The Greatest Comics Ever Made: Chapter One-Manhunter
Publisher: D.C. Comics
Writer: Archie Goodwin
Artist: Walt Simonson
Colors: Klaus Janson
Letters: Annette Kawecki
Review by PeteR
As comic book readers, we spend a great deal of time focusing on what’s new. That’s not surprising since every week more and more comics are published. I don’t know about you, but I am always woefully behind on being up to date on all the titles I read. The “to be read” stack keeps piling up as my wallet shrinks. With all of the time and energy focused on keeping current, we sometimes forget to dive into the rich and varied history of comics to mine it for the many gems it has. This is (hopefully) the first installment of a series highlighting, what I believe are some of the greatest comics ever created. There is no particular order or chronology to these choices, so before the readers my age or older get in a tizzy because I left something out, be patient, we’ll get there eventually.
In July of 1973, the late Archie Goodwin was the writer of Detective Comics. He wanted to craft a story that was unique and had a definitive ending. Since the goal of comic publishers is to create characters that they can copy-write and make money off of forever, tales where the main character’s travails actually end are few. Detective Comics, of course is a Batman vehicle featuring a cast of players that cannot be easily disposed of. Storylines where characters are killed have little impact on today’s readers because we know they will be brought back, especially if there is a movie franchise in the wings. Comic book character development inevitably reaches a point where they, the protagonists, eventually become static.
Archie Goodwin wanted to break that mold. Since he couldn’t use anyone who was an ongoing concern, he reached back and found someone who had been forgotten about. That character was Paul Kirk, The Manhunter. Manhunter had been featured in Adventure Comics starting in issue #58 in 1941. He was a hunter and adventurer. Originally he was not a masked crime fighter. That changed in issue #73 when Joe Simon and Jack Kirby took over. Manhunter continued as a staple of Adventure Comics until issue #92, then he went away.
The new Manhunter first appeared as an eight page back up feature in Detective Comics #437. My father bought me a copy at the Philadelphia airport that summer, as we were flying out to Wyoming. The Batman story was good, (you can’t go wrong when the artist is Jim Aparo) but when I turned to page 13, my young head exploded.
I had never seen anything like the artwork of Walt Simonson. It was somehow scratchy, primal but incredibly detailed as well. The action was choreographed with a brutality that was shocking yet authentic. The story was dense. Not dense as in stupid, quite the opposite. It was dense as in thick with plot. There was a constant undercurrent of danger. A great deal had been packed into those eight pages. Some of the pages had eleven panels, each bursting with meticulous design. The ending of the first chapter was a quandary. I had read lots of cliff hangers before, but this was an enigma.
The second chapter of The Manhunter Saga was in Detective Comics #438 and it was the first of the 100 page issues that populated the stands during the early to mid-seventies. There was a new Batman story and reprints featuring Green Lantern, Hawkman and the Atom. Even with all of that comic book goodness, the first thing I read was the very last story in the book, Manhunter.
The plot of Manhunter, these days might seem repetitive and old hat, but in 1973 it was innovative and startling. Paul Kirk is killed then resurrected by a secret cabal, called the Council, bent on world domination. The Council is run by nine of the (allegedly) most brilliant minds in the world. Eight of them are kept frozen cryogenically while one of them runs the organization. The person managing the Council is rotated every so often in order to extend each members life. The Council is able to recruit some of the most wealthy and powerful men in the world with the promise of (wait for it) immortality.
Paul Kirk was chosen to be reborn because of his fighting and hunting proficiency. When he was resurrected they also gave him an enhanced healing factor, a year before a certain Canadian mutant was created. The Council also cloned him… a lot. The clones did not have Kirk’s healing factor because they were copies. It only worked for the original. The plan was for the army of clones to act as the Council’s enforcement arm with the original Paul Kirk as their leader. He didn’t like the idea of a secret empire and rebelled. In his quest to defeat the Council he was joined by Interpol agent, Christine St. Clair, The two of them travel the globe, thwarting the Council’s attempt to solidify their power.
The Manhunter saga lasted seven chapters and concluded in Detective Comics #443. Out of the seven issues, six of them were 100 page giant edition. One issue sported a Neal Adams cover. Issue #442 had a new story with art by Alex Toth. There was a reprint featuring Jack Cole’s art on Plastic Man. Issue #443 even contained a reprint of the first appearance of the Creeper by Steve Ditko. Out of 620 pages of comics, the seven chapters of Manhunter eclipsed everything else.
In the final chapter, Gotterdammerung Manhunter, in a team up with Batman, is blown up, sacrificing himself to defeat the Council. No “to be continued”. No miraculous regeneration. Nada, nothing, zip. Archie Goodwin wrote a story where the main character is flat out killed. No one expected that. Boom, story over.
The Manhunter Saga won Archie Goodwin the best writer of the year for both 1973 and 1974. It won best short story for 1973 and 1974. Walt Simonson won the best new talent award for 1973 due to his art on Manhunter. Gotterdammerung won the best feature length story for 1974. Seven chapters and it dominated the comic world’s equivalent of the Oscars for two years. Then like Paul Kirk himself, it went away, seemingly never to be seen again.
In 1979 The Manhunter Saga was reprinted with all seven chapters in one volume for the first time. Unfortunately it was in black and white. Without Klaus Janson’s coloring it was not quite as satisfying as the original comics. D.C. Comics reprinted the whole series again in 1984 in a single comic, this time in color. In 1999 the series was reprinted again, on better paper stock, with new material co-plotted by Archie Goodwin, before he passed away, and Walt Simonson. This edition was of The Manhunter Saga awarded the Favorite Reprint of a Graphic Novel Award by the Comic Buyers Guide in 2000.
In 2014, IDW along with D.C. Comics reprinted The Manhunter Saga in an artist edition straight from the original art pages. Finally the story was presented on a scale that allowed the reader to savor every aspect of Walter Simonson’s amazing, intricate art.
The Manhunter Saga by Goodwin and Simonson fundamentally changed the concept of what comic books could be. Many of the concepts in the story, that were so cutting edge at the time, have since become staples of the comic industry. D.C. has applied the name Manhunter to various other characters but none of them have been able to reach the distinction of that the 1973 series achieved.