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Comics You Should Own – Hitman

One word makes this a Comic You Should Own: DOGWELDER!

Hitman by Garth Ennis (writer), John McCrea (artist, Demon Annual #2, issues #1-20, 22-60, 1,000,000; JLA/Hitman #1-2), Steve Pugh (artist, issue #21; inker, issue #22), Gary Leach (inker, issues #23-27, 29-30, 32-60), Andrew Chui (inker, issue #31), Steve Haynie (letterer, Demon Annual #2), Willie Schubert (letterer, issues #1-27), Patricia Prentice (letterer, issues #28-60, 1,000,000), Travis Lanham (letterer, JLA/Hitman #1-2), Gene D’Angelo (colorist, Demon Annual #2), Carla Feeny (colorist, issues #1-60, 1,000,000), David Baron (colorist, JLA/Hitman #1-2).

DC, 64 issues (Demon Annual #2; #1-60 + #1,000,000; JLA/Hitman #1-2), cover dated 1993 (Demon Annual #2), April 1996-April 2001, November-December 2007 (JLA/Hitman #1-2).

As usual, MAJOR SPOILERS abound in this post. That’s just how I roll!

Of course, Dogwelder isn’t the only reason these are Comics You Should Own. Dogwelder comes from Steve Dillon’s twisted imagination, which gave us a man … who welds dead dogs to bad guys’ faces. What the hell, indeed. But Hitman is so much more than twisted jokes. Hitman, more than Preacher, more than The Punisher, is Garth Ennis’s masterpiece. He has never been as good, and he might never be as good again. That’s kind of a shame, but we can still re-read this and marvel at just how good it is.

What makes this comic Ennis’s masterpiece? Preacher, with its Vertigo sensibility, its marketing push, and its lofty themes, is often cited as a comic non-comics readers would like. Preacher, as good as it is (and it’s quite good), is ultimately somewhat of an immature work. Throughout, it feels as if Ennis is rebelling against a Christian upbringing, and while there’s nothing wrong with that, it limits the comic somewhat. Ennis also screws up the ending, which lessens the impact of the book. But this isn’t about Preacher, it’s about Hitman!

One reason this is superior to Ennis’s more lauded work is the supporting cast. Ennis creates a large cast, beginning with the title character, Tommy Monaghan. Tommy is a killer who gains super powers in the Demon Annual #2, which was part of the “Bloodlines” crossover in DC’s Annuals back in 1993. Tommy was the only character from the crossover who lasted (the second most successful series to come out of the idea was Anima, which ran 16 issues), which allows Ennis to make a joke about it issue #54 (McAllister mentions that the aliens created a new generation of superpowered beings, and Tommy says, “You mean like whatsizname? An’ that other guy?”). But Ennis gave Tommy a much bigger cast than Jesse Custer had. Tommy is part of a neighborhood – the Cauldron in Gotham City, the worst section of a pretty horrible town – and he hangs out at the same bar – Sean Noonan’s – so he has a wide circle of friends and acquaintances. This allows Ennis to develop one of his favorite themes – that of friendship and sticking by your friends no matter what. In Tommy’s world, there’s nothing worse than not sticking by your friends. The characters who surround Tommy are as interesting as he is, and therein lies the strength of the book. Sean Noonan is the father figure, a retired soldier and hitman who practically raised Tommy. Pat is Sean’s nephew and Tommy’s best friend. Hacken is a crazed killer who is definitely not the brightest bulb in the box, a fact that gets him needled by Pat, who, according to Hacken, always runs to Tommy for protection (Pat isn’t a hitman, another strike against him). Ringo is a cool Asian assassin, the only one around who’s in Tommy’s class. Early on in the series, Ennis introduces Natt the Hat, an old friend of Tommy’s from Detroit. Natt and Tommy served in the Gulf War together, and Natt comes to Gotham to escape a gang war and becomes Hardy to Tommy’s Laurel. There’s also Tiegel, a Gotham detective who, through the course of the series, falls in love with Tommy and also gets fired because she’s an honest cop in a decidely corrupt department. All of these characters get their own stories at various points in the series, and Ennis does a wonderful job making them real. The characterization in this book is its bedrock.

