Review: Manhunter: Origins trade paperback (DC Comics)

Monday, April 21, 2008

Manhunter: Origins is a story of beginnings and ending, though not necessarily in that order. The trade, which encompasses stories both before and after DC's One Year Later event, starts with a multi-part story of Manhunter Kate Spencer rescuing her son and ex-husband from a team of villains, wrapping up many long-running Manhunter plotlines; the trade ends with a new story about Kate as the defense attorney for Dr. Psycho, which continues to the next volume. The effect is a book that's not as self-contained as, say, one of Geoff Johns' Teen Titans trades, though this is explained in part by Manhunter's more erratic publishing schedule. Even so, Manhunter remains an intelligent, challenging read, with a strong supporting cast that shines especially in the final pages.

The biggest revelation in Origins is that Kate Spencer is the grand-daugher of Phantom Woman Sandra Knight and the All-Star Squadron's Iron Monroe. Certainly writer Marc Andreyko tying Kate Spencer to Golden Age characters, just as he tied her to the Manhunter legacy in the last trade, helps to give this Manhunter a "place" in the DC Universe; at the same time, it's strange how this origin matches so closely a former potential origin of Justice Society member Damage--letting alone the current DCU difficulty of a new Phantom Lady, by the last name of Knight, completely unrelated to Kate and Sandra. Additionally, by relating Kate and Sandra, Andreyko makes Kate a second or third cousin to fan-favorite Starman Jack Knight; just like bringing Cameron Chase into Manhunter, certainly the potential for a Jack Knight appearance can't hurt.

Post-One Year Later, Andreyko recasts Kate Spencer--formerly a prosecutor who might hunt villains who escape justice--as a defense attorney for those same villains. In the beginning, Kate's professional and superheroic goals aligned in stopping the bad guys; now, if Kate wants to avoid having to hunt a villain, she must lose her own court cases. This is complicated by Kate's new role as an operative for the DEO, and this was actually the change I liked least; Kate defends Dr. Psycho in the second story not because it's her job, but because of the DEO's secret machinations. I'd like at some point to see Kate have to defend a villain because she's legally assigned to, and then have to face the moral conflict without the cloak-and-dagger aspect; even despite that this is a super-hero book, the DEO tie makes Manhunter feel slightly unbelievable to me.

My favorite part of Manhunter was the four issues in which Kate must save her family from returning villains Phobia and Dr. Moon, and her estranged father. This was a personal crisis for Kate that, unlike Ryan Choi's return home in Atom: Future/Past, also impacted her life as Manhunter, and I was riveted the entire time. This was a nail-biting story that I thought would end much tragically than it did, with Kate's ex-husband being killed; instead, we learn in the end that Kate was unknowingly pregnant and had a miscarriage. The effect this will have on Kate One Year Later has not yet been entirely explored, but that Kate's husband is now remarried with a new baby, while Kate's son both knows she's Manhunter and has begun developing super-powers, both hold great story potential for the next volume.

Andreyko begins this trade with three short stories in one issue, that explore the origins of Kate's costume. Each of these stories are predictably dark, as if the pieces of the uniform contribute to Kate's dark perspective. Her tunic is that of a deceased Darkstar, later accidentally used in a murder; the gloves are left from the Azrael Batman, and the story of Mark Shaw's Manhunter staff reveals duplicity by Sarge Steel. Here again Andreyko ties Manhunter to some fan-favorite heroes; if any writer might resurrect either the Darkstars or Azrael, certainly Andreko could do a fine job.

[Contains full covers, character bios, What Came Before page.]

On now to the final Manhunter trade -- for now, that is, as additional issues of Manhunter have very recently been announced. From there, maybe a look at the Jack Kirby Fourth World Omnibuses, and then ... Superman!
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