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In a career that has spanned some sixty years, and featured more changes than a chameleon, Manhunter’s finest hour is still considered to be a revered, but brief, seven-part revival in the mid-1970s. Manhunter was launched in the already overcrowded pages of Adventure Comics #58 in 1941, as a sort of plain-clothes private eye who specialized in tracing missing persons. Those stories about Paul Kirk (the Manhunter of the title) were engaging enough, but the fans wanted superheroes, which is exactly what the incoming writer/artist team of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby delivered. Following the death of a policeman friend, Kirk vows to avenge him and—between panels—conjures up a red costume with a blue mask, and sets about beating up all and sundry.
For the next eight issues, Simon and Kirby served up page after page of nonstop action, with the Manhunter taking on hoods, lowlifes, and the occasional Nazi. There were rarely any attempts at characterization or exposition; readers never learned what Kirk does to earn a living (beyond being either a big-game hunter or young sportsman) but as long as the stories were exciting, they didn’t seem to care. However, when Simon and Kirby left the strip to concentrate on the Boy Commandoes, the life went out of the strip and it was soon canceled.
A month before DC’s Manhunter first appeared, Quality Comics had introduced its own costumed Manhunter, whose real name was Dan Richards, and who debuted in Police Comics #8 (March 1942). While working at DC, Simon and Kirby also created The Guardian and the Newsboy Legion in Star-Spangled Comics #7 (April 1942), a popular series about a quartet of orphan boys, living in an urban slum, who were watched over by a policeman, Jim Harper, who was also the costumed-crime fighter, the Guardian. (Kirby introduced the Newsboy Legion’s look-alike sons and a clone of the Guardian in the Jimmy Olsen comic in the 1970s.)
Thirty years later, in 1973, editor Archie Goodwin and young artist Walt Simonson started work on a series of short stories in the back of DC’s Detective Comics, once again starring Paul Kirk/Manhunter. This revival recounted how Kirk had been injured in 1946 and kept in suspended animation by a secret cabal of scientists, until he was revived twenty-five years later as a sort of super-mercenary. Goodwin and Simonson had become fascinated with Japanese culture, and the strip is full of black-clad Ninjas, Shuriken throwing stars, and innovative multi-paneled storytelling. Even Manhunter’s costume was revolutionary—a cross between a Samurai suit and an exoskeleton, complete with Mauser pistol and vicious knives. The story revolved around Manhunter turning on his masters and trekking halfway around the globe, through the Himalayas, Marakesh, and Constantinople, ending up in Gotham City in an inevitable tangle with Batman.
Mixing cinematic influences, tight plots, exciting art, and international espionage, the strip was an immense critical success, winning numerous fan awards. Fearful of lesser talents picking up the strip at a later date, Goodwin had the courage to kill off his Manhunter in a literally explosive finale. Even so, each decade since the strip’s demise has fittingly seen a new collection, keeping it in print for successive generations of readers. As of 2004, Kirk stayed dead, but, of course, that does not guarantee that fans have heard the last of the Manhunter name—far from it.
Barely a year after the Detective Comics series, Kirby dreamed up a new Manhunter, public defender Mark Shaw (appearing in 1975’s First Issue Special #5), who was recruited into a secret society of super-lawmen. Kirby’s reinvention clearly owed a lot to the Phantom in its vision of a race of law enforcers stretching back through the centuries, but it was to be this Manhunter’s only appearance—for a few years, at least. The Manhunter cult was revived in a late 1970s issue of Justice league, and the 1980s saw a flurry of Manhunters, initially starring in the complex Millennium comic, in which android Manhunters attacked just about every DC character in print. This led to a continuing Manhunter comic for the first time in the character’s history, which followed up Millennium in an equally bewildering way. Clearly believing that you could never have too many Manhunters, DC brought out yet another version in 1994, but this incarnation was Chase Lawlor, a musician who appeared to have been possessed by a supernatural creature called the Huntsman. Its edgy approach included the hero selling his soul to the devil (cue the sound of the fine, upstanding Paul Kirk turning in his grave) and, perhaps unsurprisingly, the strip failed to find an audience.
Meanwhile, only a few years after the original Kirk was in that grave, writers began picking up on the Goodwin/Simonson series’ device of antagonistic clones (made by the same shadowy organization that revived Kirk). First, a renegade clone led the short-lived mid-1970s Secret Society of Super-Villains in their comic, and much later a less-dastardly Kirk duplicate, named Kirk DePaul, created by Kurt Busiek and Tom Grummett, joined their commercial superteam, The Power Company, in the early 2000s.
The current Manhunter is a woman, Kate Spencer, who is a prosecuting attorney and the granddaughter of the Golden Age superheroine Phantom Lady. Created by writer Mark Andreyko and artist Jesus Saiz, she debuted in Manhunter Vol. 3 #1 (October 2004) and has since appeared in Batman: Streets of Gotham and Birds of Prey. —DAR & PS