Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Troubled Souls (CRISIS #15-20, #22-27)

"And I'm a murderer.  But I don't tell Liz that" - Tom

Garth Ennis has always been disgustingly talented.  This story was his first professionally published work, and while a little rough around the edges, deals with a difficult and emotive issue - the Northern Irish Troubles - with even handedness and tact.  By showing us an everyman caught up in events he barely understands, Ennis finds humanity amongst the horror of terrorism and living under the threat of terrorism and shows there were no easy answers to a conflict who's roots go back centuries.  Published in CRISIS, a comic for oldeer teens and adults, in 1989 when he was just nineteen (!), Ennis who self describes as an atheist takes no sides but that of his main character Thomas Boyd who finds himself an unwilling party to an act of violence and who tried desperately to justify just what he has been dragged into, although guilt and self knowledge work against his denial.  This is also Ennis's first collaboration with artist John McCrea, an artist he's still working with today (All Star Secion Eight from last year being the most recent). McCrea's artwork is a little different here, less cartoony and designed to fit in with the painted styles that were so fashionable in UK comics at the time.  His character designs are still very identifiable, and though I usually am not keen on painted artwork, the subdued nature of it here suits the extremely serious subject matter in question.
We are introduced to Tom having just signed on the dole, he has his I.D. checked by a British soldier, "must have caught him on a good day" thinks Tom as the man pleasantly sends him on his way, "or maybe it's just he realised I'm a Prod [Protestant], like"  He goes and joins his mates in the pub, Dougie, Valerie and Liz, a girl he really fancies.  Tom scans the pub thinking, "Aye, just ordinary people having a drink".

He gets tricked into buying a round of drinks and as he goes to the bar, a man with a moustache raises a glass to him, much to Tom's confusion. Back with the others, they tell Liz about a lads camping trip he and Dougie just got back from.  In the toilet later, Tom asks Dougie why Liz is there, he knows Tom fancies her.  Dougie just sings and refuses to be drawn.

When he gets back to her, she asks him about going exploring when he was off camping.  Tom stammers that he hates sitting in one place, "festerin'".  She smiles at him and says, "That's really nice.  I like that in a man".  Tom mentally exhorts himself to not be a prick and lamely responds, "Oh yeah, that's me alright."

As he kicks himself, three officers from the Royal Ulster Constabulary enter the bar.  The man with a moustached gets up and drops a package in Tom's lap before being taken away by them.  Tom opens the package and to his horror finds it contains a gun.
An unpleasant surprise.
Frozen in place, a million thoughts race through Tom's mind.  He thinks he should just get up, go outside and hand the gun to the law:

Tom: "What in God's name's the matter with me?  Somebody dumps a gun on you, you tell the peelers [police].  You don't just sit there like an eejit.  So why don't my legs work?  Im - my God - I'm too scared".

The moustached man returns to the bar and Tom goes over to him and hands him back the gun saying he won't breathe a word of this.  The man spits out blood and a tooth and replies "with that attitude you could go far."
Introducing Damien.
Next day at home Tom gets into an argument with his patriotic father.  When he questions his dad's describing "Taigs"[Catholics] as "bloody animals" his dad goes ballistic.  Luckily Tom is rescued by his brother Andy, he says in this country people pass their hate along to their kids "this wee country's a mess because of it".  So he's leaving for England where job prospects are better.  He tells Tom to go see their Aunt Angie.

Tom does so because he needs to talk about the gun incident and he knows he can trust Aunt Angie with his secrets.  She reassures him that there was nothing he could do.  Tom says "the peelers had hit this fella - he was spittin' blood an' all".  When his aunt says but the man was planning to do something bad with the gun, Tom says "he hadn't done anything yet".

Aunt Angie: "You either have to live with the Troubles or leave, like Andy's doing.  Picking through the rights and wrongs of it'll get you nowhere".

