innocent man in cold blood, simply because the man asked him his business. To me, that’s leaning a little heavily on the villainous side of the scale. However, I know with certainty that there are people who would admire that behavior and believe whole-heartedly that a man’s business is no one’s but his own.
As I said, the parallels between the Saint of Killers and the Punisher are easy to find. A man comes home from a war, doesn’t really fit in with ordinary society, his family is killed by ne’er-do-wells, said man goes on a never-ending rampage against said ne’er-do-wells. The only big differences are that the Saint of Killers’ war was the Civil War, instead of Vietnam (or whatever the most modern war is for a Punisher retelling), and whereas the Punisher is mostly killing people on Earth (save for some weird stint in the 90’s where he was basically Marvel’s version of this exact Preacher character), the Saint is “killing” people, angels, demons, and deities.
That’s really all there is to tell about the Saint of Killers story. His Punisher-esque backstory happens in the first issue, then he dies, kills the devil, comes back, and starts killing everyone. Oh, and God orchestrated the whole thing, so, God’s a dick, apparently. (Another Ennisian theme Preacher tends to hammer home.)
Arseface, on the other hand, is not the Saint of Killers. He is the exact opposite. In the terms I used above, Arseface is not “a man.” He has no agency in his own life. He lets things happen to him instead of making things happen for himself. This seems a little unfair to a kid who is roughly 18 years old, but it’s how Ennis wrote the thing, so it’s how I have to judge it.
This issue gives us Arseface’s “origin story,” so to speak. He has an abusive, alcoholic father who only cares for himself, a depressed mother who is self-medicating with alcohol and religion, and only one real friend – who happens to have some serious anger issues and possible mental health problems and probably could use some counseling (as all the characters here probably could.)
Arseface gets beat up, both physically and emotionally, at every turn here. In the end, his friend commits suicide, Arseface decides to join him because “nobody cares,” but survives the attempt. When he wakes in the hospital, the only character who is kind to him in the whole story, his friend’s sister, berates him for his selfishness and tells him to grow up and be a man. He takes this message to heart which is why he’s seeking revenge for his father’s death in the current timeline.
I take major issue with this ending, but I’ll come back to it after the final one-shot. It’s really my own personal history that a reader might not care about, so I’ll save my soapbox for the very end.
Let’s move on to the Good Ol’ Boys: Jody and T.C. Where exactly do the fall on the “Arseface-to-Saint of Killers how-manly-is-he?” scale. Well, they’re closer to the Saint of Killers than Arseface. I’d score them maybe a 7.5 – they do pretty much whatever they want but they still have obligations to higher authorities, so 7.5 sounds about right.
Honestly though, this issue isn’t really worth discussing. It was the most gratuitous piece of garbage I’ve read in a long time. It opens with a guy trying to have sex with a fish (you read that right), then moves on to a guy beating a gorilla to death with a baseball death (you read that right too.) We’ve got a whole panoply of murders in every variety imaginable in between. (Seriously, think of a weapon and it’s almost certainly used. Did you guess “outboard motorboat engine”? If not, you sadly didn’t guess them all. And we close with a guy being eaten by an alligator (or crocodile, I can never tell the difference.) As ridiculous as it was pointless, from start to finish.
Overall, “Ancient History” is both a letdown and brilliantly insightful. It tells us very little about the world of Preacher, which one might expect with a series of backstories about less-prominent supporting characters. It does however, tell us a great deal about the mind of Garth Ennis. As a standalone case study of Ennis’s major themes in his works, I would have a hard time finding a better title that showcases everything for which he’s come to be known.
Still here? Alright, I’m about to get the soapbox out. You’ve been warned.
(For the record, since I’ll be referencing this scene a lot here, I’ll give the verbatim quotes from the panels. I’m obviously reading into them, so you all should be able to read into them as much as you’d like as well:
Catherine: “Why did you do it?”
Arseface: (writing) “Nobody cared”
Catherine: “Nobody cared? Nobody cared? You stupid little bastard!! What do you mean nobody cared? You mean nobody coddled you and wiped your asses for you? Your lives didn’t turn out the way you wanted them to? Well fuck you! You and my asshole brother both! You self-obsessed whining little shits. I bet you never gave a good goddamn about the pain you’d cause! You say nobody cared about you, but I’ll tell you one thing: if you’re enough of a prick to take a gun and try to blow your own head off, then you didn’t fucking care either!”
