Why you should read the Button Man comics ahead of any future film adaptation

By ·July 27, 2016 11:30 am

“The game… Man against man, for money. Like racehorses. Only they kill each other. They call them Button Men.” – Button Man IV: The Hitman’s Daughter

The Button Man comics, written by John Wagner and illustrated by Arthur Ranson for the British serlialised comic 2000 AD, tells the tale of hitmen who are pitted against each other by rich men (known as their “voices”) in games of death where you must either take a man’s “marker” (one of his fingers) or his life, depending on the rules of said game.

Harry Exton is a “button man” who decides to leave the game, but he’s quickly told that there is no way out. Harry decides to prove this theory wrong by going on the run and killing any button man who tracks him down.

While originally set to be helmed by outstanding indie director Nicolas Winding Refn (which is what initially drew our interest to Button Man) the Dreamworks-backed film now seems to no longer be linked to Refn, nor indeed to any director.

The venture first came to light in 2012 and apart from The Blacklist writer Matt Cook being hired to retool the script back in March of 2013, but the project has sat dormant ever since. This is not a great sign, but if projects like Preacher and The Dark Tower can survive development Hell for years and then still get made, then so can Button Man.

Whether the film ever gets made or not, we still feel that the Button Man comics are such exceptionally brilliant works of literature that they warrant reading on their own merit. This is what this article intends to do – highlight the merits of the Button Man series and encourage you try them.

Because we’re trying to entice you to read these comics, we have kept all spoilers to an absolute minimum.

An original spin on the hitman genre

The hitman genre has been worked into the ground, within all mediums, to the point where there is not much else to tell. Instead of treading within the footsteps of this genre, Button Man instead excels above it by providing something truly original.

Where a typical hitman plot would see an assassin provided with a mark to take down, Button Man instead tells a tale of hitman pitted against hitman, in bloody games of death. This shakes up the labelling of “hitmen” and places these contenders more in the gladiatorial realm, especially given that the “voices” like to watch the games from nearby, as they unfold.

It’s a highly satisfying idea and Wagner explores it with an expert precision, while leaving no stone unturned. The majority of the narrative focuses on Harry trying to escape the game (which is, we grant, something seen before in the hitman genre), however, each graphic novel presents its own unique angle on this story, which makes all four segments feel like very different pieces of art, while still retaining the quality of a taught arc throughout.

Harry receives a call informing him that a Button Man is on his way to kill him.

Harry receives a call informing him that a someone is on their way to kill him.

Realistic brutality

With extreme violence, there can be a fine line between violence for the sake of shock and violence that actually serves the plot and elevates the quality of the story being told. Button Man‘s brutality falls into the latter category.

Men who have lived long enough to survive these games are hardened souls who have come close to death many times. Therefore, when they spot even the slightest chance to murder another button man (or take hi marker), they take that chance with a swift brutality, to ensure that their opponent is killed fast and thoroughly. This ranges from pushing men off of buildings to rigging spiked booby traps, and even decapitating men after their death, just because they deserved it.

It’s game of endless violence and the comic crucially even explores the notion that Harry commits such acts of violence even after there is no longer any need, because he loves the act of killing itself, rather than. It’s a wonderful notion to explore and the comic holds other brilliantly bleak turns too.

Despite this grey area with Harry, he’s a character who holds a strong moral sense of retribution; if you wrong Harry, he will hunt you down and kill you one way or another. Harry walks this line of wanting to leave the game forever (and sometimes he gets very close) and also wanting swift vengeance on those who wronged him (mostly the “voices” who employed him and told him that he could never leave the game).

Elimination games

Knockout competitions always make for thrilling narratives. This is one reason that The Hunger Games is so successful. Button Man takes the idea of the knockout competition and moulds in into something superb.

Due to Harry’s adeptness at killing, there are points in the graphic novels where Harry is placed in elimination games where the rules are everyone versus Harry. In Killer Killer Harry is pitted against thirteen professional Button Men, all of whom are on the same side as each other, all being out to kill Harry, in a high stakes chase.

There is a joy in seeing one man defy the odds by surviving when vastly outnumbered. Many Westerns use this trope to great effect. Harry is indeed not too dissimilar from a gunslinger; one who is trying to go straight and stay away from trouble, but trouble ends up hunting him down, until there’s nothing left to do but for the gunslinger to eliminate all of them, include the villainous cowboy in the black hat (which in this allegory, would be the rich “voices” who run the games).