Feeling a little better about things, Tom gives her a kiss goodbye and walks off down the road.  Waiting for him, slouched against a lampost is the man with the moustache.  They go to a nearby cafe and the man gets them both a cup of tea.  He tells Tom he is after someone reliable, "someone who swears he won't say a word.  And actually doesn't".
An unwelcome stalker.
Tom gets up to leave, he wants nothing to do with him.  The man makes veiled threats against Tom's family and Liz.  Tom sits back down.  The man says his name is Damien, "and I work for people who don't like the people in charge of this country."  Tom says he's not killing anybody.  Damien makes threats again. Tom says "they'd rather die before seein' me out killin' people".  But when Damien says "Suppose you'd be glad to oblige" Tom cracks and pleads with Damien not to hurt them.

Damien: "Aye, I thought so.  Bloody Prods... this wouldn't even be necessary if you'd wake up to the Brits playin' their con-tricks on you for hundreds of years."

He leaves saying Tom will be contacted and not to do anything silly.  Not long after Tom leaves as well, and thinks about what Damien meant when he talked about "con-tricks".  So he goes to the library to research the history of the Irish Troubles and we get a slightly inelegant text dump over three pages, if you want to depress yourself, read the up on it on wikipedia.  Spoiler, it has a (relatively) happy ending.
Take that history!
Afterwards Tom thinks it was enlightening but hasn't helped him with his problem.  Later Tom joins his friends, it's evening of July 12th the day a Protestant celebration takes place.  Liz isn't there though, and Tom isn't in the party mood.  As he starts to think sympathetic thoughts towards the Catholics his inner voice won't shut up contradicting him.

Tom: "(Maybe it's all one bloody awful mess and believing on sides better than the other is the first sign of a thoroughgoing prick)"

He walks home thinking; "I'll have to do what Damien wants (You gutless wee shite)."

Next day Tom is walking with Damien who says they are going ahead with the plan in a few days time, "the destruction of a British Army landrover".  Tom will most likely act as lookout, and when Tom blanches at this, Damien tells him to clear off and think about what will happen to his family if he tried to wriggle out of it somehow.
Later in the pub he bumps into Liz.  She joins him for a drink but says she'll have to be going soon as she is visiting her aunt who lives in a posh area called Cherry Hill.  Liz says she's a "rotten old cow" and would Tom like to come along too?  He agrees and they take the bus out there.

She is indeed a horrible snob, and is politely rude to Tom.  She says she's just back from visiting Scotland and that when people on the mainland find out you are from Northern Ireland they are full of sympathy and wonder if you've ever been shot.  But she says the violence is in places, "one just wouldn't go".  This angers Tom into saying that people who live in those places don't have a choice in the matter.

Aunt Sarah: "Thomas.  I never forget that those people live there.  The fact they're allowed to live anywhere is on my conscience every waking moment."

Liz quickly changes the subject to gardening and Tom escapes with his life.  As they head back home he apologises, but Liz says she "wouldn't have taken you for a social reformer".  Without thinking, Tom responds "Ah-ha.  But would you take me at all?"  Liz just smiles, then comments that everyone has a nasty aunt.  So Tom takes her to visit Aunt Angie to prove her wrong.
You're in there Tom!
After a pleasant evening round there, Tom walks Liz home.  He asks her out for a drink sometime and she responds with a passionate hug and kiss that he decides to take as a yes.  feeling cheerful he walks home singing, then Damien comes out of the shadows and tells Tom it's been decided what he'll be doing, not acting as lookout, "you're planting the bomb".

We next join Tom on his way to plant the bomb in a litter bin attached to a lampost.  Damien's told him the bomb will "maybe just knock the soldiers about a wee bit".  Tom thinks that's a lie, and maybe Damien doesn't have the clout to hurt his family like he threatened.:

Tom: "And I'm still about to plant the bomb.  All because Damien was lucky.  He found just what he needed when he found me.  A coward."

He desposits the bomb, then realises Liz only lives a couple of streets away, which throws him into such a panic he goes and hides out at home to get his head together.
The reluctant bomber.
His best mate Dougie calls round and they hang out together for the day.  They decide to call on a friend called Ivor who has just got out of prison.  He joined the Ulster Volunteer Force, but shot himself in the foot before he could hurt any Republicans.  They watch Full Metal Jacket on video and afterwards Tom says he found it depressing.

