A Hitman Retrospective
I am about to attempt the impossible; I am going to pick my 5 favourite issues of Garth Ennis and John McCrea’s Hitman series.
The adventures of Tommy Monaghan and his friends is, for me, my favourite Garth Ennis ongoing series. The story of a contract killer who is spinally-raped by a space parasite and gains the ability to read people’s minds and X-ray vision whilst maintaining his Irish-derived charm and drinking prowess. It was glorious. Under-appreciated, bloody, hysterical, charming, and really bleak at times. I love every page.
Ennis’ Preacher is obviously right up there, but its moral core is just a bit too nice compared to the Python-esque humour of Hitman. And whilst I think Garth’s Battlefields series have probably some of the best war comics you’ll ever read, they don’t have a multi-armed swastika-branded demon from hell in them. Not that I recall.
I’m sticking my neck out here, when I say that this series is dearer to me than even Garth’s Punisher Max run. There, I said it.
The series was basically made for me - I had been an avid reader of the ‘90s The Demon series by Alan Grant and stuck with it when Garth and John took over in issue 40. The artwork of McCrea was a million miles away from the Val Semeiks’ more traditional lines of Grant’s run, but it was dynamic and above all, funny as hell. Seriously funny.
When Tommy got his own series and opened it by vomiting on Batman’s shoes, Ennis, McCrea and I were obviously singing from the same hymn-sheet. Naturally, I took this opportunity to brutally abandon comics to go to university to drink beer (around issue 14, if you wanted to know).
When I re-engaged comics in 2000, it was still there, like a cockroach, taunting the world to have a go. I sought out every single issue I had missed and recreated that scene from Indecent Proposal with the money on the bed.
Anyway, enough of that. My favourite 5 issues. Oh! If you’ve never read Hitman, you should. If you want to join in, the first issue of the spin-off mini-series All-Star Section Eight is in your local comic shop NOW! Buy it. I haven’t yet. I may wait for all the issues and have an afternoon in a Travelodge with them.
Er, 5 issues. Where to start? Well, I haven’t picked the Eisner-winning Superman issue. Hitman was never really about superheroes despite being set in the DCU, and that’s why the constant piss-take of them in the series was so wonderful. The Superman issue won an Eisner for a reason – it’s bloody brilliant, hands-down great. It’s not one of my favourite memories though.
The series is now a long time gone, but even so, if you’ve never read the whole thing, you will find spoilers here. I would rather you went away and read the whole damn thing and then come back and point out that I missed your favourite moment. Because you will have them, lots of them. I promise.
Hitman artist, John McCrea will also be joining me to reflect on some of his memories from the issues I've selected.
Hitman #7 The series really shows its balls here, and highlights that there will be consequences to the actions of our protagonists down the line. Tommy is dealing with a contract put out on him by the remaining half of a conjoined twin Mob boss (long story). The hitman after our Hitman is one Johnny Navarone, a lethal killer. In the previous issues, Jonny had brutally assaulted Tommy’s best friend, Pat, leaving him to bleed out in a bathtub. In this issue, we see Tommy’s revenge as he brutally murders his way to Johnny.
There are 5 reasons why I love this issue: 1) The first mobster to die does so by having a car smash through a window and crush him to death. 2) Tommy’s close friend and all round overweight killing machine, Natt, murders a lot of people. This includes a maniacal chef who has half his face burned off and is executed by Natt. 3) The appearance of faux-90’s style Batman character, Nightfist! A drug-addled useless being, his grand entrance results in near-annihilation by gunfire. Good. 4) Natt’s ominous warning, foreshadowing the very last issue: “..but something tells me it ain’t quite time for Butch an’ Sundance”. 5) Tommy ONLY HAS THREE PIECES OF SPEECH in the whole issue. He simply carves his way through the bad guys until he manages to somehow beat Johnny Navarone – “We’re all scum”.
John McCrea on issue #7 - "I think I recall this being the issue where I realised Hitman might last. I had signed up for the book after The Demon for 12 issues and figured that after issue 12 I might hop off and do sometime else- oh ye of little faith. I stupidly wondered how Garth could make this book engaging enough to keep people coming back but it was around this issue that I figured it out. Tommy was borne of the bloodlines crossover and a character called Gunfire ( possibly one of the most ridiculous concepts about ) had spun into his own series- it lasted 12 issues? and I remember saying to folks that if Hitman didn't last longer than Gunfire I would quit drawing comics! Unfortunately for the comics industry this did not come to pass..."
