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
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.”
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.”
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
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.
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.