Garth Ennis and Men’s Blind Support of Men
by Travis Hedge Coke
A woman has been stood up by her boyfriend on their anniversary. Her friend, whose boyfriend he has gone off with, and their other pals, presumably drinking, tells her regardless of love, she needs to give him some grief.
This was a short scene in the two hundred plus page A Train Called Love, by Garth Ennis and Mark Dos Santos. And, when that scene hit the internet and comics shops, every man I saw talk about it summarily took the side of the off-panel men, and many of them immediately labeled the woman who is not conflicted about being angry at two dudes with no respect for their partners, as “a shrew,” “a bitch,” “a bad influence.”
If you are reading the comic and get to this scene, you understand that the situation is even more irresponsible and toxic and fundamentally callous than the women realize. They have not simply gone out for beers. They are doing some real dumb shit.
And, here’s the dealbreaker: I know some of the guys I saw taking up for those dudes read the comic. They knew the context. They supported their right to do some dangerous, criminal foolishness and not even be criticized for it by their romantic partners.
And, why I should not have been shocked: This is not an appreciably insane level of old boy networking, just dead general sexism. There was nothing novel or extreme about it.
Ennis is no stranger both to that response and to trading on it in fiction. Preacher lasts as long as it does because men will justify not only their buddies but other men they barely even know, to absurd and self-endangering lengths. The breaking point is not when men do something rotten, it’s “well, he was a career Nazi working in a death camp and a liar, here’s a length of rope to sort that!” and a hanged old retired Nazi.
Ennis has never been an unintelligent writer, and some of his earliest work, done at an astonishingly young age, is more perceptive of human nature and anglophone cultural responses than many of his contemporaries, then or now, who are a good deal older than he was at the time of Troubles Souls or even Heartland.
A Train Called Love is explicitly a romantic comedy. It is a romantic comedy where bestiality porn can lead to romance, people are threatened with mutilation, death happens, and not everyone goes home happy, but it is a romantic comedy. It is Ennis’ first official romcom, though he has indulged heavily, and headily, in romance and comedy in nearly all of comics. It’s not his first rodeo with tragic love.
The comic’s ability to look at several forms of love and of relationship, sex, domesticity, including sex for work, sex for comfort, sharing a bed for comfort, sharing a bed as discomfort, masturbatory fantasies, lying to your friends about their partners, lying to yourself about your partner, all implies both an adult audience and an audience with diverse experiences.
A Train Called Love, even more than some other, more traditionalist machismo comics in the Ennis oeuvre, seems aware and anticipatory of a readership beyond generic men. Sorry, not sorry, it is generic men that disappointed me, when that scene was posted around the internet or talked about in comics groups, because I did not, at the time, realize some of those folks were generic like that.
That this was several years ago has not damped it much, primarily because just a month ago, I saw grown men, with real jobs, saying that Garth Ennis is a white supremacist (Boy, y’all missed a lot, didn’t you?) and that he should not be allowed to write any more Punisher comics unless she first joins the New York City Police Department, and just weeks ago, a fellow professional writer about comics suggest that Ennis oversold the black population of the United Kingdom in his Hellblazer run, where he had, I think, three black people, possibly all related to each other.
These clowns did not go away, or become woke or aware or any more functional in the past few years. I did not mark out every man I saw call one of the women in that scene, “a bitch,” but I did a few, and I see the women in their lives, and the only good thing I can say is, in some cases, I know all the women in their life know, too, not specifically how they addressed that scene, but how they respond to women, how they respond to men.
It is a good scene, a good litmus test, but it is in no way good that it works.