On the surface, what makes the book so glorious is Ennis’s plotting. This book is set firmly in the DC Universe, so there are superheroes galore throughout the run. Tommy himself has super powers, but Ennis does a nifty thing with them – Tommy rarely uses them. He gains X-ray vision and telepathy, both handy for his profession (it’s always good to be able to see the bad guys coming when they’re hiding behind things), but using them gives him a terrible migraine, so usually, Ennis just ignores them. This can be seen as stemming from Ennis’s disdain for superheroes, but it’s not really that. “Bloodlines” demanded that the “victims” get super powers, so Ennis went along with it. When Tommy got a series, Ennis obviously wanted to write it as a “regular” guy interacting with superheroes, so he downplayed the fact that Tommy has powers. But the fact that the book is in Gotham, in the DCU, means that superheroes are always showing up, and this is part of what makes the book so brilliant. Ennis doesn’t really write superheroes “realistically,” but he does make them human. Therefore, in issue #1, in which Tommy is hired to kill the Joker (why not?) and naturally, runs into Batman (DC marketing at work!), he is caught by the Dark Knight and beaten up a bit … after having eaten curry earlier in the comic. In a brilliant sequence, he vomits all over Batman’s boots … but that’s not the great part, as fun as it is. In the next panel, Batman has a look of such disbelief, as if he never contemplated anyone puking on his boots. In the next panel, he lays Tommy out with a huge punch. He’s still Batman, but in two panels, Ennis makes him human by showing how angry he is by someone daring to vomit on him. It’s hilarious but also perfectly true to form. In “Local Hero,” the arc in issues #9-12, Tommy meets Kyle Rayner. Without changing his personality too much and without making him less heroic, Ennis shows how goofy Kyle is and how goofy the entire idea of superheroes is. Issue #11, where Tommy meets Kyle for the first time (after a cliffhanger confrontation at the end of issue #10), is hilarious. Kyle has been told by the government that Tommy intends to assassinate him, so he goes hunting for our hero. Tommy reads Kyle’s mind (“a pretty fast read,” he assures the audience) and discovers what his ring does. Ennis does a great job showing the power of the ring: “So your ring there, what does it do … That. That. That. Uh-huh. Holy crap, what doesn’t it do.” Then he throws a grenade to Kyle and narrates, “It doesn’t make you smarter.” After they sort out that Kyle was lied to, Tommy takes him to Noonan’s. In another very funny scene, Tommy introduces Kyle to Sixpack, the Cauldron’s local superhero (we’ll get back to Sixpack). He tells Sixpack that “they won’t let this guy in the Justice Club. Any chance you could put in a word for him?” Kyle tries to protest that he’s never heard of the “Justice Club,” but Sixpack ignores him and tells him they don’t take just anyone off the street. He asks Kyle what his name is, and Kyle tells him he’s Green Lantern. Sixpack says, “Yeah? You don’t look too much like him …” Kyle tells him he’s the “new one,” but Sixpack tells him, “They only take originals.” Then, when Tommy tells Kyle to get the next round of beers, Kyle, logically, tells him he has no money – he “can’t carry cash in this outfit, obviously.” In just a few scenes, Ennis takes the piss out of superheroes and their ilk – “Green Tightwad” can’t even get a shout!

Despite the takedown of Green Lantern and superheroes in general, Ennis still has a soft spot in his heart for the genre. Hence issue #34, “Of Thee I Sing,” which is one of the top five Superman stories ever written. Superman happens to land on a roof on which Tommy is hanging out, and Supes tells him that he couldn’t rescue an astronaut trapped in a shuttle. Superman isn’t upset because the man died, but because he knows what people believe – if Superman is there, they’re safe. But at that moment, the astronaut knew Superman was there but he wasn’t going to save him. Tommy tells him that Superman is everything that’s great about America – he’s an immigrant who didn’t bring all his culture with him, but decided to simply help people in need without worrying about the past. Ennis does a marvelous job building up to that moment, and it makes so much sense that it’s simply brilliant. But it’s not the only amazing part of the issue. The way Ennis and McCrea show the scene where Superman can’t save the astronaut is devastating, and even the little things – Superman pointing out that Batman’s response to his crisis was “typically grim” and Tommy whining that Bats needs to take a vacation – are spot-on. And, hanging over the entire issue like a specter of death, is what Tommy is doing on the roof. On the first page, we see him leaning against a water tower, reading a copy of Newstime (with Superman on the cover, fittingly). Given what we know about Tommy’s profession, we wonder if he’s up to no good. Then, he begins talking to Superman, and we forget about who he is and what he does for a living. Then, when Superman flies away, Tommy goes back to work and shoots his victim. He even uses the guy in his example of how Superman is all that’s good about the country. It’s a brilliant piece of writing, and shows how well balanced Ennis makes his comic – Tommy is a great character, a nice guy (usually), but also a cold-blooded killer. He can charm Superman, vomit on Batman, and fall in love with a police woman. In the coda to Tommy’s series, the JLA/Hitman mini-series that came out in late 2007, Superman is still able to look beyond Tommy’s choice of profession, even if the rest of the Justice League can’t. More than any of the heroes, including the younger ones (Kyle and Wally West), Superman can see shades of gray in the moral makeup of people. Perhaps, Ennis is implying, because his great power requires such discipline on his part, he can understand the temptations of the dark side more than someone like Batman, who will never win his war against crime and can therefore allow himself moral certitudes.

