There was a time, back in the days of “Hitman,” where Garth Ennis’ superhero-baiting humor felt transgressive and genuinely funny. Whether it was Hitman puking on Batman’s shoes, Kev taking the piss out of the Authority, or seeing the Punisher run over Wolverine with a steamroller, there was a time when I genuinely enjoyed seeing the writer make fun of superheroes. Then time marched on and superhero comics eventually became more willing to laugh at their own conventions and I eventually found out that Ennis’ laughs at their expense came not from a place of love but utter contempt. “The Boys” still stands as his ultimate statement on the genre, a remarkable achievement in that it manages to be funny and have some insightful things to say about male relationships and superheroes while also revelling in the author’s brand of crass and tasteless self-indulgence.
What does this have to do with “Sixpack and Dogwelder?” Well, aside from being another great showcase for the talents of Russ Braun, who illustrated the latter half of “The Boys” and several other Ennis projects, it’s another project where the DC Universe gets to take its lumps from Ennis. It’s also a follow-on to “All-Star Section Eight” where the absolutely awful team of superheroes from “Hitman” tried to learn about what it takes to be a superhero by bothering individual members of the Justice League. Well, it was really their perpetually sloshed leader, Sixpack, who did the bothering and it was more memorable for the meta nature of his struggle and the really dark turn the story took when Superman got involved at the end.
Though that series didn’t make much an impression critically or sales-wise, nostalgia is still the order of the day in the industry. Any kind of nostalgia, it would seem. I’m honestly hard-pressed to explain the existence of this series beyond appealing to a) that small cult of “Hitman” fans and b) people with nostalgia for Ennis’ trolling of DC (and superheroes in general). Being a member of both camps, this miniseries should’ve been a home run straight into the pleasure centers of my brain.
Instead, it kind of left me hoping that this is the last of its kind. “Sixpack and Dogwelder” is a generally unfunny miniseries that tries to mine humor from absurdity and mean-spiritedness and largely fails. It even makes some ill-advised stabs at sentiment when it tries to have co-headliner Dogwelder confront the family life he left behind after he put on that cursed welder’s mask. Though Sixpack’s neverending journey to be considered a true superhero is still a notable part of the plot, the focus here is on the welder-of-dogs as Ennis takes him through a not all that inspired retread of the classic “American Gothic” arc from “Swamp Thing.”
If you’ve never read Alan Moore’s run on that title, do yourself a favor and go read that instead. The arc in question runs through the majority of volumes three and four. I bring it up here as a point of comparison because “American Gothic” was notable for introducing us to the one and only John Constantine as he cheekily brought Swamp Thing up to speed on his powers and the dark threat facing the world. He plays much the same role here, only this time he’s doing it for a character who welds dogs to anyone unlucky enough to cross his path.
I’ll admit that it’s an amusing setup for this story, yet it’s one that isn’t really played for laughs. Ennis’ take on Constantine here is particularly savage and easily the most memorable part of this volume. Aside from turning the character’s cockney accent up to eleven, he’s now been gifted with a flying silver surfboard, a “Hellblazer” raygun, and an astronaut helmet because why the hell not. It’s plenty embarrassing for the character, but it’s nothing compared to Ennis’ spot-on analysis of his plight after leaving the Vertigo imprint in the second issue. Though Constantine gamely embraces his role as crafty mystic here, he still breaks down from time to time either to exclaim “I used to bloody be someone!” or to deny the fact that he really is a superhero now.
I kind of wish that Ennis had leaned more into the mean-spiritedness of his take on Constantine here for the story itself. Whether or not he decided to play it safe here or was warned off by editorial everything else feels pretty toothless by comparison. A comically inept and street-talking Spectre? Sure. Rehashing “I’m Spartacus!” for Baytor? I guess. The Parliament of Dogwelders? I’m pretty sure we all saw that coming given the origins of this story. It’s not a complete loss as there are some glimmers of wit in Dogwelder’s role with the origin of the Egyptian god Anubis and the revelation of his ultimate fate. Yet for another Ennis-written story that looks to mock the superhero genre the humor here is decidedly more miss than hit.
At least it has Russ Braun on hand to make things look good. It’s worth noting that this miniseries featured covers from the late, great Steve Dillon. Normally, any artist would be hard-pressed to compete with the comic expressiveness that Dillon brought to his work… but Braun is actually a pretty great successor to that school of art. He brings plenty of great goofy detail to the characters he draws and does his best to sell the admittedly thin humor on the page. I at least enjoyed looking at “Sixpack and Dogwelder” thanks to Braun’s work.
This miniseries appears to have made less of a dent in the market than its predecessor did, so don’t expect more of its type from DC in the future. Ennis’ current project for the publisher is the Hanna-Barbera spinoff “Dastardly and Muttley” of which I’m still not sure what to think. I should probably point out that the writer’s best work in recent years usually results from him playing it straight. Whether it’s the “Fury” maxi-series, “Dreaming Eagles,” or “Johnny Red” he can still entertain when he’s telling a story that has some grounding to it. Maybe Ennis should just stay away from superheroes for good now.