“I love comic books. And I will fight anyone who has a problem with that.”
- Stewart Lee
My last few articles around here have been somewhat aggressive and negative on the subject of comics, whether it be unkindly describing the online fans of Wonder Woman as mentally backwards manchildren or people who play Arkham City as functionally illiterate.
It was pointed out to me that I might have given the impression I somehow consider myself above comics, when in fact nothing could be further from the truth. I am, of course, an enormous nerd, and an exponent of Stewart Lee’s aforementioned advocation of them/violent threat. So I wanted to do that undertake that very rare blogging task and write about something that I actually think is decent.
In my last booky post on my personal blog, where I usually discuss “higher” (pfft) forms of literature, I forgot to mention I’d also this year finally gotten around to starting – and finishing – Garth Ennis and John McRea’s Hitman. Now, I’m a huge fan of Ennis and Steve Dillon’s Preacher – probably to an unhealthy extent. It was a perfect example of how good comics in the 1990s could get in an era more known for brainless excess than innovative genius. Not only that, but I’m an admirer of Ennis in general, from his irreverent and deliberately offensive superhero genre pisstakes to his startlingly excellent war comics. (Dear Billy is absolutely extraordinary.) So, Hitman, though it’s not so immediately relevant as, say, Game of Thrones, (though I’m sure plenty of us want to see how well Ennis’ skills transfer to film with his movie Stitched) is a recent thing for me and I hope you’ll allow me an indulgence here.
Despite my being an Ennis fan, for one reason or another, up until last month, my only exposure to Hitman‘s protagonist, hired killer Tommy Monaghan, was when he made a cameo in a Justice League book. Which was probably the first problem I had: I wondered whether Ennis having to write within the confines of a mainstream shared universe would severely hamstring him in the way that Preacher, being a Vertigo publication, didn’t have to worry about. Secondly, whilst I really like the work of Dillon, McCrea’s art has always looked ugly and scrappy to me, without enough character to make up for it. It wasn’t that I’d out and out avoided Hitman: I just hadn’t particularly pursued it.
The start of Hitman did little to reassure me. The disrespectful treatment of Batman, DC’s flagship character, had enough humour to lift it out of the usual bog-standard superhero crossover fare – when was the last time someone vomited on the Dark Knight after a bad curry? However, that’s still Ennis not even getting out of starting gear. A look at his Punisher series (not the MAX one) shows he can do that sort of thing in his sleep.
Furthermore, McCrea’s drawings, blocky and ungainly as they were, hadn’t dispelled my prejudices. Which wasn’t entirely his fault, when the arc’s villain was unbelievably awful. I’m not a comic book artist, but if I was asked to draw something like Mawzir, I don’t know if I’d come up with anything better than this:
I mean, as terrible as Mawzir is, looking back at that now, I can no longer escape the mindset that McCrea is anything other than a very talented comic book artist. Somewhere around the second arc, which is coincidentally where Ennis’ writing revs into top gear, the penny dropped for me with McCrea. I now ‘get’ the consistent visual argot of motion and emotion that he renders in almost every panel, the subtlety that belies his apparent cartoonishness. Look at the folds, the movement, of Tommy’s coat and trousers in the pic above and tell me if I fib. There’s a dynamism about every line that composes the character, from the slight but dramatic curve of the thigh to the pained, jaggedly contracted fingers. Yes, it’s daft, and not at all helped by the Close Encounters fetishist standing over the hero, but it’s still a fine piece of cartooning.
From then on, Ennis goes from strength to strength. The introduction of the Nat the Hat character as Tommy’s partner-in-crime gives the book its Hap-and-Leonard structure upon which is then hung war stories, CIA intrigue, boozing, romance and awe-inspiring John Woo homages. Though there are, like in Ennis’ Hellblazer, parts at which the narrative sags a little (the less said about the time travelling T-Rex issues or the attempted vampire conquest of the Cauldron, the working class Irish slum in which Tommy lives, the better), but overall it’s a fine book.
Most interestingly, though, is that Ennis sets Tommy up as the Anti-Custer. Whilst both men are, to some extent, honourable killers, the similiarites end there: Jesse kills for honour, whereas Tommy kills for money. This is despite the fact that Jesse’s father was a good man and his father figure a complete bastard, whereas Tommy’s father is an evil murderer and his father figure a flawed but essentially decent person. Jesse, a Texan, is proud of his roots; Tommy, an Irish immigrant, is evasive about his. Jesse is obsessive in his pursuit of his destiny; Tommy, it is assumed, will go on to do great things, but is instead content to tread water. Ennis makes it abundantly clear that this divergence and opposition is deliberate when a fellow Gulf War veteran talks of his disillusionment with the great American mythology:
“Ain’t like the movies, is it, Tommy? I mean, you a kid an’ you watchin’ John Wayne or Gregory Peck or someone, you know it’s gonna be real simple. Just the two sides, yeah? You grow up an’ you find out everything got maybe two or three or four or maybe even ten sides. How you s’posed to keep track, huh?”
Jesse, too, was sceptical, but stood by the American mythology, represented by John Wayne, his hero. Confronted with this speech, Jesse would respond with something intelligent but stirring, something homespun but wise. Tommy, however, replies:
“I dunno, Jorge. I never even saw those kinda movies.”
At the beginning of that issue (called A Coffin Full of Dollars), Tommy and Nat are watching The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (later, he has a Mexican stand-off with a Klaus Kinski lookalike called Manco, all references to For a Few Dollars More) and loving every minute of it. Maybe because it, like Tommy’s heritage, is more an appropriation of and an inline into America rather than the staunch and true Americana of Wayne’s movies… the movies Jesse grew up on. More so, the Man With No Name character played by Clint Eastwood in those spaghetti westerns is fundamentally amoral, in opposition to the moral rigidity of a Wayne hero. This is reflected in Tommy and Jesse, one an assassin trying to remain a decent guy and the other practically a superhero by comparison, attempting to force the creator of the universe itself to face up to his responsibilites.
And yet both Jesse and Tommy are fully formed and realised characters, and completely likeable. The loyalty, the inner toughness, the humour and the righteous anger of Jesse Custer are as endearing as the amiable, witty, insecure yet proud characteristics of Tommy. These are both books that, when you’ve been beaten down, make you feel as if you could get up and go one more round. They’re anti-authoritarian, dissenting, damning and cynical, and yet they put iron in your spine, levity in your mind and warmth in your heart.
Preacher is the superior work overall, in terms of both art and writing. Hitman, though, with its more down-to-earth sensibilities (if not circumstances), perhaps hits closer to home; especially if you’re someone who grew up believing, as I did, that Clint Eastwood was the coolest person in history (whereas it was Preacher that actually got me into John Wayne movies and I think Hitman is doing the same with Hong Kong action flicks). Without wanting to give anything away if you haven’t read them, the final difference between them is perhaps the most startling in that Preacher ultimately chooses life and eros, whereas Hitman’s fulfillment is found in storge and death.
I wouldn’t want to be without either series. I just hope The Boys, Ennis’ ongoing series with Darick Robertson, can elevate itself to anywhere near the same level as it seems to draw towards its denouement. But I suspect Preacher will always be his best work, and, because I can’t write a full blog post without saying something contrary, Hitman will always be my favourite. As the man himself had it:
“It’s hard to put into words how much I loved writing [Hitman], and the fun I had with the insanity of it, and the kick I got when someone would mention Preacher and Hellblazer and so on – and then smile like we were sharing some cool little secret and tell me they liked Hitman best of all. My love for the underdog, I suppose.”
Bueno, Mr Ennis. Excellente.