Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Retro Review: JLA Top 5 - No Man Escapes The Manhunters

In a sequence of Retro Reviews, I'm going to count down my five favorite JLA stories of all time. These will be presented in chronological order, not ranked for quality. It begins here with the earliest of them, in JLA vol. 1, #140-141.

There was no World Wide Web in 1977. There was no "buzz." The only evidence in print that the two-issue JLA story by Steve Englehart in issues #140-141 was a great one were the five letters from fans, one by future comics writer Fred Hembeck, giving rave reviews. But it was a great one, perhaps the greatest of its decade, and I re-read it often. When the WWW came about, fans have gone on record expressing their admiration for this story, which was the basis of an animated episode. Englehart's two-parter had the mark of quality, and I wasn't the only one who thought so.

Steve Englehart had just begun his short but important JLA run when he wrote this story, which I will refer to by the title of the first issue, "No Man Escapes The Manhunters," NMETM for short.

Englehart himself noted that it was more powerful to begin a story on a high note than to do the more common thing and end on a high note. NMETM begins with a villain we'd never seen before smashing through a wall to surprise Green Lantern, Green Arrow, and Black Canary. There was no previous explanation, and we would have to pick up the backstory as Englehart doled it out. The plot was this: Green Lantern (Hal Jordan) had accidentally destroyed an entire inhabited planet by mistake. Sick and guilty for the deaths of billions, he had decided to accept responsibility and face whatever justice he deserved. Unbeknownst to him, and the reader, he had been framed by the Manhunter Corps as part of a larger scheme to undermine the entire Green Lantern Corps and thus assume a greater share of universe-wide power. The villain who opened the action was just one Manhunter, the earthman Mark Shaw.

As the story unfolds, Jordan surrenders to the Manhunters, but his JLA allies are not willing to accept his imprisonment. Green Arrow and Black Canary are taken hostage along with Jordan, but the potent foursome of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and the Flash take up the case. Throughout a series of conflicts, truces, deception, and resumed conflict, the JLAers and Manhunters duel throughout the story, with the Manhunters proving themselves to have resources of immense power and immense scope. They haul their three prisoners away, and place the four other heroes in a death trap that they escape. The Manhunters then pretend to allow the JLA to investigate Jordan's alleged crime, only to spring further traps that nearly take the heroes down.

Englehart masterfully builds the story to a series of crescendos by placing one, two, or four heroes into isolated skirmishes with the Manhunters and their death traps, and the heroes do not always prevail. Mark Shaw informs us in the opening pages that no Manhunter but one had allowed a witness to his deeds in the last ten centuries. But within pages, Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman, and the Flash witness Shaw's escape and track him to a Manhunter base. Englehart allows Batman to make the mocking observation, "In ten centuries, no Manhunter but one ever left a witness, and now he's left four!"

This not only narrates the JLA's feat with wonderful dramatic style, but is also one manifestation of the pioneering characterization in NMETM: While modern comics make some effort to imbue superheroes with distinct personalities, this had been done little and rarely with DC's heroes (not so Marvel's) before Englehart. NMETM, however, establishes the Flash as reserved, not fully socially confident, and quietly intimidated by adventures in space. In contrast, Englehart depicts Batman as assertive and confident almost without limit. This story is arguably a significant point of origin in the characterization of Batman as "Bat God" or "Bat Jerk" as the Caped Crusader lets loose on the villains with verbal barrages while proving instrumental in their defeat even while his more powerful allies lie fallen. The Flash, for his part, demonstrates perfect courage and confidence in battle to offset his being socially intimidated by Wonder Woman.

We will learn in later issues that the Amazon princess, who is abrupt and snippy in this story, is under the effects of mind control, and thus another remarkable innovation in NMETM is for a writer's storyline to span multiple issues, laying out subtle clues early on that come to fruition months later. This more intricate use of the serial medium had long been commonplace in other literature, but was rarely seen in comics before Englehart, and is not so universal even today.

Even while Superman, Wonder Woman, and eventually Green Lantern bash and smash their way through the Manhunters' plans, the real victories go to Batman and the Flash. Batman one-ups the Manhunters each time he encounters them, first surviving Mark Shaw's attempt to kill him, then using his detective skills to prove that Green Lantern was framed. Finally, when Superman is taken down by a kryptonite-armored Supermanhunter, Batman runs roughshod over a whole city of Manhunters, knocking them out of his way, slipping from their grasp, and seemingly running across the tops of their heads in his single-minded mission to reach the control center where he turns off their illusion-projecting machine, thus exposing their plot to the whole world. For him to emerge victorious when Superman had been defeated is arguably, 9 years before Dark Knight Returns, a significant point of origin for the Bat God portrayal of Batman, in which he is virtually undefeatable due to the force of his indomitable will.

