Garth Ennis is probably my favorite comic book writer. He’s been criticized for being immature, overly violent, or too preachy in his stories and there’s a validity to those arguments. But when he wants to make serious, intense stories with a basis in reality, there’s no one better. You can see that level of care, seriousness, and respect by reading any story taking place in WWII, such as his War Stories and Battlefields series. You can see the same care whenever he tackles the Vietnam War, such as the scenes in Preacher about Jesse Custer’s father or the flashbacks in Punisher MAX. And, to the point of this story, you can see it when he tackles Westerns. Ennis is a huge Western fan. Preacher itself is a love-letter to Westerns, and he’s got Western stories in his long-running Punisher and Hitman series as well. But, as far as I know, he never attempted to do a straight Western – with no supernatural or modern elements – until 2009’s Streets of Glory and ably illustrated by Mike Wolfer.
Streets of Glory gets overlooked in Ennis’s oeuvre. It’s short, with the entire story fitting in a single trade paperback. Plus, it’s from Avatar Press, a company that is known for specifying in stories with tons of violence. Streets of Glory has a ton of violence, but the violence is utilized for a purpose, and that involves telling a story about the End of the West, the coming of modernization, and the transition of Western gunfighters from men to legends. I consider Streets of Glory a Western masterpiece up there with Unforgiven, and I try to reread it whenever I can.
The story, told in flashback in a 1950s diner by an old man named Pete Lorrimer, is about the End of The West – a theme that resounds through many Westerns, such as The Wild Bunch. Pete tells a waitress the story of how he came to a small frontier town with his brother, only to be attacked by bandits. His brother is killed, but Pete is saved by an aging Civil War veteran, Indian fighter, and gunslinger named Colonel Joe Dunn. Pete and Dunn make it to town, just as a railroad baron from back east arrive, and then a psychopath Indian named Red Crow shows up and starts cutting up folks. Colonel Dunn goes after him. There are a few twists and turns about who hired Red Crow, but the story is mostly about Colonel Dunn realizing that he cannot exist in a modern world defined by greed and commerce. He tries to rekindle an old flame who lives in the town, fails, and chooses to make his end in a violent manner. Wolfer’s art perfectly captures every scene.
Ennis fills Streets of Glory with nods to other Westerns – Red Crow seems like Blue Duck from Lonesome Dove and the end, with a wounded Dunn riding away from an act of violence while Pete calls to him, mimics the classic Shane – but paints the themes about the West’s End in a stark and unforgiving manner. The railroad baron clearly tells Dunn that soldiers and lawmen have pacified the West by removing Indian tribes and outlaws, so that he can bring in his kind of civilization. Of course, the harsh brand of capitalism the railroad baron brings is just as cruel as the uncivilized violence of the frontier, but hides itself in civility. Ennis also talks about how Dunn has become a legend in his own time, and how this legend will outlive him – but it might not add up to the truth. At the end of the story, the waitress tells the aging Pete that her husband would have loved his story. “He loved Westerns,” she explains. “He was always such a boy that way.”
That’s what happened to the legends of the west like Joe Dunn. They got turned into heroes, their flaws and desires smoothed away and forgotten so they could star in dime novels, Republic serials, and B-movies – and that’s why America makes heroes out of cowboys today, even if the truth was far more complex. But revisionist westerns like Streets of Glory provide a look at the reality of the West and try to grapple with the genre’s meanings in all of their complexity. I can only hope that my El Mosaico books follow that tradition.