Garth Ennis is no stranger to poor taste. He often elicits groans and eye rolls from his audience with brash characterizations of certain minorities, complete disregard for human life, and a willingness to shove acts of sexual fetishisms and gross-out toilet humor in our faces. But Ennis is also well acquainted with heart-felt storytelling and creating characters the reader can invest themselves in (even some of the stereotypical ones). It’s this dichotomy that makes Ennis such a volatile presence in comics.
In recent years, a lot of Ennis’ work has been maligned by readers and critics alike, claiming the days of his seminal masterwork Preacher or his stellar run on Hellblazer are long gone. But I disagree. Ennis has always struck an interesting balancing act with his work, and a comic like Adventures in the Rifle Brigade, which collects both Rifle Brigade miniseries originally published in 2000 and 2001, proves this.
The Rifle Brigade books were running concurrently with the end of Preacher, Hitman, and the beginning of Ennis’ amazing run on The Punisher. When you reflect on these books alongside one another, ostensibly The Rifle Brigade sticks out like a sore thumb. But here’s the deal: it really doesn’t. The Rifle Brigade simply showcases one of Ennis’ talents as a writer: the ability to craft a fun pulpy comic that is both well-researched and absolutely repulsive. But to be fair, this one is pretty light if you’re familiar with a lot of the man’s work…and that’s the biggest problem with the comic.
Illustrated by the legendary Carlos Ezquerra (Judge Dredd, Battlefields), Adventures in the Rifle Brigade plays out like a classic World War II film (something like The Dirty Dozen or The Great Escape), but through the lens of National Lampoon. It’s crass, offensive, and occasionally funny. The story follows a group of rough and tumble British riflemen during World War II as they infiltrate a secret Nazi V-2 rocket fuel plant (that old chestnut).
Each member of the team has their own quirk (some of which are as simple as a catch phrase) and specialties. Aside from the leader of this motley crew, Captain Darcy, and the offensively stereotyped homosexual Second Lieutenant, Cecil “Doubtful” Milk, there really isn’t more depth than a one note joke to any of the heroes. Hell, even Cecil Milk falls into the trappings of an unfunny, recurring gag that was trite and only played to the other characters’ assumed homophobia.
Ennis is better than this. I know he his. Now I’m not saying the writing is bad. In fact, the dialogue is sharp and fun to follow. The characters who actually have proper speaking lines have interesting things to say for the most part and the lingo of this period in Western history is spot on from what I can surmise. What hurts this book is that it feels like a half measure. Rifle Brigade never reaches the levels of lunacy its ensemble promises nor does it push for any sort of emotional investment for its story.
Perhaps this was Ennis’ dry run for some of his more mature WWII comics like Battlefields and War Stories or his raunchy team action hero series The Boys or his badass Fury miniseries (we all remember the character Fuckface, right?). There are echoes of The Rifle Brigade in all these works.
Whatever the case, Adventures in the Rifle Brigade just doesn’t fire on all cylinders. It didn’t work for me when I first read it back in the early aughts and it doesn’t blow up my skirt now. Perhaps it’s the fact that so many other of Ennis’ books push the limits of good taste while being a thoughtful character study so much better that makes this comic stall out. It’s like watching The Godfather and wondering what else Mr. Coppola has up his sleeve, and then you watch Rumblefish. It’s not the worst follow up to an artist’s’ masterpiece (that would be Jack, in this analogy), but it sure as hell not the best.
The biggest saving grace in this book is Carlos Ezquerra’s art. This guy knows how to draw frenetic action and over-the-top characters like no one else. It never feels like he phones a single panel in. The action scenes are fun and disgusting when need be. Ennis and Ezquerra have collaborated on other projects, before and after this series, some of which I feel tower above Rifle Brigade (see: Just a Pilgrim), so it hurts me a little to know that these guys can pump out fantastic work together, but this book just simply isn’t one of them.
While Adventures in the Rifle Brigade is not a complete failure, this isn’t a comic I can up and recommend to anyone, and that’s coming from a huge Ennis and Ezquerra fan (these men gave us Preacher and a fantastic Judge Dredd for cryin’ out loud). If you’ve never read any of these guys’ work before, this is not the best place to start. This book really is for diehard fans of the creators or completionists.
- Great art work
- Some funny bits here and there
- Sharp dialogue
- Seems like a half measure that Never lives up the greatness of its creators
- Some offensive stereotypical characters
- These guys are better than this!