Hello, and a happy St Padraig’s Day to you all! St Patrick’s Day celebrates the death of the be-loved Romano-British Christian missionary to the Emerald Isle, and is at its heart a religious observation (I wrote more about that here). But here in America, the day doubles as a day of remembrance of all things Irish. In honor of that, I really wanted to cover a comic that reflected Irish or Irish-American culture.
While Scotland can boast some pretty hefty comic book connections (Bruce Wayne, James Gordon, Mary Jane Watson, etc. Even –gasp–Grant Morrison!), Ireland’s representation is somewhat less, especially in the books I have ready access to review. (I have already written about all the Banshee books I have!) Who should swoop in to rescue but Christopher Lawton, who returned to mind my favorite Irish-American character, Tommy Monaghan. Who is Tommy Monaghan? Why, Hitman, of course — DC’s infinitely more appealing answer to The Punisher.
Created by Belfast Boys, Garth Ennis and John McCrea, Ol’ Tommy is a US Veteran, a former Marine, who left the service knowing two things: the only thing he was really good at was killing folks, and there are some people that just need killing. And so Tommy started working his way through the seedy underbelly of Gotham City’s seedy underbelly for justice and for profit. Or as he would say it, “My name is Tommy Monaghan. I kill people for money.” Of course that is all just the beginning of the story — right where we first meet Tommy in the pages of The Demon Annual #2 from 1993. But, things didn’t stay “normal” for long. Tommy was almost immediately attacked by the Bloodlines aliens, surviving and ending up with certified super powers — telepathy and X-ray vision. From then on, whether in guest appearances, or his solo series (Hitman, 1995-2001), Tommy faces off against the weird and wild in a stylistic mashup of Grosse Point Blank and Resevoir Dogs, with Guy Ritchie level action and comedic violence thrown in for fun.
Well, that is all well and good, you might say, but what aside from a string of last names does Tommy have do with Irish-American culture? I am glad you asked . The casual reader might well pick up that Tommy is often heading through his day whistling or singing along this Irish tune or that one. There is a song in Tommy’s heart, and more than a bit of craic and blarney about his manner, and while these traits are certainly not exclusive to our focused demographic, I believe they are a hint to something grander.
To get to the bottom of things, though, we need a little background. Celtic hero lore is different than that of other cultural groups in a specific demarcation. In the Roman, Greek, German, French, and Norse stories, the hero is most often a youth of noble character, the best of what a youth could achieve. Think of Perseus, of Seigfried, of Cinderella. This youth is faced with impossible odds, and despite their noble bearing and spirit, they are doomed to failure if left to their own devices. Perseus is armed by the gods, Siegfried by the Valkyries, and Cinderella by her fairy-godmother. It is through divine assistance that the hero overcomes. This is not the case in the Celtic fringe. Pwyll defends the Otherworld because of his character and wit, and then earns the respect of their king and draws the attention of the goddess-like Rhiannon. Tam Lan is rescued from the fairies by a simple farm maid. Arthur is already a mighty warrior and king when he is given Excalibur.
And then there is Cú Chulainn. Cú Chulainn was the hero of the Ulster Cycle, the hero of the North of Ireland, and he was from birth known as a mighty warrior. In the manner of true Celtic heroes, he was a poet, a statesman, an athlete and a magician, having have been fostered and taught by kings, nobles and otherworldly warrior women throughout the Hiberno-British Isles. He was not known as a good man nor a kind one, prone to give into his violent rage, but he was fair, and he did not victimize those unable to fight back. In short, he was the ideal of the warrior culture of ancient Erin. He was the mark young men were pointed to, and it was because of his might and his nobility and his victories that the gods aligned themselves to him — not to save him, but to applaud him.
Like Cú Chulainn, Tommy Monaghan grew up without knowing his father, but was fostered by a man (Sean Noonan) who taught him all he knew of the warrior’s life. Tommy grew up in a violent life, and made a career of that violence, both in service of his country and for himself. It was in the process of doing what he considers to be a good work that he received super-powers, not as a boon from the gods, per se, but in a similar fashion. And, like Cú Chulainn’s enchanted spear Gáe Bulg, Tommy’s powers do not ensure his victory. They are not prerequisites of his quest, but rather a mere assistance And Tommy is not a good man, but he has a certain nobility. He kills wantonly, but only those folk that injure or otherwise victimize others. This moral code balancing violence, vengeance, and justice has, as Ennis noted in Hitman #1, a basis in Tommy’s Irish-Catholic past (a trait shared by other Irish-American characters from movies like 1999’s Boondock Saints, and 2002’s Gangs of New York), but it is also reflected in Cú Chulainn’s stories, where the champion stands in the place of the people.
Tommy is a violent man with a violent life, and he will likely come to a violent end, but with that life, he has the opportunity to defend his home from those that would maim and harm. For Tommy, there might be no redemption — he may be too far gone. But if his life of blood and death can take out the predators, the bad guys, perhaps good people can sleep a little easier. Of course, Tommy’s story did end. It was several years ago, and I heard it was a fitting end. I have not had the chance to read it. Someday, I will.