Saturday, 1 November 2014

Hitman Book 1: A Rage In Arkham (Demon Annual #2, Batman Chronicles #4, Hitman #1-3)

"It's way to easy to get superpowers these days.  Hell, I should know" - Tommy Monaghan

The two regular features of this blog (Alan Moore Obscurities and Videgame Tie-In's) get to take a month of because all of November will be devoted to the seven collected volumes of Garth Ennis and John MaCrae's Hitman series.  Why?  Because it's my bloody 40th birthday this month and I am treating myself.  Anyway, Hitman had an interesting genesis.  The titular Hitman, an Irish-American called Tommy Monaghan was introduced in The Demon Annual #2 which was part of a "Crisis Crossover" called Bloodlines, and where he got his superpowers of telepathy and X-Ray vision.  He then guested three years later in an issue of the Batman Chronicles before being spun off into his own series in April 1996, which ran for sixty issues plus extra's until it was cancelled in 2001.  This series is set firmly in the main DCU, so no "fucks" or "cunts", no full frontal nudity and relatively restrained violence (at least as far as Ennis is concerned, it's still very violent for a mainstream book!).  The publication history of the trades is interesting.  The first four collect around the first third of the series in relatively slim volumes.  They then when out of print for most of the noughties, then were republished with the other two thirds of the series crammed into three much thicker volumes.  I'll be dividing the reviews into arcs to make things clearer and covering the extra one-shots individually as well.
Pretty badass
I must say, having read The Boys first I was initially unsure how much I would enjoy a book drawn by John McCrea as he didn't impress me at all with his work for that series.  But he is much better suited to this type of series.  He is able to use exaggeration and charicature to great effect, and has a meaty, thick black-lined style that has a nice impact when drawing fight scenes as well as being expressive during quiet moments.  The colouring helps massively here as well, The Boys had a much more subdued colour palette and his work suffered for it.  Here the colours are striking and vivid and help give his art a strong look that really stands out from the usual Marvel and DC style fare.  Garth Ennis is my second favourite writer of comics after Alan Moore, with an ability to construct characters you really care about despite their flaws and is really superb at naturalistic dialogue and daft or tense situations. Anyway, with that said, let us begin.

THE DEMON ANNUAL #2 - This issue was part of the 1993 DC crossover event "Bloodlines". You can read more via the link, but basically it had aliens coming to Earth and drinking spinal fluid.  This usually killed the victim, but in a few cases it gave a person super-powers instead.  It was intended to create a new wave of modern 90's EXTREME heroes, but it's widely considered that Hitman was the best thing to come out of the event and the rest of the heroes faded away, usually ending up as cannon fodder in later DC events.
Tommy's first scene
The Demon was an on-going series being written by Ennis and illustrated by McCrea (the art is cruder in this issue, McCrea improves alot in the gap between this and the next appearence of Tommy).  The Demon itself is a yellow fellow clad in red called Etrigan, who's speech is all in rhyme.  He is linked to a man called Jason Blood who, when he needs Etrigan chants "Gone, gone O form of man.  Rise the demon Etrigan" and Etrigan will be summoned from hell to deal with the situation for his own inscrutable reasons.  I first came across him in Alan Moore's run on Swamp Thing, where he was deadly serious.  Here Etrigan is a much lighter figure, joking around and dropping pop culture references,  I had to make quite a mental readjustment to this take on him.

Tommy is introduced waiting to perform a hit, but before he can, one of the aliens called Glonth attacks and kills his mark, then comes after Tommy and slurps his spine too.  But Tommy survives and is rushed to hospital, he awakens to find his eyes are now black pools and that he can see through people down to the skeleton and is overwhelmed by their thoughts (he later gains control of these abilities and can turn them on and off at will).  Tommy escapes the hospital and goes to his friends Pat's house to get tooled up.  He then declares himself "not Tommy, Pat.  Hitman".  But this ID is never used again.  He's always referred to as "a hitman" rather than "the Hitman".
Ah, sweet, delicious spinal fluid.
The man he was going to kill before Glonth  munched his and Tommy's spines was a mobster called Robert Dubelz. His siamese twin sons Moe and Joe want revenge on the monster and Tommy and put out a contract on him.  Tommy decides to crash the funeral and deal with the twins.  As he observes the guests arrive he sees Jason Blood, trying to read his mind leaves him shaken.  Glonth then crashes the wake and so does Tommy.  Jason switches places with Etrigan and starts to fight Glonth.  Tommy battle spills over into Etrigan's and he gets knocked down, but manages to rally and kills Joe Dubelz one half of the twins before also turning on Glonth.  Glonth now outmatched, flees, while Moe Dubelz bellows that he'll have his revenge on Tommy. Tommy and Jason Blood both leave the funeral.
Glonth takes on Tommy and Etrigan
Jason Blood: "It's not always a good idea to go peering into the dark.  Sometimes you might not like what you see."

