Grumpy Old Fan | The resurrection of Paul Kirk

by  in Comic News Comment
Grumpy Old Fan | The resurrection of Paul Kirk

Archie Goodwin and Walt Simonson’s “Manhunter” was the story of Paul Kirk, a big-game hunter, ex-superhero and retired covert operative who was killed by a rampaging elephant and revived by the mysterious Council. Dedicated to world domination, the Council also created enforcers out of Kirk’s clones, and trained them all to be unstoppable assassins. Kirk rebelled, of course, earning the Council’s wrath; and that’s where the main story picks up.

The seven-part serial ran in Detective Comics #437-443 (October/November 1973-October/November 1974). Appearing initially as an eight-page backup feature, its final chapter was a full 20 pages, not coincidentally because it guest-starred Batman. As such, the whole thing would fit in an 80-Page Giant with room to spare, but it is full of tight, dense storytelling that encourages multiple readings. Among other things, it received a total of six Shazam awards from the Academy of Comic Book Arts: Best Short Story (“The Himalayan Incident,” 1973; “Cathedral Perilous,” 1974), Best Writer (Goodwin, 1973-74), Outstanding New Talent (Simonson, 1973), and Best Feature-Length Story (“Götterdämmerung,” 1974). It was one of Simonson’s first big projects, and his early work combines a raw, organic quality with energetic, propulsive layouts. Each short chapter packs a full issue’s worth of plot, character, and action into its eight pages, and the finale makes a regular-length issue feel like an annual. Even Batman’s potentially-distracting involvement helps distinguish Kirk from DC’s garden-variety masked men. You’ll want to read it slowly to catch all the details, but it’ll keep you turning pages to find out what happens next.

“Manhunter” has been collected three times:  Excalibur Enterprises’ 1979 black-and-white edition, DC’s 1984 Baxter-paper version, and the 1999 Manhunter: The Special Edition.  The last added a silent epilogue, completed by Simonson after Goodwin’s death in 1998.  However, the Special Edition (which also reprints Goodwin’s 1979 foreword) has been out of print for over ten years, and that strikes me as far too long. “Manhunter” is one of Goodwin and Simonson’s signature works and one of DC’s bright spots from the 1970s because, at its heart, it’s a good story, well-told.

I really love “Manhunter,” but wanting to bring it back raises some conflicting impulses — which now I will share with you.

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First, naturally, some history. Comics’ first Manhunter superhero was Dan Richards, created by Tex Blaisdell and Alex Kotzky and debuting in March 1942’s Police Comics #8.  Richards (whose home book was published by Quality Comics) soon had competition, though, as April 1942’s Adventure Comics #73 featured another Manhunter by no less than Jack Kirby and Joe Simon.  In his first story this Manhunter was named Rick Nelson, but according to Wikipedia “an unknown editor” changed the name to Paul Kirk starting with issue #74. A private-eye feature called “Paul Kirk, Manhunter” had run in Adventure from issues 58-72, and although nobody seems to think the two characters were meant to be the same person, that unknown editor may have figured otherwise. In any event, this “Manhunter” ran through 1944’s Adventure #92,* although Kirby and Simon left around Issue 80.

Fast-forward to 1973, when Archie Goodwin began editing Detective Comics and was tasked with bringing in new readers.** Because nothing radical could be done with headliner Batman, Goodwin (writing in the 1979 foreword) noted that

[a]ny big change … had to come in the backup feature. What I wanted was something that would fit (however loosely) within the “detective” format of the book, but contrast vividly in terms of mood, character, and artistic style with the lead stories, something that would nail the eye of the casual browser and maybe eventually develop a following of its own, bringing the book a few readers beyond the dyed-in-the-wool Batman fans.

Noticing reprints of the Kirby/Simon “Manhunter” in New Gods, Goodwin decided “he was my kind of guy. … I liked the title and I liked the concept of a hunter who turns his skills to hunting other men.” Although it wasn’t their initial plan, obviously Goodwin and Simonson ended up continuing Paul Kirk’s adventures.

SPOILERS FOLLOW for a 38-year-old story …




When Goodwin left DC for Warren Publishing, once-and-future ’Tec editor Julius Schwartz didn’t want to continue “Manhunter,” so Goodwin and Simonson had the opportunity to send the feature out in style (and with the anticipated Batman team-up). In their story, Paul Kirk quit superheroing in 1944 to work for the government. Specifically, as Kirk himself put it in Issue 439,

I turn[ed] my skills to secret behind-the-scenes jobs, violent and deadly … dirty and ugly, as well. All sense of adventure … died for me in the war. Weary, revulsed, I came to Africa in ‘46, meaning to pick up my old life … and found that I couldn’t. What had been sport now seemed senseless and brutal….

