If someone were to ask me which comic writers I think will be able to penetrate the non-comic reading world the way creators like Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore, and Frank Miller have, I would have to argue that Garth Ennis would be on that list. Like Mark Millar, Warren Ellis, and Brian Michael Bendis, Ennis has the creative energy and originality that cannot be contained by one medium. Crass, witty, funny, and very vulgar at times, Ennis is one of those writers whose unique style has left its mark on the comic book medium. His numerous contributions to comics are varied and unique, but all retain a style and flair that are uniquely Ennis. He is able to interject ridiculous concepts into serious stories without breaking the narrative; he is able to make the tragic and grotesque funny and interesting; most importantly, he is able to do this without losing the heart and humanity the keep readers coming back for more. Essentially, he is the Judd Apatow of comics. And with his iconic and groundbreaking series Preacher soon to be an HBO original series, you can definitely say that his star is on the rise. However, if you really want to know what makes Ennis truly an amazing creator, there is one book that typifies his strengths more than any other: Hitman.
Hitman was a sixty-issue series starring Tommy Monaghan, a super-powered assassin-for-hire with a sense of morality and an intense loyalty to his friends. Replete with excellent characters, recurring jokes, and hugely entraining storylines, the book was enjoyable on multiple levels. The final run ended with Tommy and his best friend Nat the Hat getting killed, and fans were forced to say goodbye. However, we were all treated to a wonderful surprise when DC announced that Tommy would be returning in a 2-part mini-series written by Ennis and illustrated by original artist and amazing comic talent John McCrea.
The miniseries begins with a young writer speaking with Clark Kent about an autographed picture of Superman that hangs on the wall in a bar Tommy used to hang out at. The writer is curious as to how a murderous thug like Tommy ever met Superman. Clark begins to narrate a story that takes place sometime in Hitman continuity before he is killed. The two-issues focus on an alien attack on a spaceship by the same aliens who invaded Earth in the “Bloodlines” crossover in the late 90’s. These are the very aliens who gave Tommy his powers. In order to fight the new threat, the JLA need someone who was exposed to their powers already, and that person is Tommy. As the heroes race to save the astronauts aboard the spaceship, each is eventually neutralized by the super-powered parasites. Tommy is forced to save the day and in the end, utilizing methods not approved of by most members of the JLA.
The plot of JLA/Hitman is not really very important. While the dialogue is entertaining and Tommy’s hip shoot ‘em up style is in stark contrast to the stuffed costumes of the traditional superheroes, that is not really the point. The book is a direct dialogue between Garth Ennis and the fans who supported Hitman for all those wonderful issues. The majority of the jokes and plot devices rely on the reader being familiar with the old series. The quick cameos by favorite characters aren’t about fleshing out a story for new readers; they’re about letting the long-standing fans catch a glimpse of old friends. The reference to two specific Hitman storylines (issue 34 where he meets Superman and issues 11-12 where he teams up with Green Lantern) were some of the most introspective and enlightening commentaries on the superhero mythos and will only be appreciated by the fans that actually read those comics when they came out.
Currently DC has not kept the trade paper backs of Hitman in print, much to the anger of fans and the irritation of several prominent retailers who know that there is money to be made in the collected editions. From this context, the main goal of the JLA/Hitman series becomes clear; it is a reminder that the book was there. That
despite the ending of the series and the death of most of the main characters, Tommy and his friends have left their mark indelibly inscribed in the annals of comic continuity and, most importantly, on the fans. The final page of the comic aptly sums up the metaphorical message of the mini-series. Tommy, while using the JLA bathroom, was unable to resist the temptation to leave his own mark. He pulled out a sharpie and wrote a quick bit of graffiti by the sink. Later, after part of the base on the moon is destroyed by the alien attack, Superman insists that the destroyed bathroom, with Tommy’s message, is left alone. Those three words which are left as a silent monument concisely say what the book was meant to remind us: “Tommy was here.”
Ennis is a name I think the non-comics community will be hearing more of. While he is a respected and extremely popular comic creator, it is the hope of fans that the adaptation of his series Preacher will give the gifted writer the mainstream attention that he deserves. Hopefully his TV show will be a success and prompt an interest in his previous body of work. It is my hope that readers of the JLA/Hitman miniseries will become curious enough to seek out the books that came before and maybe write a letter to DC telling them to bring the series out in trade. Either way, it was nice to take a walk down memory lane and revisit old friends; something that in comics is often an impossibility. Garth Ennis once said in an interview that he could have written Hitman forever. I know I speak on behalf of fans everywhere when I say we would have read it forever.