Harry Exton walks back to his house after executing a Button Man.

Harry Exton walks back to his house after executing the button man who was sent to kill him.

Delivering the vengeful daughter sequel

If you recall, after Kill Bill was over and done with, fans speculated that Tarantino might undertake a sequel to these films. This would be set in the future, from the point of view of a grown up Nikkia “Nikki” Bell (Copperhead’s daughter), who would seek revenge on Beatrix for murdering her mother. Whether it was rumour or whether it was truly Tarantino’s intent, that sequel never happened.

The fourth and final graphic novel of Button Man, which is titled The Hitman’s Daughter, provides exactly the kind of lost Kill Bill sequel that we always wanted. A young girl named Adele Cotter witnesses her Father (a button man himself) being murdered by other button men. When grown, she is trained as a killer and seeks revenge on Harry Exton, whose name she heard during the murder, as well as the other button men involved in her Father’s death.

The game being the game, the voices try to trick Adele into becoming a button woman herself, but Adele refuses to become involved. When she eventually comes up against Harry Exton, the exchanges between them are very satisfying, even if the ending of the series is a little sudden and underwhelming.

Adaptation potential

The story of Harry Exton feels like something that would very naturally translate to the screen, which is probably partly why directors such as Nicolas Winding Refn have shown such an interest in this venture. Apart from graphic novels being a visual medium anyway, each graphic novel is also set out like its own film, which means you could easily create four films from this narrative. Given that the current IMDB entry is titled Button Man: The Killing Game, to us this implies that Dreamworks intend to adapt one graphic novel at a time, which sound perfect to us.

The casting choice for Harry Exton will crucial to its success. Due to that fact that the project arose in 2012, we can’t help but wonder if Refn would have placed Ryan Gosling in the role, which would have been interesting to see. If Dreamworks insisted on casting someone young, then we would go with someone like Mike Vogel or Rick Cosnett for this.

Harry should really be a slightly older gentlemen, however, so more ideally we would like to see someone like John Wesley Shipp (The Flash) play Harry, who, we feel, matches Harry’s visual appearance strikingly well.

Ultimately, we suggest that, if you like the sound of these comics, you make the effort to read them before this film arrives. This is because knowing the source material always improves the experience of adaptations, as well as your excitement leading up to the projects, and trust us – this is one to be excited about.

Harry Exton (left) and John Wesley Shipp (right) - the actor that we would like to see take on the role of Harry Exton.

Harry Exton (left) and John Wesley Shipp (right) – the actor that we would like to see take on the role of Harry Exton.

Note: No casting news has been released, as of the date of writing, and the above is purely our fan casting.

The Button Man graphic novels are made up of:

  • Button Man I: The Killing Game
  • Button Man II: The Confession of Harry Exton
  • Button Man III: Killer Killer
  • Button Man IV: The Hitman’s Daughter

All of which are available to buy on Amazon for the Kindle.

Image credits: Rebellion Developments

Written by Christopher Hart

Lead Writer and Copywriter

Chris is a Copywriter for a major bank. He an MA in Publishing and a BA in Comparative Literature. He's also a self-published author (Altered Stone).

His areas of interest include LOST, The Leftovers, The Prisoner, Y: The Last Man, Supergirl, Wonder Woman, BioShock, Supergiant Games and Josh Malerman.

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  1. I was blown away when Button Man first appeared in 2000AD, many years ago. It’s bleak, brutal, unsympathetic and very, very British. To that end, it definitely needs a brit playing Exton. My vote would be Ray Stevenson, who has the age and physicality to do the character proud.

    1. author staff

      Hi John. Good to find a fellow fan.

      Great call on the Brit idea – it makes loads of sense to me and I think that would work.

      Not sure I see Stevenson in the role, but I’ve not seen that many Stevenson films, so I’m not best placed to judge on that one.

      I’ve noticed that NWR has since dropped Button Man and is now making his own TV show titled Too Old to Die Young, which also seems to be about hitmen.

      Although the plot sounds rather different, this seems a tad too coincidental to me and I’m concerned that NWR might rip off components of Button Man for his show, before we ever get to see a true adaptation.