Hitman: Tommy’s Heroes (1998-99)

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By the fifth Hitman collection, DC has given up on the six or eight-issue collection and just gone whole hog. There are fourteen issues in the Tommy’s Heroes collection. Two full story arcs, a couple done-in-ones (including the DC One Million crossover), and then a haunting two-parter to close it off. Writer Garth Ennis runs Hitman hero Tommy Monaghan through various ringers, starting with the S.A.S. out to get him.

Back in Gulf War One, Tommy and best friend Natt the Hat accidentally killed a British officer. Friendly fire, it happens (apparently a lot with the U.S. military, per Ennis’s S.A.S. blokes’ conversation). Only it was the son of some blue blood, so the S.A.S. wants to show you really can’t kill wealthy Brits, even if you’re a Marine, so they send a fire team to Gotham to kill Tommy and Natt the Hat. Why have they waited so long (the comic’s from 1998)? Possibly because the team leader was too busy undercover in the IRA, possibly because… they just needed to wait for it to be a story.

Especially since it’s going to turn into a gang war, and it couldn’t have been a gang war if Tommy hadn’t recently pissed off the Italian mob.

So, this arc, Who Dares Wins, has Garry Leach inking John McCrea, and while the style is still Hitman, Leach brings a much more absurdist feel to the art. It’s like a gore comedy, always trying to top itself—DC really should’ve paid Ennis or made some intern go through these Hitman comics and change out the fake swear words for real ones, just to see how it reads. Because it’s super gory, super gross (the Italian mob boss has IBS and conducts his business from the men’s, which begs for a Batman versus IBS mobster story but alas no), but there’s no cursing. But they get away with a lot, especially with the Leach inks.

It’s a five-issue arc, with Tommy and Natt on the run from the S.A.S., on the run from the mob, then having to save a kidnapped friend. Not the girlfriend. Ennis doesn’t put her in danger, though the S.A.S. considers it. Lots of the arc is about the S.A.S. being these unstoppable, unconscionable killing machines, leading to inter-team turmoil. Tommy and Natt are kind of just guest-starring in their own story. Ennis is far more interested in the Brits.

I’m pretty sure he did the same setup years later with a Punisher MAX arc. It’d be interesting to compare the two.

The story’s okay. The stakes are kind of low—once Ennis establishes it’ll be an alarming escalation if the S.A.S. team starts killing civilians (versus mobsters or Tommy and Natt), you don’t really have to worry about their hostage. I mean, maybe Natt’s in danger, but… probably not. Ennis started Hitman killing off Tommy’s other best friend. It’d be a lot to off the replacement.

Mostly, it’s a wonderful exercise in glorious, energetic art. McCrea’s always kind of static with Hitman. Leach brings the fluidity.

There’s a perfect example with the one-in-one following the conclusion of Who Dares Wins. Tommy and girlfriend Tiegel are on the outs after a fight over Tommy’s demonic hitman nightmares, so he and Natt head to the bar to get blotto. It’s mostly comedy and character development as Tommy feels like a failure compared to the S.A.S. team from the last arc. They were real hard men; he’s just pretending. So talking heads, Irish jokes, and an absolutely fantastic new bartender.

McCrea inks the issue himself, and it’s got none of that liquidity or smoothness Leach brings. It’s not bad. It works just fine for a pensive issue. It gives Tommy time to think through his monologues and so on.

Leach is back for the next arc, Tommy’s Heroes. Well, for most of it. It’s five issues, and smack dab in the middle Andrew Chui fills in on the inks and… makes Hitman look very silly.

Heroes is about Tommy, Natt, and a couple other local Gotham hitmen heading to Central Africa to work as mercenaries. Officially they’re advisors training the locations to fight the heroin-smuggling rebels, but pretty soon, they discover the people they’re working for are the actual bad guys. Because, of course.

One of the other mercenaries conned into the job is a British friend of one of the S.A.S. guys from the other arc. It gives Tommy a character relationship away from Natt and Tiegel, which is a Hitman rarity these days. Of course, Natt doesn’t want Tommy telling his new friend about the S.A.S. trying to kill them, so there’s some tension.

The tension quickly gives way to the aforementioned working-for-the-bad-guys bit, which becomes really obvious when Tommy’s superior kills a baby. Actually, the superior orders one of the two evil supers to do it; you can see the seeds of The Boys all throughout the arc, though it’s also going to echo Superman-as-stooge in Dark Knight just because it’s the most similar reference point at the time.