Ennis’s attitude toward the superhero genre can be seen in Sixpack and Section Eight, the group of absolutely dysfunctional heroes he introduces over the course of the series. Sixpack is a drunk who lives in a fantasy world, spinning his disgusting nights in the gutter into battles with Darkseid and other major DC villains. In issue #18, he decides to gather his comrades in Section Eight together once more, as Tommy, Natt, Tiegel, and Catwoman are holed up in a church that is being attacked by an angry demon. Only Section Eight can win the day! The collection of the heroes is a tour de force of parody, complete with individualized logos for the members: Friendly Fire, who only blasts his own teammates; Shakes, who, well, shakes; the Defenestrator, who chucks people through windows (he’s in Arkham, and Ennis pokes fun at the revolving door in the place when the attendant says, “We got pretty strict security procedures here at Arkham … on the other hand, you seem like a pretty responsible guy. What the hell, huh?” [Needless to say, Sixpack is wearing his completely ill-fitting superhero togs and is obviously drunk]); Jean de Baton-Baton, who hits people with a stick; Dogwelder, who, as I wrote above, welds dead dogs to people’s faces; Flemgem, who hocks loogies at the bad guys; and Bueno Excellente, who … well, he sodomizes with extreme prejudice (he “fights evil with the power of perversion,” according to Sixpack). Ennis has always had a twisted and somewhat juvenile sense of humor, but the wonderful thing about Section Eight is that he doesn’t overdo it. They appear in issue #18, fight in issue #19, and take off in issue #20. Sixpack remains a supporting character, but Ennis uses him sparingly. They only reappear in issues #51-52, when a demon is about to take over the world. This is when Ennis is wrapping up the series, so several cast members have already died, and he dispatches most of Section Eight is hilarious, gruesome, and even tragic fashion. But Sixpack saves the world because he’s a superhero. The demon offers him a chance to fight in hell – “try your strength against us in a battle for your own soul. Win your salvation … or meet your damnation. do this now, and we shall spare this world.” Sixpack doesn’t hesitate, but walks straight into the jaws of hell. In a beautiful epilogue, the narration wonders if maybe Sixpack got out. McCrea shows us a man in a suit standing in front of a group, and the narration reads, “Perhaps Sidney Speck, now attending A.A. meetings in New York City, might know a thing or two … but if he does, he’s not saying.” This wonderful ending for a joke character is Ennis at his finest – he might not like superheroes, but he shows us that anyone can be one, if they just believe. And Sidney, a.k.a. Sixpack, is one of the few characters who gets a happy ending in the book.

These moments, along with the plots of the story arcs, drive the book and make it such a “fun” read. It veers breathlessly from raucous comedy to dark tragedy, and Ennis does wonders with both extremes. Just to go over them before we come to the major theme of the comic and why it’s so good, the arcs are:

Issues #1-3 (“A Rage in Arkham”): Tommy is hired to kill the Joker, but it turns out to be a trap set by demons called the Arkannone, who want Tommy to be their hired gun on Earth. Naturally, he refuses.

Issues #4-7 (“Ten Thousand Bullets”): Mo Dubelz, the gangster from the original Demon Annual, puts a hit out on Tommy. Tommy, you see, killed his brother, Joe – who is Mo’s conjoined twin. So half of Mo Dubelz is a rotting corpse. This arc also features Nightfist (“He will hit you with his fist!”), a Batman parody who gets what’s coming to him, and Johnny Navarone, the fastest gun in the world, who Tommy luckily kills but whose death has consequences in the future.

Issue #8 (“The Night the Lights Went Out”): A “Final Night” issue, in which Tommy and the gang hang out at Sean’s bar and tell stories about times they almost died.

Issues #9-12 (“Local Hero”): The government wants Tommy to assassinate superheroes for them, and when Tommy says no, they sic Green Lantern on him. Tommy ends up blackmailing the government official who tried to hire him.

Issues #13-14 (“Zombie Night at the Gotham Aquarium”): Exactly what it sounds like. A scientist tests a zombie-creating drug (developed to bring soldiers back to life) at the aquarium, and Tommy and his friends need to stop it. This gives Ennis and McCrea an excuse for the gang to slaughter baby seals and penguins and other cute animals.

Issues #15-20 (“Ace of Killers”): The return of the Arkannone, the Mawzir (their earthly agent), Jason Blood (and Etrigan), and guest-starring Catwoman. Selina steals the only gun that can kill a demon, and the Arkannone want it for their own. This arc brings the demon Baytor (who showed up in Ennis’s Demon run) into the cast, as he eventually becomes a fantastic bartender at Noonan’s.

Issue #21 (“Kiss Me”): Tommy and Tiegel do the nasty, and Tommy accidentally stumbles across a drug deal that will have bad consequences in the future.

Issue #22 (“The Santa Contract”): A deranged, radioactive Santa Claus stalks Gotham (the narration is in rhyme, like “How the Grinch Stole Christmas”) and Tommy and Natt have to kill him. Very funny and bleak, and a nice Bladerunner reference.

Issues #23-28 (“Who Dares Wins”): An old mistake comes back to haunt Tommy and Natt when the SAS (Special Air Service) comes to kill them. They drag the Brits into a gang war and escape only by luck. Issue #28 is an epilogue in which Tommy, foreshadowing like crazy, wonders if they’ve gone too far in their professions and there’s no turning back.

Issues #29-33 (“Tommy’s Heroes”): In order to feel like he’s not a complete scumbag, Tommy heads to Africa to fight rebels for a despot. He takes along all his friends, and of course, things aren’t what they seem in the desert.

Issue #1,000,000 (“To Hell With the Future”; released between issues #31 and 32): Spoiled rich kids in the 853rd century bring Tommy forward in time because they believes he’s a hero; he tells them how screwed up the truth really is and, in the meantime, meets some idiotic superheroes.

Issue #34 (“Of Thee I Sing”): See above.

Issues #35-36 (“Katie”): Tommy learns about his family’s past, much to his and everyone else’s detriment. Possibly the bleakest story in the run.

