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From The Bookshelf

by Nicolas Juzda

Manhunter: The Special Edition

My regular readers (all three or four of them) have probably realized by now that each of my reviews includes what I've grown to think of as "the package paragraph" wherein I detail exactly how much stuff the book contains. Let's start with that, because when it comes to Manhunter: The Special Edition, it is of special importance.

ManhunterThis TPB includes the original Manhunter serial, containing six short stories (eight pages in length until the last, which was nine) and one full-length twenty-page story. No covers are reproduced; of course, Manhunter wouldn't have been on all the covers of the stories reprinted herein, being only a back-up feature, but he would probably have been on that of the last one and definitely was on the front of a previous reprint collection, Manhunter #1, whose cover is only partially reproduced as this book's own. There are, however, a couple of pin-ups from various places included and both an introduction by writer Archie Goodwin (taken from yet another reprint, 1978's Manhunter: The Complete Saga, and incidentally available in Manhunter #1) and an afterword by artist Walter Simonson. Finally, there is an all-new silent story, a full twenty-one pages long.

The reason that I have brought specific attention to this summation of the contents is that, when the cold arithmetic of which I am so fond is done, that amounts to the page count of four comics. That's not a whole lot of material, not for a book that's going for fifteen bucks in Canada and ten in the States.

But while I think that it would have been entirely appropriate for the lower production costs of a slimmer volume to have been reflected in the price to a greater degree, I am willing to say that Manhunter: The Special Edition stuffs what pages it has with more material than virtually any other book on the market. Goodwin says in the introduction that the creators used as much effort to create each back-up episode as they normally expended on a full-length story. That extra effort has paid off in one of the richest works in the history of super-hero comics.

I picked a random comic book, Hawk And Dove (third series) #1, and counted how many panels were on the average page. The vast majority had 5 or 6; a few had less. I tried this with Manhunter, and found that the average panel count per page was 8 to 10; a few had less, but many had more, occasionally topping a dozen.

Obviously, if the art was unclear, this would have been a bad thing. But Simonson's style works under such conditions. It's not the George Perez approach of infinite details; Simonson eliminates the non-essential, focussing on what is important: a torso in motion, a handshake, some burning documents, a knife in flight, etc. The unusual imagery produced may have been borne of necessity, but they give Manhunter a visual vocabulary that is occasionally unlike much of modern American comic books'.

The high panel count has some added benefits. The small panels produce a somewhat claustrophobic air, appropriate for a series as focussed on paranoia as Manhunter. Additionally, they lend speed to the proceedings; one's eye sails over a rapid series of small images instead of dwelling on larger ones (see the writings of Will Eisner for more on this subject).

There is a certain roughness to Simonson's work, compared to the smoother look of many of today's artists. But it has its own aesthetic appeal, and it works well with the character, helping to convey the world of uncertainty and violence he inhabits, and bringing the world of Manhunter: The Special Edition to life.

This is not to say that the story or dialogue fails to do that in equally fine style.

The plot revolves around Christine St. Clair, an Interpol agent assigned to the task of investigating the mysterious Manhunter. He's an illusive figure, appearing in various guises around the world and leaving a trail of corpses who share his face... the face of Paul Kirk, a man who was presumed dead decades earlier. Eventually, she becomes drawn into the war between Manhunter and the secret organization known as The Council. Oh, and Batman shows up in the last chapter.

Goodwin's task is as onerous as Simonson's. Due to the limited space originally available, many sequences in Manhunter are not explicitly depicted in the sequential art. Others only receive partial visual representation. It is up to the narration to fill in the gaps without making the reader feel cheated. This Goodwin accomplishes ably. He knows what to say and what not to say.

For example, in one sequence, Manhunter kills a tiger. Afterward, his dispatching of the men who set it on him is conveyed only through captions: "Watching the animal die, my informant claims he seemed to experience regret... an emotion noticeably lacking when he faced those who'd unleashed the tiger." That occurs in the first chapter, when it is more important to establish the character of Manhunter than it is to dwell at length on his technique in this particular battle, but it does not fail to create some image of the bloodbath that followed through two dozen well-chosen words.

The more descriptive captions in Manhunter: The Special Edition are numerous and sometimes long, but rarely feel verbose and always add to the atmosphere. Goodwin's style varies between hard-boiled noir, spy thriller, and exotic adventure, as circumstances require.

He also manages to give different personalities and speech patterns to Manhunter, Christine, Manhunter's friend and reluctant foe Asano Nitobe, cynical weapons manufacturer Kolu Mbeya, and more. Even a family of tourists who wander through one chapter are given personalities, if not particularly deep ones.

