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Monday, 9 May 2011

Manhunter: Street Justice

Today's review comes courtesy of Alexander Lyons.  Alex is a UK-based feminist theorist with a speciality in identity politics and poststructuralism in comics. He's got a weak-spot for Greg Rucka, Wonder Woman, and the obscure ramblings of Helene Cixous. You can find his own ramblings on Twitter. He has very curly hair.

Writer: Marc Andreyko
Penciller: Jesus Saiz
Inker: Jimmy Palmiotti
Colourist: Steve Buccellato
Letterer: Jared K Fletcher
Publisher: DC

What’s it about?
Hot shot federal prosecutor Kate Spencer is used to stalking big game in the courtroom, but when a new case doesn’t go her way, she decides to take her war on crime onto the streets.

After a meta-human serial killer, Copperhead, escapes the death penalty in her latest case and then manages to break out on the way to prison, Kate borrows the name ‘Manhunter’ and helps herself to a super-powered suit to take the villain down herself. A firm believer in lethal force for the country’s worst and most sadistic criminals, Kate hunts down Copperhead to deliver justice as she sees it, and then rushes in to a career as a costumed villain-killer.

Raising interesting questions about the grey areas between heroes and vigilantes, villains and saviors, fate and free will, Manhunter follows the decisions that Kate makes as they pit her at odds with some of the world’s deadliest criminals.  This work creates conflict with her ex-husband, challenges her role as a part-time mother, and puts her in contrast to DC’s premier heroes: the Justice League.
What’s good about it?
Manhunter is a title all about character, and in the five issues collected in this trade we get more than enough to play with. The cast is rich, and the themes in-depth, challenging Kate, and the reader to face important questions about the lengths we would go to for what we believe in.

Kate Spencer has to be one of the most intriguing female characters to have been introduced into comics in the last 10 years, and she stands out even among an already wealthy ‘tough-girl’ which includes the likes of Kate Kane/Batwoman, Renee Montoya, Tara Chace from Queen and Country and Sasha Bordeaux.

What makes Kate such an impressive character is that she is not necessarily a ‘nice’ character, though she might be a heroic one. She is a successful, ballsy lawyer, but she’s also occasionally rude, obnoxious, and definitely arrogant. She’s manipulative, as her partnership with reformed criminal Dylan suggests, but everything she does, she does for the good of her cause. Her sense of justice drives her, undermining her ability to find her voice as a mother, but keeping her devoted to hunting the villains she has sworn to take down.

Her role as a mother is a central element of the opening arc, and provides the drama for a major plotpoint I won’t spoil here. Needless to say, I think the approach to Kate’s dilemma as a woman divided between her career, parenthood, and her new vocation as villain-killer is handled with requisite complexity and without moral judgements.

The biggest contention of the series, and its premise, concerns lethal force. As a prosecutor Kate is not shy of the death penalty – she believes in lethal force for the killers and sadists that cross her path. When she feels the law isn’t living up to its promise to deliver the penalty she believes is necessary for the crimes she encounters, she takes matters into her own hands as a costumed vigilante.  

While this decision appears to be a clear-cut one for Kate, it is not without its turmoil for her. Interestingly, in a dream-sequence that plays out at the beginning of the second issue, Kate imagines arguing with Batman over her decision to kill her opponents, something that this most famous of vigilantes is renowned for never doing. Her methods set her apart from other so-called ‘super-heroes’, but also put her in line with some of the best (her relationship with Wonder Woman, a heroine known for her compassion yet also famous for a decision to inflict lethal force on an opponent, is played out later in the series).

Kate’s decisions make her a not-necessarily likable or even agreeable heroine (depending on your stand-point), but certainly a very vivid and readable one. She is realistic, human, fallible, driven, occasionally mistaken but always dedicated, and it makes her a delight to read.

Other note-worthy characters introduced in this arc include Dylan, the ex go-to guy for tech for the criminal underworld, and Damon, Kate’s gay assistant none-too-shy to crack on to Hawkman when he stops by Kate’s office. The voices of these characters are pitch-perfect, and the perfect foils to Kate’s dry demeanour.

From the get-go this book establishes itself as smart, sassy, gritty and laugh-out-loud funny (depending on the darkness of your humour). The villains are nasty, realistically terrifying, and our protagonist is…well, she’s a badass. Is she a hero yet? This opening arc leaves that yet to be determined, and definitely leaves you wanting more.

