They call it the "Manhunter miracle." Ok, nobody calls it that except me. But, to be frank, the scheduled cancellation of DC Comics "Manhunter" series and subsequent 11th hour reprieve was nothing short of a miracle and virtually unheard of in the world of comics.
When it was announced that Marc Andreyko's critically acclaimed "Manhunter" series would end with issue #25, a hue and cry came from every sector of the comics' community and sales began to increase. This minor miracle (largely promoted by the internet community) prompted DC Comics to re-examine the cancellation and beginning today, a new five-issue story arc has appeared. For more on that series, check out CBR's recent interview with Andreyko.
The results of this event lead CBR head honcho Jonah Weiland to ask me to cover the background of the Manhunter (and not just Kate Spencer). Little did he know at the time that this was a subject close to my heart. I cut my comics teeth on Walt Simonson's Paul Kirk, devoured every issue of the 2nd series and, as a Green Lantern fan, thrilled to the words: "No man escapes the Manhunters." Writing a definitive background on the mantle of the Manhunter is a labor of love.
The first Manhunter was not actually a DC character. Dan Richards first appeared in "Police Comics" #8 in March 1942, published by Quality Comics. In 1956 Quality went out of business and sold off many of their characters and some were bought by National Periodicals (DC). They included the Blackhawks, Plastic Man, the Freedom Fighters and the Manhunter. Dan Richards' origin is very typical of mystery men of the period. He attended the police academy with Jim, his girlfriend's brother. Jim was the top of the class and Dan was at the bottom. Soon after, Jim was framed and Dan became the Manhunter and tracked down the real killer. Like all good mystery men, the motivating factor of his origin was only a stepping stone and Dan continued donning the mask and fighting crime along side his pet/sidekick, a dog named Thor. As a bit of DC continuity, it was later discovered (in the 1988 DC crossover event "Millennium") that Thor was a robot sentry created by the Manhunter cult (more about them later). Dan made a few appearances in the DC universe in the Golden Age stories of the "All-Star Squadron" and "Young All-Stars," but he was never DC's first choice as their Manhunter template.
DC's Manhunter appeared one short month after Dan Richards. In April 1942's "Adventure Comics" #73, Jack Kirby and Joe Simon told the tale of Paul Kirk as the Manhunter (Paul actually first appeared in "Adventure" #58 as a big game hunter, but Big Game Hunter is a lousy name for a mystery man so he put on long underwear and made his mark in comics' history). Paul Kirk appeared in 'Adventure' for about two years and appeared to end his career in 1944.
Little did we know that another pair of creators had something in mind. We just had to wait until the early '70s to see it. In 1973, "Detective Comics" #437 literally resurrected Paul Kirk in a story by Archie Goodwin and Walt Simonson. Paul apparently was on safari in the '40s, but his body had been saved by "The Council." The council was a secret society dedicated to controlling the world (because they were evil and stuff). After Paul returned from the dead, he has super-healing and was tutored in martial arts by a ninja named Asano Nitobe. The thing is, no-one used ninjas in the early '70s; Goodwin and Simonson were out on the cutting edge and didn't know it. Also, Paul was used as the template for an army of clones (more cutting edge) that the council wanted to employ with Paul as their leader. Paul had other ideas and when he refused to kill a cop, the Council realized he wasn't going to make it as their super-assassin and ordered him terminated. In a series of insanely good short features in "Detective" (which was a 100 page anthology book at the time) and a team-up with Batman, Paul destroyed the Council. Unfortunately Paul was also killed in the battle. It was believed that the clones were also destroyed, but that turned out not to be the whole truth.
Before moving on to 1980s, is it incumbent upon me to discuss the Manhunters and the Manhunter Cult. The Manhunters appeared in August of 1975 in "First Issue Special" #5. For this issue, DC called on Paul Kirk creator Jack Kirby to work his epic, fourth-world-like mojo on a mysterious race of androids called the Manhunters. The Guardians of the Universe (the little blue guys from Oa that created the Green Lantern Corps) created the Manhunters as a "first attempt" at a galactic police force. For millennia, the Manhunters acted in this capacity and served well. Eventually, however, the Manhunters became obsessed with hunting down criminals and their mantra, "No Man Escapes the Manhunters" became an almost cultic slogan overshadowing the ideas of justice and law. Eventually, as all robot minions will do, the androids rebelled against their masters. The Oans defeated the Manhunters and destroyed most of them. The survivors hid, rebuilt their forces and basically created a cult where they recruited living followers to carry on their ideal. They also had an unhealthy obsession with wiping out their successors, the Green Lanterns.
