She Has No Head! - Marc Andreyko's Manhunter

Some of you who have been paying very close attention to this column might remember that Marc Andreyko offered

in the comments section of one my posts to send me the trades of Manhunter so that I could check it out.  Well most of the time I'm not a fool, so I took him up on his generous offer, and I've been pretty much devouring them since their arrival.

This week seemed like a great week to talk about Andreyko's Manhunter run as despite their obvious differences I see a lot of similarities between Fables and Madame Xanadu (my last two posts) and Manhunter.

For those not in the know, Manhunter is the story of Kate Spencer, a brilliant district attorney in Los Angeles tired of seeing a broken system unable to bring killers to justice who decides to take justice into her own hands by taking up the mantel of Manhunter.  Raiding a secure room full of confiscated superhero and villain gear, Kate arms herself with weapons so that she can kill the villains that have escaped justice in the courtroom.

I think right off the bat the biggest accomplishment of both Andreyko and co-creator artist Jesus Saiz is that Kate is a character, unlike many characters (especially female) created these days, is a perfect merging of character concept and character design.  Kate Spencer is a lawyer, a divorcee, and a single mother.  And that's what she looks like.  Which is to say her physique is not that of a surgically enhanced 22 year old porn star, her costume involves no thongs or heels, or even cleavage run rampant.  Kate wears a costume that fully protects her, as much for the protection that that offers as for the fact that she wouldn't be caught dead in something that wasn't at least a little bit modest (it's still head to toe red leather though, so it's not like we've gone to the extreme of it being something she can attend church in).  And it fits.  The costume fits Kate and her personality, as much as her short easy to manage hair reflects a reality of Kate's lifestyle rather than the fantasy of a comic book adventure.  And because of the story Andreyko is telling, one based very solidly in the real world, these are all good choices.  Reading Andreyko's intro in the Manhunter volume 1 trade, it's obvious to anyone his affection for the character, and his care and focus in creating her.  The results are fantastic.

This same attention to detail that we see in the actual building of Kate Spencer is present throughout the Manhunter run, due in no small part to Andreyko's constant presence.  I've talked about that element before on She Has No Head!, the correlation between well done, fully fleshed out characters (and books) and having a consistent devoted writer, and Manhunter is yet another example of seeing that formula successfully at work.

Here's Kate's first superhero battle:

It doesn't hurt that Jesus Saiz solidly and beautifully pencils the first seven issues, with Jimmy Palmiotti on inks.  And even when Saiz is no longer the consistent penciller, the art is in good hands.  After the first seven issues Saiz is aided and spelled by Javier Pina with assistance from Brad Walker, Diego Olmos, Stephen Sadowski, Sean Phillips, Shawn Martinbrough, Rags Morales, and Fernardo Blanco, and Cafu up through issue #3o and with that many artists involved it really could have been a nightmare.  But for whatever reason it's really not.  The art is very consistent throughout in style and tone.  I'm not that familiar with many of those artists, but my hat is off to them for keeping Manhunter very constant in the way it looked regardless of the art changing hands.  It's always hard to get used to an artist's style and look, and really their vision for the book, only to have the rug pulled out from under you and find that you suddenly don't recognize characters you've been reading for nearly a year.  But that doesn't happen here.  Even reading this in trade, I wasn't thrown by any drastic change in style, until we get to issue #31, and when that happened, with Michael Gaydos coming on board as the primary artist and defining a whole new look for Kate and her crew,  I kind of loved it.  Gaydos' photo realistic pencils don't work for everyone, but I'm a big fan, especially when they so well capture the tone as they do here.  Gaydos' style is actually a very natural fit for Manhunter - not unlike the way his style really helped define Alias, and though I liked and appreciated all of the artists who had come before, the last arc was one of my favorites, in part due to Gaydos.

Manhunter is set in Los Angeles, which I actually find incredibly refreshing.  We have so many superhero stories set in New York City (and NYC equivalents) that it's nice to see another setting.  And Los Angeles here is unique to a superhero tale in the same way that I found Portland unique to Stumptown's detective story.  It doesn't hurt that I lived in Los Angeles for five years and love it despite the hype about how horrible it is, and so it's fun for me to see it represented in the pages of a superhero story.  Los Angeles brings new issues (celebrity and paparazzi, bad movie puns, and not enough tall rooftops to jump from) but it also gives the book room to breathe.  Manhunter can be her own man...er, woman without constantly tripping over other supes - though there are definitely some heavy hitting guest stars - most notably Wonder Woman for an arc in which she hires Kate to defend her against charges on the Max Lord killing.

