Review: Manhunter Special #1

Of all the “King 100” specials that DC announced to celebrate Jack Kirby‘s centenary, this one probably had the biggest number of question marks swirling around it — the Paul Kirk iteration of this character is not one of the most fondly-remembered of the Golden Age, after all, and successive re-boots over the years have pretty much done away with the idea of a wealthy former big-game hunter with no super-powers to speak of putting a steel mask on his face and beating the shit out of criminals in favor of international, and now inter-galactic, “Manhunter” organizations that are increasingly further afield (conceptually and location-wise) from what Kirby and Joe Simon originally put to paper — and now that Manunter Special #1 is here, I’ve gotta say that most of those question marks remain, chief among them : why bring back this character when so many other, and frankly better, Kirby creations (one of which features in a back-up strip in this very comic) continue to gather dust?

The main story, featuring plot (to the extent one can be said to exist) and layouts by Keith Giffen, dialogue by DC “suit” Dan DiDio, and finished art by Mark Buckingham at least looks good — Buckingham’s illustrations pay homage to The King without sinking to the level of pastiche or, even worse, parody, and the fight scenes (in other words, the entire feature) are dynamic, impactful, and “pop” off the page. Unfortunately, that’s about all we can put in the “plus” ledger here.

Nearing the end of a brutal beat-down of some mid-level (at best) gangster-types operating on his Empire City turf, our “hero” is interrupted by the Golden Age version of The Sandman (in his Simon/Kirby duds — sorry, fans of the original gas-mask look) and his youthful sidekick, Sandy, who dispense a much-needed morality lecture in Manhunter’s direction while engaging in fisticuffs with him. The dialogue is flat, lifeless, and predictable in the extreme, and doesn’t seem so much intentionally reminiscent of days gone by as it does just plain bad, and the overall feeling one gets from this wholly pointless scrape is that this is a battle/debate that has happened before, will happen again, and hey, no one will ever change — and wouldn’t you know, the last page drives that exact message home, as Manhunter plunges head-first into danger one more time, aching to dish out some punishment for nothing other than the sheer and perverse thrill of it, no lessons having been learned from his more-ethical (and, who are we kidding, nicer) fellow costumed vigilantes. Good luck stifling your urge to yawn.

Slightly (I guess) more successful is the second story, featuring Etrigan, The Demon — the script by Sam Humphries is thoroughly uninspired, but it at least makes thematic sense and offers a decent representation in microcosm of what we already know about Jason Blood and his hell-spawn alter ego. Yes, it’s by-the-numbers, but at least those numbers fit together in a way that keeps you involved in the proceedings, which is more than you can say about the main feature. Best of all, though, is the gorgeous art by Steve Rude, who actually stepped in at the last minute following the departure of originally-announced artist Klaus Janson. The Dude and The King don’t have much in common stylistically, but Rude has always ha — and continues to have, as his recent issue of Kamandi Challenge demonstrates — an intuitive understanding of Kirby dynamics and pacing, and manages to successfully translate them into his own wholly unique (and always awesome) visual language. This Demon strip can’t be said to be anything more than “competent” (and only just,at that) in terms of plot and dialogue, but it looks like a million bucks — even if its brief length can’t justify the five that this comic (which I paid for out of pocket, just for the record) costs.

As has been the case with all of these specials, though, it’s the reprint material at the tail end of the book that’s the best comic-booking on offer here — a thoroughly entertaining Simon/Kirby proto-EC 1940s horror tale entitled “The Face Behind The Mask” from Tales Of The Unexpected, and two overly-optimistic (but, hey, who knew at the time?) looks at the future, “The Rocket Lanes Of Tomorrow” and “A World Of Thinking Robots,” both of which originally ran in Real Fact Comics. All this stuff in tons of fun to read, and gorgeously illustrated.

As an entire package, though, Manhunter Special #1 comes up far short of even the amorphous and unquantifiable “expectations” I had for it going in. The art ranges from “plenty good” on the low end to “stunningly brilliant” on the high end, which means this comic ranks well above the travesty that was Shane Davis‘ New Gods Special #1, but the scripting in the main story is flat-out atrocious and in the backup only passable, so this is quite easily the “second-worst” of the “King 100” books, far beneath both The Sandman Special #1 and The Newsboy Legion And The Boy Commandos Special #1 in terms of its overall quality.

Story: Keith Giffen, Dan DiDio, and Sam Humphries
Art: Keith Giffen, Mark Buckingham, and Steve Rude
Story: 3.0 Art: 9.0 Overall: 6.0 Recommendation: Pass