Issues #37-38 (“Dead Man’s Land”): Using the Gotham earthquake as a backdrop (a bit late, but still), Ennis tells a tale of vampires taking over, and he uses one of the undead from his run on Hellblazer to do it. We also meet a character – Maggie Lorenzo – who will help determine Tommy’s ultimate fate. Ennis also has some fun with DC’s annual summer events in #37.

Issues #39-42 (“For Tomorrow”): Ringo gets involved with some unsavory characters, Tommy gets dragged into it, and lots of people die.

Issue #43 (“The Morning After, the Night Before”): Tommy cheats on Tiegel and gets caught. Hilarity ensues.

Issues #44-46 (“Fresh Meat”): A time machine malfunctions, bringing dinosaurs back to the present. Tommy and Natt have to figure out how to stop them. Ennis does a nice job showing why dinosaurs might not like it here, despite all the human snacks waiting to be eaten.

Issues #47-50 (“The Old Dog”): The daughter of a gangster who was killed when the SAS guys showed up wants revenge. Needless to say, things don’t end well. Issue #50 is an epilogue, showing Noonan’s fifty years in the future and featuring one of the most breathtaking and horrific double-page splash pages you’re going to see in a DC book (see below).

Issues #51-52 (“Superguy”): See above.

Issues #53-60 (“Closing Time”): The government guy who wanted to hire Tommy is back, experimenting on soldiers using the “Bloodlines” virus. Maggie Lorenzo happened to witness some of it, so she comes to Tommy for protection. Many, many more people die, obviously.

These plots make the book entertaining, as Ennis rarely take the foot off the gas. Tommy’s world is filled with violence and death, and it’s often done in a wildly humorous manner. Ennis, however, makes sure the humor is balanced by a deep sense of loss when important characters die. It’s because of the book’s major theme that both the humor and the tragedy work.

Beyond the plots, the theme Ennis wants to explore is loyalty and friendship. This seems very important to him, particularly at this time, as it’s a major theme of Preacher as well (and, to a slightly lesser extent, Hellblazer). The reason tragedy stalks all the characters in the book is because they are loyal to their friends. This is clear from the second arc, “Ten Thousand Bullets,” which begins with Tommy on a rooftop, bemoaning the loss of his best friend. Ennis introduces Natt the Hat in this issue, and we believe that he’ll be the one to die, but instead, Pat does. Pat, Sean’s nephew, isn’t a killer, and therefore doesn’t have the respect of Tommy’s peers, especially Hacken, whom he picks on constantly. In issue #5, Hacken calls him out for always hiding behind Tommy and his uncle when things get tough, and so, in issue #6, Pat holds out when Johnny Navarone is looking for Tommy, and pays the price. We see the aftermath of Navarone’s “interrogation,” as Pat is sitting in his bathtub, which is almost overflowing with his own blood. He tells Tommy he didn’t want to tell Navarone anything because he had to stand up for himself, just once. Tommy says, “I wish you’d told him everything. I wish you’d’ve sung like a freakin’ canary. I wouldn’t’ve cared.” Pat tells him he wanted to be a tough guy, and Tommy says, “You were the toughest guy of all,” before putting a bullet in his brain to put him out of his misery. This leads to issue #7, in which Tommy and Natt kill every gangster they see. It’s a horrific issue, but Ennis has set it up beautifully, and we feel Tommy’s pain as he slaughters his way through Mo Dubelz’s gang.

This establishes a pattern in the book, although none of Tommy’s gang dies until Ringo in issue #42. Tommy’s world is defined by loyalty to his friends and neighborhood. We see this in “Local Hero,” for example, in which the neighbors in the Cauldron cheer when Tommy faces down the Gotham police. In “Who Dares Wins,” this theme is twisted to horrible effect. The SAS is after Tommy and Natt because they accidentally killed a couple of British soldiers in Iraq (another humorous anecdote from earlier in the series that takes on deadly implications later). One of the SAS squad, Eddie Baker, doesn’t want to take on the mission from the beginning – he knows it’s a crock, as he understands that accidents happen in war. But he does his duty, not only because he’s a good soldier, but because his mates are on board. The SAS are so much better at killing than Tommy and Natt it’s not funny, but our heroes manage to stay alive, mainly through luck (issue #24 features a hilariously gruesome shoot-out in a fast food restaurant during which Tommy and Natt hide behind a ridiculously obese man who suffers a fatal heart attack as the gunfight begins), and they get involved in a gang war with Men’s Room Louie, a one-time patron of Tommy who didn’t like him accidentally breaking up the drug deal in issue #21. Tommy and Natt distract the SAS by putting the gangsters in front of them, with much mayhem following. One of the SAS men is killed – again, accidentally – and the remaining declare war on Gotham itself. Baker knows his commander, Captain Page, is out of control, but he keeps going along with him, because they’re mates. Finally, when he and his commander have Tommy and Natt at their mercy, Baker wants to let them go, but Page shoots him. Before Page can kill Tommy and Natt, Baker manages to get up and snap his neck. Tommy holds out his hand, saying, “Why don’t you just let us help you?” and Baker responds, “‘Cos all me mates are dead.” With that, he drags Page’s body into the burning wreckage of a gas station, which explodes. It’s loyalty to friends taken to the extreme, but it shows what the characters are willing to do for each other. It also nicely foreshadows the end of the series, when Tommy is faced with a similar choice.

