Sunday, October 2, 2011

Manhunter in Detective Comics #439 (February-March, 1974)


Interpol agent Christine St. Clair found the end of the trail to Manhunter in "Marakech." Bodies garbed in white and blue costumes littered a courtyard, all bearing the same face. There was another like them, except garbed in red and gravely wounded, who greeted St. Clair. Christine felt he needed a doctor, but Manhunter explained that he only needed time to rest. While they waited, Manhunter revealed that he was indeed big game hunter Paul Kirk, whose interests in the late 1930s turned from animals to criminals. Kirk assumed the costumed identity of Manhunter to act as a vigilante, until World War II called him into a different kind of action. "Secret behind-the-lines jobs, violent and deadly... dirty and ugly..." These deeds soured Kirk's taste for the hunt.

After the war, Kirk tried to return to safari, but couldn't bring himself to kill. Unfortunately, that didn't stop him from trying, with an intentionally miss leading to a bull-elephant charging and killing Kirk. However, his body was soon recovered by a secret brain trust called the Agency, who placed Kirk in suspended animation until his body could be restored. Educational tapes informed his subconscious mind of the decades passing by, until genetic surgery allowed not only Kirk's revival, but improvement.

Paul Kirk awakened to the aged scientist Dr. Mykros, whom he had rescued from the Nazis in 1945. Mykros had gone on to form the Agency with nine other geniuses set on preventing the world from destroying itself in the atomic age. Recognizing Paul Kirk as a fine basis for building the perfect field agent, the hero was cloned countless times. Those clones were trained in combat by the legendary martial artist Asano Nitobe, who had been acting as the bodyguard of Dr. Oka, a geneticist recruited by the Council. They now needed only a leader to venture out into the world, the original Paul Kirk, who would himself train under Nitobe. Kirk also benefited from enhanced healing abilities bestowed unto him by the genetic surgery of the late Dr. Oka.

At first, Kirk felt indebted to the Council, and was fine with the prospect of serving their ends. However, when his first assignment was to assassinate a "certain Interpol officer," he began to question their motives. Asano Nitobe agreed to take Kirk to speak with the Council about the matter, but warned "in the tiger's lair, the only justice belongs to the tiger."

As Paul Kirk explained his origins, additional clones continued their assault, with Christine St. Clair aiding Manhunter until they both ran out of ammunition. Thankfully, they were also out of clones. However, St. Clair's Interpol superior Damon Nostrand showed up to attempt an assassination of his own. Manhunter tossed a knife into Nostrand's shoulder, and St. Clair realized he must have been the agent Kirk was assigned to eliminate and replace. "There's more to my story, Christine... Hear me out... while we go after Mr. Nostrand!"

"The Manhunter File Chapter 3: The Resurrection of Paul Kirk" was by Archie Goodwin & Walter Simonson. Ninjas before Daredevil. Healing factors before Wolverine. Cynical character revivals injecting mature themes into former kiddie fare. It may seem passé now, but this stuff was bleeding edge cool in 1974. Even by today's standards, the economy and panache of the storytelling is impressive, woefully needed when you consider the state of the industry then and especially now. In other words, this is the o.g. of grim n' gritty, with more class and care than the plethora of imitators that followed. Every time I whine that DC sabotages J'Onn J'Onzz by always having another couple or three Manhunters running around at any given time, I have to remind myself that Paul Kirk remains the most entitled to that name.

The Bronze Age

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