Tom: "The soldiers in it.  They acted like animals, but they were just like us at the beginning.  What I mean is they were turned into that and they had no choice..."

The other two think he's "talkin' shite".  Ivor says the soldiers who arrested and roughed him up were bastards.  Tom and Dougie leave and Dougie mentions that Tom has been seeing Liz recently.

This makes Tom suddenly remember the bomb and the fact its due to go off very soon.  He rushes to a payphone and calls her house, but it told she has nipped to the cornershop close by for some milk.  In a panic, Tom runs off to get to her before the bomb explodes.
He goes belting down the road to where Liz is coming out of the shop and the landrover is turning into the road approaching the bomb.  She is surprised to see him, he babbles something about meeting her parents.  When she asks if he is OK he hurries her on saying he is fine.  They near the corner around which safety lies but his mind is racing again.

Tom: "Now.  Get her out of here.  Go, go, go! (no.  Turn and look).  Three steps and we'll be round the corner, just keep moving - (Look).  For Christ's sake get out - (You're responsible for this. LOOK)."

And a shattering explosion hits the landrover, while Tom is struck in the leg by some shrapnel.  He sees one of the soldiers alive for a few seconds die in front of him and passes out.
Blood on Tom's hands now.
He comes to, telling Liz he is dying and that he loves her.  She tells him not to be daft, and as the ambulances arrive she says he'll be fine.  As he is loaded into one she tells him she'll come visit him at the hospital.  But all he can think is, "so I'm going to live, then.  Pity."

Recovering in hospital, Tom is visited by his aunt then Dougie and Valerie, who are getting married due to pregnancy and Tom will be best man.  Left alone, Tom idly watches a news report on some TV coverage of the shooting of an R.U.C officer the night before.  He notes the saminess of the coverage of the Troubles, skimpy report, condemnation from a politician, no words from the IRA due to reporting restrictions, then a "funny" item to follow so people won't get depressed before they tune in to Neighbours.

Tom: "We've had twenty years of the Troubles.  They probably got bored of it over the water in '71 or so.  And we're as bad.  We wake up, hear about the nights murders, mutter 'bastards' at the radio and forget about it."

After sending a Daily Mail ("evil") reporter away with a flea in her ear, Liz comes to visit.  She thanks him for saving her life, and for declaring his love, "I reckon I'll stick with you wee fella" and she kisses him before she leaves.  "I don't deserve her one bit" thinks Tom.
The Daily Mail - always been evil.
Meanwhile Damien is getting bollocked by his superior, "Mr Rourke" is angry Damien involved a Prod.  He calls his actions cretinous then gives him an ultimatum, Tom is a security risk, "It's you or him".  Damien has to kill Tom now to protect himself. 

We then get a peek into Damien's mind as he stalks the recently released from hospital, Tom. When he realises that he's going to shoot him with the same gun Tom held for him back in the pub, guilt wells up inside him.  He bears down on a terrfied Tom and thinks, "Oh Christ - I can't do this".

We then jump to Tom on an island called Rathlin of the north coast of the country.  He remembers how when he saw Damien he just ran, Damien could have caught him what with Tom having a bad leg, but only chased him about twenty yards.  Tom took his brothers old car and fled to the island.
Tom relaxes in the Northern Ireland the news doesn't care about.
He mulls over the fact that this is the Northern Ireland the people on the mainland don't see.  It wasn't always so peaceful though, invasions and massacres happened about once every hundred years.  But now the place is quiet and untouched by violence, "can we leave the violence behind too?  Can I?"

He phones Liz and lets her know he is OK and that he just needed some time alone after what happened.  "Hurry home, eh? See ya!" she tells him and he regards the phone thoughtfully saying "Aye right..."  And he catches the boat back, he "done enough running", he's going to deal with whatever gets thrown at him head on.