Various narrative techniques are used to good effect throughout, particularly ones involving viewpoints. The first chapter involves a series of anecdotes about Manhunter told to Christine by a seemingly awed old man, as a new urban legend. The second is told by Christine to her superior, approached as a puzzle to solve. These contrasting approaches, which contrast in turn with the real Paul Kirk that Christine finally encounters, a cynical man in pain both physical and metaphysical who maintains a grim sense of humour and even possesses some nobility, serve to give Manhunter multiple facets in a very brief time. They also allow the story to be condensed in a manner that feels entirely natural and even advantageous.

Later, Goodwin reintroduces the motif of varying viewpoints of his hero, this time in a subtler manner; a deadly battle is viewed in part through the eyes of a young boy playing with a toy gun (a deliberately ironic touch, particularly considering its ultimate use). The author is not above slyly commenting on his own text, portraying it as exciting fare for kids.

But while it is good entertainment for adolescents, it is also something more. Manhunter: The Special Edition concerns a story that has more complex themes than right-versus-wrong. Questions of identity, of the value of life, of the corrupting nature of power, of sacrifice, are all raised. Some have answers; others do not. It is to Goodwin's credit that all this doesn't seem ludicrous when pondered by a man in a bright red costume and mask.

The meditations on violence and death, the explicit portrayals of same, the hero shooting a gun (to kill, yet!), the overall grim atmosphere of the book, and even the influences of martial arts and Oriental-inspired visual designs were apparently ground-breaking in the day. In 2002, such things have become so commonplace that I'd be surprised if any reader takes particular note of them.

Equally commonplace in today's books is The Gratuitous Batman Guest Appearance To Boost Sales. Here the explanation is that Manhunter was serving as the back-up feature in Detective Comics and a team-up of the book's two stars was demanded by the readers. Whatever the reason for it, the presence of Batman in the story is not something that I'm fond of. He works well enough in Manhunter's world, but the inclusion of another protagonist at such a late date draws attention from the stars of the serial just as their own story approaches its climax.

The many things that I've been praising throughout this review perhaps come together most clearly on page 26, my favorite in the book. It begins with Goodwin's colourful narration bringing us up to speed as the third part begins, suggesting exciting and exotic adventures untold that have brought Christine at last to her quarry. Then, with brilliant understatement, a caption of only two words about the quest to find Manhunter ("It ends") accompanies the first of three panels showing a trail of corpses leading down an alleyway. That brief sequence has no action and no other text (except the part's title displayed as graffiti on the alley's wall), but the artful rendering suggests the brutality that has occurred as clearly as any explicit fight scene. It is followed by a silent reaction shot of Christine's face, before the reader sees what has provoked it, heightening suspense. The last three panels, closing in on Manhunter, reveal him gradually to the reader, first as an isolated figure amidst his bloody handiwork, and then as a battered one, and then finally, through the first lines of dialogue on the page, as a man with a sense of humour despite it all. He apologizes for not standing up to greet her. Words and images combine perfectly.

The additional chapter included for the first time in this collection is alright, but I don't find it adds much to the story. The Manhunter serial was concluded most satisfactorily by "Gotterdamerung", its original ending.

Certainly, there were loose ends. The Council's agents couldn't have all been in that one base, and the clones who served them have been popping up in other series since The Secret Society Of Super-Villains in the 1970s. But seeing this continuation of the battle Manhunter fought so long and hard to win immediately after that victory had been apparently achieved lessened the emotional impact of the book for me. The Manhunter serial achieved much of its popularity with audiences because of the utter finality of the ultimate conflict between Manhunter and the Council, something Goodwin himself recognized in his introduction. In this expanded version, that confrontation may still be regarded as a crucial battle, but before it was the end of a war.

Simonson's art is certainly still of the level of competence one expects from a seasoned craftsman like him. The six panels that make up pages 84 and 85 are a particularly nice effect, as a static background image contrasts with the changing figures of the pursuers and pursued. But his art has changed enough in the intervening decades that it doesn't quite fit with what went before. Also, the increased room has meant he was free to dispense with the compact storytelling of his older work that, as mentioned above, gave the Manhunter series much of its energy and even identity. The panel counts have fallen to the five or six per page that is normal in the industry.

The "silent" nature of the story is handled well, better than in many of the recent Marvel 'Nuff Said books, but Goodwin's words are sorely missed.

Therefore, I feel safe in saying that if you can, you should pick up the 1984 reprint Manhunter #1 and probably save yourself two thirds of the price. Failing that, I recommend Manhunter: The Special Edition as being better value than most similarly priced TPBs. Its low page count belies a wealth of content squeezed into its purest form, and the story and art are both excellent.

Fiction editor Nicolas Juzda is currently studying law in Saskatchewan. He fills the void that was left in his soul by contributing to Fanzing. He has twice been among the winners in the Bulwer Lytton Fiction Contest for bad writing.
AIM name: nwjuzda

 
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