Examinations of superhero morality have been pretty trendy for nearly 20 years now. As with many things, we can probably blame Alan Moore and Frank Miller. Ever since they wrote Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns, respectively, it’s seemed fair to ask, “why superheroes aren’t doing everything they can to fight crime?”
How many times does the Joker break out of jail, go on a kill crazy rampage, get arrested by Batman, and then go right back to step one? How many times can Batman look the Joker in the eye, think of all the people the madman has killed, and let him walk away? Of course, one can also ask, “why is this man dressed up like a bat,” so perhaps the question doesn’t bear too much in-depth examination.
Marc Andreyko’s Manunter begins its look at the problem from within the legal system. Kate Spencer, a federal prosecutor in Los Angeles, has watched yet another super criminal escape justice. When the reptilian Copperhead starts yet another murderous rampage, Kate does what any good lawyer would do: She steals a bunch of high-tech equipment from a high-security evidence locker and hunts him down like the vermin he is.
It’s an understandable reaction. Many people, no matter how liberal or pacifist their leanings, have contemplated inflicting an Old Testament brand of justice on a rapist, murderer, or child molester who lucked out on a legal technicality or lenient judge. A naive judge sits behind a desk administering laws written by politicians trying not to upset anyone… surely these people cannot contemplate true justice.
The reality of a superhero comic book complicates things even more. When society can’t even dispense proper justice to movie stars and corporate executives, how is it supposed deal with mutants, aliens and robots? If a man can be found not guilty by reason of insanity after he finds his wife sleeping with the mailman, surely he’s got a free pass on acts he committed after turning into a giant lizard. That sort of thing leaves deep emotional scars.
But while it may be understandable to want to punish the guilty, it’s also true that very few people ever get around to doing it. There are relatively few vigilantes roaming the streets these days, and even fewer are joining forces to form justice-oriented posses. Here, too, the DC Universe complicates things: If a Los Angeles attorney has reached the breaking point, surely there must be crazed gangs of lawyers and paralegals protecting the streets of Superman’s Metropolis and Batman’s Gotham.
One concludes, then, that Kate Spencer is a pretty unique individual. Out of the dozens, if not hundreds, who want to make sure the one that got away doesn’t get away any more, it is only Kate who goes to the extreme of actually doing it. What is it that pushed her over the edge?
It’s here that Manhunter falters, and it falters quite badly. Andreyko fails to give Kate any real motivation for donning a mask and pummelling bad guys, nor does he offer much in the way of hints beyond “something bad may have happened once”. And while infusing a character with an air of mystery can be effective, Manhunter just leaves the reader wondering why its protagonist is a) running around in spandex fighting crime; and b) kind of a bitch.
Not that anyone needs a reason to be a bitch. Indeed, it seems that most of the really unpleasant people one meets on a day-to-day basis have little or no reason for being that way. But that’s not a very good explanation for a character in an ongoing series. It’s telling that the only likable character is a career supervillain henchman whom Kate bullies into helping her on her crusade. That wouldn’t be an entirely bad thing—Dylan Battles, a smart underachiever who’s always ended up on the wrong side of a fight, does add an interesting dynamic to the book—but it’s disappointing that it doesn’t show up until the final third of the book.
Manhunter ultimately doesn’t do much more than skim the ideas of justice and morality, leaving us with yet another tough, take-no-prisoners vigilante. She’d blend right in with all the other macho crimefighters if not for the fact she’s a she; the most interesting thing about the book may be that it’s about a female superhero who doesn’t include large breasts and a thong among her weapons of choice.
That’s something, but it’s not much of a substitute for depth. We know Kate’s doing everything she can to fight evil. We just don’t know why, nor do we particularly care whether she succeeds.