A few months ago I learned that Amazon were adapting the comic book series ‘The Boys’ into a TV show and it struck me that I hadn’t read anything by its creator, veteran Irish comic book scribe Garth Ennis (of Preacher and Hellblazer fame), in quite a while. So I thought I might read ‘The Boys’ again in preparation to enjoy the TV adaptation but it turns out I didn’t read it at all, because when I got to my lovely bookcase of trade paperbacks (aka my pride and joy) I went and read another series of his that I am even more fond of.
Fast forward to today and ‘The Boys’ is now available to stream and I’ll be watching it soon but if you liked what was going on in it, then I have a recommendation for you. Yes, it’s time for me to get all comic-nerd-hipster and bang the gong for the Garth Ennis penned comics series that did much of what ‘The Boys’ does decades before, and to my mind, did it better. Because when it came to re-reading the series I skipped it to re-read ‘Hitman’ instead.
And I regret nothing. ‘Hitman’ is sublime.
The book was a series published by DC comics in the late 90’s, written by Ennis and pencilled by familiar collaborator John McCrea (who also did some work on ‘The Boys’). It ran for 60 issues plus specials and chronicles the many mis/adventures of Tommy Monaghan, our titular ‘Hitman’.
Tommy is a lowlife hitman in his late 20’s who gets bitten by an unimportant alien monster. This grants him x-ray vision and limited short range telepathy as well as turning his eyes black so he’s on the permanent wearing shades plan. With his limited super powers aiding him he becomes known for being the hitman you contact if you want a superhero/villain assassinated but he will do other work, and often does. He lives by his own code of honour, works freelance and strictly only kills those who are considered genuine ‘bad guys’. And, as he lives in that wretched den of scum and villainy known as Gotham city, there’s always plenty of work.
Tommy’s fast talking, funny and has a bit of trouble keeping it in his pants when it comes to remaining faithful to the ladies in his life. He was born, raised and lives in a district of Gotham called ‘the Cauldron’ which is a roughest, nastiest slum in the city. He drinks, gambles, loves classic westerns and action movies and exists mainly at ‘Noonan’s Sleazy Bar’ (the bar is actually called that!) alongside an equally fully-realised cast of career hitmen, drunks, misfits and the rest of the characters from the DC universe who show up from time to time, including Batman, Superman, Catwoman, Green Lantern and others.
Garth Ennis lets loose in this comic presenting a pitch perfect homage to all of the media he loves (much of which I also hold close to my heart) and his passion shines through every issue.
‘Hitman’, unsurprisingly, has a lot of excellent, high body count, gun-fighting narratives in it. There are notable elements of the classic, boys-adventure-style war comic and hard boiled, anti-hero fiction as well. There are great story arcs that are full on spaghetti westerns and even a plotline which turns the comic into a John Woo/Chow Yun-Fat gun-fu movie.
Tommy, as with many of Ennis’ protagonists, is a more complex character than he initially appears and deals with familiar ‘Ennisian’ themes of war/violence based trauma and struggling to come to terms with the evolving nature of what masculinity means in the modern world vs. what he has learned about being a good man from his beloved heroes and anti-heroes of film.
And it wouldn’t be Ennis without plenty of deliciously dark gross-out humour and body horror thrown into the mix. And this is all drawn by fantastically by John McCrea who really nails the filthy, sleazy, low-class look of the slums and presents a very different and quite unique side to Gotham in ‘The Cauldron’.
There are still plenty of the thick black shadows that typify DC’s darker metropolis but here what remains of the gothic architecture is always crumbling. The litter-filled streets are cracked and broken. Windows are boarded up and doors are double bolted. Walls are fly-poster smeared to oblivion. Nasty-fast food joints serve giant, greasy burgers and their signage boasts of their ability to cause immediate cardiac arrest. Trails of piss and god-knows-what-else lifts from the sticky floors. And best of all there appears to be a fair bit of classic British comics (e.g. The Beano’, The Dandy, Viz etc.) in the grotesque design of plenty of the characters. (In fact, because of the way he looks I always imagine alcoholic ‘superhero’ Six-pack is what happened to one of the bash-street kids when he grew up.)
And speaking of Six-pack, a fat, dead drunk who often shouts about his ‘adventures’ before vomiting and passing out, there’s the excellent superhero satire. Ennis has never been subtle in his writing about his dislike of most superheroes and he mines a great vein of deconstruction here.
