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HITMAN #13-14: ZOMBIE NIGHT AT THE GOTHAM AQUARIUM
When it came to DC in the mid-’90s, they were on an unstoppable run of relentlessly brilliant comics: mainstays like Flash, Green Lantern, Batman, and the JLA were or soon would be in the throes of character-defining runs; prestige format miniseries like Kingdom Come set the stage for unheard-of levels of artistic brilliance; Vertigo was at the peak of its early years’ success with Invisibles, Preacher, Sandman, and more dominating the conversation.
And then there was Hitman.
The brainchild of writer Garth Ennis (white-hot at the time due to Preacher‘s runaway success) and artist Joh McCrea, Hitman told the story of Tommy Monaghan, an assassin-for-hire running amok in Gotham City and getting into a wild array of wacky misadventures. Having debuted in 1993’s Demon annual as part of DC’s “Bloodlines” event (which was meant to usher in a new generation of heroes but actually just gave us Tommy and a vast array of punchlines and forgotten characters; “Like whatsisname? And that other guy?”), Tommy was given x-ray vision and low-grade telepathy (which typically left him with a headache) by giant space bugs. The setup for Hitman was simplicity in and of itself: have fun, goof on superheroes a bit (like when Tommy left an all-too-innocent Kyle Rayner with their bar tab), render some killer action beats, and get away with gags no superhero comic could possibly touch (like using a dead cat to improvise a “Cat-Signal” to catch Catwoman’s attention).
However, despite Ennis and McCrea’s best intentions, Hitman‘s first year was a bit off, as they hadn’t quite found the right balance between action and humor just yet.
All that changed with issues thirteen and fourteen: “Zombie Night at the Gotham Aquarium.”
The zippy, deliberately-thin premise centers around one Dr. Minnett, late of Injun Peak Research Center, who steals a nerve agent from his employer there that can – what else? – reanimate dead tissue. “Project Wormwood,” as it was known, had been scuttled by military contractors due to the instability of the test subjects – i.e., they woke up craving human flesh, because of course they did. The genius here in Ennis’s delivery is that everything is played with a sly “You idiots, of course you made zombies” knowingness that neatly toes the line between mockery of the hapless scientists at hand and the actual drama of the situation when it becomes known that Minnett’s intent is to provide the military with “a demonstration so big they can’t ignore” Wormwood’s potential. When Jackson, the Injun Peak scientist who hires Tommy (and his best buddy, Natt the Hat) to take out Minnett, doesn’t think his former colleague would possibly resort to the mass murder of regular people, Tommy has an ah-ha moment and realizes the zoo would be a great target. And when that doesn’t pan out, the Gotham Aquarium becomes the next logical choice. By the time they arrive (along with fellow hitman Ringo and hapless buffoon Hacken), Minnett has already turned the temperatures up high enough in the poor animals’ tanks to kill them all.
Things go about as hilariously over the top as they possibly can.
Zombie stories are inherently exercises in survival and, for sheer entertainment purposes, finding creative new ways to kill (re-kill?) the undead. What Ennis and McCrea understood when they unleashed “Zombie Night” on an unsuspecting world was that with the right application, they could be absolutely, drop-dead hysterical too. It’s not just that Tommy and company are fighting zombies, they’re fighting zombiefied penguins, turtles, dolphins, octopi, seals, and more. In fact, the cuteness of some of the critters helps sell the bit even better:
But it also helps that “Zombie Night” is just plain fun. Ennis understood how these characters and their world worked and played off one another, and for the first time in Hitman‘s history to date, all the various pieces came together flawlessly. It also doesn’t hurt that this story is gloriously over-the-top violent, which makes it even more hysterical as flesh-crazed penguins and seals get blown away mercilessly. McCrea’s pencils manage to dial the gruesomeness up to eleven without getting too lost in the bloodlust:
“Zombie Night at the Gotham Aquarium” may be too graphic for some, and that’s okay. Hitman is a comic that probably wouldn’t be published today for a variety of reasons, but that doesn’t make it a bad comic. It just means audiences tastes and expectations have changed, and that’s okay, too. But it’s a pretty flawless read throughout, and once all of its various parts click into place starting with this story, it’s one of those comics that can’t be put down until you reach the very end. From that point, the book had nowhere to go but up, and would continue to do so until its triumphant final issue in 2001. It’s pretty rare for any comic to be able to not only go out on a high note, but continue to ascend until it reaches that crescendo. But Ennis and McCrea pulled it off.
But seriously: zombie penguins, folks. You don’t get much better than that.
Sadly, there are no recent collected editions of Hitman, but individual back issues are pretty easy to find at your local comic shop or on the DC Universe Infinite app, and “Zombie Night at the Gotham Aquarium” can be found in the older “Local Heroes” Hitman TPB on ComiXology.