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Trouble with Comics, Guest Reviewer Month - Nina Stone on Garth Ennis' Troubled Souls

Guest Reviewer Month - Nina Stone on Garth Ennis’ Troubled Souls

I don’t really know Nina Stone. I don’t just mean that she’s relatively new to writing about comics (and reading them!). I mean that of all the people I invited, she’s the only one I haven’t had any direct contact with, as her husband Tucker has been the intermediary, which I find rather touchingly protective. But I really wanted to get her in on this little project because I find her work so fresh. She’s been writing this great series at The Factual Opinion where essentially each new book is like dating a new guy. It’s a witty, feminine take on something I hadn’t really thought about before, but you know, the relationship guys have with comics isn’t so far from this. We obsess over them, we get our greasy mitts on them, instantly diminishing or tainting them, we cast them aside for small flaws or just because we can’t accept them for what they are, if that isn’t what we expect them to be. Anyway, she has a nice style and her work is always too smart to try to get any mileage from some sort of doe-eyed comics innocence.

—Christopher Allen

Troubled Souls

Writer - Garth Ennis

Artist - John McCrea

(currently out of print; you might find one here)

If you’ve read anything I’ve ever written before, you know that I’m not a long-time comics reader, nor do I know a lot about various writers and artists.  But I have been dabbling in this world for a couple of years now, and now and then, I do recognize a name.  (Often the recognition is “Oh, that’s the guy my husband loves and reads obsessively.)

So, I come to Troubled Souls never having read Crisis or, honestly, much of Garth Ennis except for an issue of The Boys.

As a newcomer to this world of comics, I have to say that it is really enjoyable to pick up a full collection (or “trade” as I guess it’s called—why is it called that?), and read a full story from beginning to end about characters I’ve never read about before.  And in this case, too, about a place I’ve read little about.  I love Ireland!  I went there for a study abroad.  But I’ve never read much about it or too many stories set there.  Bravo for the history lesson embedded in the story.  I guess I’m not the only non-Irish who doesn’t know so much about the history of Ireland.  It was done in a lovely way, as if Tom (the main character) was brushing up on history for himself, and we got to read it like notes on lined paper. 

Troubled Souls is more than just a story about the ongoing Irish conflict(s). It seems to me that it was a story about one’s love of friends, family, country and (least of all) self, and the difficulty one goes through when forced to put those in some order of priority.  I found the underlying theme to be about self-preservation.  When it comes down to choosing sides, beliefs, and standing by what we value, what wins out in the battle of one’s own heart and mind?  Do you stand for what your family believes in just because they do and have always told you too?  Do you do it just because you love them?  What actions do you take and what do you own up to?

Tom’s crisis begins after he plants a bomb for the IRA under duress, because he thinks he’s a coward.  But he also did it because he loves his family, his friends and his girlfriend and didn’t want anything bad to happen to them—and something would have, that’s pretty definite. Yet he’s unable to come clean with them and tell them what he did, for fear that he’d lose their love.  Subsequently, he loses them all anyway, as he decides he needs to leave home in order to move forward with his life. It’s a painful story.

Likewise, Damien, who seems like pure evil at first, turns out to be a guy whose motivation for becoming a “bomb-thrower” was his love for his dead brother.  He mentions the politics, but it’s all theoretical rationalization—he kills people in the name of love and loyalty to someone he misses. But when it came time for him to kill Tom, he isn’t able to do it.  Although he’d killed so many before, he knew he’d killed them out of love (for his brother) and out of hate (for his brother’s death).  He felt neither for Tom—there’s a vague friendship that develops, but that’s it—and without some kind of extreme emotional response, he just gives up.

Who is good and who is evil?  Who’s right and who’s wrong? Tom and Damien are characters who represent the two opposing sides of the conflict in a complicated fashion, and I think Garth Ennis wanted to depict that no one side is purely right or purely wrong, not when you’re staring at their motives. Both are motivated by a strong love of their families, their friends and their country, and both sides are motivated by what they perceive as a justifiable hate of the other side’s objective.

It was enlightening for me to learn how this conflict seems to color every little exchange in Northern Ireland, with people either get on board and fighting, or willfully ignoring it and trying to live their lives.  The only other choice seems to be to leave. 

Tom refers to himself as a coward.  So does Damien. I didn’t see Tom so much as a coward, I just saw how he felt impotent in his power to exert any change. I saw a failure of opportunity to do something other than what he did. I think if he had a chance to make the choice again, it probably would have played out the exact same way. It just seemed like the conflict, the corruption, it was all too deep, too far gone in motion for any one single person to construct any change. It was an engine, he was lost in it, and that’ll leave anyone feeling impotent.

The part of the story where Tom and Damien are hiding in the safe house exchanging stories and becoming friends is, of course, really poignant. The story in the comic comes from that hopeful, sincere perspective that if opposing sides, forces, could just spend time together and really talk things out, there could be understanding, respect and perhaps some version of peace.  It’s kind of quaint, but it’s clearly focused on how that can be true on a personal level. It understood that as soon as you let the world back in, it’s impossible to maintain, as evidenced by what happens when Tom runs out of Damien’s car, luring him toward death.

I’m surprised by how quickly I read it.  I thought due to my unfamiliarity with the subject matter, and the length, it would take me a while.  But it grabbed my attention and held it from beginning to end.

John McCrea’s art is really interesting.  I’m not sure I’ve seen anything like it.  It seems mostly like watercolor work, and it’s really beautiful. I liked that although the topic of this comic is dark, the art is mostly light in color.  I think there’s a tendency to draw anything that’s about war, conflict or violence in dark greens, reds and black.  Even when the color palette is broader, it still tends to use dark and gloomy colors.  Here, almost everything was in yellow tones and hues.  It felt like great juxtaposition to the feeling of conflict. I also really liked that, every now and then, there was a splash of photo-realism or a series of frames in black and white. All in all, it’s really enjoyable art that didn’t distract me from the story, aided in telling it.

This was a great read.  It’s not just a way to spend the time or escape my day, but an enlightening and philosophically thought provoking story. 

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Nina Stone writes about comics and other things at The Factual Opinion.

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