This theme continues in the series. It’s most evident in the more tragic arcs, such as “For Tomorrow,” which features Ringo’s last stand, and “The Old Dog,” in which Tommy finally realizes how much of a father Sean has been to him but doesn’t tell him because it’s not what men do. Of course, Sean is killed before Tommy can say anything about his true feelings. This leads to issue #50, which features a Gotham of 2050, one with skyscrapers reaching to the heavens but one in which Noonan’s bar still stands. Some young punks come in talking about how great it is to be in the bar where Tommy and the others sat (Baytor is still tending bar, of course). An old man sitting near them reminisces about the old days, before Pat died, and decides to set the record straight (his reverie features a funny scene in which Sixpack walks in with Batman’s cowl and utility belt, saying he came across them during his crimefighting adventures, and Tommy tells him to put them back where he found them). The old man tells the kids the real story about their adventures, explaining that Sean always told them never to quit, not even to their last drop of blood. Hacken (for the old man is the goofy member of the crew) continues with the foreshadowing, “All gone now. Alla them. Years an’ years ago. Swept up by somethin’ — Somethin’ inside them, that made them step into the valley of the shadow when they coulda got away instead. I never got it. Not ’til years had passed. But there was so much I never understood.” It’s a wonderful issue, made even more memorable by the two-page spread of what Tommy does after Sean is killed:

Again, Ennis shows the price of friendship and loyalty. Although this act has nothing to do with Tommy’s ultimate fate, it shows that he’s gone beyond redemption and is simply looking for a way out of the pain of existence. As Hacken says fifty years in the future, he had a chance to get out, but he didn’t take it. “‘Cos all [his] mates are dead,” so what is there to live for?

All of this comes full circle in the final arc, which is where this book separates itself from Preacher, as its ending is much better. Maggie Lorenzo, whose son was taken by the vampires in issues #37 and 38, comes to Tommy for help after she witnesses a government assassination of a rogue soldier. The government is using the “Bloodlines” technology to create new, controllable superhumans, and it’s not going well. One of them escapes, and agents track him down and kill him. Maggie is just an innocent bystander. Tommy doesn’t have to help her, but of course he does. This brings him into conflict with the government agent who tried to recruit him back in “Local Hero,” who has recruited Johnny Navarone’s son, Mark, to deal with Tommy. Through the entire arc, Tommy begins to realize he can’t get out, and he takes steps to wrap up his affairs – he knows the government (or rogue elements thereof) won’t let him go. He convinces Tiegel to leave town because he knows she’ll be collateral damage. We get a flashback to his first murder, of a drug dealer who was threatening Pat. Sean reiterates the theme of the book when he tells Tommy, “You always stick by your friends. If it comes to it, you give your life for ‘em.” We also get the origin of his friendship with Natt. Finally, the government agrees to send a helicopter to get Maggie out of Gotham and into a new identity. They refuse to send any more help, so Tommy, Natt, and Kathryn (the CIA agent who convinced Kyle Rayner to go after Tommy) go into the facility where the experiments are taking place and destroy it. In issue #60, as they go to the helicopter, the government agents attack, and it all goes pear-shaped. Both Natt and Tommy go down as the helicopter leaves, and in one of the most poignant endings to a comic you’ll ever see, Tommy tells Natt a dream he had about Noonan’s bar. Everyone is there drinking, and Sean says “There ain’t no closin’ time. But you gotta leave your guns at the door.” Natt considers this for a second, and then Ennis and McCrea give us this beautiful final panel:

Of course Tommy couldn’t survive. He had gone too far and killed too many people. But he lived honorably and always stood by those he loved. Ennis never drives this point into the ground, because whenever it comes up, it’s always in the context of the stories. We know almost from the beginning of the series that it won’t end well, but if we look beyond the fact that Tommy and his friends die, it does end well – triumphantly, even. Tommy has almost single-handedly taken down all of Gotham’s gangs, stopped demons from taking over the world, saved the city from a vampire infestation, and ended a horrific government experiment. He always stuck by his friends, and he died saving one (Maggie) from death and another (Natt) from a fate worse than death (Natt would have been experimented on by the governmet). The way he lived is brought into focus a bit more in the crossover with the Justice League, in which he once again inspires Superman. Tommy saves not only Superman but the entire League, mainly because he was willing to kill. The superheroes have honor, but Tommy does too, in his way. Superman makes the point that the superheroes can afford to be morally outraged by what Tommy does because they don’t need to kill. But when Tommy needs to save people, he needs to be brutal, and that’s something superheroes – even Batman – can’t do.

