Friday, 19 May 2017

Comic Review: Hitman - A Rage in Arkham

PUBLISHER: DC (1995-1996)

By the mid-1990s Garth Ennis was well-in at DC and made his push for immortality by beginning Preacher for the company's Vertigo label. Preacher is fabulous of course, but as if it wasn't enough Ennis was also writing another book virtually alongside it - the tale of superpowered hitman Tommy Monaghan, a heady mix of action, comedy, friendship and commentary. Somehow a brilliant madman at editorial decided Hitman should be part of the mainstream DC universe rather than shuffled off into its' own little continuity because they could totally trust Ennis to not just take the piss and thus it became even better. The result lasted for sixty issues and a few assorted specials before the inevitable end, coincidentally (or not, I have no actual idea) around the same time Preacher finished, at which point DC decided that if the series wasn't running there was no actual need to finish of the series of TPBs. Thankfully it only took them the best part of a decade to realise how stupid this idea was and since 2009 the whole brilliant thing has been put back in print. However, it took some time for the series to really settle down and the opening trade is perhaps not the best ambassador.

Don't get me wrong - it's not bad exactly but it shows the limitations of the original pitch of a criminal assassin getting superpowers and instead of using them to fight or cause crime just carrying on what he was while also extending his list of potential targets to metahumans. Ennis and collaborator John McCrea were writing DC's Demon series at the time and for an annual that was part of the "Bloodlines" crossover infected Monaghan with alien DNA, giving him powers of telepathy and x-ray vision - plus solid black eyes. Monaghan thus took on the identity of Hitman, not the last time Ennis would go with an intentionally absurd, prosaic codename or persona. The story isn't superb - I've never particularly warmed to Etrigan or Jason Blood, though Ennis' trademark violent humour is in evidence - and Hitman himself is as silly as expected. However, there are early signs that Ennis is planning something; there's just a bit more background that you'd expect for a gag character and we get the first rudimentary looks at best friend and armourer Pat Noonan and the latter's uncle Sean, proprietor of Noonan's Sleazy Bar, Tommy's pub of choice.

The annual came out in late 1993 and Tommy would appear in two further Demon arcs, getting double-crossed by the title character (who refused to pay him for a supernatural hit) and then helping Blood steal the demon's heart. Demon would be cancelled however and by 1996 Ennis was ready to spin Hitman off into his own series. This was trailed by a guest appearance in Batman Chronicles that nicely introduces the character to the many who weren't reading Demon; the character model is tidied up with the neckerchief gone and physique calmed down and Tommy's moral code is prodded at, notably the idea that he doesn't want to kill Batman but also isn't hot on getting caught either. Rogue government projects are established as a good source of income (with a first glimpse of what will be known as the Injun Peak facility, a spawning point for bad guys) while Tommy only refers to himself as being Hitman once (and for the last time) and that with a fair amount of self-ridicule. It's a short, simple story which only really serves to trail the opening arc.

This three-parter which gives name to the collection is the only real outing of the "pitch" format as Tommy accepts a million dollar contract to assassinate the Joker, incarcerated at Arkham Asylum, with much lamp-shading as to how easy this will be due to the institution's lax security. The problem is that tough detective Debs Tiegel, the only good apple in her precinct of the GCPD, is out to stop him as is Batman himself, who has another run-in with Tommy which is hilarious. Another hitch is that the Joker hit is a ploy by otherworldly demons the Arakonne to allow their emissary Mawzir to kill Tommy for turning down a Saint of Killers-type role for them. Herein lies the problem - Tommy can whack minor members of the Arkham intake willy-knilly but DC are never going to let him kill the Joker, Killer Croc or even the Mad Hatter. 

Thankfully as a one-off job it works thanks to sharp dialogue, very little respect for Batman, a fine undercurrent of building characterisation for Debs and Pat plus the extending of the supporting cast to include Asian hitman Ringo Chen and lunkheaded Hacken. It's nice to see the pieces come together. Another sign of the developing series is how much Tommy uses his powers; initially much was made of the pain using his telepathy and x-ray vision caused Monaghan and in time they would be rarely used but at this stage it's firmly that they can be used effortlessly when the plot suits.

So yes, it's a mixed start - the supernatural elements, especially the prevalent role of Etrigan, are more pronounced here than they would be as the series went on, as is the level of integration with the rest of the DC universe - while the series never left it the title arc is probably about as two-way as the system would get. However, despite the faltering shape the book is still tremendous - funny, clever and featuring a lead who grows in interest with every appearance.

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