DT Back Issues: Button Man

1983-1995 (the Copper Age) was the height of my comic book collecting, and a great time to discover the medium.  Starting with Larry Hama’s GI JOE: A REAL AMERICAN HERO for Marvel and gradually segueing into TRANSFORMERS and GROO THE WANDERER, I started frequenting comic shops and began to pick up anything that caught my eye. The mid 80′s saw the release, in rapid succession, of Frank Miller’s WOLVERINE (with Chris Claremont), DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, Alan Moore’s V FOR VENDETTA, THE WATCHMEN, and THE KILLING JOKE, and other positively seminal works in the field.

But I don’t wanna talk about them. I’m by no means a scholar or expert. I got out of comics for the most part when I started college, only popping in now and then since to pick up the occasional trade collection, LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN, SIN CITY, THE WALKING DEAD, a couple CAPTAIN AMERICAs, THE ULTIMATES, stuff like that. All those books have been written up and dissected by far more qualified people than me, and you can look them up anywhere on the internet.

I’ve decided I’d like to revisit comics I’ve kept in the long white boxes in the back of my closet, titles that for whatever reason may not have been the most popular, and indeed, were likely forgotten for the most part, or mostly went underappreciated. I don’t know that I’m talking about rarities, or anything. I wasn’t really an underground comics guy. I’m talking more about mainstream gold that for whatever reason floated off down the creek. Stuff like Andy Helfer’s THE SHADOW, MARSHAL LAW, Steve Gerber’s FOOLKILLER miniseries from the 90’s, and Evan Dorkin’s MILK AND CHEESE.

buttonmancoverToday I look at John Wagner and Arthur Ranson’s crime thriller series BUTTON MAN.

BUTTON MAN ran in the UK’s 2000 AD, a magazine mostly known as the cradle of the popular character JUDGE DREDD (a title I still haven’t managed to read yet).  It was the Kitchen Sink Press collection of the first series that caught my eye on the shelf in my local comic shop, and particularly Arthur Ranson’s realistic art that arrested my attention. The guy in the upper right corner reminded me of the actor Sean Bean, whom I’d dug as 006 in GOLDENEYE, and the guy with the eyepatch on the bottom looked a bit like Pacino. Plus, the title BUTTON MAN: THE KILLING GAME stuck in my head, and reminded me of something I’d heard rumored as the title for a forthcoming John Woo movie. I was heavy into Woo and Hong Kong bullet ballets or heroic bloodshed movies at the time, having just stumbled across THE KILLER on Cinemax.

With its stark, art, striking inks and colors, and oversized format that harkened back to the Giant Sized Annuals I’d loved so much as a kid, to say nothing of the extremely bloody violence that a cursory flip through convinced me was within, I didn’t resist picking up BUTTON MAN: THE KILLING GAME for very long.

BUTTON MAN man opens brilliantly, in classic noir fashion, with a bleeding man stumbling into a psychiatrist’s office as it’s about to close, and demanding to see the doctor. Despite Dr. Spalding’s assurances that he’s not the right kind of doctor, the wounded man produces a pistol and disagrees. Spalding takes the man into his office and lets him lay down on the patient couch.

“I’ve got this problem, doc,” says the wounded man, who introduces himself as Harry Exton. “I can’t stop killing people. They won’t let me.”

“Who won’t let you?” asks Spalding.

“The voices.”

And then Harry begins his tale.

Harry Exton (or Harry ‘Ex) is a British ex-mercenary, down on his luck, when he bumps into an old military buddy, Carl, who invites him to take part in ‘The Game,’ to make a little ‘dosh.’

buttonmanaxeThe premise of The Game is that wealthy backers, called ‘Voices’ because they never make direct contact except by telephone, sponsor hired killers, or ‘button men’ (a reference to the button-like appearance of the back end of a bullet) and then pit them against each other in life and death situations, wagering immense sums of money on the outcome. It’s modern day gladiatorial combat, fought in the English countryside, and on the very streets of London. The only rule is that a button man may choose to spare another by taking his marker (cutting off a finger) instead of his life. The third time’s the charm, and a kill is expected after that. Otherwise, it’s don’t get caught, dispose of the bodies discreetly (Harry and Carl dump their bodies with a farmer who turns the corpses into chicken feed), and above all, don’t quit.