Hitman #18 The first gathering of Section 8! The greatest superhero team the DC Universe has ever known. It’s very difficult to explain just how damn funny I found this when I first read it. 90% of that hilarity for me came from the insane concept of Dogwelder - A nut-job who welds the dead bodies of canines to evil-doers faces.
The team are all bonkers, but for sheer creepiness, how the hell Garth and John managed to get low-down pervert Bueno Excellente past any form of censorship is amazing. I don’t see an Eisner for this issue though, do I? No!
Sixpack, as their industrious leader does a good job rounding up the team, and only vomiting on a few people along the way. Section 8 were a breath of rancid air, sent to mop up the horrific aftermath of 90’s shoulder pads and belts for no reason on superheroes. One of them is French. No jokes there. At all.
Insane super-teams aside, the issue is a nice build up to Tommy coming face-to-face with the rhyming demon, Etrigan, once again. Something Tommy had been trying to avoid at all costs, but Tommy needs something that Etrigan has in his possession…
John McCrea on issue #18 - "Who doesn't loved a group of insane, drunk psychotics who think they are superheroes? It seems no one as Section 8 are now in their own Eisner award winning, best selling series ( knocking Secret Wars off the top spot- stick that in your pipe, Marvel!) with a tv show and toy line in the works....."
This is one of the most hard-core comics you will ever read. It’s like an Eastwood movie that bullies other Eastwood movies for not being brutal enough. A mistake that Tommy and Natt made in the first Gulf War comes back to haunt them as the SAS come calling for them. Taking Ennis’ passion for the military and war stories, the comic aspects of Hitman are sorely tested in the story arc as all hell is brought to Gotham by the SAS team.
The series really takes an even darker path here, despite shoot outs in fast food restaurants and improbably named gangsters. The brutal, clinical efficiency of the SAS is played out, as one of the world’s best fighting units, they are shown more as a force of nature albeit with human failings.
The extreme actions and comradery of the SAS unit are another example of some difficult choices Tommy will make as his story plays out.
John McCrea on issue #27 - "I have a friend who is ex SAS and he posed as one of the characters- can't tell you which one or he'll kill me- but he was able to help me get all the tech details right which kept Garth happy!"
This issue finds our heroes fighting once more against gangsters, specifically one whose daughter was killed when the SAS were in town and wants some serious revenge. Opening with an all out assault on Noonan’s bar, it’s another insane mix of comic moments and intensely serious character set pieces.
The issue ends with the death of Tommy’s surrogate father figure, Sean. But not before he’s kicked the ass of wave after wave of inept gangsters.
The artwork throughout is absolutely perfect as the horrible climax draws closer and closer panel-by-panel. The final page is one of the most powerful things I have ever seen in comics.
John McCrea on issue #49 - "Gary Leach is an absolute Art God ( though a disgusting human being ) and he really made my art sing, especially on the more emotional story lines- this may be one of my favourite ink jobs by him."
And so we reach the end of the road. The fact it even got to 60 issues plus a load of specials was, quite frankly, a fucking miracle. But, 60 issues it was, and what a ride!
Ennis continues to pull story threads together as he uses characters from previous stories and even the ridiculous “origin” of Tommy via the Bloodlines event into play. There is an awful self-realisation from Tommy throughout the final storyline that he knows he’s finally bitten off more than he can chew. We as an audience all know it cannot end any other way than with death, the alternative defies all logic and emotion.
Of course, that doesn't make it any easier.
John McCrea on issue #60 - "I still shed a tear when I read this issue of Hitman- those final pages are real tear jerkers- I just wish I had more time to spend on the art- the final issue (30 pages ) I had to draw in a couple of weeks due to me having to go to the pub for a week at a time back then- not that I'm saying drawing comics drove me to drink, but drawing comics drove me to drink."
All good things, etc. I waited a long time from the end of the series to a convention a few years ago when I finally got the chance to get a Dogwelder sketch. One day, I’ll get it on the wall before the missus realises what the hell it actually is. Thank you, Garth and John, it was a hell of a ride.
All-Star Section Eight is out now. Buy it.
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