Monday, July 8, 2013
This idea is most pronounced in the opening four issues of Shaw's ongoing series. Ostrander and Yale originally conceived of these issues as a standalone miniseries, and indeed there is a feeling of completeness and concision in this arc, which is tightly plotted and self-contained, ending with a sense of finality. Though there are sporadic interesting moments in the ongoing series that continued until issue #24 after this opening arc, there's no question that these first four issues represent Yale and Ostrander's definitive take on the character, and nothing they do subsequently on this series comes close to matching that level. This first arc opposes Shaw, as Manhunter, against an assassin called Dumas, who similarly hides behind masks and is indeed obsessed with masks, because he has no face of his own. He is a malleable master of disguise who can look like anyone, but as a result his sense of self is shattered. He is a dark mirror to Shaw, who over time had assumed multiple masks and disguises, multiple identities, both heroic and villainous, casting around for a true form in which he could be comfortable.
These issues are all about identity, about defining one's self, and the opposition between hero and villain in that respect is perfect — Shaw is a masked man who nevertheless makes no secret of his name and civilian identity, while Dumas seems to exist wholly behind masks, with no life beyond his missions. The dichotomy becomes especially potent with the introduction of Olivia Vancroft, a reclusive and beautiful woman also obsessed with masks — and who turns out herself to be living behind a mask in the most fascinating way. These issues are rich and dense with thematic and psychological material, the real conflict between Shaw and Dumas being ideological and mental rather than physical. It all stretches back to Kirby's origin story for Shaw, which opened with the unforgettable image of Shaw's unnamed predecessor as Manhunter attacking a villain who kept a collection of severed, mask-wearing heads as trophies, even speaking through them via intercom. Ostrander and Yale expand upon that image and the ideas it represents, creating a powerful study of identity, gender, and appearance.
The Yale/Mitchell team returned to Sylvia in a backup story that takes up half of issue #11, depicting the fallout of her involvement with Manhunter, and dealing with the implied patriarchal attitude the men in her profession feel towards her. Unfortunately, in subsequent appearances Sylvia would fall more and more into the role of the conventional love interest, and the feminist undercurrent of these two stories would largely get submerged. It's a shame, because one imagines a truly subversive comic that might focus equally on Manhunter's typical superhero adventures as well as Sylvia's assertion of her own life and her own professional pride independent of the man she's involved with. Obviously, that's too much to hope for from a DC superhero book that was probably fated to be pretty low-selling no matter what, and couldn't have been helped by the presence of Yale's feminist romance comics.
Indeed, after the opening five issues, Manhunter goes severely downhill. Starting with #13, the book essentially became Yale's alone; Ostrander usually continued to be credited with plotting or other writing assistance, but after this point the scripts were mostly written by Yale alone. She'd already proved herself a capable writer in her solo appearances on the title — including an interesting "fairy tale" story in #12, updating the Sleeping Beauty tale into an anti-drug parable about parents' fears for their children — but it's also obvious that she's not particularly interested in writing a typical superhero book, and that disinterest shows through in the second half of the run. Because there's no question that Manhunter is, disappointingly, mostly just a generic superhero book at this point. In issues #8-9, the title had crossed over with The Flash and the Invasion! event, with mostly lame results, and this was followed by an arc that started out promising the kind of everyone-converging espionage plot that Ostrander and Yale excelled at in Suicide Squad, but instead became merely a big brawl between robots and armored men.
Such moments hint at the complexity and unpredictability that Yale and Ostrander always brought to Suicide Squad, but unfortunately here such scenes remain rare. The final arc in particular is just abysmal, climaxing with Shaw getting tutored by an alien yeti and then engaging in an issue-length fight scene with Dumas, without any of the delicate shading and thematic overlays that characterized their earlier conflict. Manhunter is ultimately memorable for its great first arc, with only sporadic issues and moments thereafter reaching that level again.