This is a million dollar concept superbly executed, and I’m really surprised that somebody in Hollywood hasn’t made it yet (it turns out one of my favorite directors, Nicholas Wending Refn, is attached as of this writing to adapt it).

I don’t think there’s a more badass, ruthless anti-hero in all of graphic fiction than Harry ‘Ex. Harry is a very competent killer, a believable professional, entirely practical and without remorse, like the James Bond of the early Fleming novels, but with a calculating, vicious, increasingly (as the series progresses) psychopathic streak even Bond can’t match.

buttonmannowarningThe psychopathy doesn’t necessarily come out in THE KILLING GAME, but at the last Comic Con my dream of finally acquiring the two sequels alluded to in the Kitchen Sink introduction by Arthur Ranson, finally came true. I picked up THE CONFESSION OF HARRY EXTON and KILLER KILLER. It’s fascinating to watch the progression of Harry’s character from THE KILLING GAME on.

In KILLING GAME, Harry is a bored predator who enjoys the novelty of the game, and the chance to exercise his old killing muscles, but after he kills a two time loser on a railroad track and the man warns him that the Voices will never let him quit (just before his head is severed by an oncoming express), he begins to rankle. On a whim, he mentions to his ‘Voice’ that he’s thinking about quitting, and the very next Game out he’s set up for the kill, forced to fight alone against a superior number of heavily armed button men, including his friend Carl, with only an eight shot pistol.

Harry still prevails, and when Carl makes it plain he has no intention of killing Harry, somebody kills him instead. With his dying breath, Carl tells Harry something no button man is supposed to know – the name of his Voice.

It only takes one visit to Carl’s Voice with a pair of pliers to learn the name of Harry’s sponsor, Dr. Spalding, to whom he has been relating his story.

bouttodiebuttonmanheadSpalding attempts to poison Harry with some kind of psychotrope, but Harry manages to bring the doctor down with a butcher knife, and leaves his head floating in his office fish tank.

The comic ends with him in the back of a wailing ambulance tearing through the rain-washed London streets at night.

I’ve recommend THE KILLING GAME to everybody I know who’s never read a comic book or is looking for something other than superheroes. It’s a perfectly realistic and clever thriller in the mode of a good 1970’s British crime movie like THE LONG GOOD FRIDAY or GET CARTER, a kick ass, adult crime movie rendered in two dimensions.

So it took about eighteen years for me to finally get a hold of the sequels, and about an hour and a half to tear through both of them.

THE CONFESSIONS OF HARRY EXTON picks up with Harry being wheeled into the hospital, poisoned and suffering from multiple gunshot wounds. He’s put under guard, a known killer, but the police officers assigned to guard him are promptly knocked out by a nurse and a doctor, who sedate Harry and spirit him from the hospital.

Harry awakens in a nice house in upstate New York, with a beautiful redheaded wife, Cora, and a proposition from a blustery downhome United States senator, Jackson. Stay in America with Cora and a new identity, and play the American league of the Game for the senator, where the stakes and rewards are even higher.

Harry agrees, but he’s a changed man from THE KILLING GAME. Maybe it was the death of Carl, but somewhere along the way, Harry’s burned out. He’s lost his heart, his humanity. He’s not out for markers anymore, and though he swiftly rises in the American rankings, he kills just about every button man he goes up against, sometimes even after his opponent is down and out.

buttonman2_3_7In one memorable sequence, Harry is given a red carnation and an assortment of silent weapons and told to play the game during open hours of the New York Museum Of Natural History. His opponent (also wearing a red carnation, to mark him as such), turns out to be the mousy looking on duty security guard. When the conflict escalates past the clandestine stage, and carries out into a full tilt running shootout in Central Park, Harry executes the man at the Alice In Wonderland statue, and heads off for the Cayman Islands with Cora, as cold and unconcerned as if he’d just stepped on a cockroach.