Tommy: "And sometimes, Mr. Blood.  Sometimes, you ain't got a choice."

And the Annual ends.  It's a great intro for the character of Tommy, and establishes characters and plot threads that get picked up three years later when Tommy gets his own series.

BATMAN CHRONICLES #4 -  It starts with the arresting image of Batman with a gun jamed in his mouth by some two-bit thug.  The thug was actually after Tommy, but using his powers, Tommy managed to manipulate the thug into covering Batman who was stalking him while he goes off to deal with his latest mark a creature who escaped a research laboratory and is part of a plague Gotham is suffering.
Get out of that one Bats (he does easily)
Tommy: "They've come up with a guy called Thax.  Now Thrax is a sort of walking disease bomb. They engineered him so they could just drop him in an enemy city and he'd just walk around  spreadin' pnuemonia, ebola, the mumps...your tax dollars at work."

Batman escapes the thug holding him hostage and goes to find Tommy, who has located the monsterous Thrax. Batman refuses to let Tommy kill Thrax saying his blood could hold the plague cure.  Tommy says Thrax has a timer inside him ready to set him off like a bomb.

Batman: "I will not let you earn blood money of this creatures life. I will not let you kill him"

Tommy: "For crying out loud Batman, look at him."

Sucks to be Thrax
This conflict over saving a single life when many more are at stake is something that comes up between Tommy and Bats in the 2007 JLA coda to the series as well.  For now Tommy observes that Thrax has dies and that he should use white phosphoros to deal with the body before the disease timer goes off.  Batman reluctantly lets him, and in the explosion, Tommy escapes.  Batman has bigger things to worry about right now, with the plague still rampant, but swears he and Tommy will meet again.  This one-shot is a nice reintroduction to Tommy, showing his clamness and cleverness when dealing with the likes of Batman and keeping his own skin alive as well as establishing him as a Gotham city boy.  It was good enough to get Tommy his own ongoing series a few months later.
The Rage In Arkham begins...
HITMAN #1-3: A RAGE IN ARKHAM - The start of the series has Tommy going over how his metahuman abilities give him an edge in his chosen field as he takes down a gang of thugs and some hired supervillains.  We then get to meet Tommy's friends at a poker game, who will become more significant in later arcs.  There is the older man Sean who owns the bar Noonan's which they all frequent and he's a retired hitman.  There's his nephew Pat, who isn't a hitman but who supplies Tommy with guns.  There's Ringo Chen, who might just be a better hitman than Tommy and Hacken, who is just... Hacken, the comic relief of the series.  Tommy also says he doesn't use his abilties playing poker because he has standards.

Meanwhile, in Hell, two demons called the Arkonne - The Lords of The Gun - observe Tommy saying he is just what they are looking for, despite his one scruple of not killing anyone good.  They think if they can lure him to a place of evil they can twist him into accepting their offer to work for them. They send their current enforcer, the Mawzir to Gotham to engineer this meeting. 
The Arkonne
Back on Earth Tommy bumps into a woman while unloading firearm supplies from his friends car.  He jokes to her that he is a hitman and uses telepathy to see she likes Indian food and invites her out for a curry.  Inside Pat's place, Tommy gets offered a million dollar contract over the phone. When he goes to meet his contact, he finds out it's for the Joker, who is currently locked up in Arkham.  Later that contact gets beaten up by Batman and tells him what Tommy is planning to do.

Tommy ends his date with Wendy like a gentleman, but then gets attacked by Batman.  He tries to fend him off, but Batman grabs him and punches him in the stomach and Tommy vomits curry all over Batman's feet, who then tosses him into the street where several cop cars are waiting, and Tommy gets arrested.  Using his telepathy to discover one of the cops is having an affair with the other cops wife, he tells them this and the cuckolded cop makes the other stop the car and they get out and he knocks him out.  Tommy in turn knocks that cop out and goes to Pat's to get free of the cuffs and to get tooled up for the hit.
Tommy and his best friend Pat.
At Pat's, Tommy comments that he can't understand the lengths being gone to, to protect the Joker.

Tommy: "He's a motherlovin' bomb waiting to go off, is what he is. A sensible man woulda bust a cap in him years ago.  But oh no, not Batboy."

Pat is concerned that Tommy still intends to go through with the hit.  Tommy sees the million dollars as a way out of Gotham and to a life in Manhattan.  Pat says he'd miss him.  Tommy tells him to come with him. A pleased Pat then reels of a list of hits people want doing to inmates of Arkham "beer and pizza money" for Tommy. Then Tommy goes to Arkham and manages to infiltrate past the police cordon by hijacking a cop car.  Inside he starts capping and maiming inmates.  He arrives at the Joker and shoots him in the head, but the wound heals and the Joker turns into the Mawzir and shoots Tommy.
The Mawzir revealed.
Mawzir: "There is no million dollar contract on the Joker, Monaghan. There is no new life for you in New York city.  There is no quiet retirement safe from sudden death.  There is no hope.  There is no future.  There is only me."