The brilliance of Ennis is matched by John McCrea, who’s the perfect artist for the kind of twisted things the script calls for. It calls for horrible violence, emoting from the characters, and all sorts of amazingly weird things. McCrea never flinches, as he gives us wild ten-armed demons, kooky parodies of superheroes (Shadow-Force, Nightfist, Overforce and the Over-Patrol from the One Millionth issue, Skull and Scarlet Rose, Section Eight), cute zombie animals, incredibly realistic war scenes, and glorious gigantic dinosaurs. He also shines on the quieter scenes, like when Sean dies and Tommy can’t cry:

McCrea also does a nice job with the people in the book – everyone looks real. Tommy is not necessarily buff, Tiegel looks like a real woman, Natt is fat but not obnoxiously so, and even the goofy characters – the Dubelz twins, Men’s Room Louie, Sixpack, the guy with a tesseract in his ass (more childish Ennis humor, but again, he doesn’t overdo it) – aren’t too wild. It looks like a comic book, to be sure, but that’s a big part of its charm. Despite the fine craftsmanship, this isn’t a comic that relies on making things look “realistic,” and therefore the entire book is more real. McCrea creates a truly wonderful world, a Gotham that is more of a real city than it often is in the Batman books. It’s not a pleasant place, but McCrea does a good job showing how these people can carve out small places that feel like home. He adds so many details to each page it’s silly to go over them, and the fact that he drew every issue of the run (save one) puts many prima donna artists to shame.

Hitman never garnered the critical or commercial acclaim that Preacher did, and the only reason I can come up with to explain it is that it took place firmly in the DCU but it wasn’t a superhero book, so DC didn’t quite know what to do with it. Preacher explores many of the same themes (friendship and loyalty is a big part of that book, too), but less subtly than Hitman does, and Ennis, interestingly enough, reins in his more obnoxious tendencies on this comic, probably because it wasn’t a Vertigo book. By doing that, he’s able to more fully explore the themes without the ultra-violence and creepy sex overwhelming everything. Because he’s able to use DC icons, he’s able to comment quite a bit on superheroes themselves, both the good and bad of the genre. But because it helps to know something about the heroes Ennis skewers, it’s possible (probable?) this was less accessible than Preacher. That’s a shame, because the presence of superheroes in the comic are a relatively minor part of the whole. It’s really too bad, because Hitman is much better than Preacher. It’s deeper, more mature, far funnier, ends better, and has better art. As much as I like Preacher, Hitman deserves much of the praise that goes to that book. It’s a crime against the readership of good comics that less than half of this has been released in trade format. Everything through issue #28 (the end of “Who Dares Wins”) has been collected, but I have no idea if they’re still in print or not. DC apparently has no plans whatsoever to get the entire series out in trade, which is about on par with them not getting Ostrander’s Suicide Squad or The Spectre out in trade. The saga of Tommy Monaghan is a magnificent comic book, and shows why Ennis is such a damned fine writer. Forget The Punisher – go find Hitman!

(If you’re in the mood, you can peruse the Comics You Should Own archive. And yes, I’m aware that the series had one annual, and Ennis wrote some stories of Tommy that appeared in The Demon and in an issue of Batman Chronicles. Some of those I’ve read, but none are essential, although the time he was recruited for the Justice League is a pretty damned funny scene.)

44 Comments

Excellent piece. More people should be reading this over Ennis’ Punisher. You summed it up perfectly. I’m proud to own the run and the trades (which DC needs to start over and put in Absolute or Omnibus fashion).
The last page does make me a bit mistyeyed… much lamented run of when DC couldn’t do no wrong in the 90s

Great essay. I re-read the entire series recently, and it’s still amazingly good, probably Ennis’ best work ever.

And so many great moments! One that I particularly like is a little moment. Sean has, atypically, brought in a live music act to the bar – a hilariously awful dead-on parody of terrible “Irish” musicians (“Oh, the English soldiers with their horses and guns, stole away all our potatoes…”)

Tommy loathes this brand of music, but is (sort of) containing himself, until Natt says something like “But this is your heritage, man!” And McCrea draws it beautifully – we can see, but Tommy doesn’t, that Natt’s about to crack up as he says this, knowing what’s to come – a great impassioned tirade about all the sins of “Irish” music. (Plus a kicker – Baytor loves the music….)

I remember seeing a copy of the original ‘Puke on Batman’s boots’ page somewhere online. Originally Tommy lost his lunch all over Batman’s chest and not his shoes. I guess someone at DC thought that was too much.

I was just getting into comics as Hitman was finishing, so I haven’t read any of it but the collections and JLA/Hitman so far. Stupid DC and it’s stupid lack of Hitman trades….

I used to have the whole run of the book but stupidly sold it a few years ago thinking I would buy the series in trades instead. To my great shock and horror, I found that the trades were never finished, leaving me with less than 1.4 of the series’ run. Grrr. The examples you gave of Hitman and Ostrander’s two great DC works not being fully available in trades is maddening to me as a fan, especially when you consider some of the crap now that does get the trade and/or hardcover treatment…

I have, however, seen at least one blog (Collected Editions) list a new version of Hitman Volume 1 due out later this year with a slightly different set of contents than the original trade, so maybe, JUST MAYBE, DC has heard our pleas and plans on putting out a new run of trades for Hitman. Hopefully a complete run this time…

Oops, meant 1/4…

Always liked this far more than Preacher. i felt that the restraint that Ennis had to have in this series vs. the Vertigo series made him a better writer. Great stuff.

I re-read the entire series every year or two.

It’s so damn touching at the end that even just reading the recap I teared up again.

