Thursday, November 19, 2015

Guests Review - DC's Manhunter Saga, Part Two

Doug: Today we feature the conclusion of Mike W's and Edo Bosnar's review of the Manhunter saga.

Chapter 4. Rebellion

The chapter opens with a nice action sequence in which Manhunter dispatches Nostrand with the old “light a match to the trail of leaking gasoline to blow up the car” trick. Manhunter then finishes telling St. Clair about his past. He recounts a meeting, more like an audience, he and Nitobe have with Mykros in the Council Chamber. It turns out that the other members of the Council are all in cryogenic stasis, with Mykros acting as their representative and spokesman. He explains that this is because one of their number, the geneticist Dr. Oka (for whom Nitobe served as bodyguard) had died, and besides enhancing Manhunter and creating the clones, he was also supposed to devise a way to make them immortal. With immorality off the table, they opted for going into the deep freeze to keep the Council alive as long as possible. It’s during this bit of monologuing that Manhunter sees that Mykros is rather mad and that the Council’s apparent concern for humankind is basically just a ploy to take over the world. So when Manhunter goes on his first mission to eliminate the Interpol official, he warns him about the assassination, only to be told by that same official – none other than Mr. Nostrand – that he’s in fact already working for the Council – it was a test and he failed. The room is full of clones sent to kill him, but he takes them all down and gets away. He then goes to Nairobi, contacting the son of an old acquaintance named Kolu Mbeya, who is an arms manufacturer and dealer. Mbeya outfits him with a number of specially designed weapons and added features to his battle suit. After Manhunter finishes telling his story to St. Clair, they go to Nostrand’s hotel room, where they find a plane ticket to Istanbul and priest’s vestments, and they assume that he was heading there for a secret meeting of Council operatives. St. Clair is about to contact Interpol, when Manhunter discovers that Nostrand had already put them both on the international wanted list.

M.S. Wilson: Another interesting chapter. We see the rest of Manhuter's origin and the present storyline moves ahead as well. I like way the Council tested Kirk's obedience by sending him to kill someone who was one of their own...although I have to wonder what would have happened if Kirk HAD obeyed orders; was Nostrand considered expendable by the Council? He seemed to be in on the ruse, but I can't imagine him willingly sacrificing himself just to test Kirk's loyalty. Mbeya is interesting too. It's convenient for Kirk to have someone who can supply him with weapons, but Mbeya has a reason to exist other than plot convenience--he supplies weapons to various rebel groups in Africa. I guess that could be read as plot convenience too, but at least it's plausible. Speaking of convenience, Nostrand's hotel key being thrown clear of his exploding car is a little hard to swallow. But I like the fact that Nostrand had Interpol issue warrants for Manhunter and Christine. It keeps them from going to the authorities and it hampers their movements. Nice to see the bad guys acting logically for once.

EB: Yeah, that bit with the hotel key was just a little too far-fetched – one of the few places where I was thrown out of the story a bit and found myself thinking, “yeah, right.” Anyway, I think it’s pretty obvious at this point that the Council is quite ruthless in the pursuit of its aims, so if Manhunter had killed Nostrand as ordered, I imagine Mykros would have received the news with steepled fingers, muttering “excellent” a la Montgomery Burns, and not giving Nostrand another thought.  I really liked the addition of Mbeya to the cast. As you indicated, he’s not just a two-dimensional deus ex machina; instead, he has a reason for being that’s not connected to the story: he has his own history, life, and motivations.

M.S. Wilson: Yeah, when I was originally reading the story, I thought Batman (um, Batman?) was going to recognize Mbeya's name and say something like "Oh yes, Mbeya, I know him...we're old friends." I'm glad they didn't do that. It's also cool that Mbeya ended up joining them...after being set up by the Council, it's a logical move on his part.

Chapter 5. Cathedral Perilous

A family of American tourists approaches the Romulus Cathedral in Istanbul. The wife is getting bored with all of the inspections of religious buildings, the father thinks it will be interesting because it’s not a mosque, and the little boy is more focused on playing with his toy gun – the scenes of this family interspersed into the story are entertaining and fit into the story well. Meanwhile, Manhunter and St. Clair sneak in and knock out a pair of apparent monks and then don their robes. Anyway, Manhunter and St. Clair join up with a bunch of other ‘monks’ to infiltrate a meeting of Council followers. The proceedings are interrupted by the arrival of Mykros and a few Kirk clones in something called the ‘Gateway,’ which is apparently a teleportation device. Mykros informs them of Nostrand’s death, at which point the guy presiding over the meeting asks to be promoted to Nostrand’s position. This leads to an argument about the inner workings of the Council, and why no one was selected to replace the deceased Dr. Oka. Mykros then reveals that Oka was in fact killed because he began to question the Council’s motives. However, at this point, a device on Mykros’ ring indicates that they’re being recorded and he sounds the alarm. Manhunter decides to reveal himself to create a distraction so St. Clair can get away. Manhunter manages to disable the Gateway, and then another nicely rendered fight scene ensues, as Manhunter takes on the clone assassins. The latter actually manage to subdue him, and one gets ready to shoot him in the head when the little boy (the only one to actually see all of the fighting going on) drops his toy gun from a mezzanine, hitting the clone in the head and giving Manhunter an opportunity to take him down. As Mykros stalks away from the scene with the ambitious Council acolyte who wants a promotion, it’s revealed that the latter is St. Clair’s father.

