by Garth Ennis (writer) and Jacen Burrows (art)
Garth Ennis is a writer torn between extremes. His Preacher and Hellblazer stories contain some of the best thought-out characters in comics history, and his War Stories series offers a fine mixture of high adventure and elegiac memorial. But much of his writing (and especially, it seems, since the conclusion of Preacher) has been far-too-broad comedy, crass efforts at Grand Guignol where every punchline involves severed limbs, bodily functions, or both. Judging from his recent work (especially the over-the-top The Boys, admittedly the most enjoyable of his cruder projects), you wouldn't think Ennis a writer capable of subtlety. But his best projects have focused on nuanced characterization, with the foul language and violence added as an afterthought. When I first heard about Chronicles of Wormwood, Ennis's new miniseries about the Antichrist, I thought that it sounded like a good venue for a return to the high bar set by his best work (particularly the similarly-themed Hellblazer). The story—Satan's son decides he doesn't want to fulfill the destiny his father has planned for him—definitely lends itself to the same sort of anti-authoritarian philosophizing at the core of Preacher, and if handled correctly could serve as a worthy successor to that series.
There's good news and bad news about the first issue of Chronicles of Wormwood. It definitely shows room to grow into something really memorable. The good parts are in place, and the supporting cast is strong—particularly Ennis's interpretation of the Second Coming. In this series, Jesus (or "Jay") is an activist brain-damaged by a modern-day Roman centurion in riot gear during an antiwar protest, and now a drinking buddy of the Antichrist. It's clever, it's intelligent, and it shows that, regardless of the broadness of the conclusions he's put forth, Ennis has put some real thought into his critique of religion. But unfortunately Jay's story accounts for three pages in an issue that's padded with what I can only call the bad parts—some rather unnecessary (and, more importantly, unfunny) jokes involving bodily fluids, genitalia, and the sexual proclivities of one medieval saint who, for reasons yet unexplained, is still walking the earth in period costume. It's not that these jokes can't be funny—in the right context, they could be hilarious. But at this point in Ennis's career, they just feel uncreative. I get the sense that Ennis believes his audience is only interested in his general lack of taste, and as long as he can find new and creative ways to offend his readers' parents, his audience will keep coming back every month. Though this may be a fine way to sell bad comics, anyone who's read Ennis's better stories knows he can do better. Many of us only care for the vulgar stuff if the story's been built up adequately, and Wormwood isn't there yet—some of these jokes pull me right out of a story that I'm desperately trying to be engaged with. Ennis's crass side has had him stuck in a rut for a few years now, and with Wormwood he's got a chance to pull himself out of it. Let's hope he gives these characters a chance to grow before they drown in the mire of gross-out humor.