There’s a lot of outrageous war comic action, mostly with great Leach inks and much less humor than usual. One of the additional hitmen is the big dopey one, who everyone uses as comic relief to relieve tension. Not everyone like Ennis, McCrea, or Leach. The characters. They all use the guy to blow off steam while slowly realizing his place in the team dynamic.

Tommy’s Heroes is a better story than the S.A.S. one, but it’s also a much more serious one. It may be the most serious Hitman story so far. Ennis tries a little hard to force Tommy’s character development but gets away with it through charm, goodwill, and brute force.

None of it, and none of Hitman, can prepare for the next issue in the collection, another done-in-one. Tommy and Superman, having a long talk on a Gotham rooftop. Leach does the inks. He and McCrea’s Superman is vaguely Kirby-esque, larger than life (and chonky), which just makes the story all the more effective.

Superman’s just had a very bad day and went to talk to Batman about it for emotional support. Batman was useless. Since it’s Superman and Superman’s always saving the world, Tommy figures the least he can do is talk it out with him. So the comic works through three levels of cynicism. There’s Tommy’s affected but earned cynicism, there’s Superman’s reluctant cynicism, then there’s Ennis’s cynicism about the whole superhero thing, as continually evidenced in the very comic book itself.

It ends up being Ennis doing inspiration over cynicism, and it’s absolutely phenomenal. It’s not the best Hitman, but it’s on a shortlist of best Superman.

Then it’s time for the DC One Million crossover, which has a bunch of future jackass rich kids teleporting Tommy to the future so they can use his powers. In the intervening 83,000 years between the present and the One Million timeline (seriously, there ought to be an oral history project on the terrible idea of this crossover from go), the world has aggrandized Tommy into a superhero. The kind who would be suitable for a silly crossover issue.

All that superhero inspirational positivity Ennis ginned up for the Superman issue? He cleanses himself of it in the One Million crossover. All the future superhero sycophants are dipshits (at best), and Tommy’s mortified by the lot of them.

Eventually, he’s going to reintroduce murder-death-kills to the neutered future, hurrying things along so he can get back to his barstool to drink away his sorrows. The best thing in the issue’s probably the punchline cameo, but absolutely no one is trying very hard here. Ennis’s exposition is just to rag on the concept, though McCrea (inking himself) does get to do more goofy humor than usual.

Then comes the devastating two-part finale of the collection.

So, again, just like the Tommy’s Heroes arc was the most serious Hitman to that point… the two-part Katie sets the new standard. Because it’s going to be almost incalculably dark.

The story starts with Tommy and Tiegel having another fight, taking another break. She’s mad about him being a hitman, which is their go-to disagreement. Ennis seems to have forgotten what he enjoyed about writing them together, and now they just argue and, during the arguments, mention the other times they’re happy with each other. We just never see those on the page.

The latest breakup is just to remind Tiegel’s still around, with the inciting incident being a person from Tommy’s past reappearing and taking him back to Ireland. There are a lot of truth bombs, and back story reveals throughout the two issues, but they have very little to do with Hitman proper. Outside it broadly being about Tommy’s character development. Everything he finds out here is a revelation to both reader and Tommy, so we’re privy to his reaction.

The series has already established Tommy was left at the local Catholic orphanage as a baby, and the Mother Superior at the orphanage has been having a long-time love affair with his good friend, the bar owner. Well, I think Ennis only hinted at the latter, but it’s a plot detail in the arc. Because when it’s about Tommy in Gotham, it’s Tommy as a newborn; so instead, it’s about the adults around him.

But it’s not a Gotham story, it’s an Ireland story, and Ennis has a lot of thoughts about how shitty Irish people can be. Mainly how shitty men can be. How infinitely awful, in fact.

It’s a hell of a story.

Excellent, emotive art from McCrea and Leach. It’d probably be nicer if they’d ended the collection with some kind of reprieve, but they don’t. It’s just an even more intense weight than the comic’s ever had before.

Hitman: Tommy’s Heroes might be the turning point where Ennis starts getting more ambitious with the character. Not the romance, unfortunately (I don’t think Tiegel has anything to do outside the arguing in almost four hundred pages), but there’s so much great stuff in these issues. It starts with Leach giving the comic this newfound fluidity, jazzing it up, as it were.

It ends with Ennis… doing whatever that ending does, coming after the Superman issue after the Tommy’s Heroes arc. Just rending the reader, rending Tommy.

On the one hand, I can’t wait to see where Ennis goes next. On the other, it’s a terrifying thought. He and McCrea take Hitman someplace much darker and thoughtful than mainstream DC’s built for. They’re pressing the medium to the limit; it cracks to reveal something cold, desolate, and vibrant.

It’s excellent comics.

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