M.S. Wilson: We learn a bit more about the Council in this chapter. The revelation about Christine's father being one of the bad guys seems a bit too coincidental, but I guess unexpected connections are a staple of comics (and pulp fiction in general). On the other hand, the "matter transmitter" thing makes it feel less pulpy and more like a regular comic book. I actually got a little tired of the "hick tourists" running joke (which seems like it might be a comment on how Americans act when on vacation...or am I reaching?) and the kid wandering off and playing cowboy. I guess I shouldn't complain too much...if it wasn't for the kid, Manhunter would've been blown away.

EB: Like I said in the summary, I found the tourists a nice twist – it’s a different way to move the story along. In fact, if I were to pick single chapter to call my favorite, or just as a sample of how cool this story is, I think this would be it. I also like the fact that, as good as Manhunter is at what he does best (and what he does best isn’t … holy crap! Déjà vu!), he can be bested occasionally, and sometimes needs a little help to get out of a jam, even if that help is just a kid and his toy gun. Also, the one panel showing the toy gun getting tossed back up to the little boy is a nice touch.

M.S. Wilson: Yeah, Manhunter returning the kid's gun was kinda nice (although the first time I read it, my first thought was that he'd thrown the bad guy's gun up to the kid...not very responsible of him!) You're right about Manhunter not being shown as's more realistic. And that idea is repeated in the next chapter when Nitobe bests him one-on-one.

EB: Oh, man. If he’d given that kid a real gun, the story would have taken a really dark turn…

Chapter 6. To Duel the Master

Manhunter awaits a plane that is landing near Matsue, Japan. Mykros disembarks, feeling rather surly because the destroyed matter transmitter means he has to travel the hard way. Manhunter begins stalking him, but is then confronted by his mentor, Asano Nitobe. The scene then switches to the Orient Express two days earlier, with Agent St. Clair in a private compartment. Her father enters, and soon reveals that he is involved with the Council. He threatens to shoot her if she doesn’t give him the recording from the meeting in Istanbul, but she calls his bluff. He departs from the train in Sofia, Bulgaria, where he is gunned down soon afterward. Back in Japan, two days later, Manhunter and Nitobe are still going at it. Manhunter is unable to convince Nitobe that the Council had Dr. Oka killed, because Nitobe has been brainwashed in such a way that he can’t believe anything Manhunter says. Eventually, Nitobe gets the best of Manhunter and is about to deliver the killing blow, when he’s hailed by St. Clair speaking from a loudspeaker in a chopper above. She plays the recording of Mykros detailing how Oka was killed, and this turns Asano, who swears to help Manhunter and St. Clair take down the Council.

M.S. Wilson: This chapter has the big confrontation between Manhunter and his former mentor, Asano Nitobe. The whole "student-confronts-the-master" thing is almost a cliché, since it's been done so many times, but to be fair, this story predates Star Wars, Wolverine, and a lot of the other uses of this trope. The fight is well done--Simonson doesn't shy away from showing how brutal it is. I'm not sure about how it ended, but I guess it makes sense for Christine's words to convince Nitobe, since it was only Kirk he was brainwashed to disbelieve. Speaking of Wolverine, the mask Nitobe wears looks a lot like the one worn by Ogun in the Wolverine miniseries. I wonder if Frank Miller had this story in mind, or if it's just a traditional Japanese design? The confrontation between Christine and her father was handled well, and him being gunned down immediately after fits what we know about the Council--they don't tolerate failure.

EB: The fight between Manhunter and Nitobe is indeed rendered quite nicely. And yes, it’s a storytelling cliché, but usually it’s the pupil who ends up winning (provided that he/she is the story’s protagonist). In this case, though, Nitobe eventually prevails, which realistically should be the case, since he was sort of hyped up as almost the living embodiment of ninjutsu. And I also liked the interlude showing Christine dealing with her father. It’s very, well cinematic (I just keep coming back to that word when thinking about this story).

M.S. Wilson: Yeah, Simonson's panel layouts are really different from what most artists were doing back then. I'm more of a "writing" guy than an "art" guy, but I can appreciate the artistry on display here.