Random Stranger

February 4, 2009 at 6:54 pm

I’ve been waiting a long time for it to be collected properly. I know it’s crazy to think that DC would collect a well regarded series by a popular writer whose works do very well in trades, but I’m still holding out hope for an omnibus series…

Great write up on one of my favorite series. I’ll just add:

-There’s a Hitman/ Lobo special, drawn by Doug Mahnke, that’s very funny (in a juvenile sort of way). It would go with your list of non-essential Hitman stories.

-Those words on Sean’s tombstone get me every time.

-Tiegel is one of Ennis’ better female character, much less annoying than Tulip.

Zombie Baby Seals.
The Cat-Signal.

This books always looked interesting, but McCrea’s art was always a dealbreaker to me, along with that dingy color palette they had. I may give it a second chance, because it gets so much good acclaim.

Loved LOVED! This series. This was the fist DC book I read regularly. Sad ending, great moments, great characters.

Punisher Max is better though.

Tom Fitzpatrick

February 5, 2009 at 4:13 am

My 3rd favourite series by Ennis.
The Boys and Preacher rounding off the top two.

Punisher Max is # 4.

Great series! One of those that always rose to the top of the read pile each month.
And as pointed out pretty much everywhere, the ONLY decent character to come out of the Bloodlines fiasco…

Easily my favorite comic book series ever. Sorry, Herbie.

“Natt comes to Gotham to escape a gang war and becomes Hardy to Tommy’s Laurel.”

Hardy to his Laurel? More like the Hawk to his Spenser, I’d say.

That’s a good comparison, Mr. The Mutt. They play so well comedically off of each other, I thought I’d go the Laurel and Hardy route.

Excellent writeup for an amazing series. DC is leaving money on the table with a lot of this work, as I actually had the entire runs of Hitman, Ostrander’s Spectre, and Ostrander’s Suicide Squad bound into hardcover books because I loved them so much.

The title “Comics You Should Own” seems to imply that if I don’t own them, you are going to convince me by the end of each column that going out and getting these comics would be a good idea. However, if I don’t own them, and I’ve never read them, then I probably don’t want to hear spoilers about them. Yet every one of these “Comics You Should Own” leads off with a big fat spoiler warning – which I appreciate, but which makes me skip the column and kind of defeats the purpose. Maybe the series should be renamed “Comics You Should Feel Smug About Already Owning” because obviously it’s all about preaching to the choir, sharing spoiler-laden appreciation of certain comics with other people who do, in fact, already own them. Just sayin’.

don’t normally believe in links to scans, but since so much of this brilliant series is out of print.. http://www.shwiggie.com/hitman/

This is one of those books I somehow missed out on that I really should go back and read. Something just tells me that if I go digging around for the back issues, or find all the trades, the next week they will announce the release of a nice collected edition. Nonetheless, I’ll probably bite the bullet and do it anyway, especially after reading this.

Stickler: I’m sorry you feel that way! My point with these is to look at what I believe are true classics, ones that you can read over and over. Whenever I read something like Hitman, I know exactly how it’s going to end, but it never fails to affect me emotionally. It’s kind of hard to discuss something a bit more critically, like what Ennis is trying to say with this, without spoilers. I like to think these aren’t just reviews, because if they were, I would definitely not spoil things. Even if you haven’t read this and I spoil the ending, it’s so good that you should still read it. If I spoil, say, Heart of Darkness (Kurtz dies, by the way), does that make it less of a classic? Maybe. I really do believe that these comics stand up even if you know going in what happens. When I was reading Hitman for the first time, I could anticipate what was going to happen, yet I still loved it.

Thanks for your comment. I do try, after really screwing up when writing about Enigma, to keep some spoilers out of these, but with something like Hitman, it’s kind of impossible.

Hands down Ennis’s best series and easily one of my top five favorite comics ever. This was a great essay. Now I really have to dig out my issues and re-read the entire series.

One thing: I’d add the Hitman/Lobo special to the “essential” reads, just for the way Tommy finally one-ups Lobo thanks to an assist from Bueno Excellente.

Greg, thanks for the writeup–you made me head out this afternoon to buy the first trade collection that I’d seen sitting at a local used book store for a few weeks. Sucks that I won’t be able to pick the entire series, but I’ll take what I can get.

Omar Karindu, back from an Internet Thogal ritual

February 5, 2009 at 1:04 pm

As a completely random side note, Kathryn in Hitman turns up in Punisher, something made basically explicit by her line about “poor Tommy” in the Heart of Stone arc.

I finally bought one of the trades for this (Ace of Killers) and loved it. And I didn’t expect to. I generally like Ennis’s serious stuff like Punisher and his war stories more than his comedy stuff. But this was downright charming. I agree with previous posts that there was a refreshing restraint here, it wasn’t all about the gross-out violence which turns me off some of his other work. I also agree with those who like it more than Preacher. Heck, it’s probably my favorite Ennis stuff now.

Looking forward to picking up more of the series.

Hitman is so good! I read the entire run in about a week and a half after I borrowed it from a friend. The funny thing is that the Safeway by my house used to sell comic books back in the 90’s and I never bought Hitman because the covers made it look like an icky boy’s book. Live and learn, I guess.

