Adventures in the Rifle Brigade, Garth Ennis, Carlos Ezquerra, Brian Bolland, Glenn Fabry, Patricia Mulvihill, Kevin Somers and Clem Robins. Vertigo/DC, 2004. $14.95, 144 pages.
Writer Garth Ennis was in the comics news recently, when DC head honcho Pulpin’ Paul Levitz cancelled Ennis’ new ongoing series The Boys over concerns about content. The book’s fans were pleased to learn, however, that it would continue at a different company.
I was not, to put it mildly, one of those fans. To me, The Boys seemed to have been written by some sophisticated computer program that cut and pasted the worst of Ennis’ excesses and writerly tics: among other things, various forms of stereotype and cliché, mean-spirited slapstick, toilet humour and a fundamental discomfort with sex.
Come to think of it, it needn’t have been a computer program. A monkey with a typewriter would have sufficed.
I stopped reading The Boys after two issues, supposing that it represented the lowest point of Ennis’ recent decline into self-parody. After reading Adventures of the Rifle Brigade, however, I am happy to report that I was wrong. The Boys could have been so much worse.
Rifle Brigade reprints two three-issue series published between 2001 and 2003. It is intended as a parody of the boys’ ripping war yarns that Ennis evidently grew up on. Ennis’ dedication in the frontispiece is to British war comics such as Battle Picture Weekly and Commando, but it might as well have been to the gutter-dwelling, scatological humour comic, Viz.*
The Rifle Brigade themselves are a rag-tag team of fightin’ misfits, including: the straight man captain; a mad Scotsman; an American; a lower-class yob; a fat guy; and–get this, it’s the funniest thing ever–a fag. It would be too kind to call these characters one-note. They can barely muster a note between the lot of them.
This goes especially for the fat guy, the yob and the American. The big–all right, the only–joke about them is their catchphrases, the only dialogue they ever speak. It’s funny once, maybe twice, but Ennis uses the catchphrases to fill any lacunae in the otherwise non-stop flow of unfunny business. And never just one catchphrase from one character; we must always get all three in unison. It’s like a Greek chorus, if the chorus was that annoying guy at the office who won’t stop parroting catchphrases from the latest sitcom.
Just as the characters broadly parody stock types from British war comics, so does the plot parody their plots. This stuff might have played a little better in Ennis’ neck of the woods, but even the non-British reader can make do with a general knowledge of common war-story motifs. And by “make do”, I mean “realise how completely unfunny it all is”.
There’s nothing wrong per se with dumb humour or scatological gags. Hell, I read Johhny Ryan’s strips every week. But there’s one cardinal rule of humour. Pay attention, because you’re about to learn something. Humour has to be funny. You can occasionally appreciate a horror movie that isn’t scary, or a romance movie that isn’t romantic, because they can still have other virtues. But a humour comic, a comic whose only intention is to be humorous, such a comic without humour is nothing.
Which is exactly what Ennis has given us. Apart from a few bits that might elicit a brief chuckle, this book is worthless. Carlos Ezquerra’s pencils and inks are decent but, tied as they are to a putrid and unfunny script, hardly to be praised. That would be like praising the sound design on a snuff movie.
It’s particularly frustrating to see an artist of Ennis’ talent producing this putrid tripe, as though Orson Welles had lived to direct one of the Porky’s sequels. In books like Preacher, Punisher, Hitman and War Stories, Ennis has proved himself a master of gross-out comedy and gallows humour while revealing a surprisingly sentimental humanity underneath.
If the black comedy is the baby and Ennis’ humanity is the bathwater, Adventures of the Rifle Brigade throws out the baby with the bathwater.
And then the bathtub and the rest of the plumbing, too.
*NB: nothing to do with the manga publishers.
Recommended? Only if you think a German officer named Venkschaft is the funniest thing ever, or (what is probably redundant) you’re a developmentally arrested eleven year-old boy.
IYL: Preacher or Hitman, but wish that they had any depth or humour removed.
PC Alert: The whole book is pretty offensive. Which would be fine if it weren’t also aesthetically offensive.