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Redcoat #1 (review)

Co-creators: Geoff Johns / Bryan Hitch

Image Comics / Ghost Machine, April 2024

“A British villain”, notes the beginning credits to the first Deadpool movie, making fun of itself while indulging in Hollywood’s most notorious casting cliche. Redcoat #1, a new comic written by American Geoff Johns and co-plotted by American artist Bryan Hitch, has a protagonist who is a British villain. The title Redcoat refers to Simon Pure, a soldier of fortune who is more or less immortal. Pure may be killed, but he will quickly return to life. This magical ability has kept him in adventures since the American War of Independence. Pure however is not the cunning type of British villain. He is not especially smart. Here is the promotional copy from Image Comics:

Immortal. Mercenary. Kind of a tool. Meet Simon Pure, the newest UNNAMED hero, created by comic all-stars GEOFF JOHNS (GEIGER) and BRYAN HITCH.
British redcoat and all-around rogue, Simon mysteriously became immortal in 1776 after a run-in with the clandestine cabal known as the Founding Fathers, which included George Washington, John Hancock, and many other prominent American Revolutionary War leaders. Since that fateful day, Simon has led a life of adventure and avarice, rubbing elbows (and sometimes fists) with many of history’s most renowned figures, including his nemesis Benedict Arnold, Albert Einstein, Annie Oakley, and many more. One thing they all agree on: they never want to see him again! But what are the true origins and extent of Simon’s power and the mysterious organization behind them? And how has it secretly shaped America and the world? Simon’s on a quest to find out!

For readers who are not American, the depth of meaning and emotion which contemporary Americans invest in their struggle for nationhood 350-odd years ago is very obvious on a visit to cities like Boston and Washington DC. And so on the face of it, it might be odd that Mr Johns and Mr Hitch decided that the protagonist would be a British redcoat, a thuggish tool of the oppressive King George III. But Pure is described as a shanghaied recruit, and one who was easily overwhelmed by the courageous American colonists. Pure hides like a coward after a battle from which he barely escapes with his life. Only by complete accident does he acquire immortality. British villains are rarely up to the fortitude of American heroes, it seems. Pure is depicted as admiring his colonial adversaries, in this grandiose and cringeworthy piece of internal monologue, “Virtuous souls who are willing to sacrifice their own well-being for that of others. Men with unbreakable conviction. Undeniable honor. And unshakeable courage”. “Honor” is spelt without the “u”, just in case it was not at all obvious that the creative team are patriotic Americans. (The important role of women in the War of Independence is overlooked in Pure’s internal monologue.)

American superhero comic books ordinarily require a suspension of disbelief to some extent or another. But here, Pure gets his superpowers in a ceremony so ridiculous that your reviewer (who is neither British nor American, but Australian) had to re-read it three times before the audacity of it finally sunk in. Pure falls onto a slab of rock where one of the American founding fathers, Benjamin Franklin, was about to be imbued with magical powers channelled to him by James Madison, James Hancock and others wearing hoods and robes decked out with American independence flags. Instead of writing the American Constitution, it seems instead these men of profound intellect were hiding in an old church summoning eldritch energies into each other. It is true that many of the Founding Fathers were Freemasons and had more than a passing interest in Masonic iconography. But reading the panels depicting the polymath postmaster-general and diplomat Ben Franklin lying down with his fat belly exposed, quoting himself in dialogue, about to become a mystical superhero was… dumb.

Pure bumbles through the centuries, being shot, stabbed, suffocating in coffins, always the freebooting rogue. In the last page of the first issue, by the early 1900s, the robed sect who were endeavouring to empower Franklin centuries before have returned. But Pure has just met a very young and heavily accented Albert Einstein. Perhaps the boy genius will save the stupid Pure in issue 2 with some sort of atomic raygun.

Mr Hitch’s art is as pleasing as ever (save that he has always depicted the movements of his characters with the stiffness of marionettes, and we see that flaw repeatedly in Redcoat). In this issue he pleases his fans with one or two wide-screen double-page spreads for which he became famous in the early 2000s working on titles like The Authority and The Ultimates.

Also, for someone famous for drawing tight superhero costumes, Mr Hitch does period attire unexpectedly well. Older readers may see something of Connor Macleod from the 1986 film Highlander in Pure. Macleod was born in 1518, and he cannot die unless beheaded. Neil Gaiman tackled immortality as well as anyone writing a comic book has, way back in The Sandman in 1994, with a character called Hob Gadling. In 1389 Gadling is granted immortality when the manifestation of Death decides to withhold her hand from him. And for centuries Gadling’s fortunes wax and wane, spending time as a wealthy slave trader, a pauper, and as with Pure, a mercenary. As a consequence of decades in prison when declared a witch, Gadling tries to keep a low profile, using variations of his name and (as with Macleod) assuming the identities of fictitious sons. But not so in Redcoat. Why Pure, who is described in the postscript as a “solitary man”, draws attention to himself by wearing his archaic clothes from 1775 is not at all clear. As the story unfolds, Pure has been easy to spot by vengeful assailants over the centuries (1790, 1827, 1892). Both Gadling and Macleod would have disapproved (and Macleod might well have tried to take Pure’s head in anticipating of the Gathering). Perhaps Pure is just so dumb as to not realise he is wearing a highly visible target. But as a visual indicia of movement, the flapping red coat works as well as a fluttering cape

In each of their stories, Macleod and Gadling learned the lesson to acquire wealth. But Pure is always cash-strapped. “I’m guessing there’s a price to immortality because I’m always broke.” Pure is a scoundrel. It is not clear yet whether he is a likeable scoundrel. But then, Gadling went through a grinding Groundhog Day-type process of realisation that the only benefit of living forever is that there is opportunity to do good in the world. Perhaps Pure will be permitted the same insight by Messrs Johns and Hitch.

One last thing to note: the title is published under a new imprint called Ghost Machine, featuring some high-profile American writers and artists. DC Comics (Mr Johns’ former employer) has a blue logo, and the other big American publisher, Marvel Comics, is red. Ghost Machine’s trade dress is yellow, taking a hint from car hire companies that consumers are cued to purchase by colour. A two-page spread in the final pages of the issue sets out a shared continuity involving a number of titles. Redcoat is not a stand-alone story, and an event called “The Unknown War” is promised five years’ hence. No doubt this foreshadows Ghost Machine’s own Crisis on Infinite Earths. Can the brand-new publisher survive five years? The Ghost Machine Men (they are all male) have chosen not to embark solo as we saw with the failed, lamented publisher CrossGen (1998-2004). Instead, they are hitching Ghost Machine to Image Comics with its well-recognised flexibility around ownership and control. Smart move.