This is part of 45 Year Of Thrills, How to Love Comics’ celebration of 2000 AD’s 45th anniversary throughout 2022. Find out more and read other posts in the series here.
Button Man is one of the weirdest entries in the 2000 AD catalogue. I do not mean ‘weird’ in the sense that Peter Milligan’s works (such as Hewligan’s Haircut or Sooner or Later) are weird, out there and opaque storytelling, but in the sense of not fitting with the rest of the magazine’s oeuvre. Button Man is weird because it’s so straightforward. As far as I can tell this is the single 2000 AD story that does not have a single science fiction or fantasy element to it, being the sort of down and dirty thriller that would fill the paperback racks in the 1970s, brought to you by the likes of Donald E. Westlake (more on that later).
Originally conceived for, and thankfully rejected, for the quickly cancelled Toxic! magazine, the series tells the story of Harry Exton, a former British soldier who gets recruited to ‘the game.’ The game is a competition in which professional killers are pitted against one another in a fight (usually to the death). It’s run by the bored rich, the invisible forces known as Voices, the sort of people who exhausted all other forms of pleasure. Harry’s interest in the game is short lived, but while he wants out the Voices are insistent on keeping the nature of their pleasure secret, by silencing Exton permanently. This is the general thrust of the first three books in the Button Man series (The Killing Game, The Confession of Harry Exton, Killer Killer); all be series creators – writer John Wagner and artist Arthur Ranson. These three books were later collected in an omnibus edition titled Get Harry Ex (a fourth volume, Hitman’s Daughter, features a different artist and slightly different format and is thus not in discussion today).
In a way Harry Exton feels like a natural continuation of the type of characters John Wagner wrote for a younger set. His liking was always for the sort of hard-ass figure that exists almost entirely within the confines of their work. Wagner’s biggest creations, Judge Dredd and Johnny Alpha, are both men of violence who seemingly eschew any personal involvement in favor of simply being the best there is at what they do (which isn’t very nice). Comparatively, Al Bestardi, of the Al’s Baby strip, is an utter monster on the killing streets who becomes a wimp once he enters the home sphere. But all of these figures operated on a moral plane; even if (hopefully) the reader found Dredd’s morals repulsive, it’s hard to deny he does what he does because he believes in it.
Harry Ex, meanwhile, is the coldest of fishes. A shark in human skin. He does what he does because it’s what he’s good at, and because people pay him. He’s not so much ‘evil,’ as entirely amoral. His only guiding principle is his professionalism. When he takes a job he’ll see it through; and if he tells you he’s gonna kill you – better start working on that will. In that he reminds me of two figures in particular: Richard Stark’s Parker (adapted into comics by the late Darwyn Cooke) and Tako Saito’s Golgo 13. Both appear in stories that cut down on notions of ‘character’ and focused on the brutalist particulars of existence in the criminal underworld. In Button Man life has a literal price, human existence has been reduced to the point of commerce. Every story in those series is a challenge, putting the character in front of a seemingly impossible situation and letting them use their particular set of clearly defined skills to work their way through it.
There’s a temptation, in writing stories like this, to humanize the protagonist. To give an amoral killer a heart of gold, to show that the people he kills are somehow worse than him (so that the audience would cheer for their demise), to find some psychological justification for what’s going on. Which is why it’s very good that time after time Wagner and Ranson refuse to do it. Whenever Harry is playing the game (as he is throughout most of volumes 1 and 2) or on the run from his former bosses (volume 3) there’s no justification drawn for what he does, save one – he needs to survive.
The world of Button Man is a dog-eat-dog world, homo homini lupus est, with violence aplenty. It’s story is what would, in the hands of lesser creators, becomewould become a mere spectacle thrill-ride. Instead, the creators play with the story rhythm – moving from a large shoot-outs to small scenes of one-upmanship as killers stalk one another in the dark. Every such scene arises logically from the previous one while making good use of the environments. Different tools and weapons might brought to bear (such as hanging carcasses in a butcher’s shop); random citizens could be used for cover of distraction (Harry has no problem to capitalize on the appearance of small children to paralyze an opponent); and the threat of local authorities sniffing thing out is always present. Like the works of Michael Mann, Button Man is all about being very good at your job – even if it’s a criminal job.
While the work can easily be located within John Wagner’s expanded bibliography (it’s ruthless nature predicting his future work History of Violence) it would be impossible to imagine Button Man without Arthur Ranson. Already an old hand in British comics by the time he joined 2000 AD, with a long stint on TV adaptation comics magazine Look-In in the 1970’s, Ranson is one of these creators who had toiled for decades without making much of a dent in the consciousness of American comics. Their loss.
Ranson’s developed style is highly photorealistic, an important skill for an artist meant to ape familiar from television. But while his figure work is all tight control of mass and matter (when his characters move you can feel them struggle against the limitations of their environments, their clothes, the gravity of the world) he never feels limited in his depictions of the world. The gaze of his ‘camera’ moves about the environment, shifting from characters to the texture of the world around them, heightening tension with lightning sensation. Lighting is another particular skill in his arsenal, with scenes taking place in day and night, enclosed and open spaces, showing huge variation in visibility which further limits (or aids) the killers in the game.
A short scene in volume 2 (The Confessions of Harry Ex) is a masterwork of comics-making in its own right: starting with an image of a vampire descending the stairs (as if taking the readers alongside him to hell). The central panels keep occurring ‘within’ the movie world while the murder itself happens to side, in a series of smaller panels, moving between movie scene to explain the slow and methodical nature of the execution (how long is Harry sitting there, waiting to make his play). All of which becomes part of the central themes of Button Man – there really is no escape, no matter where you go, death will follow.
From the first shot of the series, a small wide panel of stillwater, giving way to a larger panel depicting a seemingly tranquil piece of nature between earth and water (heaven and hell), there is already a sinister presence – a dark shadow hanging over half of the lake. When we see Harry for the first time, it’s as if through a glass, darkly: also half in the shadow of the world. Man becomes a reflection of nature – beneath the seemingly peaceful waters, there are dragons.