Monday, July 8, 2013


This series spun off from John Ostrander and Kim Yale's work on Suicide Squad, where they first brought in the character of Mark Shaw. Both Shaw and various incarnations of the Manhunters had been around for years, in Shaw's case in a succession of costumes and identities, both as a hero and a villain. Shaw was created by Jack Kirby (who had also co-created the Golden Age Manhunter) for 1st Issue Special #5, part of a series of single-issue tales that could have been expanded to full series, though in practice most of them, including Manhunter, were not. He appeared sporadically after this, as the Star-Tsar and the Privateer, with the latter identity being brought back by Ostrander and Yale in Suicide Squad before Shaw again resumed the Manhunter name and costume. It is that sense of a man searching for his own identity that seems to have attracted Ostrander and Yale to the character, and it's that germ around which they build their take on him.

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.

After this remarkable opening story, issue #5 takes a break with a story written by Yale alone and drawn by Mary Mitchell, a distinctive penciller who seems to have gotten far too little work in comics. Yale and Mitchell approach this standalone issue as a romance comic, focusing on the perspective of a police sergeant, Sylvia Kandrey, who gets wrapped up in Manhunter's adventures after some flirting at the precinct. It's an interesting, feminist take on romance comics and the often secondary role of women in comics as girlfriends and love interests to the heroes. Sylvia is a typical dreamer, and when her flirtation with Shaw leads to a date, her head is almost immediately filled with thoughts of their romantic future. Instead, Shaw, though he does seem to be attracted to her, mainly wants a source of information in the police station so he can track down the child-molesting computer hacker Interface. Yale fumbles the actual crime plot a bit — the stuff with Interface is very jumbled and confusing — but that's beside the point of this issue, which concerns the shattering of Sylvia's unrealistic, romantic dreams, and her realization that she's unnecessarily making herself secondary to a man. The issue ends with her distancing herself from Shaw and committing herself to her career anew. Mitchell's lithe, lovely linework is perfectly suited to the issue's romance comic aesthetic, even if the issue's message serves to undercut those stereotypical depictions of male/female interactions and relationships.

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.

Nothing much improved once Yale took over as sole writer, unfortunately. The problem was that, beyond the mask/identity theme that had been explored so potently in the opening arc, there's not much to Mark Shaw; he worked fine in the context of Suicide Squad or in a thematically focused story with a distinctive opposing villain, but on his own he has little personality, and attempts to develop his family here mostly fall flat. So Yale falls back on action, and it's a style she seems to have little affinity for, because when she's on her own, her action and fight scenes read like mere assemblies of clichés, without any trace of the intelligence and engagement she evinced when writing about Sylvia's workplace struggles. There are still a few interesting moments along the way. At one point, Yale brings back Interface and briefly hints that Shaw is going to make an Amanda Waller-style deal with the child molester, a moment calculated to shock, calling attention to the moral dividing lines that are expected to remain sacrosanct even in comics where every other question of morality is shaded in gray. In another scene in the book's final arc, Shaw, escaping from a new version of Dumas, crashes through a window into an office, the kind of scene that's virtually routine in action movies and comics — except that here, an innocent woman in the office is peppered with broken glass and badly injured, possibly dying as a result of the supposed hero's attempt to save his own life.

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.

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