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Frantic as a cardiograph scratching out the lines, Day 178: Detective Comics #439

Every day this year, I will be examining the first pages of random comics. This month I will be doing theme weeks, with each week devoted to comics from one decade. This week’s decade: the 1970s! Today’s page is from Detective Comics #439 and was published by DC and is cover dated February/March 1974. This scan is from Archie Goodwin and Walter Simonson’s Manhunter #1, which was published in 1984. Enjoy!

There are worse ways to begin a story with 'Marakech!' even though it's spelled wrong

I honestly forgot that I found the compilation of this that DC published in 1984, but I did. I can’t remember where I found it, but it was only two dollars, which is less than cover price, so that’s nice. And damn, it’s a cool-ass comic.

Goodwin and Simonson’s Manhunter was one of the back-up strips in seven Detective Comics (issues #437-443), and its reputation has far outpaced its relatively obscure beginnings. It’s not hard to see why – a quick flip through this book shows us that the not-yet-thirty-year-old Simonson was already well on his way to being one of the best comic book artists we’ve ever seen, and this first page gives us a nice taste of Goodwin’s overheated but exciting prose. Just the tagline – “he stalks the world’s most dangerous game” – is a good one. So we’re in Morocco, and “Interpol agent Christine St. Clair” – a wonderful comic-booky name, if you ask me – has arrived to search for Manhunter. I love the international flavor Goodwin gives the book just from a couple of lines – she’s been in Rangoon and Capetown and is now here, in the “sprawling maze of connected alleyways, courtyards, and rooftops,” when suddenly she finds who she’s looking for. It’s DRAMA! (He does this kind of thing in a few other installments, with the location announced dramatically and then a description of what’s going on above the first row of panels. This isn’t unusual.)

Simonson does most of the heavy lifting after the first, breathless introduction. In Panel 1, we get a close-up on Ms. St. Clair, presumably to humanize the chase – we’re so close to her we can’t help but be drawn into her plight. Simonson also shows us the “alleyways, courtyards, and rooftops” in the background, so we can see the exotic nature of the city. According to the credits, our old pal Klaus Janson colored this, although I’m not sure if the credits refer to the original series or this reprint (the GCD lists no colorist for this story). Whenever the blue was added, it’s a good touch – it’s night, of course, so it needs to be dark, and the blue helps us see the line work without lessening the effect.

Panels 2, 3, and 4 are interesting, because there doesn’t seem to be any reason for Simonson to make them three panels, unless it was part of some editorial mandate about how a page should be laid out. It’s also possible that Simonson put the borders in to slow us up, so that we linger over the many bodies lying on the ground and appreciate the battle that was fought there. He frames Christine in the archway in the first panel, while the caption box (Joe Letterese lettered this, according to the GCD) with “… it ends!” in it hovers above her, a good place for it. Obviously, our eye follows the wall and the ground, which form a funnel to push us toward the right edge of the page, so we start by seeing the few bodies and then the lettering on the wall (which is by Simonson). It’s a grand composition, and leads us to the barrel with the body stuffed inside and the credits written on the side (ignoring the colorist and letterer, of course, but that’s the way it was back then). Simonson then re-establishes Christine in the scene, showing her taking it all in, before showing us what she sees – the bodies leading to a man sitting against a wall. Simonson pulls in and reveals Paul Kirk, looking somewhat worse for wear. Finally, Goodwin gives us a nice payoff panel, as Paul has been expecting St. Clair, and he manages to make a joke. It’s a nice progression of panels to the close-up of Paul, and Simonson musses his hair slightly and puts some beads of sweat on his brow. It’s enough to suggest that he’s not doing too well. Goodwin, I think, gives us enough that turning the page is an intriguing proposition. Or maybe a reader just wanted to see more of Simonson’s gorgeous artwork!

Simonson still had a lot of wonderful artwork ahead of him, and as you look at this entire run, you can see he does have to improve on some things. But it’s still a beautiful comic, and that’s what matters!

Next: The Godfather of Cosmic Marvel Stuff in the 1970s and beyond! Chad Nevett should enjoy this entry! Until then, be sure to give the archives a whirl!

11 Comments

…this first page gives us a nice taste of Goodwin’s overheated but exciting prose. Just the tagline – “he stalks the world’s most dangerous game” – is a good one.

