I wasn’t ready for Experience at first.
I had to wait some half-dozen years before I ventured into Martin Amis’ memoir, before I could really be drawn in by it. Which is to say I had needed some six, maybe seven years before I had become the kind of person drawn in by the reconstruction of the younger Amis and his father Kingsley that Experience draws you in with. When I finally picked up my copy, a paperback purchased some two or three years after, but by 2006/2007 already preponderanced with all that unread-ness that it dwelled on the shelf with, I was hit by the wave of its opening.
I had had a dalliance with The Information in 1994. Then a little later on with ‘Thinkability’. That Amis essay that opens Einstein’s Monsters had become a formative piece for me. But neither of those prepared me for crafted wonder of “My Missing”, Amis’ introduction to Experience. It’s not only the folds of Amis’ rich writing in Experience that I returned to reading and rereading Garth Ennis’ The Shadow, issue one and now again, issue two. But it’s also this idea of waiting. I’ve been waiting for The Shadow, waiting for exactly this turn in Ennis’ writing for some time now. Even perhaps, without fully realizing it.
Ennis drew me in the same Amis had. But the difference is, ready for it or not, Ennis drew me in right from the very beginning. There was something about those first Hellblazers of his… not so much “Dangerous Habits”, that was more Ennis finding his feet, finding the temperament of the character. But from “The Pub Where I was Born” onwards, right through to that final bone-chilling arc “Rake at the Gates of Hell” (the excruciating, masterful horror of the darkened opening page, and that single caption “If any would like to say a few words for him, now’s the time”), Ennis held me and countless others in his thrall.
But ultimately Hellblazer wouldn’t be quite the right tempo for Ennis. Or at least not the Ennis that would be among a handful of gifted postwar writers, the Ennis who could easily go round for round with the likes of Mailer or Thompson or Miller (Henry, not Frank). Neither would Ennis’ next project Preacher. There’s too much tilting-at-the-world in the idea of those books. There’s too much of an honorable schoolboy’s childhood redacted, but then also prolonged into adulthood. Amis in Experience, talking about the deceased father being a psychic wound on the son, the trauma of there no longer being an intercessor between the son and death, rings truest for these books.
But the Ennis in ascension, the Ennis who would make his mark as a man of letters with books like Punisher MAX, we’d first glimpse at in Unknown Soldier. Ennis’ Soldier was a monstrous, necessary, saintly figure. The man most singularly responsible for the bloody business of enacting the dirty work of Cold War foreign policy. “Such a confrontation”, Ennis writes for the Soldier, while he surveys the horrors of the Holocaust and ponders the monsters-in-human-form who were the Nazis “is simply the American destiny”. And it’s that fire and that righteous rage that fuels the Soldier in confronting enemy after enemy of postwar US foreign policy. Iranians, Contras, Vietcong.
If Ennis’ crafting of this character were any less fine, it would still be magical. But if it were any less fine, I might more easily cloak it in Martin Amis’ words, again from Experience, that it was “…a view from a senior humanity”. But neither Ennis’ Soldier nor his Punisher were “…a view form senior humanity”, more a view form a senior morality. It is this looking down on and standing in judgment over human frailty that Ennis captures magnificently in his vision of the immortal Walter Gibson creation.
The Shadow has always been ambiguous. Coming from both radio plays and pulp novels, the Shadow has had a choppy history, one that subsequent writers have always exploited. Was he a solo avenger of crime? Did he operate a network of spies? Did he learn the secret of how to cloud men’s minds in “the Orient”? Writers used all of these elements or none, the murky, unintegrated depths of the character being eerily reminiscent of his name.
But Ennis finds another way into the character. A way that interrogates why it is that “The Shadow knows”, and why he feels compelled to act on what he knows. What Ennis presents is a Shadow who is a master strategist in the great game of Fate. And when Ennis does this, it is the Ennis at his most masterful, the Ennis every bit with equal of Mailer or Thompson or Miller.
This is more than an invigoration of the character. Ennis’ The Shadow is quite simply Nolan’s Dark Knight against whoever it was that made Batman & Robin.