Re­visit the glo­ries of Ez­querra and En­nis’s clas­sic Just A Pil­grim.

Karl Stock talks to Garth En­nis about his over­looked post-apoc­a­lyp­tic West­ern minis­eries, over­shad­owed by his break­through hits and later tri­umphs alike

Comic Heroes - - Contents -

In the wake of the con­clu­sion of his hit Ver­tigo se­ries Preacher in the au­tumn of 2000, Garth En­nis was look­ing for a way to leave Ire­land and set up home in Amer­ica. At the same time, Wiz­ard, the dom­i­nant comics mag­a­zine of the day, was set­ting up its own in­die comics pub­lish­ing arm in Black Bull Entertainment, and the edi­tor ap­proached by Wiz­ard founder Gareb Shamus to take the line for­ward was Jimmy Palmiotti – at the time both edi­tor and inker of En­nis and Steve Dil­lon’s Pu­n­isher run for the Marvel Knights line. The quid pro quo was ob­vi­ous:

Wiz­ard would spon­sor En­nis’ US work visa, and in re­turn he would cre­ate new ma­te­rial for Black Bull. With the de­but is­sue ap­pear­ing in May 2001, the first (and, as it turned out, fi­nal) project which En­nis de­vised was Just a Pil­grim, and for a writer who spent a good part of the 1990s shak­ily learn­ing the writ­ing ropes on 2000 AD, there’s a good ar­gu­ment that this se­ries came clos­est of all his work

to the bleak, an­ar­chic, idea­s­packed, visu­ally dy­namic vi­sion of the Galaxy’s Great­est Comic. That Judge Dredd’s mas­ter­fully pulpy co-cre­ator Car­los Ez­querra was the artist on the ti­tle ac­counted for a large part of its suc­cess, as En­nis agrees.

The story’s lead was The Pil­grim, an un­named, ri­fle-tot­ing wan­derer in a weather-beaten duster and fe­dora, doomed to wan­der the parched-dry Earth af­ter a cat­a­clysmic solar event known only as “the Burn”, which evap­o­rated ev­ery one of the world’s oceans. Visu­ally, the char­ac­ter bore a pass­ing re­sem­blance to Preacher’s Saint of Killers, and to Clint East­wood’s “Man With No Name” archetype, so beloved of En­nis in his for­ma­tive years.

Yet even as he came to save vul­ner­a­ble trav­ellers from sadis­tic, dis­fig­ured pi­rates and mu­tated, mind-con­trol­ling mon­sters, the Pil­grim was re­vealed as a hor­ri­bly flawed char­ac­ter – an ex-ma­rine driven to can­ni­bal­ism to sur­vive and fu­elled by a re­li­gious fa­nati­cism as all-en­com­pass­ing as the trauma-hol­lowed void in his soul. The cross burned into his own face is a bru­tal re­minder of what drives him.

“When I was a lit­tle kid I saw a map of the world that in­cluded the ocean floor,” says En­nis now. “Earth with the water drained away, you might say. I think it came with an is­sue of Na­tional Geographic. I still have it kick­ing around some­where. Any­way, the no­tion of all those peaks and ridges and canyons down there stayed with me, and years later it all seemed like a fairly orig­i­nal set­ting for a post-apoc­a­lyp­tic ad­ven­ture; at the time I couldn’t think of any­one hav­ing done it be­fore. There was a rea­son for that, I came to re­alise...”

En­nis agrees that the Pil­grim was a mem­o­rable pro­tag­o­nist, and the char­ac­ter still seems fresh in his mind, a full 15 years af­ter Just a Pil­grim’s sec­ond and fi­nal se­ries “Gar­den of Eden” came to a con­clu­sion. “He was a fuck­ing lu­natic who found him­self cast as hero and vil­lain,” says the writer. “He fought the bad and pro­tected the weak. He ate peo­ple. I think the en­joy­ment of writ­ing him came from push­ing the no­tion of a heroic pro­tag­o­nist fur­ther than most peo­ple would ex­pect it to go, and see­ing how far the au­di­ence were pre­pared to ac­com­pany me. There was a cer­tain sly, dark amuse­ment in do­ing that, maybe.”