Damien is speaking with Mr. Rourke again on a hill overlooking Belfast.  When Damien admits he hasn't killed Tom yet, Rourke says that Damien has not only been unable to deal with a security risk, he's become one himself.  If he won't kill Tom, Rourke will get someone who will and Damien's days will be numbered.
Damien is given the kill order.
Angrily Damien says he'll do it.  Then a car with some U.V.F (Ulster Volunteer Force - Protestants)  members pull up, there for business reasons.  Damien is aghast the I.R.A would be colluding with the enemy like this, Rourke merely says, "if you've been asked to carve, then you ought to make sure you can see the turkey."
A subdued Tom gets ready for a meal out while his father tries unsuccessfully to have a conversation with him.  He is similarly quiet over dinner.  On the way home he ignored a blatant come on from Liz, and after walking in silence for a while she stops him and asks what's the matter.

He lies to her saying he doesn't have a clue.  After she leaves him and he carries on home, he thinks about the six men he murdered and how he tried to justify it and how he can't put it behind him.  Then Damien appears pointing a gun at him.  "Don't run.  Please" he says.
Damien captures Tom.
In a deserted house, Damien is holding a terrified Tom prisoner.  Tom won't talk so Damien sits and tells him about his brother Jamie who died in the crossfire when the Provos (I.R.A) ambushed a British army patrol. He blamed the British and and soon as he got the chance, joined the Provos, "I was perfect for them an' all.  A grudge against the British... young... idealistic."  He says he's only twenty-three and has done evil things.  "I've ruined my own life and probably yours while I'm at it" he tells Tom.

He says the night he dropped the gun in Tom's lap he targeted Tom as being too scared to do anything about it.  Tom says he was right, "perfect material."

Damien: "Aye.  There'll always be perfect material and there'll always be leaders to use them.  I think the worst thing I did was to be a leader."

As night falls they start drinking. Damien says he's become disillusioned with the cause, seeing how both sides have Belfast stitched up between them, keeping a war boiling so, "nobody notices you bleedin' the city white".
Tom and Damien bond.
After more chatter on the history of the Troubles, Damien asks if they can talk about something else.  And as night carries on they chat, and drink, and bond and Tom realises they've become friend as they shake hands.

Tom: "And if we can be friends, I think to myself if we can do it, surely everyone can?"

The next day dawns and the R.U.C are staking out the house.  As a hungover Tom shakes Damien awake, the police open fire on the building.

Somehow the pair of them escape and walk to a nearby village where they get a car, as they drive back to Belfast, Damien says he believes his I.R.A buddies tipped the police off as to where he would be.  He tells Tom about NORAID, the Americans who fund the I.R.A and how they invite a group to come see how their money was being spent.

Plenty of Irish Americans with blood on their hands.
He carries on talking about the hypocrisy of the I.R.A, "getting bitter and angry".  Back in the city, Tom looks around at the people just living their lives and realises he wants to be ordinary again.

Tom: "I want to get rid of my Troubles.  And even though it's a betrayal of everything Damien and I have realised.  Of everything we've understood.  Of our impossible friendship, I do it anyway."

And he jumps out of the car and runs with Damien in pursuit.  When Damien thinks that Tom thinks he is going to shoot him, he takes out the gun and shows it to Tom saying it isn't even loaded.  And the nearby soldiers gun him down, killing him instantly leaving him dead at Tom's feet.
Damien killed by British soldiers.
A few days later Tom is packing to leave for the mainland.  He goes to say goodbye to his family, his dad says travel should help him "get over your trouble".  He hugs his mum and aunt before leaving.  He goes and says goodbye to Dougie and Valerie, then finally he meets up with Liz.

She can't believe he is leaving, he says he can't stay.  He tells her he's had enough of the city, "it's really bad and nobody's doin' anything about it."  When she tells him not to give up or they've won, he says sadly, "they won a long time ago".  He admires her strength in putting up with it, "you're stronger than me".  She looks away silently and we end with Tom on a ferry contemplating the loss of her and how Belfast looks at night.