Harry’s ruthlessness and willingness to kill good button men starts to upset the Voices, and he is urged by the senator through Cora to ease up. But telling Harry to do anything is the beginning of the end for anybody.

Cora attempts to reign Harry in, but he’s already figured out she’s doing a job, and finds the last sap Cora leashed frozen beneath the surface of the pond out back of his house.  Cora’s a tool, but she’s careful and has insurance, hidden camera footage of the Game implicating the Senator.

Harry takes the evidence straight to the senator’s Louisiana compound and cuts his way through a small army of guards and button men, all to prove his point – he wants out.  And he gets it.

Or so he thinks.

KILLER KILLER kicks the Button Man concept into high gear.

Harry’s now living off his winnings in a lone cabin deep in rural Montana under an assumed name. He goes hunting in the mountains with a Vietnam vet, pursues an adulterous relationship with the local dentist’s wife, and basically takes care of his dog and does a lot of home improvement (albeit always with a pistol or a rifle in reach). When he hears a radio report about the accidental death of Senator Jacklin, his old Voice, he erases Cora’s VHS tapes and thinks he’s at last done with the Game. His biggest worry is his girlfriend Grace, who swears her husband Dennis knows about them.

After a trip to see said Dennis, Harry’s life starts to get deadly interesting again. He spies a couple out of towners at the local diner with missing ‘markers’ and the next night is attacked at his house by gunmen and chased into the woods. But the pursuers leave off running him down, and drive off.

He receives a telephone call from a Voice, who explains to him that now that the Senator is dead, he is once again, fair game.  The Voice appreciates his skill and offers to take him on as a button man. When Harry refuses, the Voice urges him to run. There are thirteen killers on his trail and they will begin coming for him at 0500.

biggameThe Voice is a wealthy movie producer, Frankie, making a fictional film about the Game entitled Killer Killer, about which a lot of buzz is being generated, both in Hollywood and with his fellow Voices, who are not keen on the idea.  Frankie has gathered the other Voices together for a unique event, a nationwide hunt for Harry, winner take all. They monitor Harry’s flight via GPS on a big board in a room that hearkens to the war room from Dr. Strangelove and was one of Frankie’s old sets.

Harry runs from city to town, altering his identity and appearance, ditching vehicles, only to have a button man show up wherever he goes.

This outing is the most expertly plotted since the original BUTTON MAN, and my second favorite of the three titles. Again, I’m amazed this isn’t already a movie. Harry figures out Frankie’s identity after hearing and seeing him give an interview on some Access Hollywood type show, setting the stage for their ultimate confrontation.

buttonmanhowBut first Harry has to figure out how the hell he’s being tracked cross country, a plot point that seemed kinda obvious to me, though well played out.

buttonmanrewardThis is Harry at his least likable, most cold blooded. He is far from the man he was in KILLING GAME, executing more than a few crippled button men, and a mother turned button (wo)man (“Please Harry,” she pleads, holding up a photo of her children, “remember my kids.” “How could I forget them? I’m the one who was going to put them through college,” Harry responds, before blowing her away), inadvertently causing the death of his friend,  blasting an unarmed guy at a stop light, and murdering a guy he cuts a deal with in front of his young niece in the name of tying up loose ends.

Not to say Harry isn’t justified in his killings, though perhaps not in the one on the last page, but Harry is pure, cold blooded killer by the end of KILLER KILLER.

Button Man02_thumbI recommend this series without reservation. It’s one of the coolest comics I’ve read in a long time and is consistently great from trade to trade. There is a fourth book, HITMAN’S DAUGHTER, which I couldn’t bring myself to pick up at the time as it didn’t have Arthur Ranson’s pencils, but I now feel compelled to go and scoop it up as well. Maybe I’ll add to this review when I do, or give it its own page.

There’s also a book called GET HARRY EX. I can’t figure out where that one fits in continuity, or if it’s a renamed collection or something, but THE KILLING GAME, CONFESSIONS OF HARRY EXTON, and KILLER KILLER are all available now from 2000 AD in nice new trades on Amazon.

Get ’em!

Hasta pronto.