It’s no exaggeration to say that comic book auteur Garth Ennis is one of the most gifted natural storytellers currently working in any medium. The Northern Irish writer is probably best known for PREACHER, his epic 75-issue apocalyptic neo-Western (which to date has defied all attempts to adapt it to film and television), but he’s also been responsible for a slew of varied, visceral and literate projects over the last fifteen years, from the over-the-top grand guignol satire of THE BOYS to smaller, more intimate projects like Avatar Press’s 303 and the savagely amusing DICKS. Ennis’ relationship with Avatar is one of the key reasons for the indie company’s continuing success, with the CROSSED property, created by Ennis, going from strength to strength (see here and here for reviews), and STITCHED, the writer’s newest creation, also proving highly popular. STITCHED started out as a short film, a horror/war hybrid set in Afghanistan that pits the crew of a downed American Blackhawk helicopter and a trio of SAS soldiers against Taliban fighters and the ancient evil at their disposal, written and directed by Ennis. Available to preorder on DVD, the film seems to be stuck in limbo, but the premise has been expanded upon by Ennis and writer/artist, and Avatar stalwart, Mike Wolfer, in the form of an ongoing STITCHED comic book. The first storyline (which, presumably, represents the film Ennis would have made had the funding been available) recently wrapped.
Tempting as it is to think of Ennis as the creative powerhouse behind STITCHED, it’s actually Wolfer who deserves the accolade. The concept is certainly Ennis’, and he wrote the first issue, but after that Wolfer was on his own, providing both the script (following Ennis’ story outline) and the artwork. He even produced each issue’s three covers (a sales gimmick Avatar is renowned for). A veteran of innumerable NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD spin-offs, Wolfer came into his own during his collaboration with famed British writer Warren Ellis on Avatar’s GRAVEL ongoing series. The story of an SAS ‘combat magician,’ Wolfer both drew and scripted GRAVEL from Ellis’ detailed, dialogue-heavy synopses. With STITCHED Wolfer has taken it a step further and is responsible for the entire package. It’s testament to the strength of his writing that the transition between the first issue and the rest of the series is seamless. His dialogue is taut and entirely believable (even his British slang, which American writers so often fall foul of, is spot on), and the characters are both distinct and developed. The story, while fairly straightforward, effectively marries the horror and war genres (not a great stretch, admittedly), without overindulging either. The concept of ‘the Stitched,’ men transformed by supernatural means into mindless, unkillable zombies, paranormal WMDs at the beck and call of the Taliban, is a strong one, but Ennis and Wolfer are seasoned enough to realise that a concept alone isn’t enough to sell a story. The focus is on the plight of the survivors, their desperate attempts to stay alive and to complete the humanitarian mission they commit to along the way.
Avatar is such a popular destination for the comic book elite (Ennis, Ellis, Alan Moore, Mark Millar) because it eschews censorship of any kind. As a consequence, it’s responsible for some of the most brutally unflinching depictions of horror in recent times. STITCHED, while not quite as extreme as CROSSED, which delights in plumbing the depths of human depravity and hopelessness, is still excessively graphic, with the kind of gruelling gore you simply can’t get away with at the movies. Wolfer doesn’t flinch from these sickening depictions, but neither does he glorify them – whether the protagonists are being stabbed or shot by the enemy, or torn limb from limb by the Stitched, the results are far from pretty. His layouts are simple and streamlined, his storytelling near-flawless. The clean, dynamic artwork is complimented by a lush colour palette (what could have been a visually tedious context – the rocky, sterile desert terrain – is anything but), creating an energetic, lucid reading experience that’s about as close to watching a film as comics get.
If I’m being picky, STITCHED’s erratic publishing schedule counts against it, but given the sheer amount of work Wolfer puts into every issue it’s a distinctly disingenuous criticism. Other than that, the series is an unqualified triumph. Ennis’ concept and storyline, as we’d expect from such an accomplished storyteller, are gripping, and Wolfer’s writing has really come into its own. His art is just as good, telling the story cleanly and clearly, while not skimping on the excessive gore. The war in Afghanistan is fertile soil for horror filmmakers (THE OBJECTIVE, RED SANDS, SAND SERPENTS) – STITCHED is better than any of them.
STITCHED short film trailer –