Which brings us to another thing Andreyko was doing well - light political commentary that doesn't overrun the story but reminds us of the fairly realistic world these characters are operating within.  For example, there's a thinly veiled reference in the Wonder Woman story arc that Wonder Woman's trial was ridiculous and that a male superhero would not have been put on trial for doing the same thing.  Not unlike comments I often heard about Martha Stewart's trial.  Agree or disagree with the sentiment I enjoy it when a writer can find a way to insert existing commentary and reality into fictional worlds - especially if it can be done without judgment as it is here.

Not unlike Madame Xanadu, Manhunter is tightly woven into the DC Universe, with solid guest stars ranging from Batman and Huntress to Superman and Doctor Mid-nite.  Like Madame Xanadu it's a fun bit of weaving that really rewards DC aficionados, but unlike in Madame Xanadu, it's a little less about the history of the DC tapestry, and more about the day to day goings on in the DC Universe.  While in Madame Xanadu it comes off as this great little bit of insider info that you now know about say, the creation of The Spectre, here it's more about understanding Kate's place in the hierarchy of superheroes and villains, and the exact universe she exists in.  Important and interesting stuff.  It also makes for some pretty fun guest stars, like Huntress and Lady Blackhawk in this scene by Michael Gaydos:

FYI - there are a couple pages missing here (Manhunter, Huntress, and Lady Blackhawk talking with Suicide Squad)...which is why the dialogue doesn't synch up correctly.

If you're wondering why I just posted three pages of essentially supeheroine talking heads (well done talking heads, but talking heads nonetheless) let me tell you that it's no accident.  I love these pages.  I love these pages because I can't accurately articulate how rare it is to see three female superheroines standing around talking shop and not being the least bit objectified.  There are no silly costumes (well, I find Lady Blackhawk's mini skirt to be ridiculous, but that's more of a personal pet peeve), nobody is posing sexily or nearly falling over because their back is broken from double d's drawn onto their otherwise small frames.  I wish these three pages weren't revolutionary...but they really really are.  And I LOVE them.  So of course I wanted to share them.  Also the dialogue in the last panel makes me chuckle.

Certainly the diversity in Andreyko's Manhunter is impressive even beyond his forward thinking female lead.  Personally I'd like a little more racial diversity, but the solid representation of LGBT characters is one of the best I've seen in comics, meaning simply that those characters actually exist and are allowed to be themselves on the page.  It's wonderful to see and makes you realize how rare it really is, even today.  I'm sure there are a few other examples in mainstream comics of a gay male couple kissing (Rictor and Shatterstar's much discussed "first kiss" comes to mind, but not much else, and that would have been well after Manhunter) but I found it quite unique in its handling - which is to say, no fanfare, not bright lights and cameras and a parade, just one half of a couple kissing the other half, as it should be.

Andreyko's character development overall, independent of creating groundbreaking feminist superheroes, or a gay male couple that is allowed to be themselves on the page, is pretty on point.  He starts with characters that aren't necessarily revolutionary in their template states - the bad guy turned good guy against his wishes, the young son that must be protected, etc., and really breathes new life into them.  Dylan Battles, solely through Andreyko's handling of him, went from what could have easily been a throwaway role into a really well developed sidekick of sorts for Kate.  I think, next to Kate, Dylan Battles, borderline jerk, is probably my favorite character, which is no small feat!

And it's the character development of Kate that actually drives the entire concept behind Manhunter, because Manhunter, as you might have gleaned from Kate's first battle scene that I posted, is not above killing.  Kate strongly feels that the justice system has failed and that these criminals deserve their punishment, and if the court will not do it, she will take care of it.  Kate being completely at peace with killing her villains is a fascinating and rarely taken path that I have to say proves rather convincing and hypnotic.  Batman is arguably my favorite superhero of all time, but weighed against Kate's more realistic approach I have to say Bruce starts to seem idealistic and almost naive.  Words I would not generally associate with Batman.  I'm certainly not arguing for one path over the other for superheroes but rather that seeing both paths presents a far more interesting tapestry than just seeing one.  Both characters should exist in comics as those ideas also exist in the real world and thus a more interesting narrative is achieve by showing both sides.