A hellish cloud appears over Arkham and all the cops bar the mixed race female detective Tiegel are too scared to go in.  She does as does Batman. The Arkonne appear and tell Tommy they want him to kill for them, like the Mawzir, who is five nazi officers fused into one being.  Tommy tells them they can "stick their offer".

Tommy blasts his way free of Mawzir and blows open Killer Croc's cell with a grenade, and Croc attacks the Mawzir.  Tommy bumps into Tiegel and Batman closely followed by the Mawzir.  Batman deals with Killer Croc while Tiegel chases after Tommy.  The Mawzir injures Tommy further, but Tommy uses telepaphy to discover the Mawzir can be hurt by his own gun.  Tiegel blasts it out of the Mawzir's hand and Tommy catches it and badly wounds the Mawzir.  The Arkonne give him one last chance to join them but Tommy tells them to "blow."  He then makes the Mawzir heal him and say that the Arkonne suck, before killing him.
Tommy 1, Demons From Hell 0
An injured Batman appears and Tommy covers both him and Tiegel with another gun.  He says to Batman:

Tommy: "I ain't your problem big man. I don't sell smack to kids or rob old ladies, or try to teleport Gotham to the moon.  The guys I whack, hell it's what they do. So how about staying off my case?"

Batman says he's a hitman, of course he's Batman's problem. Tommy says he could easily kil them both, or tell everyone just who Batman really is.  But he won't do that and leaves.  Batman, Tiegel and the Arkonne all expound that one way or another they'll get Tommy Monaghan.  The book ends with Tommy watching the sun come up, reflecting he didn't get a million dollars, but he does have one good thing in his life - a second date with Wendy.
Tommy, ostensibly a good guy

On the face of it, to begin with, Tommy looks like just another gritty 90's anti-hero.  Amoral and willing to kill anyone who gets in his way.  But actually, he does have morals. He never does kill anyone who doesn't deserve it, the "Hitman who only takes metahuman contracts" angle is dropped completely after this and he tangles only with murderers, mobsters and monsters almost always in self defence.  It's also made clear that although he is a funny and likeable guy, the world he inhabits is one he can't escape from due to what he does.  It's a nasty, grubby little world and he either isn't able or isn't willing to transcend it and it ends up costing him family, relationships, friends and finally everything.  Oh there's plenty of fun stuff that happens along the way, but this series gets as dark as you can while still be a part of the mainstream DCU.  In a way it's actually a judgement on the 90's anti-hero archetype, showing the terrible cost bourne by the soul of living your life that way.  But like I said it's not all bleakness and horror, just wait until you see the zombie penguins and invasions of dinosaurs that happen in later books. And Dogwelder, mustn't forget Dogwelder!


  1. i love hitman! best garth ennis comic imho...

  2. Hope you enjoy the rest of Hitman month then :)

  3. *cough* I feel too poorly to comment properly on this comic, except to say that hitmen aren't really my cup of synthi-caff. They just go in there and shoot things and go BLAM BLAM BLAM. Also, where's the skill in being a hitman when you have X-ray vision and telepathy? It's shooting fish in a barrel. I mean, he's 66% of the way to being the Martian Manhunter.

    It doesn't help that I think that the artwork makes Glonth look deeply silly. There, I said it. Still, gotta love the Irish. Those guys are hard-core. Was this written before or after the IRA disarmed?

    TL;DR: I reckon I'll enjoy your reviews of this series more than I'd enjoy the actual comics.

  4. Sorry you are poorly, but thanks for commenting! It's interesting how little Tommy's powers end up getting used, his telepathy for instance gets massively nerfed in the next book. The book has plenty of shooting in it, but it starts to be about bigger themes like loyalty and brotherhood as the series moves on and less about anything to do with superheroes.

    I can't totally blame John McCrea for how silly Glonth looks. Because it was a crossover, I assume the design was somewhat forced on him. This was written between 1996 and 2001, so right during the disarmament process. In fact that plays a small part in an upcoming arc.

    Well, I hope you continue to enjoy the review :)

    1. Oh, I'm sure I will. Be nice to have something to distract me. What does 'nerfed' mean? If it means they downgraded his telepathy I'm not surprised, because an ability like that can make the protagonist seriously OP.

  5. Ah my gaming language showing there. Yes you pretty much have the correct definition, it means to substantial limit imposed on an over powered skill or skill set. Tommy can still read minds after it happens, but going too deep leaves him crippled with migraines so he usually doesn't bother.