I know I’m reading between the lines a little bit there, but that’s probably because most of that is some of the most nonsensical monologuing I’ve ever read. It’s pretty obvious from the story that Arseface is right and nobody really did care about him. His friend is another matter, but Arseface isn’t wrong about himself. And of course he didn’t care. That’s what suicide is – hurting so much inside that you no longer care about anybody or anything else because you just want the pain to stop by any means necessary. For the last half of that speech, she’s just yelling facts at him, which is a just super weird thing to do in any situation.)
My biggest problem with the Arseface issue is that Ennis seems to have no idea what actual, full-blown, clinical depression does to people. He’s not alone in this. Most of society operates this way, but his writing is so stereotypical that it’s laughable.
I briefly entertained the idea that Arseface’s friend’s sister, Catherine, was just another in a long line of terrible people in the story, but quickly ruled it out. Ennis went out of his way to make sure she was the one redeemable character in the story. So when her reaction to the climax of the story, a suicide attempt is, “grow up, don’t be selfish,” those words are intended to carry more weight and ring truer with the reader than anything else in the issue.
It’s that kind of attitude that prevents people who are clinically depressed and borderline suicidal from seeking help of any kind. I can speak from experience on that. I can’t tell you how many times I told myself “Grow up. Be a man. Deal with it.” before I finally broke, swallowed the stigma and shame, and went to a doctor and counselor. Even though I know, logically, there’s no reason for feeling it, I still feel ashamed and can barely write about it.
I don’t think either of the characters who ended up committing or attempting suicide in this story were clinically depressed, they both clearly had mental problems. Neither of them sought help. Both of them paid a high price for it.
True story: the only time I’ve ever wanted to actually punch someone in the face was when I overheard a conversation about a suicide in my local comic shop. I walked in and heard the owner and a regular (I think of him as a kid, but he’s probably something like 23-24 years old) were talking and it was clear the girlfriend/wife/significant other of a mutual acquaintance had killed herself. The following conversation ensued:
Kid: “I feel bad for him. Definitely not for her though.”
Owner: “You don’t? I can’t even imagine being in her shoes, to be that depressed that you want to end it all.”
Kid: “I’ve been depressed before.”
Owner: “Oh? What’d you do?”
Kid: “I got over it. Because I’m an adult.”
That was when I left the store because I knew I might be facing assault charges otherwise. I still see red thinking about it, or any time I see that kid there. I don’t care that he didn’t care about this one girl’s pain or couldn’t even muster any sympathy towards her. I do care that he was an asshole about it, and that he thought he could put himself in her shoes and easily judge her because he’d been bummed out once or twice. Living with depression and feeling sad are not the same thing. Mental illness and brief emotional distress are not the same thing. If you can’t tell the difference, I’d strongly advise you to keep your mouth shut in all situations where the topic might come up.
This is why Ennis’s story rankles me so much. They’re his characters, but the readers can’t really know whether they’re suffering from prolonged mental illnesses or just having a bad day or week. The readers can’t know, and the other characters can’t possibly know. So when the default reaction to a suicide attempt by the one “good” character in the story is to say “don’t be so selfish and start acting like an adult,” I want to find Garth Ennis and punch him in the mouth.
If you ever find yourself in a situation like that, where you’re confronted with or even confided in by someone who is hurting that badly, I beg you, never ever say, “grow up.” You may as well say, “Yeah, go ahead and hurt yourself. Your problems are childish. You are a child for not being able to deal with them. Any real adult could just make the pain go away, but you obviously can’t, so you’re worthless and things will never get better.” That’s what the other person will hear, so make sure that’s what you want to say to them before you do it.
Okay, soapbox is being put away now. I would just implore you all to be decent human beings and listen if someone else decides they trust you enough to confide in you. Don’t judge them. Don’t pretend to know their problems (unless you are damn sure you have lived through a very similar situation). Just listen. That’s all they want. Be a good friend to them and just listen.