Garth Ennis hates superheroes. Growing up on a diet of British war comics that often featured real accounts from the war zone, he would later devour Westerns featuring John Wayne/Clint Eastwood and 80s sci-fi horror classics like the' Terminator'. Mixing these genres, his works feature violent, nihilistic antiheroes in stories with supernatural and sci-fi elements, "taking the piss" out of corrupt authority figures -- be it superheroes, God, the government, corporates or the military.
They depict a deeply male world, laced with violence and with friendships forged in combat. With decidedly adult humor, they delight in the macabre and the shocking and yes, also veer into crass or misogynistic territory. A far departure from the mostly PG-13 fare featuring clean-cut Captain America and other caped-crusaders of his ilk who are part of the establishment.
A long wait
This is why he was delighted when Alan Moore came out with 'Watchmen' and 'Miracleman' with their flipped narratives of superheroes being the sources of terror as the corruptible (and unaccountable) purveyors of absolute power. To him, they signaled a shift towards the exploration of more true-to-life themes.
To his dismay, the superhero genre boomeranged and took an even stronger root with the marketable Kirby-Lee vision of comics taking hold in films and then television. We, as audiences, became familiar with crossovers, team-ups and the idea of a cinematic universe, where stories between separate shows and films bled into each other.
In other words, we were coached into consuming comic book adaptations designed by Hollywood's franchise juggernauts. Meanwhile, Ennis' 'Preacher' series (1995-2000 ) sat in development hell for years.
Ennis sold the film rights way back in the 90s when he was still writing it. But it failed to get off the ground as investor after investor passed on the film adaptation for its controversial religious themes.
It then slid into the realm of television with HBO showing interest in turning it into a series, even getting Mark Steven Johnson (Daredevil, Ghostrider) to write the plotlines for an entire season. But eventually, HBO also abandoned it for being "too dark", "too violent" and "too controversial".
The Rogen-Goldberg miracle
Enter self-confessed comic geeks and successful writer-producers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. "Me and Evan were basically like, Marvel and DC seem to a pretty good monopoly on Marvel and DC comic book properties; so, what if we start focussing on everything that we love that was not a Marvel/DC property," said Rogen at the San Diego Comic-Con 2019.
Rogen and Goldberg (Superbad, Pineapple Express, This is the End) are Hollywood's golden boys when it comes to producing risque comedies that riff on taboo subjects. Their humor often blunts the edge of controversial subject matter, making them non-threatening enough to mainline into popular consciousness.
Their "just kidding" vibe, akin to boys ringing the doorbell and running away, defined their film oeuvre. They brought the same sensibility when they began writing and producing for television, starting with 'Preacher'. The comic series finally found a home at AMC that had tasted success with another violent comic book adaptation, 'The Walking Dead'.
'Preacher', the TV series, is Garth-Ennis lite. Showrunner Sam Caitlin and writer-director-producer team Rogen and Goldberg modified the gritty panels, often with revolting and horrific imagery, using a Tarantino-esque "quirky-cool" aesthetic.
For instance, instead of featuring Quincannon's sex doll from the comic books, made up entirely from slaughterhouse meat, they came up with another way to show his obsession. They had Quincannon fondle some fake intestines while he told the story of when he compared the insides of his beloved daughter and that of a cow, resulting in his epiphany that "meat was just meat." After death, it was all the same.
Even the "Jesus having sex" plot was alleviated with a sight gag and Jesus' hipsterish vibe. Rogen and Goldberg can be credited with making Garth Ennis' concepts palatable to TV execs by packaging controversy well, putting their Hollywood cred to use.
But 'Preacher' also suffered because it was the duo's training wheels for their foray into television. Rogen and Golberg, used to storytelling in films with a short runtime, seemed overwhelmed directing 'Preacher', season after season.
There was a tendency of 'Preacher' seasons starting strong before meandering all over the place. There was little of the long-distance discipline TV show adaptations require, handling multiple story arcs across episodes while making each episode stand on its own.
This meant 'Preacher' never grew beyond a niche viewership base. Too niche to justify the production costs, 'Preacher' was canceled after four seasons despite drawing favorable attention for leveraging Garth Ennis' oddball vision.
A parable for our times
With Amazon's show 'The Boys', based on another Garth Ennis comic book series, the duo has learned their lesson. Serving only as supervising exec producers, they have largely handed the rein over to showrunner Eric Kripke (Supernatural), who is also a huge Garth Ennis fan.
For Kripke, a veteran in churning out 22-episodes per season for 'Supernatural', telling a cohesive and tightly scripted story over eight-episodes, without the bane of filler episodes, is a walk in the park. He is also familiar with Ennis' work having used elements from 'Preacher' in 'Supernatural'.
With Amazon bankrolling the project this time, money also seems to be less of an issue than it was with 'Preacher'. The show looks as polished in its depiction of superheroes as its big-screen counterparts.
With 'The Boys', Ennis' moment is also finally here. With one major cycle of the Marvel Cinematic Universe coming to an end and superhero adaptations being released constantly thanks to Netflix and The CW, fatigue has set in.
There is also a marked increase in cynicism as prominent figures in the corporate world, government and the entertainment industry have toppled. An updated Ennis, which takes moments like #MeToo into account, is now the perfect parable for our times and the audience is lapping it up.