John Wagner came up with a brilliant concept for Button Man, one that sustained four graphic novels. Former soldier and mercenary Harry Exton is at a loose end until learning of the Killing Game of the title. In return for a massive payment he’ll become the personal Button Man of someone who’ll only ever contact him remotely. For the enjoyment of this person and others, Button Men are tasked with killing each other, while betting on the results of their contests involves huge sums. It’s a form of paintball with fatal consequences for failure, except there are no rules and only the single winner. After a test, Harry signs up.

Following a period of disbelief that some readers didn’t realise that Judge Dredd isn’t supposed to be any kind of hero, Wagner’s introduction spells out that although Harry is the protagonist, he considers him an amoral psychopath. It’s perhaps a necessary distinction as an action thriller requires a form of sympathetic figure the audience can root for, the innocent in danger, or the person out of their depth, or the one in the wrong place at the wrong time. Harry is none of these. He lacks any ethical concerns about killing for money, and in sadistically creative fashion, so to most people ought to be repugnant. The suspense, therefore, is generated by the situations Wagner comes up with to endanger Harry, and the mystery at the core of the story. Who is Harry’s paymaster?

Wagner has Harry tell his story in hindsight, in cinematic fashion, and the aura of realism is driven by the photo perfect art of Arthur Ranson, whose pictures have an elegant precision. He has an extremely delicate line to his work, which, as he notes in his introduction, is largely created during the inking process. Whether down to Wagner’s script or Ranson’s imagination, there are plenty of visual metaphors involving other living creatures, deadly poisonous fish, badgers, snakes… all of which serve to underline the raw nature of Harry’s profession.

There is some predictability as Wagner adheres to the template of action thrillers, and with one revelation most readers will have made the connection before the art spells it out, but with this introductory volume there’s no certainty that Harry will make it out alive. Yes, there are sequels, but the graphic novel’s title is Button Man, not Harry Exton, and the game will continue with or without him. Wagner doesn’t receive enough credit for the quality of his plotting in non-Dredd work. Everything always slots into place very neatly in his crime themed stories, and there are no unanswered questions, and little sentimentality either. A reliance on landline phones is the only indication of period as Ranson’s ensured all visual aspects are classic and still desirable, so there’s little to date The Killing Game, and the suspense continues to the end. The next volume’s titled The Confession of Harry Exton, so make of that what you will.

Instead of buying four separate volumes of Button Man there’s also the complete collection available as Get Harry Ex.