Ad­mirable artist

Al­though he be­lieves there were a lot of good ideas in it, En­nis now views the Just a Pil­grim saga as a flawed piece of work on his part, al­though he won’t hear a word said against the de­pend­able bril­liance of Ez­querra’s art. For the artist him­self – the man who cre­ated the look of two of Bri­tish comics’ big­gest icons in Judge Dredd and Stron­tium Dog – the Pil­grim re­mains one of his favourite char­ac­ters.

“He was per­fect for me, an anti‑hero, a desert pi­rate, like Mad Max in a spaghetti west­ern,” says Ez­querra. “That was ideal for me, and Garth knew it. I like my char­ac­ters to look dif­fer­ent from any other, and the Pil­grim might look sim­i­lar to the Saint of Killers or oth­ers with the long over­coat and hat, but I added a point to that hat so even in sil­hou­ette you know it’s him. But it’s the face which shows the real man he is, his tor­mented per­son­al­ity, and how that changes through­out the story.” The pi­rate leader Cas­te­nado was also a favourite; Ez­querra loves pi­rates.

Even af­ter a slew of projects to­gether, from Judge Dredd in the 1990s through DC’s Bloody Mary,

the Au­thor­ity spin-off A Man

Called Kev, The Tankies as part of En­nis’ war se­ries Bat­tle­fields and many oth­ers, the writer’s ad­mi­ra­tion for his child­hood artis­tic hero is un­der­stand­ably pal­pa­ble. “I met Car­los very early in my ca­reer, back in 1989,” En­nis re­calls. “I was ini­tially a lit­tle in awe of him, but he’s such a de­cent, down-to-earth guy, that didn’t last long; the same thing hap­pened when I met [ his late Preacher co

cre­ator] Steve Dil­lon. I was lucky enough to have Car­los as­signed to my very first Dredd, where he made me look bet­ter than I de­served.

“We hit it off and he gave me a look through his sketch­book to see if there were any char­ac­ters I thought had legs – some­thing he was in the habit of do­ing with John Wag­ner and Alan Grant, I be­lieve. That’s where Bloody Mary came

from. By the time of Pil­grim we’d done quite a few things to­gether, and he seemed very much the ob­vi­ous choice for this story – the larger-than-life char­ac­ter, the set­ting, the ac­tion, the hu­mour. The se­ries was cer­tainly in­flu­enced by clas­sic 2000 AD; a good deal of my genre writ­ing al­ways will be.”

Be­sides his fel­low Dredd cre­ator Wag­ner and long-time 2000 AD col­lab­o­ra­tor Grant, it’s hard to iden­tify any writer whose work fits Ez­querra’s art as well as En­nis. “Car­los has the won­der­ful abil­ity to make the im­pos­si­ble seem easy; he can han­dle things that would leave many artists floun­der­ing,” says the writer. “If you’re in tune with his work, you can re­lax a lit­tle bit when you’re writ­ing – you know he’ll keep the char­ac­ters con­stant and dis­tinct, just as you know you can be as out­landish as you want with ev­ery as­pect of the story. That won­der­ful sense of the grotesque he has will carry you through. I loved the Pil­grim him­self; he was quite sim­ply clas­sic Ez­querra – a nice blend of the for­mi­da­ble and the lu­di­crous, a gi­ant of a char­ac­ter from a gi­ant of an artist. It’s hard for me to over­state my ad­mi­ra­tion for the mighty Car­los, both as artist and col­lab­o­ra­tor.”

As a launch­pad for Black Bull, Just a Pil­grim did very well, and there was even talk of film de­vel­op­ment. “But like most comic prop­er­ties, that went nowhere,” says edi­tor Palmiotti. “Just a

Pil­grim was an easy gig for me, mainly be­cause I was work­ing with to­tal pro­fes­sion­als. I loved the postapoc­a­lyp­tic set­ting, and I think it was a nice break for Garth as well, to do some­thing as wild as this.” Palmiotti looks at this se­ries, Mark Waid and Amanda Con­ner’s Gate­crasher and other ti­tles like

Beau­ti­ful Killer and New West as suc­cesses, de­spite their ob­scu­rity. “As a mat­ter of fact, I think they would prob­a­bly do bet­ter now, since au­di­ences are more used to non-su­per­hero work. We were

do­ing a bit of ground­break­ing, and with that comes the prob­lems of in­tro­duc­ing some­thing new.”

