If there was one piece of writing advice to take away from Garth Ennis' one-on-one panel at Emerald City Comicon, it probably boils down to this: Don't be too much of a fan.
The Northern Irish comics writer, known for "The Boys," "Preacher" and other grindingly violent, profane adventures, was among the second wave of UK talent to sweep into the American comics scene after the 1980s. Before crossing the Atlantic, he spent time in the trenches at "2000 AD," the influential British comics magazine where major creators like Alan Moore, Grant Morrison and others churned out scripts.
But when Ennis was briefly handed "2000 AD's" flagship character, Judge Dredd, in 1990, he didn't manage the chore as well as he would've liked.
"My own work on it I don't regard as being too important," he told interviewer Blair Butler, in ECCC's "Secret Origins" series of sit-downs with comic creators. "… With Dredd, I was in too much awe of the old stuff. I was too close to it."
The lesson he absorbed: "Don't look back. Don't repeat what's already been done — which is a big problem that comics have."
Even so, Ennis' overseas work allowed him entry into the U.S. market through DC Comics, taking over the prestigious horror title "Hellblazer" from departing writer Jamie Delano. From those visceral John Constantine stories, Ennis branched off into his own comic for DC's Vertigo line, "Preacher," in which Ennis and artist Steve Dillon spread gore across America in an epic search for an absentee God.
The book launched reasonably well in 1995, then dipped modestly in sales over its first few months — until a message board war broke out over the comic's confrontational, sacrilegious themes. Related or not, the book's sales took off.
"It did us a lot of good, and from then on, it was pretty much safe," Ennis said.
So was Ennis' cachet as a mature-titles author. Marvel came calling, and Ennis' gloss on the Punisher got its own MAX series and proved a major influence on the 2004 film adaptation of the character.
Unlike Dredd, Ennis was able to come to the Punisher without any prior attachments, and do strong work while recognizing it as a hired-gun project.
"He's one of the simplest characters to write, and get right, in comics," Ennis told Butler. That hasn't translated well to the movie adaptations, though. "They keep trying to humanize him, and that's a mistake."
Ennis kept creator's rights to "The Boys" almost by accident, when WildStorm opted to cancel the title and hand it back wholesale to the writer. His major title for Avatar, "Crossed," turns the zombie-horde motif sideways, and indulges some of the worst in human nature. It hatched in 2008 in the wake of President George W. Bush's re-election, the Hurricane Katrina disaster and "a sense of government abandoning the people."
"If I was gonna do a horror book, I didn't want it to be easy to make friends with," he said. "… It's every dreadful thing that people have ever done to other people."
Asked about his own spiritual beliefs, Ennis said they're characteristic of someone who might have created "Preacher." "Hardcore atheist," he said, "and more and more intransigent on that point every day."
Coming into U.S. comics behind Alan Moore and other masters gave Ennis a strategy for dealing with Marvel and DC Comics as a creator. He characterized Moore's advice this way: "Use these companies — DC or Marvel — use them to establish a reputation. But don't ever think that they will look after you in the long run."