On Earth, the Manhunters' exile landed them a foothold of a lasting sort. Here, the "Cult of the Manhunters" trained agents to do their bidding. The majority of the cultists did not know the Manhunters were androids or the origins behind their cult. Some of the agents dressed in red and blue with blue face masks in imitation of the Manhunters – one of them was Paul Kirk and another was Mark Shaw. As an interesting note, the Martians created a group of Martian Manhunters based on the cult formed on that world. Ever wonder why J'onn J'onzz wears red and blue? Ah, DC continuity is a harsh mistress. In the 1988 DC Crossover event "Millennium," we discovered the depths of the cultic infiltration of Earth when it was discovered that there were many "sleeper agents" among our Super-Heroes' most trusted allies: Superman's childhood sweetheart Lana Lang, Wally West's father and one of the soviet Rocket Reds all turned out to be agents of the Manhunter cult.
The next Manhunter, Mark Shaw, also appeared in "First Issue Special" #5, Mark actually became Manhunter in that issue, but it wasn't until 1988 that he got his own series. Mark, like Kate Spencer, was a lawyer. He was a public defender that was unhappy about criminals getting off on "technicalities." Mark's uncle Desmond introduced him to the Manhunter cult and Mark contacted the Manhunter Grand Master using a "mystical" lion's head medallion. Mark made a brief reappearance in "Justice League of America" #140. In this issue he appeared at the side of the Manhunters in their attempt to exact revenge against the Green Lanterns. Hal Jordan revealed to Mark that he had been fooled by the androids and Mark went on to destroy the Grand Master. In 1988, in the wake of "Millennium," Mark returned to the identity of the Manhunter. He donned a new costume (to look less like the androids, but it was still red and blue) and began an all too short 24 issue career (mostly authored by the brilliant John Ostrander). Mark, in his new Manhunter guise, was a bounty hunter who, despite his claims to the contrary, kept doing the right thing. In the most brilliant part of the series, Mark and his family were threatened by a villain named Dumas. Mark killed the first Dumas and his battle with the second led him to give up his crime fighting career. Later, it was revealed that Mark himself was the second Dumas, and that many of his memories were "government programming." To further confuse things, Mark appeared to be killed in the pages of "Eclipso" only for it to be discovered later that it was someone else in the costume. Poor Mark, they won't let you die and they won't use you. Fortunately, Mark has returned in the pages of the Kate Spencer series as a supporting character.
The 1994 DC crossover event "Zero Hour" saw the appearance of Chase Lawler as the Manhunter. This Manhunter had no ties to existing Manhunter continuity. Chase was a musician who managed to summon the Wild Hunt of Celtic mythology. He ended up as the pawn of the Wild Huntsman and was forced to "hunt the lonely." He attempted to interpret this as "criminals" with limited success. This series mercifully ended in 13 issues after being compelled to hunt Mark Shaw. In a further retcon it was discovered that the whole "wild hunt" thing was more of the same "government programming" that Mark himself received.
Still with me? Good. Because in 2002, Kurt Busiek brought back one of Paul Kirk's clones in the form of Kirk DePaul. Kirk was a member of the late, lamented "Power Company" series. Kirk wore a variation on Paul Kirk's 1973 costume and even had a run in with Paul's old sensei, Asano Nitobe, who determined that Kirk was a good guy and let him live. Unfortunately, Kirk was later murdered by poor Mark Shaw, who had resumed his Dumas identity.
And now it is 2004.
Kate Spencer was a lawyer, much like our friend Mark Shaw. But in Kate's case she was a prosecutor. Like Mark, Kate was angered by criminals who flaunted the law. Kate assembled a costume using weapons and equipment that was leftover from a variety of criminals and heroes in the police lockup. Interestingly, the base costume that Kate wears is the uniform of a Darkstar. The Darkstars were another galactic police force created by the Controllers, an offshoot race sharing a common ancestor with the Oans who created the Green lantern Corps. The Darkstar uniform and Azrael's Batman gloves give Kate heightened agility and super strength. The uniform also serves as a form of armor. Kate also carries Mark Shaw's power staff, which allows her to fire energy blasts.
In a nice attempt at continuity management, Dan Richards, Mark Shaw, Chase Lawler, and Kirk DePaul have all appeared in the pages of this latest series. In the "One Year Later" event that followed "Infinite Crisis," Kate began working with the US Department of Extranormal Operations and discovered that she is the grand-daughter of the Golden-Age Phantom Lady and "Iron" Munroe. The character of Kate is a hero for the 21st century; she is a single, divorced mom that smokes too much. She has loads of charm as a character and it is not surprising that her fan base rallied in support of the title. She has a scheduled appearance in the upcoming pages of "Birds of Prey" as well as the return of her own series. Pick up the first trade paperback and see if you are among those charmed by the series.
And for the fans of all of the Manhunters, keep the cult alive.
No man escapes the Manhunters.