Chapter 7. Götterdämmerung

The prologue takes place in Gotham City. The police have found the body of a private detective and martial arts instructor, Dan Kingdom, an ex-Green Beret. Batman appears at the scene, noting that Kingdom was following a lead on some jeopardy involving the new prime minister of the African nation of ‘Congola’ (ah, yes, gotta love comic-book political geography), for whom a reception is being held that very evening at Wayne Manor. And later, at the reception, the prime minister is assassinated by a sniper right under Bruce Wayne’s nose. Wayne changes into Batman and rushes after the killer and almost catches him outside. However, a mysterious masked figure calling himself the Enforcer gets in the way. He manages to stun Batman with a very distinctive punch and he and the sniper get away, although the sniper dropped his rifle in the confusion. Batman takes it to a former arms dealer, who tells him it’s a specially made weapon that was most like put together by a certain Kolu Mbeya of Nairobi.

The scene then switches to Nairobi and Mbeya’s shop, where Manhunter is trying to take the weapon-smith to join the assault on the Council’s Sanctuary. While they’re talking, he’s looking through a sniper scope and spots a bat-like silhouette on the rooftops above – and so does the actual sniper from before. He’s got Batman in his sights, but then Manhunter appears beside him. He drops his rifle in terror and starts running toward Batman, shouting that the ‘Council’ ordered the hit on the African prime minister’s and promising to tell him everything if he just keeps Manhunter away. Just as he reaches Batman, Manhunter shoots him dead. This rubs Batman the wrong way, but Manhunter pulls a blade from the dead man’s sleeve, noting that he had intended to kill Batman. Batman replies that he’s had similar attempts made on him before and resolved the situation without fatalities.

As they make their way back to Mbeya’s shop, Batman wants to know more about the Council, so Manhunter and the others fill him in. He wants to participate in their assault on the Council, but Manhunter declines the offer, noting that Batman’s code about not killing means he just won’t be an asset on this mission (imagine that – Batman being told he’s not one of the cool kids). So they part ways.

Manhunter, St. Clair, Nitobe and Mbeya take off in a plane, and eventually land in the middle of nowhere in a desert in Australia. As they disembark, gunshots ring out, and Mbeya is hit and apparently killed. The others move to for a counterattack, but then Batman appears with two unconscious gunmen. Manhunter is impressed that Batman’s detecting abilities, and they agree to join forces after all. Nitobe leads them to hidden ventilation shaft and they make their way into the Council’s underground base. Eventually they run into resistance, with the mysterious Enforcer showing up as well. He starts pummeling Manhunter, but Batman intervenes and tells him to keep going toward the Council Chamber while the rest of the group deals with the henchmen. It’s eventually revealed that the Enforcer is none other than Dan Kingdom, while the body found in Gotham was that of a clone. In the Council Chamber, Manhunter confronts Mykros, who’s wearing something he calls a psionic helmet that gives him mental control over all power and communication systems in the complex. He uses it to create a bolt of radiation from the reactor that nearly fries Manhunter completely. Elsewhere, our heroes are joined by Mbeya, who was not killed – rather Manhunter used some kind of nerve pinch to knock him out cold when he saw that he was injured. He takes down a bunch of the henchmen with machine gun fire. In the Council Chamber, Manhunter, almost dead, doggedly struggles with Mykros and manages to remove the psionic helmet, donning it himself. He then sets the Council’s entire complex to self-destruct, which explodes just as the Batman and the others manage to get away in the plane.

M.S. Wilson: The last chapter wraps things up nicely. The first six parts of the story were fairly violent, but we get a look at the non-lethal approach once Batman joins the team. The “kill/no kill” debate reminds me of Spider-Man and Punisher (and like Spider-Man, Batman seems to condemn Manhunter’s methods without taking any active steps to stop him). The whole thing with Dan Kingdom/Enforcer seems a little superfluous, but I guess Batman needed someone to fight (non-lethally, of course) at the end; plus Kingdom's “death” was the MacGuffin that got Batman involved in the first place. You mentioned the fictional country of “Congola”...I noticed that too, and it kind of bothers me. One of the things I liked about the first six chapters was how they used real locations--Kathmandu, Zurich, Istanbul, Marrakech, Nairobi; it made it more realistic. But throwing a fake country into the last chapter takes me out of the story a bit. It makes it read more like a conventional comic and less like a pulpy spy-thriller. I have nothing against conventional comics (and the tropes therein), but the shift in tone is a bit jarring for me. The same goes for the “psionic amplifier” thing; I guess old pulp stories had mind-amplifier devices, but it just seemed a bit out of place to me. As for using Batman, I think it worked. Batman was inspired by the old pulp stories, so he definitely fits into that style.

