Prefect Game, Charlie Huston’s just-completed Marvel miniseries, is a small, disposable thing, and all the better for it. As low-key as a story about a super-villain can realistically be, it takes a mostly-forgotten piece of retconned Marvel lore — that assassin-for-hire Bullseye was originally a young phenom pitcher, slated for the Major Leagues — and follows up on it, detailing the possibly-apocryphal story of his “lost year”, when he makes his return to baseball as the most dangerous man in the world.
The thread of the plot is extremely thin. Bullseye, bored after having accomplished every sort of unlikely stunt assassination imaginable, takes a contract to eliminate a journeyman ballplayer, a long reliever for some last-place club. Rather than do it the easy way, he doffs his famous costume and spends a year riding his 110 MPH arm up through the minor league system to the big show. He’s planning the perfect kill: it’s not enough to off this guy on the field — he wants to murder him from the mound.
And that’s pretty much it. The set-up is a shaggy dog story, following Bullseye through his careful, methodical planning, leading up to a stunner of a punch line, a twist that’s both entirely unexpected and perfectly fitted to its protagonist and theme.
In Huston’s version of the character, Bullseye’s primary trait is his boredom. Having achieved everything, proven himself again and again the world’s greatest and most creative killer, he’s got nothing left to chase. In a clever subversion of the usual use of a splash page — for flashy, iconic moments — we see an inert Bullseye loafing slump-shouldered on the couch, eyes null, listless with achievement, impassively rifling a deck of cards (his some-time murder weapons). The thrill is long-gone, and there’s nothing left to do but chase the dragon and hope for one more good shot, something that stands outside time and intention, a perfect moment to redeem all the tedium.
Shawn Martinbrough’s rich pencils and muted colors complement the story nicely, often forsaking panel-to-panel storytelling in favor of layers of tangled memory, matching the rambling, folksy tone of the narration. It looks far more like a baseball story than a superhero story, and its somber visual tone is part of what makes it work. Both writer and artist deserve credit for taking their somewhat silly concept very seriously.
Where most superhero comics aim for melodramatic sturm & drang, Perfect Game is a pocket-sized story, character-driven, simple and timeless. Like Brian Michael Bendis used to, Charlie Huston knows the virtues of smallness and specificity. It’s utterly unburdened by continuity, by consequence, by the perpetual motion machine of falling dominoes that so often characterizes the Marvel universe. It could take place at any moment, in any time, and has no bearing on the world outside of its pages.
In this way, Huston taps a long-forgotten period in the nascency of Marvel Jefe Joe Quesada’s career as EIC. Around the early part of the decade, Marvel had fragmented its continuity into various independent lines. Rather than tell stories completely bound up in continuity, these lines would offer unique takes on classic characters. Ultimate Comics would update Universe-616 (what if Peter Parker had become Spider-Man now, in an age of cellphones and wifi?) while Marvel Manga would appeal to Otaku. Marvel Knights had always focused its characters in real world setting. After nearly a decade of losing perspective, Huston achieves not only a singularly vivid story, but also a redemption of sorts for the Marvel Knights imprint.
With no ambition but with great ease, Huston does what more superhero scribes ought to do: he picks and chooses threads from the rich history of backstory available to him (Bullseye‘s past as an athlete, the existence of fans and spectators for the assassin‘s career), and takes the bits he needs to tell a story all his own. He makes good use of the Marvel mythology without leaning on it. It may not be a perfect game, but it’s a solid win.