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Agent 47: Birth of a Hitman #1 (Review)

Agent 47: Birth of a Hitman #1
Dynamite Entertainment, November 2017
Writer: Christopher Sebela

Contemporary video game plots can be intricate, heavy things, comprising thousands of man-hours of plot and backstory development, embodied in a “bible” which dictates the game’s continuity. The main problem with comic book adaptations of popular videogame franchises is that the adaptations frequently buckle under the weight of the videogames’ lore. Big budget, story-driven videogames have somewhere around 10 to 50 hours’ worth of story within the game derived from those thousands of hours of development, manifesting in the extraneous activities a player is engaged in throughout the course of the game. All of this is further expanded and thereby compounded in sequels and spin-offs. And so, the sheer amount of backstory and detail involved make it difficult to craft comic book adaptations, leaving the reader with watered-down stories that stray from the source material, or dense narratives that are accessible only to people who have invested time in the video games.

In the case of American publisher Dynamite Entertainment’s Agent 47: Birth of a Hitman which is based on IO Interactive’s stealth action videogame franchise called Hitman, writer Christopher Sebela manages to craft a story that still feels true to the source material while remaining accessible to people unfamiliar with the videogames. Part of it can be credited to Mr Sebela’s skill, but majority of it is the fact that the Hitman franchise has a premise that is not that difficult to navigate.

The Hitman franchise concerns a covert agency called the International Contract Agency (ICA), and one of its most efficient agents – the cloned assassin-for-hire simply referred to as Agent 47. The agents of the ICA are trained to be emotionless and to lack any distinguishing features or characteristics. For the purpose of this comic this lack of empathy is a burden.

As many of the characters being bald, emotionless killers who are trained not to communicate or give out information unnecessarily, a lazy writer would have the advantage of not being required to write too much dialogue nor to have the characters convey too much emotion. The downside for even the skilled writer is that the characters end up being unsympathetic and – depending on the scene – either boring or confusing.

The first few scenes of main characters Agent 6 and 47 in this comic plainly illustrates the problem. It is very easy for a reader to understand what’s going on – the agents in training are being conditioned to let go of emotional attachments – but it can be difficult to follow what is happening to whom. All of the main characters are bald and do not have any distinguishing patterns in their speech. It is not until the last few pages when the now adult 6 and 47 start to refer to each other by their code numbers that readers will be able to follow along without effort.

Parallel to the story of Agents 6 and 47 is the story of a young Diana Burnwood. This is one of those speed humps that make comic book adaptations of video games, or other media more broadly, difficult to recommend to readers who are not familiar with the source material. Within the plot of the videogames, Diana Burnwood was Agent 47’s handler and future target. But without that prior knowledge readers will find her story in the comic to have very little connection to the bald assassins.

Fortunately, Diana’s story is the more substantial narrative. It follows the young girl as she survives the implied assassination of her parents, and her subsequent decision to get revenge by continuing her life normally, but discreetly training and hunting down the alleged plotters of her parents’ death. Diana’s plot is easier to follow and has more meat on the bone compared to Agent 47’s. The two characters’ paths will inevitably converge in future issues. But in this issue, the plot regarding Diana is the better part of the comic book. This is ironic as most fans of the franchise probably bought the comic for the adventures of the main character, Agent 47.

While not as cheesy or watered down as the average comic book adaptation of a video game, the plot of Agent 47: Birth of a Hitman is not especially innovative. Franchises rarely have scope for innovation because of the inherent editorial controls of the concept’s owner, and so this should be no surprise. The weight of contractual, curatorial oversight is as considerable as the weight of the plot. But neither is the writing anything but passable. It will appeal to that specific niche of readers who are looking for a comic book about shadowy assassin organizations, and no doubt by people who have played (and enjoyed) the Hitman videogames.