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.
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.|
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."
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.|
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!|
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.
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!|
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.|
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.
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.|
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.|
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 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.|
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.|
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.|
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.|
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.|
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.|
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.