EB: I just let the comic-book geography roll off my back; yeah, it would have been better if a real country had been used, but since the story involved the assassination of a prime minister, Goodwin decided to go the fictional route to avoid any confusion with actual political events. And as far as I know, the old pulp stories had quite a bit of fake geography; in fact, I think the comic book writers just assumed the practice from the pulp writers. Same with the wonky technology like the psionic amplifier – I think the Doc Savage stories in particular blazed the trail for that kind of stuff. All that said, I can see why you could have been taken out of the story by these aspects, because most of this does read like a spy thriller more or less grounded in the real world. I guess it just didn’t trouble me as much, especially since pretty much from the start the whole Council aspect, with its amazing technology, indicates that the story will have the fantastic elements more typical of standard superhero comics. Overall, it’s pretty obvious that I just love this story, and repeated readings have not diminished my fondness for it (quite the opposite in fact). I like that it’s a complete saga that had a planned conclusion from the very beginning, and the ending, although tragic, is very fitting and, ultimately, satisfying. And I can’t think of any artist who would have done a better job with this than Simonson. He really went all out, and everything comes together perfectly: the figure work, the backgrounds and the overall flow and pacing. Coming back to that word cinematic, it often seems like the panels are storyboards for what would be a mind-blowingly awesome action movie.

M.S. Wilson: Yeah, I'm a sucker for that pulp atmosphere (though a lot of the actual "classic" pulp stories leave something to be desired). I was never a big Doc Savage fan...the idea sounds good, but the few stories I've read just didn't do anything for me. I agree that the ending feels right. In the intro to my edition, Goodwin said that if the concept had been open-ended (i.e. if Manhunter had lived), the story probably wouldn't have achieved the impact or reputation that it did. I think he's right... Manhunter's heroic sacrifice rounds off the story perfectly, and it's true to his character as well.

EB: Needless to say, I agree with Goodwin that it worked out better like this. (Just as an aside, on the topic of the original pulp stories, there’s a lot of good stuff there, and – given the sheer volume – a lot of bad stuff as well. I tend to agree with you about the Doc Savage stories: I’ve read a few of the novels and found them just o.k. On the other hand, all of the Shadow novels I’ve read – admittedly not many – are actually pretty good.)

* Just as a footnote, when the Special Edition reprint of this story was published in 1999 (the edition I have), a story called “The Final Chapter” was printed as well. This is an epilogue which Goodwin and Simonson had plotted out, and then Simonson drew it, but Goodwin unfortunately died before he could complete the final script. So Simonson just finished the art and it was printed as a “silent” story, with no dialogue or narration (just sound effects). It’s really well done, and doesn’t take anything away from the original saga.


William said...

Got to go to work now, so I don't have time to read the whole post right now. I'll check it out later.

But meanwhile, I've always loved that Manhunter costume! I even got the History of the DC Universe Action Figure of the character, and it is awesome!!

Garett said...

Great review again fellas! I agree Edo that this would make an awesome movie, especially after seeing the less-than-spectacular Spectre. By the way, I like your review format of giving us a rundown of the plot first, then comments after. Mike I appreciate your comments about the writing, including certain scenes that would later become cliches. One last thing, I notice the coloring is quite nice, such as in the scene you included here with St Claire and her father. I like how the expressive colors in the second and last panels suggest the emotions of the scene.

I was a bit surprised that there weren't more comments yesterday! This is one of the best comics of the Bronze age. But I suppose if you missed the backup stories in Detective, and you were out of comics in the early '80s when this was reproduced, you could've missed out. I have the 1984 reprint, and it's cheaply available. Recommended!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the comments, everybody. In case anyone's curious, Edo wrote the summaries and then we each added our comments afterward. I prepared the artwork using Edo's suggestions--all of which were spot on. I just wanted to say how much I enjoyed doing this...working with Edo didn't seem like work at all! Thanks, EB.

Mike Wilson

Edo Bosnar said...

Thanks right back at you, Mike! As I believe I mentioned it in our e-mail correspondence, that this was fun (and again, thanks for doing the scans - I always find that the most time consuming aspect when preparing one of these guest reviews).

William, the Manhunter costume came up in yesterday's comments as well; and yes, I completely agree with you - it's one of my personal favorites.

sleek said...

This was one of my favorite stories back then. So ahead of its time...

I FOUND one chapter a couple years after it was initially published, then scored used bins for the others, eventually cutting the books apart so I could make my own graphic novel and read it as a single story!

Got the first trade paperback version by mail order, and was really disappointed when it shows up and was black and white.

Doug said...

Sleek --

Welcome! Thanks for your comment.

And thanks once more to Mike and Edo for the wonderful reviews over these past two days. Just to let you both know, I tweeted at Walter Simonson once yesterday and twice today in hopes that he might come by to put in a word. Thus far it looks like that won't bear fruit, but fingers remain crossed.

Spinner Rack on Friday, kids!


Redartz said...

Just another word of thanks to Mike and Edo for the pair of paired reviews! And also, thanks for the footnote promotingvthe 1999 edition. Now I know which one to hunt down on ebay...

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