The other Justice Leaguer who proves supreme in this story is the Flash, whose speed and determination trump the Manhunters several times – first, in tracking down Mark Shaw to the opposite side of the world, then using his vibration to free his colleagues from two death traps, and finally to defeat a pair of Manhunters, free Green Lantern, and enter the Manhunter headquarters in disguise. When their leader expresses in astonishment, "I saw you fall," the Flash sasses back, "You saw me fake it." His repeated triumphs in action are a counterpoint to the moments early in the story when he is intimidated by quips from Wonder Woman and the very thought of fighting in space.

The complexity of Englehart's work is evident in his copious references to early stories, spanning recent events in Wonder Woman, Green Lantern lore, and much of Justice League history. The story has 18 asterisked notes from editor Julie Schwartz explaining minor details and referring to earlier issues. This is far outside the number of such notes that had previously been normal. Similarly, the abrasive attitude displayed by Wonder Woman sets up stories going forward, with her possession by a machine intelligence being revealed a few issues later.
Between the plotting, characterization, and references to other stories, NMETM was a revolution in more complex storytelling.

In one story, Englehart elevated the sophistication of the Justice League feature to a level that was not exceeded for years. Though his JLA run lasted only a year, and his run on Detective Comics a bit less than that, Steve Englehart had a tremendous impact on the JLA and the medium in general, with his plots adapted by animated series, in Grant Morrison's Final Crisis, and by countless writers' efforts to step up their characterization and plotting. One may argue that DC's transition from entertainment for kids to entertainment for adults took its single biggest step in "No Man Escapes the Manhunters."

The next JLA story in my countdown: A huge step for DC Comics that came a very short time after the issue featured in this post.


  1. Stellar Rikdad -
    I am a big Englehart fan and I can't believe I haven't read this JLA story yet. I am very excited to track it down. Do you know where it might be collected?

  2. Jonny, according to what I see, collections of JLA vol. 1 ended at issue #93, which seems highly unfortunate. The Satellite Era is better than most of what came before it, and Englehart's JLA and Detective runs are some of the very best work DC turned out between 1941 and 1985. I suppose DC decided to start collecting series from #1 onward and stopped whenever sales of the collection tailed off. Too bad in this case. I agree that beginnings are generally interesting, but the early/middle issues of JLA are not better than the ones after #100.

    I was lucky enough to buy those issues in paper when they were new. I guess you can find used copies for cheaper than a trade paperback.

  3. All of Englehart's DC output should be collected. So frustrating that it isn't. At least I have the "Strange Apparitions" tpb sitting on my shelf! Possibly my favorite Batman run after Morrison's. Too bad NMETM isn't in a "Greatest Stories Ever Told" trade.

  4. Rikdad --

    Insightful, as always. Your comments about Batman's characterization show that there are no new things under the sun.

    My prime era of JLA reading was 1970-75, and I'd moved on (for a while anyhow) by the late 1970s. My only nit in your analysis is that it was Denny O'Neil who pioneered distinct characterizations for JLA characters starting in 1968 (prior to that, Gardner Fox produced at least five dozen plot-driven pieces of varying quality and importance, with my favorite being "Riddle of the Robot Justice League." But I digress.). It was O'Neil who took Oliver Queen's fortune from him and turned him into a liberal crusader, who then counter-characterized Hawkman as a law-and-order advocate and Green Lantern as a cop who doubted his traditional approach, who created a vulnerable Black Canary and a powerless Wonder Woman etc etc. I would also suggest reading some of Len Wein's stories, in which Elongated Man provided humor and competence and intra-league sniping was not uncommon.

    None of this is to take away from Englehart's brilliance. His work never seems dated.

    Thanks again.

  5. Having read this, I nao know why people complain about this being the age of decompression. Englehart fits in moar plot, and as you point out, more character moments in these two issues than a year's worth of Brian Bendis comics.

    What a thrill it was to actually have something relevant happen with every turn of the page. And speaking of pages, there's count 'em 33 of pages of actual comic in them. That's an extra 13 pages or 65% moar comic than we get today.

    Ahhh for the good ole days.