If there’s one thing that Garth Ennis does better than most other writers whose work I buy based on their name alone, it’s that he knows how to properly tweak the tone of his stories to show the character types and story tropes he likes in a new light each time. Think about how the violence in his early “Punisher” stories makes for hilarious slapstick, yet the same level of human cruelty comes off as utterly chilling in “Crossed.” Ennis knows that everything in a story contributes to its tone and adjusts accordingly each time based on the tale he’s going to tell. “Red Team” finds him in a serious mood again as he chronicles the exploits of four cops who cross the line when it comes to protecting the streets from the scum of the Earth. Even if their story is bigger on telling than it is on showing and winds up in a familiar place, the route it takes to get there is thankfully free of obvious convention.
Eddie Mellinger, Trudy Giroux, Duke Wylie and George Winburn are the members of the “Red Team,” the NYPD’s elite anti-narcotics unit. Though the four of them are extremely good at what they do, they find themselves up against a brick wall when it comes to taking down notorious druglord Clinton Days. After the man’s latest effort to beat the rap leaves an undercover officer dead, the Red Team takes it upon themselves to murder Days for what he has done. That’s the story that Eddie and Trudy tell to an unnamed and unseen third party at a later date as they both recount their team’s ultimate fate.
The fact that the story is being told in this fashion should give you an inkling as to how it all turns out. Yet if you’re expecting that the members of the Red Team “broke bad” and wound up becoming as villainous as the criminals they executed, either turning on themselves or having to be brought down by the police, then you’d be wrong. Ennis knows what you’re expecting and works hard to wrongfoot your assumptions. Do you think that the “Worst possible thing” that could happen to the team on their first outing would involve a civilian dying as a result of their actions, or someone leaving behind a critical piece of evidence? Not the case at all. In fact, the consequences of the team’s exploits have more complex consequences that involve them not seeing the bigger picture and witinessing things that they never would have seen otherwise. It was no small pleasure to have the story take these interesting twists and turns over its course, and it was downright refreshing to see the “anti-romance” develop between Eddie and Trudy.
Had this been pitched as a movie, one could easily have seen someone trying to work in a romance between the two in order to broaden its appeal and add to the drama. Here, Ennis emphatically lays out the fact that he’s having none of that crap as Eddie and Trudy’s partnership is nearly wrecked after the former makes an attempted drunken pass at the latter. Not only is it easy to understand why such a thing would drive a wedge between these otherwise consummate professionals, but it’s also welcome to see the two talk their way out of it like adults and not squabbling teenagers.
Being the effective co-narrators, Eddie and Trudy are the most well-developed members of the cast as well. The rest of them don’t get the same treatment, yet manage to work well enough in their established roles. Duke and George are defined in captions as men who probably saw the same John Wayne movie growing up and decided that’s what a man should be like are presented as such, unwavering in their decisions and confident in all things. They provide a level-headedness that grounds the entire endeavor, yet it also makes them a bit dull until things start going wrong towards the end. Then you’ve got the police chief who keeps a steady hand on the drama in his department and while he may have some secrets of his own, the man shows himself in the end to have the best understanding of everything that went on. Other characters like narcotics officer O’Dwyer and hotheaded waste of space Williams have memorable, if familiar roles to play as well. In fact, if you’ve been reading Ennis’ comics long enough you can have yourself a great drinking game by taking a shot each time you’re reminded of another character from his stories while taking in the cast here. That’s not altogether a bad thing when you consider that while Eddie may be playing the role of the well-meaning innocent who gets caught up in unpleasantness -- just like Wee Hughie in “The Boys” -- he’s got more backbone and skill than a lot of other characters who have played this role before.
While there is an overall familiarity to the cast and story of “Red Team,” it’s not of the kind that breeds contempt. If the book has any failing, it’s that Ennis seems bent on telling us more about the characters and their world than actually showing it to us. For one example: Eddie and his wife only have a few panels together, yet we get reams of text spelling out the troubled state of their marriage. I’ll admit that there’s plenty of characterization that’s revealed through some of these conversations, but for a team that makes a rule of “No Speeches” in their exploits we sure see them talk each others’ ears off over the course of this story.
One has to wonder if Ennis felt the need to spell everything out in the narration because he’s working with a new artist for “Red Team.” This is the first I’ve heard of Craig Cermak, yet I think he acquits himself well here. He’s good with the expressiveness that’s a key characteristic of two of the writer’s most notable collaborators -- Steve Dillon and Darick Robertson -- and knows how to stage a dramatic shot or extended gunfight sequence. If he does wind up working with Ennis again, it’d be interesting to see if their next collaboration winds up being less text-heavy than this one.
That said, we are left with the expectation that “Red Team” will see a second volume at some point. There’s a little “1” on the side and even though the main story is effectively wrapped up here, the door is left wide open for more stories involving the characters that survived this one. Granted, the door is left open in an annoying fashion that implies at least one of the cast learned nothing from everything that came before. Even with this particular issue, I’m involved enough with the characters and their world now that I’d like to see how they deal with what has gone down here. This may not rank up there with Ennis’ best, but it’s still a great showcase of his skill as a writer and willingness to push his style in new and interesting directions.