Each week, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic book of significance. This week, it’s Sixpack And Dogwelder: Hard Travellin’ Heroz #2. Written by Garth Ennis (Preacher, The Boys) with art by Russ Braun (The Boys, Jack Of Fables) and colorist John Kalisz (Superman, Robin: Son Of Batman), this issue humorously critiques DC Comics’ recent decisions by bringing in DC mainstays like John Constantine and The Spectre. (Note: This review reveals major plot points.)
Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson’s The Boys debuted a decade ago. DC’s defunct Wildstorm imprint published six issues of the crass, savage superhero satire, but the series was quickly cancelled despite solid sales and a creative team that featured the writer of Preacher and artist of Transmetropolitan. It was an aggressive cut; four future issues and a collection had already been solicited, but they were all pulled from the schedule. While the specific reasons for The Boys’ cancellation remain the stuff of rumor and conjecture for the public—Robertson gave the cryptic explanation, “DC was not the right home for The Boys”—it’s easy to see why DC was cagey about publishing it. The sex and violence were nothing new for these creators, but using them to tear down the superhero genre was a problem, especially when so much of the commentary featured characters and concepts so similar to what DC has built its legacy on.
The Boys would ultimately live on at Dynamite Comics, running for 72 issues that viciously attacked superhero conventions while telling substantial, heartfelt stories about grief, hope, and love. Yes, there was plenty of base humor throughout, but Ennis gave the story depth by building empathetic, interesting characters with complicated personal relationships. Russ Braun took over for Robertson on art duties, and he developed a strong rapport with Ennis, sharpening the comic timing of the scripts and intensifying the emotion when Ennis brought in more dramatic content.
Ennis and Braun have reunited for the DC Comics miniseries Sixpack And Dogwelder: Hard-Travellin’ Heroz, and this new project shows just how much DC has changed since The Boys’ cancellation, for better and worse. The publisher was uncomfortable with The Boys criticizing its superhero bread-and-butter through analogs, but the Sixpack And Dogwelder team gets to deliver its commentary within the DC Universe using actual DC characters. The company has been getting its sense of humor back in the last couple years, largely as a response to the joylessness that permeated many of the New 52 titles, and DC brought Ennis back into the fold with last year’s DCYou initiative. He revived the pitiful superhero team Section Eight with his Hitman collaborator John McCrea in the All-Star Section Eight miniseries, and Section Eight is back in Sixpack And Dogwelder with a story that pokes fun at DC’s recent decisions.
Sixpack And Dogwelder #2 features Ennis’ triumphant return to writing John Constantine after nearly 20 years, and he has a lot to say about the character being transferred from the Vertigo imprint and into the main DCU. The issue opens with a rant from Constantine lamenting the loss of the Vertigo glory days, building to the full-page reveal of Constantine standing on a floating silver surfboard wearing a space helmet and holding a “Hellblazer .44” ray-gun. This is not an accurate depiction of Constantine in the New 52 and Rebirth, but an exaggeration that highlights how out of place Constantine is when shoved into genre trappings that don’t jive with the character established by Vertigo’s Hellblazer series.
DC’s current The Hellblazer ongoing is actually making great strides to bring the DCU and Vertigo versions of Constantine together, but that doesn’t diminish the humor of Ennis’ take, which leans heavily into the absurdity of superhero comics. That’s immediately apparent in Constantine’s appearance, but also in the character he’s connected to in the story: Dogwelder, a silent vigilante who fights crime by welding dead dogs to the faces of evil-doers. As ridiculous as that idea is, it’s treated with the same kind of seriousness given to other superhero concepts, and Constantine is here to teach Dogwelder about the legacy of his condition and new ways to use his power.
The first lesson is how to regain his voice, and Dogwelder can regain his ability to speak by sticking his hand up the behind of a dead dog and using it as a puppet. It’s ludicrous and disturbing, but also very funny because of the gravity Ennis and Braun give to this discovery. There’s a sense of triumph when Dogwelder successfully gets his hand up the dog’s ass; this is Dogwelder’s version of an iconic superhero image like Superman breaking through chains, and it’s one that encapsulates the dark sense of humor that permeates Ennis’ superhero work.
While Constantine is helping Dogwelder on his path to self-realization, the rest of Section Eight is dealing with The Spectre, the celestial spirit of vengeance looking for Section Eight member Baytor. Adding The Spectre is a quick way to raise the stakes of a story, but Ennis also uses him to take some shots at DC’s tendency to reboot and restructure it’s continuity. The Spectre can’t remember what Baytor looks like because his likeness was lost in one of these reshuffles, and he takes this opportunity to complain about how much work these continuity changes create for the people re-ordering reality afterward.
The Spectre scenes mine humor from the grandiosity of the character; Braun draws him as a gigantic scowling presence, and even when The Spectre isn’t in the panel, colorist John Kalisz keeps him looming over the visuals using a predominantly green palette. Pat Brosseau’s lettering reinforces that massive scale by presenting all of The Spectre’s words in large green letters with no balloons, and the exaggeration of all those visual elements makes The Spectre’s low-key dialogue all the more hilarious. He’s doing the scary spirit of vengeance thing when he first appears to demand Baytor, but once he reveals that he doesn’t know what Baytor actually looks like, The Spectre’s language becomes more casual. He starts to sound like any other person frustrated by their job, and all he wants is to find this guy, send him to hell, and move on to the next thing on his to-do list.
To prevent the damnation of his teammate, Sixpack takes a cue from Spartacus and proclaims, “I am Baytor!” The people around him join in to claim Baytor’s identity as their own, and the voices continue to spread throughout the neighborhood. Batman even stops by to throw his fist up and shout “I am Baytor!” from inside the Batmobile, and the creative team’s willingness to make the narrative as ridiculous as possible is admirable. The Spartacus strategy doesn’t work and The Spectre gets the go-ahead from God to damn everyone who claims to be Baytor, but then Dogwelder appears to save the day, scaring The Spectre away when he utters his first words from the dead dog puppet on his hand: “We… are all… Baytor…” It’s totally preposterous, but it effectively deepens the mystery around the true nature of Dogwelder’s ability.
The fact that Dogwelder terrifies the embodiment of God’s vengeance suggests that this miniseries will only be getting bigger as Section Eight hits the road with Constantine, and future issues are taking the team to Egypt and outer space to uncover the mythology behind the Dogwelder legacy. While DC’s Rebirth is proving to be a commercial and creative success by reinvigorating the publisher’s big-name characters, it’s refreshing to see a weird, irreverent book like Sixpack And Dogwelder make it to stands, even if it’s just a miniseries. All-Star Section Eight was just a miniseries too, but that didn’t prevent the characters’ stories from continuing on after the book ended. Tangential miniseries like Ennis’ recent works allow greater creative freedom than ongoing titles rooted in the current events dominating the larger superhero line, and that freedom has resulted in sharp, delightful superhero satire from Ennis and his artistic collaborators.