For readers who appreciate Garth Ennis’ comics work in the late ‘90s, 2015 has the makings of a full-on period revival. A television adaptation of Preacher, the series he created along with artist Steve Dillon, is in the works for AMC. At the same time Ennis was writing Preacher for DC’s Vertigo imprint, he had a foot in the main DCU with Hitman, which featured artwork by John McCrea. It followed the adventures of everyman contract killer Tommy Monaghan, who developed superpowers after an alien encounter and subsequently used them to be a better hitman. Among the supporting cast were a group of D-list superheroes called Section Eight. Led by the inebriated, possibly insane Sixpack, their lineup included the likes of Jean de Baton, who used “the power of Frenchness” to defeat his enemies, and the indefatigable Dogwelder.
Now, they have their own comic.
Well, some of them do. The last third or so of Ennis and McCrea’s run on Hitman involved most of the cast, nearly all of whom were engaged in some sort of criminal activity, meeting their demises. Of the original lineup of Section Eight, only Sixpack and Bueno Excellente remained; the version of the team that appears here is, in time-honored superhero fashion, made up of returning members, new characters and one character who might’ve returned from the dead. A few other Hitman supporting characters also show up here; a reader who fell into a coma shortly after the last issue of that series and awoke from it yesterday could pick this issue up without any difficulty.
McCrea is one of Ennis’ most frequent artistic collaborators. Besides their work on Hitman (and a run on The Demon that preceded it and introduced the character),the pair’s work together includes the bleakly funny Dicks, which, tonally speaking, is closer to the feel of this issue. It doesn’t hurt that McCrea and colorist John Kalisz can evoke the bright colors of an art opening or the dim light and crowded spaces found in a dive bar with equal skill. And, for all that the humor tends towards the slapstick and grotesque, there are also subtler gags to be found: the title of the book read by Hitman alumnus Hacken, for instance. In the span of a few pages, McCrea can pull off a host of disparate faces: from skewed and cartoonish, to unamused by the superheroic goings-on to subtle and concerned.
In the second half of this issue, Sixpack, convinced that a vague but ominous threat lurks on the horizon, attempts to recruit Batman for his team. What follows is a long sequence in which Batman contends with a parking ticket in an epically melodramatic way, with panels drawn in the style of assorted iconic storylines from the character’s history. Given that Ennis has been mocking superheroes for a while now, this isn’t a surprising approach, but it’s one that never quite clicks. More effective is the spectacle of Batman acting like, well, an entitled one-percenter when faced with things like ATM fees and parking tickets. There are a couple of other odd misfires here, including an early, tossed-off line by a minor supporting character about being abused as a child.
In his best work as a writer—and Preacher and Hitman both fall into this category—Ennis blends humor with memorable characterization and a willingness to venture into bleak places with his characters. It’s unclear if this series will ultimately head to a similar place; there are a handful of suggestions that it might, including a glimpse of Sixpack’s (sober) alter ego, an erudite and well-liked art critic. (One can also read the gulf between the sober, witty, mature adult and the stumbling, drunken, would-be superhero as another criticism of superheroes.)
But the next issue tag suggests that another one of DC’s mainstays may be up for a dressing-down; if that’s the pattern that these issues will have, it seems like a lost opportunity. (Especially as Ennis’s prostitute-turned-superhero experiment The Pro took aim at several thinly-disguised analogues of DC heroes.) Sometimes, a man who fights crime by welding dogs to people makes a point about the inherent silliness of most superhero comics far better than gags using decades-old Batman stories as the punchline. There’s plenty of humor here that works like proverbial gangbusters, but the jokes that work make those that fall flat seem even less effective. At its best, this issue works as a reminder of how good the Ennis/McCrea team can be; at the same time, they’ve also set themselves a very high bar to cross, whether their aim here is humor, something more heartfelt, or both.