“Come on, a giant space monster ate the sun last year. People get used to stuff.”
Not sure why I start each article with a quote but there are worse places to steal an idea from than The Wire. This time around the words of wisdom are those of your hero and mine, Tommy Monaghan.
Hitman by Garth Ennis and John McCrea ran from 1996 through 2001 with the title character having appeared a few years earlier during Bloodlines. If you are not familiar with that particular crossover please do not Google it. It is not worth it.
Tommy is a stranger in a strange land. He is a hired killer with a heart o’ gold living and operating in Gotham City, but that is not the strange part. The strange is that Hitman was a DC comic with 60+ issues and no “Vertigo” banner. It was set in the same world as each and every bit of ridiculousness (see the opening quote about The Final Night) that accompanies superhero comics but it was never really a superhero comic.
Tommy has superpowers, though half the stories (thankfully all collected, and you can Google them) do not feature them. I am pretty sure Ennis had given up on them by the time Superman actually makes an appearance in the Eisner award winning issue #34 (dollar bins were created by whatever higher power you believe in just so you can get this issue cheap). He does not have a secret identity and the extent of his costume is the green trench coat. In any other story he would be the guy a member of the Bat-Family beats down for information or name-dropped by Matches Malone.
What Tommy’s adventures did that few other superhero comics do, or superhero stories regardless of medium accomplish, was to reinstate that sense of scope. When something is described as awesome does it really fill with awe? Maybe, but when Tommy and his sidekick/partner, Natt the Hat, are sent back in time to inadvertently hunt the dinosaurs the first thing the reader is shown is the character struck dumb by how magnificent the beast before him is. Time travel is a bit of a trope, but I cannot think of the last time a character acknowledged the limitless potential and wonder of their world.
This used to be the Marvel Method. Throw someone the reader feels as if they know into “The Unknown” and see what shenanigans are had. It is still around today, but for me this is where it was done best. Tommy’s not in the Justice League (though either Grant Morrison or Howard Porter were fans because he makes a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it-wait-that-analogy-does-not-work-in-print appearance in JLA during a membership drive) and he is not likely to fight the Crime Syndicate should they come calling. He does live in a world where those things happen, and he never lets the reader forget that. Tommy also does not occupy a space that says superpower is necessarily a good thing. His ever present sunglasses are not because he is a Scott Summers-ian level prick but rather because his seldom used X-Ray vision has blacked-out his eyes and he does not want to scare off the ladies (which makes Tommy the only gunslinger in Gotham to not openly flaunt his horrible, supernatural disfigurement). He also has a bit of that old staple of 90s comics, Generic Psychic Powers. They tend to give him a headache so if you need him to use them he may tell you “not tonight.”
Fantastic Four, the book that began the Marvel Age, is being canceled and, across the street, the Legion of Superheroes is nowhere to be found. Both are the kind of heady, science fiction adventures that seem to have no place in today’s market. Outer space? Different dimensions? Lost kingdoms? No, thank you. Kids from a semi-utopian future who have conquered time travel? Nah, man, our future is gonna be filled with zombies. Or melting ice caps. Maybe we have just lost perspective and maybe our imaginations cannot function without it. The sharp, beautiful light of New Ideas planting themselves in our mind, amid the collection of fears and uncertainties, expanding what we “know we knew.” If Tommy had been dragged to the Negative Zone he would have found a bar, something familiar amid the weirdness. Maybe inadvertently inciting open revolt against some Generic Threat, if the beer had been warm, but he would never have thought of any of this as commonplace.
If you are lucky you may have had a friend try and push the series on you. They may have mentioned the bits everyone remembers: Six Pack, the hero whose power comes from alcoholism, and his team Section Either (with Dogwelder and Bueno Excellente as members), the few issues Tommy and his drinking buddies get stuck in the Gotham Aquarium during a George Romero style outbreak, and of course the time Tommy vomited on the Hero Gotham Deserves. Those made this book the Wizard pick of the month! Tommy never forgets that he lives and operates in the DCU even if he is not at the center of the larger action. Tommy’s Heroes were never afraid to call the Powers That Be on their nonsense and point out how the people the world is being saved for might view the goings-on. His adventures are most often what would happen if someone on the sidelines got pulled into the action.
Maybe you have not had anyone recommend this to you. Maybe you also read Future’s End, in which case, I am sorry but there is no treatment that has proven effective. Reading Hitman a decade and a half after it came to a satisfying conclusion shows how far away from good today’s stories can be. The spectacle of interconnectivity has always been the type of go-to cross promotion that superhero comics rely on. Lately both major companies’ narratives seem to be moving frantically toward a deep, dark center that nothing, certainly not compelling character driven stories, can escape. Maybe the singularity births a Brave New World of something we have not seen before but most likely there will just be Movies and TV Shows and nothing of the four color comics we all know and love (well everyone except Rick Remender – that boy seems to have issues and he is taking them out on the poor intellectual properties whose care has been temporarily entrusted to him).