All that said, if I was Kate, I would pee my freaking pants upon realizing that Batman knows who I am and doesn't approve of my methods:

Reading and writing about Manhunter, not unlike reading and writing about Fables and Madame Xanadu left me with some questions - questions much larger than the book itself - like why doesn't this book "make it" and where was the publicity?  And is comics just a crazy crapshoot no matter what? If a character doesn't star Batman, Superman, Wolverine, or Spider-man is it nearly impossible to launch a new successful long running book?

I have no real solutions (hell, I barely have ideas), but it seems to me you have to be pretty deep inside comics in order to know about all the books you might potentially be interested in, the books that might be good.  You have to be looking at blogs and previews and solicits, and be active on boards - all of it - in order to know you're not missing something.  Not being that deeply involved is how I missed Manhunter. It debuted at a time when I wasn't really reading comics, and certainly wasn't buying.  And though it got a lot of critical acclaim initially, it's hard to stay in the public eye indefinitely and so by the time I came back to comics (as I always do) Manhunter was just one of a million other titles on the shelf (or perhaps it was busy being canceled for the second time) either way, I didn't hear about it.  I didn't hear about it until far too late.  And it's such a solid book, so much better than a lot of the dreck out there, that I have to wonder if people, like me, just didn't know about it.

I hesitant to blame DC for not promoting it enough, as there's just not infinite money to get these titles out there promotion wise, and DC was already doing so much right by letting Andreyko even do this book that I have to give them kudos.  But one bit of blame I can assign to them is the canceling and renewing, canceling and renewing that they did with this book.  I know it was fan support that brought it back, but it just shouldn't have been canceled in the first place.  If a show of fan support can bring a book back that easily, then it probably shouldn't have been on the chopping block.  This is of course not a problem unique to DC, or to comics, as this often happens with TV shows.  But just like with TV, the show in question often gets a final hurrah of X number of episodes, and then dies again.  The support isn't there to back it up, and without that support, it just can't survive in this competitive market.  As wonderful as it is for a book to come back after cancellation, and in light of how quickly many books get canceled these days  (Marvel's S.W.O.R.D. of course springs to mind), it's hard to be upset about it.  But Manhunter ran for 38 issues - just slightly over three years, yet it debuted in October 2004 and the last issue came out in March 2009.  That's nearly five years for 38 issues.  I don't know that many books could hold up under that kind of gap (a 16 week gap between issue #25 and #26, and nearly a year gap between issues #30 and #31).  There is so much new stuff coming out every week that it's hard to keep anything but die hard fans around after a long gap.  It seems to me that if you're going to to produce a book, if you're going to invest money and time and resources into it anyway, you might as well commit to it.  You really have to put the full force of your weight behind it, really believe in it, because anything half-hearted will only get you halfway and then you end up with 38 great issues of Manhunter and nothing more.

Maybe because I've been relating Manhunter to Madame Xanadu and Fables, I can't help but wonder if Manhunter shouldn't have been (or come back as!) a Vertigo title.  Vertigo seems to have lower sales expectations in order to be considered successful, expectations that a more niche book like Madame Xanadu or Manhunter can survive, and even thrive under.

Manhunter is available in full in trade paperback format in five issues, ranging in price from $12.99 for the first trade to $17.99 for the others.

You can also catch up with Kate Spencer as Manhunter, in Batman: Streets of Gotham, in the current Manhunter co-feature.  The co-feature is written by Marc Andreyko and I've heard nothing but good things.  The first four issues of Streets of Gotham (plus the necessary tie in issues) comes out in trade format in May 2010, and the series is currently on issue #9.

UPDATE: Thanks to commenter rwe1138 for clarifying, it looks like the Streets of Gotham trade is not the book to buy if you want to catch up with the Manhunter co-feature currently running in Batman: Streets of Gotham, but this trade being offered by DC in November 2010:

MANHUNTER: FACE OFF TPWriter: Marc AndreykoArtists: Georges Jeanty, Jeremy Haun, Cliff Richards and othersCollects: Stories from BATMAN: THE STREETS OF GOTHAM #1-13$17.99 US, 128 pg

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