I think that line originated with the Simon/Kirby Golden Age Manhunter, by the way.

Mike: I think so, too. It sure was smart of Goodwin to use it, though!

“this first page gives us a nice taste of Goodwin’s overheated but exciting prose. Just the tagline – “he stalks the world’s most dangerous game” – is a good one.

I think that line originated with the Simon/Kirby Golden Age Manhunter, by the way.”

…and Simon and Kirby were riffing on Richard Connell’s much imitated short story, THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME.

I have it on reliable authority that the world’s most dangerous game is wabbits.

Pete Woodhouse

June 26, 2012 at 3:45 pm

Right, so it was veteran Joe Letterese (an apt name for his profession if ever I saw one!). I always half assumed the lad Simonson lettered it himself — either doing it a la Aparo or because there was no separate letters credit. But of course lettering didn’t get an automatic credit in those days – duh!

Good also to see Simmo was also already signing his name as a ‘dinosaur’ — also something I didn’t know until recently, that it was actually a dino rather than just a stylised signature.
Great stuff — all-time classic mini-series, the reverse of decompressed comics. “Decompressed comics getting you down? Try Manhunter: the Anti-Decompressant!”
OK, start the car….

Well, I know what I’ll be reading tonight.

Travis Pelkie

June 26, 2012 at 4:55 pm

@buttler:

DUCKS!

Cougars!

Travis Pelkie

June 26, 2012 at 5:22 pm

@Mutt:

Especially if they’re near menopause and they just want any young guy.

Oh, not that kind…

You’re despicable!

Good to see this, Greg! Those Manhunter stories do feel a little dated now (as most of the Bronze Age stuff does, at least to me), but it’s also very easy to look at these and understand how amazing they must have been at the time, and leaps and bounds ahead of so much else.

But here’s what I really love about this brief Manhunter run: I would argue that it’s one of comics’ greatest ever combinations of innovative storytelling and non-decompression. In general, most of the really interesting panel lay-out stuff out there tends to be more on the decompressed side, and most of the really compressed stories tend to have fairly uninteresting story-telling schematics (which doesn’t necessarily mean bad art, just very conventional lay-outs and viewpoints). But Manhunter manages to throw out vast amounts of info and story in teensy 8-page tales (each one feeling relatively complete), while those 8 pages all look visually stunning in more ways than just the line work. The way these pages look as whole entities recalls the visual style of a lot of the Wednesday Comics stuff.

Speaking of line work, it’s interesting to look at Simonson’s here, because it’s much more rounded and scratchier than it would become in the 80′s, and it’s apparent here that he was heavily influenced by Neal Adams, which is a visual tick that’s virtually absent from his 80′s heyday on Thor and X-Factor. Especially Paul Kirk’s face in the last panel… very Adams-ish.

But like Greg said, this entire run is reprinted in a single 72-page comic from the 80′s called Manhunter Special Edition, and it’s highly recommended to track down in the back issue bins. It’s an indispensable crash course in Bronze-Age comic innovating for probably just a few bucks. Plus, many would argue it’s Archie Goodwin’s best writing work.

I love this comic so much. As you said Simonson hadn’t fully developed as an artist but his work here is still fantastic. The linework is maybe a little less confident than his later stuff but that gives it a delicate quality that is great to look at.

There’s a sequence from Manhunter (Chapter 4, page 2) that Warren Ellis points to as an example of what comics can do that film can’t: http://www.warrenellis.com/?p=10983

“It’s an entire Jason Bourne sequence in a single page. In a Marrakesh alleyway, Damon Nostrand is in a car attempting to run down Paul Kirk and Christine StClair. Kirk pushes StClair to cover, rolls under the speeding car, draws a knife, tears it through the car’s petrol tank as it passes over him, gets clear, lights a match, touches it to the trail of petrol the car leaves, the petrol blazes down the alley to the car, the car explodes, and then they do three or four lines of dialogue while watching Nostrand burn to death about how it’s horrible but really he was a bit of a git and completely deserved it. One page. Employing “camera angles” and compositions that even now the likes of Paul Greengrass would go blind trying to replicate.”

The “Special Edition” tpb they put out in 1999 has an epilogue that is a wonderful tribute to the original story as well as to Archie Goodwin himself.

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