‘The Boys’ goes deep into showcasing most superheroes as corporate sponsored products who operate above the law allowing them to indulge in the sort of hedonistic, consequence free lifestyles that sees them become callous sexual predators and violent sociopaths, the sheer excess of it all shocking and chilling the reader.
‘Hitman’ on the other hand has to deal with the fact that it’s both a PG13/teen rated series and set within the mainstream DC universe. Now it’s astonishing what they let Ennis get away with and that this series saw print but most of all these restraints see him make smaller, more well observed points about how silly the idea of superheroes are at their core.
Some of the superheroes he meets are just plain, hilarious and outrageous parody, like Six-pack, who I mentioned earlier, or other members of his ‘Section 8’ team like Dog Welder, who welds dogs to people or ‘Bueno Excellente’ who has the decidedly unsettling and sweaty power of ‘perversion’…
But the real superheroes and supervillains Tommy meets in this series are where it gets more substantially interesting as they aren’t as horrific as those presented in the ‘The Boys’ but come off more as simply ignorant, aloof, inept boobs who are so locked into their grand, superheroic narratives and are so insulated from the real world that they often don’t understand how life is for normal people. ‘The Boys’ arguably presents superheroes this way too but the delivery of it in ‘Hitman’ is somewhat less excessive and I feel it makes it points more elegantly due to this.
‘Hitman’ also feels very much from written from the view of someone from the British Isles in the way it shows such utter contempt for the establishment (the upper classes).
I would argue that it can be easily read as a comic about social class and the plight of the working class (aka Tommy and his buddies) facing the realities of life in Gotham city. Here are a few choice events that occur in the series:
(a) The superheroes are saving the world but all Tommy and the boys at the bar hear about it is some vague rumours and it’s nothing they really care about because it doesn’t really affect them.
(b) Green Lantern shows up and can’t afford to buy Tommy a drink because he’s so privileged he doesn’t have any pockets in his costume and never has to carry cash.
(c) Superheroes continually judge Tommy as beyond redemption because he kills for a living when they draw a line at killing but Tommy has to pay rent, they don’t.
There are many more events like this in the series, I think these just illustrate my point the best. And my point is Tommy and friends are presented as the working class while superheroes are the bourgeoise/elite and one of the best things about ‘Hitman’ is it’s about all the fun that can be had mocking and ‘punching up’ righteously at the rich and powerful.
The one exception to this is the Eisner award winning issue of ‘Hitman’ where Tommy meets Superman, one of the few superheroes Ennis actually likes. Tommy talks him through a crisis of confidence. And it’s a stunning issue, which explores how even Superman, the embodiment of the best in us all, sometimes needs a little person with, a low-life killer no-less, to talk to him a bit of common sense into him to help him get through.
There are a couple of small weaknesses to ‘Hitman’ that need addressing though. The series starts pretty weakly as Tommy is created and first appears in a rather crap DC comics crossover event called ‘Bloodlines’ that was supposed to create a bunch of new superheroes for the publisher, ‘Hitman’ being the only real success. Therefore the first couple of issues aren’t that entertaining read in isolation now but are well worth getting through to get to the 58 issues and specials worth of great stuff.
The other point is not a weakness of the series but of the printing. DC re-issued the series in trade paperback volumes a few years back (when I collected them) but the way the paperbacks grew thicker and thicker over the course of the reprinting and the fact there’s very little in the way of extras (like forewords, cover galleries or writer/artist concept art, commentary) in the books suggests they weren’t selling well, so DC just rushed out a fairly bare bones collection. This is a massive shame as the series deserves a much more loving treatment than this.
To conclude then I have to say in writing this piece it’s struck me that my reasons for loving for ‘Hitman’ are very similar to my reasons for loving the Yakuza games (which I’ve written a previous post about).
‘Hitman’ like Yakuza somehow manages to blend a wide range of tones in its storytelling, running the range from pure silly fun to really touching, well-earned character moments. And, at their best, both ‘Hitman’ and Yakuza tell their stories and manage their wild rides with a deftness of touch that is really quite breathtaking to behold.
I’ll end with a quote from Garth Ennis himself from the ‘FAREWELLS’ at the back of Hitman #60 back in 2001 because…it kind of says it all.
“Man, but I am going to miss this book.
It’s hard to put into words just how much I loved writing it, and the fun I had with the insanity of it, and the kick I got when someone would mention PREACHER and HELLBLAZER and so on – and then smile like we were sharing some cool little secret and tell me they liked HITMAN best of all.”