What’s bad about it?
Honestly, Manhunter is a title I, at least with this opening arc, find hard to fault. However, I can see where problems might arise for some readers. Written at a time when mainstream DC comics were starting to embrace a particular ‘brand’ of darkness (for those in the know, this series started out around the same time as the Justice League storyline ‘Identity Crisis’, a story that corrupted heroes and used rape and murder to highlight the danger and villainy of their antagonists), this comic is, well, dark.

It’s violent, and it’s horrifying. The artwork doesn’t shy away from that darkness, and the scenes with Copperhead are particularly convincing. Whether or not that would be to your taste is something you would have to dip in to find out.

Another aspect I see as a high point, but can imagine others would find problematic, is the pseudo ‘realism’ and overt politics of the series. As a federal prosecutor, Kate’s life does take place as much in the courtroom and the office as it does running across rooftops chasing villains. As such, discussions of the law, of lethal force etc, do take place. There are many people who like their comics strictly fantastic, but Manhunter is a title that places an element of realism into the mix that is impossible to ignore. Will you like it? Again, that’s a matter of taste.

Also, I suppose I should mention our heroine is a smoker. Not that it bothers me one way or another (it’s useful for understanding some elements of Kate’s personality), but I know there are plenty of readers who like their heroes tee-total and squeaky clean. If you’re one of them, this title isn’t for you.

What’s the art like? 
Jesus Saiz’s work is among my favourite in comics, and his style is perfectly suited to the dark and gritty world that Kate Spencer inhabits. Palmiotti’s inks are also a perfect compliment, at times heavy but always clear.

Saiz’s character work is a particular strong-point – Kate, Damon, Dylan, Shadow-Thief…all have distinctive features and also unique facial expressions, which is key for a title that includes its fair amount of talking-heads. Saiz is also an incredible designer; his characters pop out of the page with idiosyncratic fashion sense and hair styles, lending the series a firm real-world grounding that highlights the extraordinary nature of the superheroics.

Body-type is also refreshingly diverse – with Kate sexy without being hyper-sexualized in his work. She is athletic, and realistically proportioned as an athlete might be. Whether or not we have Saiz to thank for Kate being clad head to toe in a costume that doesn’t sexualize her form I’m not sure, but it’s certainly a welcome change from the boob and belly-windows of some other heroines. Even being skin-tight, it presents itself more ‘armour’ than bathing suit. It is also nice to see that Kate’s body is different from, say, Vixen’s, or the nurse that appears in the hospital, where the tendency with some artists doesn’t often show that diversity.
However, his work is equally impressive on the action sequences, if not more so. Saiz doesn’t rely on repetitive splash-pages to get across the ‘epic’ feel of Manhunter’s battles with her enemies, but instead focuses on the minutiae of battle, and each drop of blood spilled. The fight scenes between Kate and Shadow-thief are particularly blunt and brutal, while the Copperhead scenes are genuinely terrifying and gory without being gratuitous or, dare I say it, even unrealistic. There is a strong sense of motion and danger to his action sequences, and brings perfect pace to an already dynamic script. 

Other information
If you like this, then it’s a dead cert you’ll want to pick up the others, and the entire Manhunter series is collected in 5 volumes, all available on Amazon.

If you want to pursue Kate’s story, she appears in a number of other comics, but I would definitely recommend her appearances in Gail Simone’s Birds of Prey #100-108 collected in the following:
Birds of Prey: Blood and Circuits (Birds of Prey #96–103)
Birds of Prey: Dead of Winter  (Birds of Prey #104–108)

She also appears in the remaining issues of Birds of Prey volume 1, as far as its cancellation with #127, and in a series of backup features written by Marc Andreyko in Batman: Streets of Gotham 1-13, although there are no plans to currently collect these into trade paperback.

If you want more from artist Jesus Saiz, check out his pencils in Greg Rucka’s Checkmate, another series known for it’s central kick-ass heroines and a superb mix between street-level intrigue, international espionage, and super-heroics. He will also be providing pencils for Birds of Prey volume 2.


  1. This looks fantastic! I will definitely have to pick it up -- luckily I have a birthday coming up :)

  2. I preferred Manhunter in her own series...her appearances in Birds of Prey haven't been that great, either during Gail's run and after. She only was getting punched all the time, getting captured easily, etc.. (and sorta out-of-characters character-wise)

    I should definitively try getting these TPBs! Great review ;)

  3. Rachel - a Manhunter isn't just for a birthday, she's for life :)

    Eyz - I'm not convinced Kate works that well in an ensemble where she isn't the main deal - her internal monologues are what make her solo series work so well. As a team member she becomes 'the violent one'. Still, I didn't think she was wholly misused in Birds of Prey, she has some good moments, just not able to shine alongside Helena and the rest. Interested to see how she does on JSA. And thanks for the compliments on the review!