by Garth Ennis and John McCrea
DC Comics – 2 saddle-stitched @ $3.99
LIKE IT SAYS ON THE SIDEBAR TO THE RIGHT, Garth Ennis and John McCrea’s original Hitman series is among my all-time favorite comic books, so I’ve been anticipating this since it was first announced as an arc in JLA: Classified over a year ago. The final product is different from what I thought it would be, but it nearly lived up to my too-high expectations.
The titular hitman is Tommy Monaghan, created by Ennis and McCrea as part of the Bloodlines crossover that ran through DC’s annuals in 1993. Bloodlines’ mandate was to create a new batch of superheroes who all got their powers from attacks by the alien race that served as the series’ threat. Tommy first appeared in The Demon Annual #2 and then became a recurring character in that series before starring in his own from 1996-2001. Lasting five years, Hitman was the only series to come from Bloodlines that ran any significant amount of time. The rest have seldom been seen because, as Green Lantern points out in JLA/Hitman #1, “Those guys are lame. I mean they are really lame.” JLA/Hitman is essentially a follow-up to the Eisner Award-winning Hitman #34, “Of Thee I Sing,” in which Tommy meets Superman on a Gotham rooftop and the two talk about the myth and reality of Superman before Tommy gets his autograph.
That right there is probably already more than a new reader needs to know going in, and is all more or less explained in the book itself. Ennis has clearly taken pains to make the book accessible to people who’ve never read Hitman and, though DC has made no official announcement about new reprints, the book seems intended to pique interest in the Hitman series proper. Just about every run-in Tommy’s ever had with a member of the Justice League is referenced, sometimes a little clumsily, with asterisk captions pointing to the issues the meetings appeared in (don’t see a lot of those anymore). In spite of this tendency toward explaining itself for new readers, there are still a few in-jokes left for old time Hitman fans, like passing references to Injun Peak and Bueno Excellente.
In some ways, JLA/Hitman reads as an opposite of The Authority: Kev, in which Ennis ostensibly wrote an Authority story, but relegated them to supporting character status, with his new character Kev Hawkins taking the lead. Here, most of the publicity and hype surrounded Tommy, and he is the most prominent character in both cover designs, but the book is more of a Justice League story featuring Tommy than the other way around. Most of the character conflict involves Superman and Wonder Woman, The Flash and Green Lantern, or Batman and everybody, and the plot involves a threat on the Watchtower.
Not that any of this is a problem. Turns out Ennis writes a great Justice League and should really be given more opportunities to write Superman if he wants them (given the way that he presents Superman as the only hero that Tommy and his friends doesn’t consider a joke, he may well). Ennis “gets” Superman and is able to explain his motivations, his essential goodness, and how inspiring it is for others just to be in his presence without being corny.
And Tommy’s inclusion is definitely more than a gimmick. The first issue features an extended scene at Noonan’s Bar with the whole gang, and two scenes with Tommy’s best friend, Natt, and his new girlfriend have some of the funniest jokes in the series. A bit too much of the first half of the story involves Tommy standing around simply commenting on the action, but he becomes essential once the attack on the Watchtower happens, and after that it’s his show. As is the standard in this type of story, it’s Tommy who is left standing at the end and it comes down to him to save the Justice League and the world. Tommy’s actions and the Justice League’s reactions to them bring the philosophical themes that Ennis has built up between the heroes to a satisfying conclusion, and the end of the book brought a wistful smile to my face.
The other half of Hitman is, of course, John McCrea, who provided the art for all of Tommy’s Demon appearances and nearly every issue of Hitman. McCrea has a tough job here, drawing Tommy and the gang in the style they’ve always appeared in, while having to put a more conventional spin on the superhero elements of the book. He does a pretty good job, but it’s a bit inconsistent, with characters looking better in some panels than others. Tommy’s look comes very naturally and Superman has clearly gotten a lot of attention (McCrea admitted in a Newsarama interview to not being happy with how he drew Superman in Hitman #34, and he redeems himself here, though his Clark Kent looks different in every appearance); the other characters generally look good, but are more hit and miss.
On the whole, I preferred McCrea’s original Hitman work with Gary Leach inking him. Leach smoothed out some of the sketchiness of McCrea’s work while preserving its cartooniness. Some of the closeups here are a bit over-rendered, with hatch lines that are too thick. But other scenes look great; the trip to Noonan’s, with the kind of “dubious” clientele that McCrea is more comfortable drawing, is a joy to look at. And McCrea excels at the necessary gore and nails all of the reveal shots of the gruesome creatures invading the Watchtower. David Baron provides traditionally superhero-y colors, so the book overall ends up looking pretty different from the old Hitman series, which had a more low-key palette courtesy of Carla Feeny.
Overall, the book succeeded at taking me back to the feel of one of my favorite series, which I’ve missed a long time. Readers of Hitman need this, and anyone who likes action and over-the-top humor, or Superman, would do well to give it a try. The old Hitman series is also worth tracking down, Hitman #34 at the very least. The only warning I would give is that JLA/Hitman does reveal the ending of the original Hitman series and goes into a little detail about how things went down.