Friday, 16 January 2009

Manhunter-He Stalks The World's Most Dangerous Game!

Manhunter is one of those comics that just seems to get better with age. Written by Archie Goodwin ( one of comics' greatest writer's ) and with art by Walt Simonson ( almost at the start of his professional career ), it broke new ground in storytelling and art techniques, won six major awards ( for a series that ran only seven episodes ), is still talked about over 30 years after it's original publication, and, perhaps most interestingly of all, might just be the only series in comics where the lead character dies, and stays dead.
In comics, sooner or later, every character comes back, is revamped or retconned, or otherwise ruined by people other than the original creator's. You say Captain America's dead? Stick around, pal, he'll be back. ( If he isn't already. )
Not so Manhunter. No one's ever brought this guy back.
Now, you could be unkind and say, well, why would they? These days, who cares enough about this guy to bother? Maybe. But I don't think so.

Manhunter was introduced in July of 1973 in the pages of Detective Comics, as a back-up for the lead Batman strip, a simple little 8-page serial to fill some pages and maybe hawk a few extra copies. But pretty much from the first episode, it was clear something special was going on.

It's the story of Paul Kirk, a minor character from '40's comics thrust into the '70's.
A big-game hunter, spy & occasional superhero, Kirk is mortally wounded, presumed dead, in the african jungle. In fact, he's rescued, and put into suspended animation by a mysterious organization calling itself The Council, and eventually re-awakened in the modern day for what, at first, seems the best of reasons.

The Council, originally, was dedicated to helping mankind, but, natch, time & power has corrupted them , and now they figure, hey, who's better placed to run the world than us?
Meanwhile, while Kirk has been on ice, they've cloned him, hundreds of times, into an unbeatable army of assassins. The Council then wake him up, and suggest he might like to use his skills to lead their deadly cadre of killers on murder missions.
To the surprise of absolutely no one at all, Paul Kirk is not impressed.

Pretty soon, he's broken out of Council HQ, hitched up with sexy Interpol agent Cristine St. Clair & ninja Asano Nitobe, and is leading a world wide war against his former rescuers, blocking The Council's attempted political assassinations, and wiping out the clone army, one by one.

So we have an intriguing plot, a tortured hero, a cool heroine, and a global threat. Classic pulp adventure stuff.
BUT it's not the plot per se that makes Manhunter such a great strip, it's how Goodwin & Simonson told the story.
Firstly, Archie knew he only had 8 pages per issue to hook the reader and move the story forward. So, like Quentin Tarantino did decades later ( and far less skillfully ) he moved the narrative onwards by jumping backwards and forwards in time, delivering important information through various characters & various viewpoints, even to the point of occasionally making Manhunter / Kirk a secondary character in his own story.
Simonson too, reciprocated, by stretching the boundaries of what was possible on the comic page, sometimes placing as many as 20 panels on a page, and making it all not just coherent ( a feat in itself ), but making it interesting & exciting.
I can't stress enough how difficult it is to achieve what Goodwin & Simonson did on this strip, and how easy they made it look.
Plenty of people have told epic saga's in a miniscule amount of pages since, but no one had really tried it before, and no one's done it as well.

And it's the little things that add to Manhunter too: Like the completely impractical costume, that would never work in reality, but looks so cool on the printed page: Or the fact that Simonson clearly based Kirk on James Coburn, with that long, lean face & lanky frame ( wonder if Coburn ever knew he was a superhero? )

And as much as I'd like a sequel, I'm also kind of glad it'll never happen. Archie Goodwin sadly passed away in 1998, just as a fresh reprint of Manhunter was being readied. There was talk of an epilogue by the original team, but it came too late for Archie. So Walt did Paul Kirk's last appearance as a 'silent' strip, in honour of his friend. That story, along with the rest of the saga, is in this reprint:

But, whichever one you manage to get your hands on, do get it. It really is one of the great comic strips, and more than lives up to it's rep.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent post! I think the reason Paul Kirk stayed dead is because of the respect and admiration folks have for Archie Goodwin. Plus, who's gonna top this storyline? Nobody.

    Of course, that hasn't stopped DC from letting some of Kirk's clones pop up as heroes (in Secret Society of Super-Villains and Power Company for example)...