"On the Darkside" (part 1)
Writer: Garth Ennis
Art: John McCrea, David Baron (c)
Publisher: DC Comics
I don't think people knew what to make of Hitman. It was spawned from a dire crossover, it was set in Gotham but wasn't a Bat-book, it had comedy, it had action, and it had at its core a mature examination of the male psyche. There were zombie penguins, a drunk Green Lantern, and a contribution to a company-wide crossover in which the cast locked themselves in a pub until the storyline went away. The comic also hosted the best Superman story that appeared in comics in years (#34, well worth tracking down if you can find it). All in all, Hitman was probably not pure enough in concept or direction for the average superhero fan, and it was also unfortunately (but not unfairly) overshadowed by Garth Ennis' other series of the time, Preacher, so I'm not entirely surprised that it went away. But I always thought there were more stories to tell about Tommy Monaghan and friends, and evidently so did Ennis, as the Hitman is back.
On the face of it, this is a pretty conventional crossover story, as the pompous goody-two-shoes of the Justice League are forced by circumstance to join forces with Tommy, a self-confessed assassin. While it would be easy to distort the League for comic effect, they're played much more straight here than they ever were in the Hitman series itself, and it's the basic contrast between them and Tommy that provides much of the humor and conflict. Ennis also shies away from presenting this contrast in too simplistic a manner. While Batman is understandably uptight about letting a gun-wielding criminal onto the Watchtower, Green Lantern is rather more embarrassed about his previous association with Tommy. Superman is torn between knowing what Tommy is and what he does, and the rather uncomfortable fact that he actually quite likes him despite that knowledge.
(As an aside, this makes two appearances in which Ennis manages to make a character who is normally very flat and boring into an inherently interesting personality, something Superman's regular writers rarely seem to manage.)
The Hitman himself is, of course, written wonderfully. At first he's starstruck at being in the League's lunar base, which becomes genuine warmth as he runs into Green Lantern and Superman. There's plenty of humor too, as his awe in the presence of gods (this is the Grant Morrison era League) gives way to blokey instinct in places. Tommy is a killer, but we still end up genuinely liking him (and not in a gunz r kewl! way either), and while Ennis isn't the type to give us a US TV touchy-feely-lessons-learned ending in the next issue, there's a definite sense that the team-up is going to happen as a natural consequence of the personalities of the characters involved, not simply because it's a crossover.
It's also great to see John McCrea return, and although he now sports a slightly more sketchy and fractured line than in Hitman's heyday, his work retains that fun tension between realism and cartoony excess, an approach that's something of a necessity to sell the inherent style clash of setting a grubby Irish version of a John Woo type assassin in the DCU. McCrea's key strength is in body language and facial expressions, and much of the interaction between the characters is carried by his artwork: You really do feel the genuine warmth between Superman and Tommy as they meet again, for example, and the drop in temperature is palpable as Superman finally discovers how Tommy earns his wages.
This is good work. The crossover is set up in an efficient and convincing way, the key players are introduced quite effectively (particularly Tommy and his world, who obviously need more of an introduction than the League does), and we're left with a solid cliffhanger, leading into a second issue that promises not only to deliver some exciting (and probably hilarious) action, but also more well-observed character interaction. Regular readers will know that I don't normally pick up DC comics; that's because they're rarely this good.
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