Tommy may have begun life as a supporting character in The Demon (making him closer to being an actual Jack Kirby creation than any of the King’s older titles Dan DiDio keeps headlining), but his stories are mostly about a few guys sitting around drinking. Characters are often drawn lighting cigarettes and one tight little panel follows another to tell stories and deliver dialogue. When there are double-page spreads or splash pages in general there is purpose and meaning that carries the added weight from being used sparingly. My personal favorite story is The Old Dog. I will not spoil it here but the violent, revenge-fueled ending comes in between panels and feels as satisfying as any interplanetary brawl that the Avengers or Justice League have to deal with. What good is this to you? You do not know me (though “I am Baytor” if anyone asks). What is the appeal of being told how good this book was and is and will continue to be if you cannot be shown all the fun little details?
Because when you have read this book you do not forget it. Ever. Through the good, the bad, and the downright heartbreaking. When I speak to a comic fan there is no doubt whether or not they have read Hitman because if they have then we are old friends suddenly reminiscing about all the time spent at Noonan’s Sleazy Bar. If they have not then they have no idea what I am talking about which means that there is still time.
The Hero Gotham Does Not Need Right Now never got around to arresting Tommy, no matter how much of Gotham got wrecked. A lesser man would accuse Master Bruce of playing the social status card and never wanting to come down to “The Cauldron,” but I am sure he just had too other things to do (such as all those parent teacher conferences he must attend). If you have ever read a Daredevil comic you know about Hell’s Kitchen. Same idea, different Dark Avenger. Ennis made Tommy’s neighborhood the Worst Part of the Worst City in the World with the twist being that all the lowlifes drank at the same bar and understood how the world worked, “idiots in underwear” and all. The general consensus being that no one thought too highly of “The Justice Club.”
Except for Superman.
You might not be able to tell from the way DC has been treating him lately, but there was a time when Superman really was the one who inspired everyone else to get it together and help their neighbor. He is the New Testament Messiah as envisioned by two Jewish kids regardless of what Zack Snyder has him doing on screen. I mentioned above Ennis, McCrea, and company winning for Best Single Issue at the height of their run. In the days before Brian Michael Bendis, the issue features two guys talking, albeit on a rooftop, and it is the entirety of superhero comics in microcosm. “As above, so below.” When Disney and Time Warner start selling off parts for scrap, the last big crossover is going to be a retelling of Tommy shooting a piece of human garbage through a window with a rifle.
Tommy once claimed that he wanted to corner the market on killing superhumans. That was how he would distinguish himself. He took out the classic 90s anti-hero Nightfist (“He Will Hit You With His Fist!”) and kneecapped the Mad Hatter but he never “put his gun on anyone not in the Game” (to continue the trend mentioned in the opening). Though raised in part by a nun, Tommy does not get his moral code from the good lord, at least not that one. As he tells Superman on the rooftop of a Gotham dive (and the reason he is there is a better World’s Finest team up than anything written by Jeph Loeb), “You can’t help what people are gonna believe about you.” Tommy follows this a few years later at their next meeting with “[and] I guess you can’t help who’s gonna believe in you either.” Tommy is proof that Superman makes his world better. Superman’s lip-service about it being a better place may fall of deaf ears to us here on Earth-33 (though this was before Flashpoint so it may be Earth-Pri… dammit, I stopped caring) but to the people who actually live in the DCU, it makes all the difference. Anyone in the DCU is “One Bad Day” away from being a supervillain, but Tommy, what with his propensity for violence and superpowers, would have been a card-carrying member of the Secret Society (they’re a union, right?) if not for having already seen how the world can be made into a better place: help your fellow man when they are in need.
Normally this is where a story loses me except this time it was delivered by the same author who later had a Superman analogue beaten to death by a crowbar in The Boys and did downright awful things to pretty much every member of the Justice League in The Pro. Garth Ennis is not known for his steadfast devotion to superheroes. As far as I can tell, he considers them to be silly. So why does the Original Superhero get so much respect? Because it is mutual. Tommy can go places that Superman cannot and vice versa. They both live in the same world and they both try to live according to the same basic rules but their lives have turned out very different. Whenever I see a version of the “Man of Steel” that does not work for me I think of what would have happened if Jor-El had landed that rocket gracefully outside of St. Killian’s orphanage in the heart of the Cauldron.
Tommy’s my favorite character to come out of the 90s not wearing a blue hoodie. Ennis made sure I knew what kind of beer, whiskey, and movies he enjoyed. His latter day love interest hightailed it to New York to bother the Punisher, after ruining Kyle Rayner’s Most Momentous Team-Up. His supporting cast is as robust as any of the Major Characters’ in any of their heydays and he once had Lobo sodomized. Hitman’s not just one of the best series to come out of the 90s (having read most of them I feel comfortable making that statement), it is an intensely personal drama with the budget of a Summer Blockbuster and zombie baby seals.
If you have not read it you could do worse than to check it out. If nothing else, one collection, no matter which, is probably going to be more rewarding than anything with Axis on the cover.