The Brilliant Complexity of Goodwin and Simonson's Manhunter

This is a feature called "Nothing is Better." I have a feature called "Reason to Be Excited," where I spotlight aspects of current comic books that have particularly impressed me. This is the equivalent column for older comic books, where I spotlight aspects of classic comic books that have particularly impressed me.

Today, we look at how Archie Goodwin and Walter Simonson's Manhunter turned out to be a lot more special than anyone could have ever guessed it would become when it started, Goodwin included!

When Goodwin was given the reins of Detective Comics in 1973, he quickly decided that he wanted to do something different with the series to make it stand out from the other Batman titles. Since he couldn't really make dramatic changes to the main feature, he instead decided to make changes to the back-ups by introducing a new detective-adjacent feature starring a revamped version of Manhunter. It is funny to think about the days before the wide availability of reprinted works and how important reprints of stories really were back then. When Jack Kirby began to work for DC Comics, he drew a whole lot of content for DC, but DC books were longer then (with back-ups and everything) so Kirby's books had to have reprint back-ups in them. Since they couldn't very well reprint his current DC work (as it had just begun), they instead chose to reprint stories from Kirby's first stint at DC in the 1940s, when he and Joe Simon left Timely Comics over a dispute over Captain America. So a bunch of Kirby's Manhunter stories were reprinted and Goodwin was so enamored by them that he decided to reboot the character as a new back-up feature.

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Now, here's the key. When Goodwin was recommended young Walter Simonson as an artist, Goodwin liked him enough to hire him, but Goodwin couldn't possibly know just HOW good Simonson was going to be and how amazing of a storyteller he was (even though he knew, from the Manhunter costume, that Simonson was a great designer). Early on, while they were technically working in the "Marvel Method," Goodwin did pretty detailed plots for the first Manhunter features, like here, where we see an old man tell an agent a story about Manhunter before we realize that the man telling the story WAS Manhunter...

See how good the feature was right from the start? Well, Goodwin could quickly see that it was a waste of a detailed plot on a guy like Simonson, so they began to work more like the old school Marvel Method way, with the two men conferring and Simonson coming up with his own take on how the story should go and then Goodwin would script over it. This then opened things up in a big way, as the series was always complicated, but once Simonson had the freedom to tell the story however he wanted to, he began to really excel at it.

Perhaps the ideal example of this is the iconic short story, "Cathedral Perilous," where Paul Kirk and Interpol agent Christine St. Clair secretly record a Council meeting (The Council is the evil group that brought Paul Kirk back to life by cloning him) in an old church and then Manhunter fights off his clones to give St. Clair a chance to escape with the proof of the Council's existence.

This story introduces us to a family of tourists that would pop up again in Simonson's later work (Henry, Emma and Nico). While we see them doing their thing we also see Kirk and Christine knock out some bad guys and take their outfits to sneak into the meeting). See how much little detail Simonson fits into each panel, like seeing Christine get her recorder ready...

We see the meeting begin with a spooky teleportation...

And then all heck breaks loose...

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