Sunday, May 6, 2007

manhunter #1

DC Comics
Writer: Marc Andreyko
Pencils: Jesus Saiz
Inks: Jimmy Palmiotti
Colors: Steve Buccellato
Letters: Jared K. Fletcher
Editor: Joan Hilty

"This book contains a female protagonist. Who smokes. Who is divorced. Who has slightly better maternal skills than Mrs. Bates. Who resides not in Gotham or Metropolis, but Los Angeles. Who isn't afraid to kill in the name of justice. And most shocking of all for a super-heroine, she doesn't wear a metal bra, stripper heels or a T-back thong while fighting crime."

- from Marc Andreyko's introduction to Manhunter: Street Justice

When i first read this introduction I wondered if this was going to be too precious a book for me. But I took the challenge and read all 5 issues of the 1st TPB. In one sitting. At which point I understood that Precious is not a term that should be applied to this book or most especially Kate Spenser herself.

The issue starts with some great noirish artwork by the team of Saiz, Palmiotti, Buccellato that conjures up memories of the criminally underrated Gotham Central. It begins with two Los Angeles cops at a grisly crime scene. There are no answers about what happened, only lots of blood and tiny specks of people. Andreyko really thrusts the reader into this book in these two simple pages that answer nothing, but leaves one with tons of questions. What happened? What is going on? Who did this? Where is the chick from the cover with blood on her hands? Does this Hero kill?

But rather than answering any of these questions, Andreyko piles on more by jumping right into a courtroom scene. Here we find Kate Spenser as a Los Angeles prosecutor trying to make the case for the death penalty for Copperhead. I find it extremely telling that her 1st bit of dialogue seems to convey her near sense of powerlessness of the regular citizen in the DC universe by highlighting what is missing: "There may not be any sound on this bank video but the terror and pain on these faces speaks volumes." She directs this statement to the jury, but seems to highlighting the lack of voice an average citizen has when faced with something far more than human. The victims of Copperhead's crime (12 dead, 3 comatose, and 2 "with severe post-traumatic stress disorder in addition to their missing limbs") are easily seen as appropriate stand ins to help drive Spenser to look for justice in another guise when her case falls apart - not guilty "by reason of genetic anomaly."

Andreyko is able to channel not only the near futileness of being a un-powered citizen in an ever challenging DC world where the Metahumans are seemingly multiplying, almost exponentially, but he is equally able to bring the reader into this sense of dread through a sense of frustration with our own legal process (dare I say how many people reacted to the verdict of OJ Simpson, the ever prevalent urge - misguided mind you - for tort reform, etc...). This is quite a task to accomplish in all of seven pages. But who reads comics for the trials of court room proceedings? And where is the chick from the cover?

As if oft to happen in any fiction, The story cycles back to the beginning where we learn that Copperhead is responsible for the crime scene from the 1st two pages as he escaped on his way to a seemingly tranquil "metahuman research facility" rather than death row. And when the utterly frustrated Spenser hears that the mass murderer she failed to put away has escaped and killed at least two more, even ingesting his victims, she makes the call that will add judge and jury to her already prosecutorial role. She breaks into some sort of evidence locker and steals the manhunter staff and wardrobe, all the while telling herself that there is no other choice: "This has to be done. This has to be done..." That she questions her decision, could easily make her into a self loathing caricature, but once Spenser dons the outfit, her mindset is firm and she knows she must provide the justice that escaped the system she holds dear. Andreyko has not crafted a waffling character here, but a powerful woman who knows what she is doing is more right than wrong.

So Spencer goes after Copperhead and settles the vendetta by taking him out of the next Secret Six pool. She leaves his body for the two detectives from the opening scene to find with a hole in his head and a splattering of blood that echos the pattern he caused 20 pages previous. She also leaves her calling card by etching the name Manhunter on the wall, making sure the criminal element and the police take notice. Yet before she kills Copperhead, we have the ubiquitous fight scene between the two. And as well as the beginning and end of the book bookended the story, the fight scene is where the story makes me ask far too many questions - not the good kind either. As we are given no other information about Spenser than she is a prosecutor, that she smokes, has a way with words, and knows where the manhunter outfit is, how was she able to effectively fight Copperhead, who tore through 17 people like a soggy cigarette? How was she able to use the outfit and staff with next to no training? And while it is obvious that Spenser is a tough capable "broad," these questions do not help the story like the questions the 1st scene prompted. They point to large gaps in the story that can not be hidden, even with evocative shadows of the art team's crisp dark noir.

Yet, even so, this is a great way to set up a nice story and a fairly competent 1st arc for the story, and a decent 1st issue of a series. There is quite a bit to want to come back for and plenty of compelling reasons for wanting to know more about this totally out of the norm hero.

This prompts me to state that one thing i really enjoy about most DC comics is that they seem to trend towards the idea of defining 'just what is a hero' (more on this in future posts). Obviously, there is not a single answer to this question, but this theme that flows though most DC books is quite the welcome development. And by evoking this so strongly and acutely in the 1st issue Andreyko firmly establishes his Manhunter within DC's pantheon.

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