De­press­ing desert

Af­ter the first se­ries of Just a Pil­grim, how­ever, En­nis had grown tired of the “slight piss-up/brew­ery or­gan­i­sa­tion prob­lem” he was sens­ing from the im­mi­gra­tion lawyer Wiz­ard had con­tracted, and both the lack of cre­ator own­er­ship and his own is­sues with the set­ting were turn­ing him off the story. “’Gar­den of Eden’ was just a case of me us­ing up an idea rather than any kind of com­mer­cial ur­gency,” he says. “For my­self, Pil­grim has al­ways been one of those ‘half a good idea’ sto­ries, which are more frus­trat­ing than the out­right fail­ures – you can write those ones off. I felt I’d wasted a good char­ac­ter and de­cent sup­port­ing cast on a duff set­ting, which goes back to my map of the ocean floor. As I twigged only af­ter I’d got­ten started, if you drain away the ocean what you end up with is… a desert. Which means a postapoc­a­lyp­tic story that looks pretty much like any other, and you can scat­ter all the whale skele­tons and ship­wrecks that you like, but at the end of the day a desert is a desert is a bloody bor­ing desert.”

It’s not hard as a reader to be­lieve that En­nis is be­ing un­duly harsh on a story which took some of his sharpest traits as a writer – namely his sub­lime un­der­stand­ing of the flawed male char­ac­ter and a ca­pac­ity for vi­o­lence bor­der­ing on the hor­rific – and turned them up to eleven. Yet ar­guably his dis­card­ing of the se­ries was also the mak­ing of it, as “Gar­den of Eden” con­cluded in bru­tal, slate-wip­ing fash­ion, with the slimmest of green shoots of­fer­ing hope for hu­man­ity’s re­demp­tion. All eight is­sues were col­lected by Dy­na­mite in 2009, and ar­guably sit along­side many of En­nis and Ez­querra’s finest works.

“Given that the lead char­ac­ter had pretty much damned him­self, what with all the peo­ple he’d killed or got­ten killed, I felt that the end­ing he got was the one he de­served,” says En­nis now. “Which isn’t to say I didn’t like the Pil­grim or en­joy writ­ing him – his to­tal in­abil­ity to com­pro­mise or see other points of view was good fun, as was his sheer lethal­ity once he got go­ing. But once he’d had his mo­ment of clar­ity and turned his back on the god that had led him to do so much harm, the only ap­pro­pri­ate fate I could see for him was self-sac­ri­fice. I think he would have agreed with me there.”

the iconic hor­ror comic Creepy, and this was where Wright­son’s art was first seen – a piece of fan art in a 1966 is­sue, which bore his name on a tomb­stone. He later told the mag­a­zine Comic Book Artist that he was a “com­plete will­ing out­cast” at the time, stay­ing at home and teach­ing him­self to draw while his friends all built a so­cial life.

Wright­son started out watch­ing tele­vi­sion artist John Gnagy’s show, and even­tu­ally took cor­re­spon­dence cour­ses in illustration with the New York So­ci­ety of Il­lus­tra­tors’ Fa­mous Artists School for a year. In his late teens, he re­alised “comic artist” was a job and he wanted to do it.

He started at­tend­ing con­ven­tions. At his first he met Frazetta – whose work he loved mainly from his pa­per­back cov­ers – and sold a bunch of his own am­a­teur il­lus­tra­tions. At an­other con a year later he was in­tro­duced to Dick Gior­dano and Carmine In­fantino of DC Comics, who liked his work and soon of­fered him a job.

