Thanks to a visit to the recent Wizard-sponsored Comic Con here in Philadelphia, I was able to get myself caught up on WALKING DEAD trades. I'm now only six issues behind the stands and as enthralled as I was after picking up the first issue. The overall strength of this series has caused my mind to wander back to another of the post-apocalyptic outbreak comics that seem to be littering the shelves these days, Garth Ennis' CROSSED. Normally I'm all for a new Ennis series. The sheer number of them makes it hard to keep up, but I'm getting to them in turn. I first picked up CROSSED last year shortly before the '09 Philly comic book convention. As luck would have it Garth Ennis was a featured speaker. I attended his panel and made sure to sit up front as to better my chances of getting to ask a question. I believe that it started with something along the lines of "Your books have been getting a little rapey lately. Would you care to comment on that?" He more or less shrugged off the question as smart alicy comic book writers tend to do, and moved on. I was not reassured. CROSSED, for anyone not familiar with it, is Ennis' contribution to the zombie book genre. His big innovation with the book is that the zombies are non-dead, plague victims who retain all of their human intelligence and use it to torture and rape their victims. Mostly rape, though. "Rape Zombies" was how I summed it up for friends. Well, that is scary. No doubt about that. The question is, where does it go after that? The short answer is not far. For nine issues and an "issue 0" prologue book, more or less nothing happens except for the most unimaginable horrors and flash backs to yet more horrors book-ended with lame, phoned in dialogue and contrived situations that make EC's old horror line like look downright sane.
Garth Ennis books have always been shockingly violent. Even amongst the other writers on JUDGE DREAD, he stood out. His run on HELLBLAZER excised the Neal Gaimeny purple prose and gave the book a real-world (I refuse to say "gritty") feeling that drove the mystical and earthly horrors home is a genuinely affecting way. These same techniques would later serve to make PREACHER one of the biggest game changers in comics since Frank Miller's first, good DARK KNIGHT miniseries. The books that would become the VERTIGO line had been pushing boundaries and exploiting religious subjects for visceral impact for years, but it's that tone that Ennis struck that changed things. That swaggering, "it's ok for out hero to be cool and competent again" vibe mixed with lots of swearing and crazy violence. Lots of guys are still trying to write the new Wolverine, but the better read ones want to write the new Jessie Custer. The Da Vinci Code? Old news to Preacher fans. Our version was way funnier too.
In spite of their superficial qualities, the real uniting factor of all of these books was not their violence, but their story telling. John Constantine really outsmarts the Devil, more than once. In PREACHER we see the story of a full-fledged world dominating organization and a man trying to hunt down God whittled down to two men standing nose to nose, and it all makes sense! The plain fact is, when all of the window dressing is torn away, it's story telling that makes it work. That's my problem with Garth Ennis' current work. There are still books he cares about. His War Story titles are outstanding, but I can't honestly say the same for much else that he's done in the last five years. 303 is strong, but undeveloped, no matter how satisfying. I've still yet to get around to WORMWOOD, but I read the first issue and I haven't been back since. It all follows the same pattern for me. When Marvel needs to make budget, they crank out more books with Wolverine on the cover. When Garth needs to pay the bills, he writes something grotesque.
In each hand I hold book in which people are constantly dying in gruesome and horrifying ways. In both books the human race in on the brink, and the main characters are forced to do things to survive that test their limits and cost them bits of their souls. One of these books is THE WALKING DEAD. In this book the characters feel real. The situations feel natural, and the horrors have a real impact because the world that has been drawn, both literally and figuratively, feels as real and solid as the one out of my window. The other book is CROSSED, and I would not even recommend it to people who crave the unconscionably violent and obscene because real life images of such things are readily available for free online to those who know where to look.
As an afterward, I would like to point out that I've obviously done more here to pique interest in CROSSED than I have to dissuade it's reading. To paraphrase Sideshow Bob, I'm well aware of the irony and I can accept it. I'm also aware that pushing limits is the point of things like CROSSED. Putting aside my moral objections to using extreme subject matter to sell comics, there must be the writing to back it up. I don't think that a writers get to wave rape around like a kid who found his parent's gun unless they are prepared to say something worthwhile. Otherwise it's like using the Holocaust to sell spare tires. Crude and juvenile.
Even in bad taste, there's an art, and few understand that art like John Waters. His films are the best kind of exploitation. They're filled with horrible acts by worse people but also humor and joy and some fine film making! The ones being exploited are those on the screen, and even then not really because they were all in on the joke. (With the possible exception of Edith Massey.) The exploited were never the ones who paid to be in the theater. (With the possible exception of those who went to see A DIRTY SHAME.) It also bears mentioning that comparing a miniseries with an ongoing title is unfair on it's face, but quality is quality. In the 80s, it only took four or twelve issues to change the industry. How many books can you name that haven't even come close after hundreds?