Janna,

Yeah, that seemed to be the thing that kept my wife from reading it out of my boxes. But she ended up reading the entire series eventually and I’m not sure I’ve ever seen her cry as much at the end of any movie,tv show, book, etc.

I have to say, there needs to be a happy medium between just enough spoilers to give a good review and get you to buy the book, and so much explicit spoiling that every last surprise and plot twist and development is given away, taking away a lot of the punch for people who eventually do buy the book. I had to stop reading 1/4 of the way through because I felt like I was getting too much revealed. I scrolled down to read the comments and saw some scans scroll by that also seemed to reveal MAJOR plot points from later in the book.

I swore to myself when issue #50 came out that If I ever become fabulously wealthy, I’m buying the original art of that double-page spread you posted. I loved that piece in the comic, and I would love it even more on my wall. :)

T.: I do try for a happy medium, but in this case, where the fate of the characters is so closely tied to the major theme of the book, I thought it was appropriate. Sometimes I have more spoilers, sometimes fewer. I can say that the next comic on the list (I know what it is, but not when I’ll write about it) will have fewer spoilers. Again, I apologize for possibly ruining anyone’s enjoyment of the comic.

Hitman is easily Ennis’ finest work, and I suspect the reason is that Ennis was under the constraints of a non-Vertigo title. Ennis “unleashed’ just obscures any points he may have with sheer overwhelming … ickiness. Or how did you put it, Greg? Violence and creepy sex? Editorial constraints make Ennis work harder and tell better stories (which is true for a number of comic writers, actually).

I didn’t read Hitman initially, and only tracked down the back issues after reading the first trade. In contrast, I read the first two Preacher trades and couldn’t be bothered to finish the easily available series — I liked Hitman so much more that I went to considerable effort and expense to acquire it.

I caution those folks that embark on the quest that it’s not easy or cheap. The book didn’t have large print runs, apparently, and the back issues are scarce. You’ll pay a small fortune for any issue with Joker or Batman in it. And yes, it’s a crime that DC hasn’t finished the run in trades.

[...] Comics You Should Own – Hitman Comic Book Resources ,February 05, 2009 a Batman parody who gets what’s coming to him, and Johnny Navarone, the fastest gun in the world, who Tommy luckily kills but whose death has consequences … [...]

Greg, a superior essay about a superior series. One of the greatest moments of my…well, life was getting to do a retrospective on this for Newsarama a few years back with Ennis and McCrea. The only sour note from that was that part of the reason they did the revival was so DC would reprint the rest of the series…and our prayers remain unanswered.

I hold out hope that one day the splash page of the zombie sea life will be mine.

Heh, heh, heh…BEUNO.

“I am Baytor!”

Nice essay Greg, but I wish Ennis had explained why Bret Hart has a new costume instead of the old purple tights. I wouldn’t have recognized him without the shades. IMO, a better ending would have been Tommy and Anvil (or Natt as they call him here for some reason) winning the tag team title only to go down in a hail of bullets. As wrestling comics go, I still prefer The Sandman.

Favorite line of the essay: “Preacher is immature”. I would add “most overrated series ever” to that.

The end of this book made me cry more than any other film, novel, comic or piece of music I can think of. I really hope they finish off reprinting the trades.

An excellent write-up on one of my favourite comic runs, so thanks very much for that, Greg. I’ve tended to shy away from Ennis because too often he’s acted the one trick pony and brought on his gross-out game too readily. Even Preacher, which started well enough to convince me that this was a different Garth Ennis, suffers from having far too many of these cop-outs. Hitman is much better than that and deserves to be fully traded so more people can enjoy the book without having spend a silly amount of time or money tracking down the single issues. All credit to John McCrea for bringing a quality consistent look to the book for practically its entire run. And though he didn’t draw it, the Hitman/Lobo special should definitely be part of any collection. Tommy gives Lobo exactly what he deserves. Bueno!

“They only reappear in issues #51-52, when a demon is about to take over the world.”

Somebody didn’t read ‘Hitman/Lobo’, of which the best thing that can be said is that they bring in Section 8.

Yeah, Sean, I haven’t read it. Even if it’s not as good as the regular series, I still have to track it down!

Hi, I’m the editor of The Drink Tank, a Hugo-nominated fanzine that’s currently working on an issue dedicated to Hitman.

We were hoping you might let us reprint this as an article in the issue (largely because it’s the first time I’ve seen anyone agree with me in Hitman being better than Preacher!).

I searched for an eMail for you, but couldn’t find one ot ask directly.

Let me know
Thanks
Chris

Chris: Yeah, sure. That would be pretty groovy! My e-mail is chlothar1@earthlink.net if you want to get in touch with me.

And remember, folks, the “Contact Us” section does, indeed, tell you how to contact us!

Just want to say I loved reading the essay. This was on of the best series I have ever read. Having read Preacher, his run on Hellblazer, and The Hitman, I totally agree with you. Tommy and the gang is Ennis’ best work with his Hellblazer run being second.

I have half the series collected but someday hope to get the rest plus his Demon appearances and the JLA/Hitman issues. I do remember when he applied for the JLA in the 90′s. It was friggin’ brilliant!

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