“Carmine, who looked like a re­ally big Ed­ward G. Robin­son with the ci­gar and ev­ery­thing, punches me in the arm, puts his arm around me, and says, ‘You f*ck­ing kid!’,” re­called Wright­son in Comic Book Artist. “I didn’t know what to make of this be­cause these guys were like Mafia, fast-talk­ing Ital­ian guys. I had never met peo­ple like this be­fore!” He was 18 when he met the DC team and he ac­cepted their of­fer to move to New York, leav­ing his job as an editorial car­toon­ist at the Bal­ti­more Sun, where he was

Hor­ror boom

Wright­son froze un­der the pres­sure, not ready for the re­spon­si­bil­ity. In­fantino un­der­stood and took him off the book. He next con­trib­uted to House Of Mys­tery, edited by for­mer EC artist Joe Or­lando, draw­ing a 1969 oneshot story ti­tled “The Man Who Mur­dered Him­self”. Or­lando was some­thing of an early men­tor to Wright­son, and House Of Mys­tery re­mained one of his main out­lets through­out the 1970s.

For DC he drew well­re­ceived cov­ers for House Of

Se­crets and one-off in­te­ri­ors for is­sues of Bat­man and The

Spec­tre, among many oth­ers. At Marvel his work in­cluded lone is­sues of Co­nan The Bar­bar­ian, Sav­age Tales and Cap­tain Marvel, and cov­ers for The In­cred­i­ble Hulk, Tomb of

Drac­ula and Were­wolf By Night. His own self-pub­lished hor­ror and sci-fi an­thol­ogy

BadTime Sto­ries ap­peared in 1972, and in 1974 he left DC for a time to ful­fil a per­sonal am­bi­tion work­ing for War­ren, con­tribut­ing to is­sues of

Creepy, Eerie and Vam­pirella. In these early days he called him­self Berni Wright­son, to dis­tin­guish from an Olympic diver also named Bernie Wright­son, but the “e” was even­tu­ally re­in­stated.

Wright­son pre­ferred to work in black-and-white, with the stark­ness and edgy con­tem­po­rary feel of his art ap­par­ent whether he was us­ing brushes or pen and ink, while his metic­u­lous style was also dis­en­chanted by the lack of ac­tual il­lus­trat­ing. His first as­sign­ment was a three-part Night­mas­ter se­ries writ­ten by Denny O’Neill in Show­case.

more suited to tak­ing more time over in­di­vid­ual cov­ers or is­sues. It’s ironic, then, that what turned him into a comics su­per­star was a full-colour, bi­monthly on­go­ing se­ries. At a party, writer Len Wein asked him to take on a one-off story for House Of Se­crets in 1971, the tale of an early 20th­cen­tury sci­en­tist named Alex Olsen who is killed in a lab ac­ci­dent and res­ur­rected as a sham­bling swamp crea­ture made of muck and vege­ta­tion.

“I had just bro­ken up with a girl at the time and this story re­ally touched that in me, so I just poured my heart and soul into it,” Wright­son told Comic Book Artist. “We did the story and I pretty much for­got about it. The is­sue came out and it was pretty much [DC’s] best­selling book that month, beat­ing out Su­per­man and Bat­man.” The editorial clam­our was to do a monthly Swamp Thing book, with a new char­ac­ter named Alec Hol­land in an up­dated 1970s set­ting. “I was a lit­tle scep­ti­cal at first and I re­ally needed Len to come and talk me into it. The way we ap­proached it, it was a new thing and a pretty innovative idea.”

Swamp Thing made him a star among fan­dom, win­ning three Shazam awards and a Comic Fan Art Award at the time, yet af­ter a few is­sues Wright­son had be­come tired of some of the sce­nar­ios and he left with is­sue 10. A plan to have him take on a reg­u­lar se­ries star­ring The Shadow fell through, leav­ing only some rough de­signs, but in the 1980s Alan Moore’s re­vamp only in­ten­si­fied Swamp Thing’s cult sta­tus. An­other char­ac­ter Wright­son co-cre­ated (this time with writer Marv Wolf­man) also found revived suc­cess many years later, as Destiny from Weird Mys­tery

Tales #1 was used by Neil Gaiman in Sand­man in the 1990s.