Tom: "You just wouldn't know looking at it like this.  All you can see is lights.  And you're so desperate to see lights that you don't dare think about what's going on in the dark.  The war goes on."
Tom leaves his home, perhaps forever.
At 11:17 am on Saturday the 15th of June 1996 an IRA bomb detonated in the centre of Manchester.  It was the largest peacetime bombing that has ever taken place in Britain, and yet miraculously there was not a single fatality, and while two hundred and twelve people were injured, considering that a couple of hours earlier between 75,000–80,000 people were shopping and working in the vicinity, the evacuation can be considered a major success.  The next day I stood at the fenced off end of Corporation Street and looked at the wreckage and felt such a surge of pure hatred I was almost knocked off balance.  Younger people might not realise how inured you got to the weekly reports of bombings both in Northern Ireland and on the Mainland, but this was different.  This was the city of my birth.  The city whose university I was about to graduate from.  The city I still describe myself as coming from even though I live in a town next door now.  At that moment I wanted nothing less than Total War on the IRA and their sympathisers and would have supported any kind of retaliation no matter how bloody.  And yet, it ended up being the last major IRA attack on the UK mainland, and when I'd calmed down a bit I realised that though I'd never be happy seeing terrorists as respected politicians or released early in the name of peace, it was better in the long run for that to happen, to make those concessions than to keep on going with a miserable little  war that had claimed thousands of lives over thirty years.

Having grown up in Northern Ireland and been a child during the worst decade for violence - the 1970's - Garth Ennis still manages to give us a story that shows how hard it was even for the apolitical to stay out of involvement in The Troubles.  Tom is a likeable character, and by showing his unremarkable life with family and friends who love him, his life being pretty much ruined by a man who could be said to represent not the IRA but the violence of both sides, Ennis is making a statement about how all encompassing that violence was (and he'd deal with the organised crime/collusion between the IRA and UVF in his Authority: The Magnificent Kevin mini).  At least I didn't have to deal with soldiers on the street corners when I was growing up, soldiers who might resent the people they were ostensibly there to protect for dragging them into a guerilla war as much as the people they were fighting against.  Troubled Souls is an extremely mature piece of work, that while suffers a little from perhaps trying to cram too much in via the history lesson section, nevertheless shows many Garth Ennis tropes he'll go on to refine in future works such as solid male friendships, strong women, pubs, naturalistic working class language and an interest in the military.  Ennis himself is somewhat dismissive of this series saying of it that it was "the kind of thing that was doing well at the time. (...) With hindsight, what Troubled Souls really represented was naked ambition. It was a direct attempt to get published. And that was the road that seemed most likely to lead me to success."  But even so, I still find it a strong debut and one of the best strips CRISIS featured in its sixty issue run.  The follow ups, which featured more of his trademark humour I am less enamoured of, but along with fine work from John McCrea Troubled Souls is a fascinating snapshot of a period of UK history we'll hopefully never return to and the start of a long and illustrious career for Garth Ennis.


  1. it's been 20 years since the manchester bombing? wow, I was only little but that scared me when it happened. I don't have your ties to the city though i can see why you want to mark the aniversary. also this was garth ennis's first ever story? damn that dude hit the ground running didn't he? was an informative read anyway, peace out :)

  2. Time flies dunnit? At least the attack caused no casualties though it's arguable the regeneration of the area cost the city centre much of it's soul afterwards. But that couldn't be helped. And yes what Ennis was doing at 19 puts my own 19 year old self to shame lol.

  3. Britain's voted to leave the EU. If we want a fortified border between us and Europe, that would mean a fortified border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. This is a bit worrying.

  4. Also Scotland might have another independence vote as well and choose to stay in the EU. But yeah it's not a happy thought that stepping up border security between both Irelands might cause resentments to flare up again.

  5. ...and nobody seems to have thought that this might happen before they held that daft referendum.

    *sighs heavily enough to extinguish a candle on the other side of the room*

  6. I'm still trying not to think about it, it just makes me alternately depressed and rage filled. And the aftermath with BOTH parties in disarray? Good grief the Labour party is full of idiots now. >:(

  7. Well, it's led by Mr Corbyn, and birds of a feather...

  8. I'm just gonna avoid politics again, lose myself it horror films and comics like a responsible adult :D

  9. But Texas City is trying to stage a covert takeover of Mega-City One with the collusion of Brit-Cit! If that's not Important Political Stuff then I dunno what is.

  10. Now that's the kind of politics I can get behind lol!