Even so, in #443 Kirk explained that he had “found a kind of peace” in his postwar death — but the Council “shattered” that peace by bringing him back, and with their clones further robbed him of his individuality. Thus, although Goodwin and Simonson conceived their Manhunter as a somewhat brighter alternative to Batman, in many ways their character is appreciably darker. Indeed, Paul Kirk’s story ends with an heroic sacrifice which destroys the Council and finally earns him the peace he thought he’d claimed.

* * *

Still, DC wasn’t quite done with Manhunter. Soon afterward, Jack Kirby created a new Manhunter, Mark Shaw, for 1st Issue Special #5 (August 1975). This Manhunter sported a red-and-blue outfit similar to Kirby’s 1942 creation, but was part of a secret society.*** Meanwhile, a Paul Kirk clone showed up in Secret Society of Super-Villains and a couple of groups called “The Council” bothered Nemesis and Supergirl. Later on, the original Council resurfaced in a JSA Annual (which, somewhat confusingly, introduced another character called Nemesis) and another Paul Kirk clone, The Power Company’s Kirk DePaul, got a stamp of approval from the original’s old associates.

Around about here you can probably see where I start to feel conflicted. “Manhunter” is a pretty generic superhero name, so much so that at least two different publishers and three different features used it in some form in the early 1940s. I don’t know for sure, but I feel pretty confident that DC’s various Manhunters were all work-for-hire products. Basically, “Paul Kirk” was an exploitable piece of intellectual property even before Jack Kirby came along — which gives the “destroy all clones” part of mission an extra little ironic kick. Goodwin and Simonson’s “Manhunter” was the story of a man denied the death he thought he’d earned after a lifetime of adventure went horribly sour; but that story itself seems to argue that characters shouldn’t be brought back. It’s almost a twisted version of the Silver Age Captain America, if Cap had been revulsed to learn AIM or HYDRA had reactivated him.  That Cap might also have had a short, tragic second life.

But I digress. The point is, Goodwin and Simonson got to give their version of Manhunter a pretty definite ending, wrapped in circumstances which discouraged further revivals. After all, every clone represented a slice of the original’s humanity, and not in a good way. In today’s corporate-comics environment, I can’t help but read their “Manhunter” as a powerful argument for the dignity of individual creations; and subsequent attempts to recreate that particular character, no matter how well-meaning, have had to deal with that admonition. To its credit, DC hasn’t brought back the original Paul Kirk, who remains (like Morpheus, Jack Knight, and Tommy Monaghan) in that special goodwill-created limbo which protects certain creator-associated characters.

Wanting to avoid exploitation also makes it a little harder to prod DC for a new collection of the original material. If nothing else, it makes you think about the issues involved in reprints. Often, we readers can match reprints with current publications, as with the “Black Casebook” or Bane’s upcoming star turn. Such tie-ins may make reprints seem opportunistic, as if they had no other reason to exist.  “Manhunter’s” reprint fortunes may therefore be boosted by Simonson’s forthcoming Judas Coin hardcover (although if a reprint were in the works, you’d think it’d have been announced already).  Regardless, I do believe the world needs a nice hardcover Manhunter collection**** — maybe an oversized Special Edition? — if only to show today’s readers one of DC’s better revivals. Throwing a little royalty the Kirby estate’s way would be even better.

Archie Goodwin and Walt Simonson’s “Manhunter” started out as an attention-getter. Thanks to the peculiar circumstances of its existence, it became one of DC’s unique stories. It doesn’t lend itself to constant reinvention, it hasn’t exactly been perpetuated via legacy characters, its timeline leaves no room for “untold stories,” and (sadly) there won’t be any more new material from the original creators. All of those tend to argue against the kind of always-in-print volume DC apparently prefers to leverage.

Nevertheless, “Manhunter” is precisely the sort of book which DC should always have on hand, because it fits the publisher’s particular strengths so well. It features an innovative character, rooted in (and respectful of) the publisher’s fictional universe, who stars in a discrete, standalone story. By giving its creators the freedom to express themselves fully, it shows what’s possible even within a shared universe’s restrictions. Put simply, DC needs to give “Manhunter” a durable collection, because “Manhunter” was comics at their best.


* [In fact, the Dan Richards Manhunter had a longer run, appearing in Police Comics through 1950’s issue #101. Naturally, after DC bought Quality’s characters, Roy Thomas used both Manhunters in All-Star Squadron.]

** [Detective periodically struggled with low sales and was almost canceled in 1978, following the “DC Implosion,” but instead took over the format and features of the higher-selling Batman Family.]

*** [In turn, writer Steve Englehart (in 1977’s Justice League of America #s 140-41) connected that secret society to a group of androids who rebelled from their Oan creators. Thus, the Manhunters became forerunners of the Green Lantern Corps, and were therefore ensconced irrevocably in DC lore.]

**** [After I finished this post, DC announced Tales of the Batman:  Archie Goodwin for Spring 2013.  It appears to collect the original “Manhunter” stories, but does not mention the Special Edition epilogue.  While I am glad to see the Tales book, which looks good generally, “Manhunter” could still use its own volume.]