Be­yond comics

Team­ing with Michael Ka­luta, Barry Wind­sor-Smith and Jeff Jones in a shared Chelsea (NY) loft to form The Stu­dio gave Wright­son a taste of cre­ator­con­trolled life out­side of main­stream comics, and the col­lec­tive pro­duced an art book to rave re­views in 1979 but soon broke up. From the 1980s on­wards much of his work ap­peared in other me­dia, in­clud­ing Na­tional Lam­poon. He cre­ated book il­lus­tra­tions for Stephen King’s The Dark Tower Part V, Wolves of the Calla and a lim­ited edi­tion of The Stand, the cover for Meat­loaf’s 1981 al­bum Dead Ringers, and Hol­ly­wood crea­ture de­signs for suc­cess­ful films in­clud­ing Ghostbusters (1984), Galaxy Quest (1999) and Seren­ity (2005).

Still, Wright­son never left comics en­tirely, re­turn­ing for sto­ries which were more of­ten su­per­heroic in na­ture. He cre­ated Cap­tain Sternn for Heavy Metal, and beau­ti­fully il­lus­trated The Amaz­ing Spi­der-Man: Hooky graphic novel writ­ten by Su­san K. Put­ney, re­leased in 1986. With his close friend Jim Star­lin he drew the land­mark minis­eries Bat­man: The Cult and The

Weird (both 1988) for DC, as well as The In­cred­i­ble Hulk and the Thing: The Big Change (1987) and The Pu­n­isher: POV (1991) for Marvel. He il­lus­trated the 1998 Bat­man/Aliens cross­over for DC/Dark Horse and a num­ber of hor­ror minis­eries with Steve Niles for IDW from 2007 on­wards.

His edi­tion of Franken­stein was a labour of love on which he worked for no pay for seven years be­tween jobs, and he was dis­mayed at the time by the lack of ef­fort that was be­ing put into mar­ket­ing it or even in­tro­duc­ing it to book­shops. He was glad to see it re­leased at last by Dark Horse in 2008 in the sump­tu­ous hard­cover 25th An­niver­sary edi­tion it de­served. “When it was all done, I felt that I’d com­pleted a jour­ney,” he told Niles. “I had spent a long time push­ing the boul­der up the hill and I’d fi­nally got­ten there... and now I could get on with the rest of my life. I can look at those draw­ings now with a sense of pride and sat­is­fac­tion... They were done by some­one else, a young artist, un­afraid of hard work, ob­sessed re­ally. Well, all artists are nuts. It’s a sci­en­tific fact.”

Wright­son is sur­vived by his sec­ond wife Liz and his two sons with late first wife Michele Wright­son, an un­der­ground comic cre­ator her­self. He leaves be­hind a pow­er­ful legacy not only of great comic pages and il­lus­tra­tions, but a sense of his belief that artists out­side the medium – like the penand-ink mas­ters of the early 20th cen­tury who in­spired him – have much to teach about just how hu­man and how hor­ri­fy­ing art can be.

I’d just bro­ken up and poured my heart and soul into it

Op­po­site page: All kinds of genre ele­ments were thrown into the mix, even sci-fi mon­sters. Above: From pi­rates to ship­wrecks, the setup was per­versely nau­ti­cal, just with­out any water.

Be­low: Cov­ers for the se­ries were pro­vided by star artists in­clud­ing Mark Tex­eira, Glenn Fabry and Kevin Nowlan.

Right: Ez­querra in­dulges a taste for the grotesque as much as En­nis does.

Above: If the oceans have evap­o­rated and there’s no water, how has any­one sur­vived? Where do they find fuel or am­mu­ni­tion? It’s never quite ex­plained...

Be­low: Is­sue 4 cover by Bill Sienkiewicz.

Above: A touch of The Man With No Name, a dash of Jonah Hex, a hint of Stron­tium Dog... but the Pil­grim is still a mem­o­rable char­ac­ter.

Above left: Like his con­tem­po­raries at The Stu­dio, Michael Ka­luta, Barry Wind­sorSmith and Jeff Jones, Wright­son as­pired to take his art be­yond comics.

Above: Wright­son de­vel­oped amoral ad­ven­turer Cap­tain Sternn in the late 1970s, and the story was se­ri­alised in Heavy Metal in 1980. A minis­eries was pub­lished by Kitchen Sink Press in 1993.

Top: Wright­son’s pen­chant for hor­ror, in­flu­enced by his early taste for EC Comics, is never very far away.

Above: Wright­son felt he had found his niche at DC in the hor­ror an­thol­ogy comics boom of the 1970s.

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